Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane.
I don’t like Superman. For me he’s too much of an American hero you know? Not that the problem is that the character lives in America, more that… Well, have you seen that bit in the trailer for the latest Superman film where the bullet hits his eyeball in slow motion and flattens against it, while he doesn’t even blink? That’s what I mean by too American. They’ve created a superhero so powerful that nothing can harm him, which makes nothing he does truly heroic at all, because he risks nothing by doing those things. It’s just not interesting to me. I prefer my heroes to be flawed, yet still put themselves on the line anyway. I could debate the whole kryptonite thing for hours but I’d be losing the point of the post. The point is that I don’t like Superman so, when Smallville came along I avoided it like the plague.
“Oh look, another Superman TV show, with a pretty boy in the role of young Superman. Yawn.”
We’ve seen it all before anyway. Mild-mannered Clark Kent dresses in blue tights and a red cape to save lives while working as a reporter. Sure, this told the high school years of the character but you just know he’d be working on the school newspaper and no-one would know it’s him because of his glasses. Seriously, how much of this story hasn’t been told a million times in either the comic books, films, or TV shows? Hell, that god awful Superboy show from the end of the 80s did the exact same thing. I wasn’t interested so I stayed away until about two years ago when I found myself unwittingly half-watching an episode. I’d gotten to the first ad break before I realised what I was watching and it intrigued me. There were no glasses, no tights, no capes and no flying. Instead there was a very well acted teen drama. I watched the rest of the show and was confident enough to recommend it to Kim. We soon found the first season on sale and have since collected all eight seasons on DVD. I believe this is the best Superman franchise ever and I’m about to tell you what makes me think that.
When the show was first imagined the producers came up with a set of rules to follow that would make their show stand apart from other entries in the Superman family. These are used on the show to add depth to the characters as well as for comedy value and knowing nods to the audience who are assumed to be familiar with the basics of the Superman mythology.
- The show is about Clark Kent, not Superman.No-one will ever call Clark by the name Superman. It’s a simple rule that helps distance the show from the mythology somewhat and also adds a few little knowing comedy nods to the audience of the show. People who witness Clark using his abilities regularly refer to him as “some sort of super… guy” or something similar. Even when it becomes clear that a superhero is operating, he becomes known as the “Red/Blue Blur”, because that’s all that the people he saves see due to his super speed. By focussing on Clark Kent instead of Superman they manage to show the emotional side of the character and add some much needed weakness.
- Clark cannot fly. Another thing to limit the character as well as add comedy is the fact that Clark can’t fly. He’s met others from Krypton as well as people from the future who know his eventual abilities and they tease him about not being able to fly. His cousin, Supergirl, makes her debut in the show she teases him by saying that “girls mature faster than boys”. Another aspect of this is that Clark is afraid of heights, the last thing you’d expect from Superman and something that adds a depth to the character he’ll eventually become. At one point Clark, taken over by another personality (so it’s not technically breaking the rule), takes to the air in a sequence that is blatantly the series showing they can do flight as well as the movies if they want to.
- Clark wont wear the traditional blue tights and a red cape. Clark is most often seen wearing blue jeans, a blue t-shirt and a red denim jacket. His friends constantly tease him about his love of primary colours. The traditional outfit does make several appearances on the show for eagle-eyed viewers. The main way the outfit appears is as the costume of Warrior Angel, the comic book hero in that world who has powers similar to the original incarnation of Superman. The outfit also appears as the costume worn by the mascot of Smallville High School as well as other places throughout the series.
- The show is about growing pains. Now this is the cardinal rule. The show may be about the most powerful superhero to have ever been imagined, but at heart it’s about a teenaged boy growing up and finding his place in the world. This permeates every part of the show from Clark’s emotions and relationships and even extending to his powers themselves. Clark starts the show with the same powers that Superman originally had in the comic books – super-fast, super-strong and very hard to hurt (but not totally invulnerable). Bullets wont break the skin early on but they do leave massive bruises, and as he grows he becomes more impervious to harm. As the show goes on new powers are slowly introduced with explanations of how he found them. Particularly funny is the fact that Clark’s heat vision is activated by him getting horny and, as a teenaged boy, he goes to his parents for help controlling it. The embarrassment over this is played like a kid explaining to his father that he needs to masturbate. Another key moment is when Clark’s X-ray vision comes on for the first time as the girl he loves from afar is taking a shower after gym. The look on his face is priceless.
- Power isn’t absolute. I partially covered this by explaining that Clark’s powers grow over time but there’s another aspect to it. When Clark meets a super-powered human that human will usually be better at what they can do than Clark is. When Aquaman made his debut on the show he was a faster swimmer than Clark and totally outclassed him underwater. When the Flash showed up he outpaced Clark at full speed while running backwards, then took off out of sight before Clark had a chance to catch up. Clark may have a combination of these people’s powers and more but he doesn’t have anywhere near the level of any single power that the regular earthbound heroes do. It’s a great aspect in the show and really makes the eventual Superman character a worthwhile addition to the roster of heroes in the world while keeping him from being able to do everything alone.
- Kryptonite as a plot device. Pieces of the planet Krypton that have fallen to earth have long been a plot device in the Superman mythology, but in this show they’re a driving force for plots. When Clark first arrives on the planet, his ship lands in the middle of a meteor shower that covers Smallville with meteor rocks and kills quite a few people, including the parents of the girl who will later be his first love. His guilt over this is what drives him to help the people of Smallville at first. The green meteor rocks (as they’re called for the first few seasons) have the traditional effect of weakening Clark, draining his powers and could eventually kill him if he’s overexposed to them. They also give superpowers to humans that are overexposed to them, allowing for new super villains to be easily created in the show. The red rocks take Clark’s inhibitions away and leave him acting on instinct. Other rocks have appeared with different effects on Clark but I wont ruin it for you by listing them. Interestingly the rock seems to affect Clark’s powers not him. Whenever someone has stolen his powers, which happens occasionally, then the rock affects them and not him.
By following and toying with these rules the creators of Smallville have put together a universe where Superman is both relevant and vulnerable, a welcome change from the overpowered hero who always wins.
Okay, so I’ve mentioned some characters from the DC universe make an appearance in the show, but there are also key people in Clark’s life who have main roles in the show and shape him into the person he’s destined to be. Each of these, including Clark himself, have been reimagined for the show in ways that make them more realistic and interesting.
When Christopher Reeve played in the old Superman films he was acclaimed for being the first actor to play the roles of Clark and Superman as different people, making it more believable that no-one would see them as the same person even with just a pair of glasses covering his identity. Tom Welling (a new actor who soon finds his stride) takes it the other way in Smallville and it works equally well. This is a Clark Kent who is constantly pulled between what he wants and what is best for the world. This is a Clark Kent who’s pulled between what’s best for others and hiding his secret. There’s a selfish streak to the character which succeeds in making him more relatable. The feelings he holds in check are most often brought to the surface by exposure to red kryptonite which takes away Clark’s inhibitions in this series, and turns him into a dark reflection of the boy scout he tries to be. Seeing this other side to the character only makes it more clear what his true feelings on things are, and sometimes they slip out without exposure to the red rock. The sequence where Clark dreams of using the tiniest amount of his abilities to become a high school football star and gain the attention of the girl he loves from afar gives you a bit more insight into the sacrifices this character makes in order to not stand out. It’s this pull between his obligations and his desires that turns Clark into an interesting character, and his survivor’s guilt over the events that brought him to earth that pushes him to help people.
If you’ve heard of Superman then you’ve heard of Lex Luthor, his arch-enemy. So it comes as a surprise when, in the very first episode of Smallville, Clark and Lex become friends. This was a decision that would provide some excellent scenes between the two characters. The chemistry between the two actors is evident and, combined with the viewers knowledge that they’ll end up as mortal enemies, it makes for some of the most watchable television moments ever with tension filling the air. He regards Clark as the only true friend he’s ever had, but is obsessed with finding out what Clark is hiding from him, twisting him between his dark obsession and his need to be a good friend.
Michael Rosenbaum’s version of Lex is a sympathetic character constantly pulled between his own light and dark sides. His father Lionel (a new character created for the show and played by the brilliant John Glover) trains his son to be a ruthless businessman and is disappointed in him whenever he shows a sign of what Lionel regards as weakness. Lionel’s treatment of Lex borders on child abuse but, through the use of flashbacks, even this is explained. Lex is constantly pulled between the dark side represented by his father and the light side of his character represented by his friendship with Clark and his obvious wish to swap all his riches for a loving family like Clarks. To add to the problems Lex has, and add another element to the character, Clark’s decision to keep his secret from Lex constantly pushes him further down the dark path that his father has put him on, and it becomes obvious that Clark will be the reason that Lex eventually becomes a bad guy.
If it was an inspired choice to make Lex a good friend of Clarks, then the introduction of Lois to the series seems cliche at first. Here’s a girl who appears to have been hired for her pouty lips and her gigantic breasts more than anything else. It takes a little while for Erica Durance to find her feet with the character, but once she has it becomes clear that this version of Lois is much more believable than others have been. The Smallville version of Lois is a military brat who is more than able to take care of herself and constantly speaks her mind, usually without thinking about what she’s saying. She’s the sort of person who’ll show up at your door, meet you for the first time and be helping herself to your fridge while she introduces herself and tells you how awful the decor in your house is.
Durance plays Lois as a very strong character who’s able to take care of herself in most situations yet completely unaware of and terrified by her own feelings. This gives her character an interesting mirror to Clark. As both are such strong characters, whenever you see either of them upset or hurt it hits you that much harder. Another interesting thing that the show brings is the fact that Lois and Clark can’t stand each other. Lois sees Clark as a clueless farmboy and constantly calls him on it, while Clark sees Lois as loudmouthed and annoying. A great sequence has Lois falling under a love spell and falling for Clark which makes him run away at super-speed. As the series progresses these two characters start to grudgingly respect each other and genuinely care about each other as friends. By the time they eventually start to view each other romantically you know the series made the right decision in playing their relationship that way because it matures in a much more realistic way than love at first sight, and you can see that this Lois is strong enough to provide a challenging and lasting relationship for the man of steel.
This character is created specifically for the show and, as someone completely new to the mythology, provides two very important roles in the series. Her primary role is to provide the “Willow Effect” (the writers of Buffy The Vampire Slayer learned early on that putting superpowered Buffy in physical danger wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as putting Willow in danger) of being someone that Clark has to rescue without revealing his secret. As someone outside of the established Superman mythology you never can tell what will happen with her so every time she’s in danger is a genuine dramatic moment. She also plays the role of the outsider, commenting on the strange happenings in the town. As she’s not an established character the creators of the show are able to draw her down lines that the established characters can’t go, turning her from hero to villain and back again, and allowing her to interact with the main Superman characters in new ways – having her introduce Lois as her cousin, having her lose her virginity to Jimmy Olsen, or be Clark’s best friend through high school.
Allison Mack plays the character as genuinely likable if a little geeky, and Chloe is the character that the watcher who is unfamiliar with comic books will most likely relate to as well as those who live for comic books. Her role as the outsider to the mythology allows her to break the rules set for the show. She refers to Clark as the Man of Steel because he rarely shows his feelings and regularly references comic book lore and popular culture in her rants about the events in Smallville.
The key to the redesign of these, and other characters in the show, is that they must seem as realistic in their actions and motivations as the comic book world allows, and it shows. This is a character drama played masterfully by most of the main actors. Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang is a notable exception as the character is stuck as a stereotype, but the actress does what she can with it and her exit from the show is one of the most emotional moments on the show (although that is mostly down to Tom Welling’s superb acting to be fair). Annette O’Toole (the original Lana Lang from the Christopher Reeve films) plays Martha Kent, Clark’s adopted mother, and for the majority of the show would be best kept in the background as the character isn’t very interesting. Where she excels is in conveying what it feels like to have a near invulnerable son and find him bleeding on the floor after being shot with a Kryptonite bullet. That single scene and about thirty seconds of acting outshine every other thing she’s done on the show. John Schneider climbs out his Dukes of Hazzard role and into the boots of Jonathon Kent, effortlessly taking the morally upright character and making him a driving force in Clark’s life as well as a man with his own demons. But it’s John Glover who steals the show from the rest of the supporting actors. His portrayal of the villainous Lionel Luthor is absolutely stunning. His scenes with Lex are as full of tension as Clark’s with the added factor that this is a new character so you don’t know how things will end for him. He also has a surprising chemistry with fellow newcomer Allison Mack and the scenes between Chloe and Lionel are always brilliantly watchable.
There are many things beyond the rules and characters that make Smallville an enjoyable show for those that don’t enjoy the traditional Superman mythology but, for those with any exposure to Superman in the past thirty years, the show is an absolute goldmine of knowing nods to the past, particularly to the Christopher Reeve films which made the character more mainstream than ever. I’ve already mentioned that the original actress for Lana Lang now plays Clark’s mother. Staying on the subject of mothers Lara, Clark’s birth mother, is played by Helen Slater who originally played Supergirl in the movie. Christopher Reeve makes a few appearances as a professor looking to help Clark find his destiny. Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve films) makes an appearance as the professor’s assistant and mentions that “in another life” they may have been together. Even Dean Cain (Superman in the Lois and Clark series from the 90s) makes an appearance later in the series. Terence Stamp (Zod in the Christopher Reeve films) lends his voice to the series as the voice of Jor El, Clark’s biological father. Of particular interest are core parts of the Superman mythos being portrayed in this series as shot for shot remakes of particular scenes from the Christopher Reeve films. The one that stands out most is Clark in the arctic hurling a crystal away from him which causes his fortress to rise from the ice, and is camera-perfect to the original.
In short (he says after writing a huge post about it) Smallville is the best of both worlds. It has enough connection to the Superman mythology to be of interest to fans of the comic books, movies or older television shows, while remaking so much of itself that it appeals to those of us who don’t like Superman at all. I highly recommend the series to anyone who wants to watch some quality acting or just to see how to make even the strongest characters feel vulnerable and realistic.