Failure to Launch

I’ve had strong opinions about Smallville ever since its 2001 debut. My hope was
to share the long and the short of it all back in May on the occasion of the series’ finale — but I only managed the short.

Here’s the long.

What follows is chock-full of spoilers on the show’s ten seasons, as of last month available in their entirety on DVD. If you haven’t (a) seen this divisive, enduringly popular yet much reviled take on the the Superman mythos begun in 1938 by creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, or (2) at least cared enough to keep tabs it through articles or conversations, then you’re awfully polite to keep reading.

Images from Smallville 1.01, 1.16, 3.18, 5.05, 6.11, 9.04, 9.06, 10.01, and 10.14 ©
2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 Warner Bros.; characters
TM/® DC.

My pal Stefan Blitz sent me a screener of the original Smallville pilot in advance
of the show’s premiere, when that year’s most tragic and indelible television images were still to come. Now grand poobah of the website Forces of Geek, Stefan was at the time a contributing editor for my magazine Comicology; his review was set to appear in the never-published Vol. II #5. I don’t know what if anything else was changed in the revised Episode 1 that aired Oct. 16th on The WB — maybe because I’ve seen the official version more recently than that screener — but in one crucial difference, the role of Martha Kent was recast with Annette O’Toole.

O’Toole had good chemistry with John Schneider as husband Jonathan and Tom Welling as their adopted son Clark. Smallville’s casting in fact prompted, for good and ill, strong reactions from Superman fans and casual viewers alike. Despite the early, defining “no tights, no flights” edict from showrunners Alfred Gough & Miles Millar, who developed Smallville for Warner Bros., its mix of teen angst, lighthearted sci-fi/fantasy, and then increasingly dark drama as Kal-El struggled with his purpose in life led to plots and dialogue that in lesser hands could come off as simply laughable. The series was, sadly, largely in lesser hands.

I’m not sure how faithfully I watched Season One. While the concept of a series set during Clark Kent’s high-school years — to explore the excellent Kansas portion of 1978’s generally brilliant Superman: The Movie — was quite compelling, and while I liked the pilot better than most or all of the 1993-1997 ABC dramedy Lois & Clark, I got frustrated by the show pretty quickly. Given that it was airing opposite both NYPD Blue and the intriguing new 24, I suspect that I watched even less of it fresh than it seems in memory but instead caught up via summer repeats or home video some years after totally abandoning the show based on its own merits (or rather lack
thereof) during Season Two.

The popularity of Smallville among “civilian” and comics-reading friends alike
brought me back to the show more than once. I heard repeated promises that it had gotten better, moving away from the “freak of the week” pattern — in which Clark et al. had to deal with students and townsfolk mutated by the meteor shower that was a side effect of his spaceship’s arrival on Earth — and towards interpretations of the greater Superman canon or, with time, other DC characters. Those recommendations aside, I was pulled by my own curiosity. Was I seriously not tracking how one of my favorite things ever was being presented to the world?

I’ve stopped reading the Man of Steel’s exploits in the DC Universe plenty of times, yeah, due to indifference or even antipathy. Yet I always kept up with the broad
strokes of what was happening. More to the point: Beyond the occasional news story (he supposedly dies or gets married to Lois Lane or changes his costume or decides to renounce his American citizenship) the general public is happily ignorant of the adventures of Superman in the medium that birthed him. When such a pop-cultural phenomenon with roots in print — Dracula, The Hulk, Wonder Woman, James Bond, Frankenstein’s Monster — is adapted for wider audiences to the small or silver screens with any measure of success, that depiction usually becomes the definitive one in the mass consciousness. As I’ll hopefully be expanding on in a long-gestating post, this not only leads to some laughable contradictions but can make for oddly constrictive, if
not recursive, limitations on future portrayals.

Smallville actively mined certain plot points of — and goodwill for — the first two Superman films starring Christopher Reeve, produced by Alexander & Ilya Salkind
and directed in whole or part by Richard Donner (whom the Salkinds replaced on 1980’s Superman II with Richard Lester but whose vision for that film was substantially pieced back together in 2006’s Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut). Krypton, Jor-El, and the Fortress of Solitude became essential components of the series, but unlike the Reeve/Donner films the show also mined Superman’s print history beyond explorations of his Kryptonian or Kansan heritages.

In the course of Smallville’s 2001-2011 tenure, Clark Kent encountered villains
from the Phantom Zone, got a job at The Daily Planet, met his cousin Kara, banded together with other heroes, fought Doomsday, learned that his nemesis Lex Luthor had died, faced Luthor’s clone, helped mentor a clone with both his and Luthor’s DNA, battled the forces of Darkseid, and got engaged to Lois Lane — to whom he finally revealed his secret. All of that happened in some form in various iterations of the comics mythology, too, except in the comics he’d already become Superman. Even
once the show had lasted so long that giving Clark a dual identity was a necessity, and despite the fact that the Kryptonian crest he used as his symbol was widely taken to be an S, that identity was a leather-jacketed, maskless crimefighter (unseen by almost everyone but his enemies; smart) called… The Blur.

And therein lies the single most ridiculous thing about Smallville. Never mind that some of the acting was so wooden it’s probably what kept Alan Scott out of the big Justice Society episode. Early on you wondered how Clark Kent could possibly create
a successful cover as Superman in a world where so many adversaries knew about his powers and a modicum of research would blow the masquerade open completely.
Later in the series you wondered not only how but when he’d assume the mantle and, frankly, why it mattered, as every step towards his increasingly ballyhooed destiny was countered by a plot development that seemed to make such ascension a mere afterthought. Had the moments in Smallville’s finale so long awaited been twenty times as exciting as they actually were, they’d still be largely anticlimactic on top of all but entirely nonsensical.

Welling’s Clark was a bit of a weak link amidst a company of experienced actors
at the start, although not an insurmountable one. Schneider and O’Toole provided an interesting spin on the Kents — younger and more active than in any prior film, television, or comics incarnation, even in the bygone era when DC chronicled the Smallville days of Clark Kent as Superboy (adapted for a failed 1961 TV pilot and the Salkinds’ 1989-1992 syndicated series). Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor had the Machiavellian cunning and hubris down cold, but to me lacked the imposing physical nature or gravitas necessary for the role. It was a tricky version of Luthor to portray,
not much older than Clark, a wunderkind locked in corporate battle against his father and in love with Lana Lang.

Smallville did have the occasional bright spots, including Allison Mack’s Chloe
Sullivan. The character, new to the saga, was an aspiring reporter digging into her town’s frequent and burgeoning weirdness. Kristen Kreuk’s Lana functioned as a stand-in for Lois Lane, first as Clark’s unrequited crush and then as such a serious love interest for him that it felt almost unseemly to have her phased out in favor of Lois herself in the form of Erica Durance. When she was introduced in 1950, Lana was indeed akin to Lois, acting as Superboy’s romantic foil in their youth and then Lois’s rival for Superman’s affections; like the Lois of that era, she often schemed to uncover his true identity. After DC Universe continuity was rewritten in the wake of the 1985-86 miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, Clark Kent was decreed to have developed his powers more slowly and not adopted a codename until he was grown, as in the earliest printed stories, so Lana Lang was reimagined as his childhood sweetheart and a confidant to whom he revealed his abilities before leaving home. Many fans greatly appreciated that revision of Lana, if not everything that was later done to her plotwise, and saw in Smallville’s Chloe welcome echoes of that version of the character.

The fact that Smallville filmed in Vancouver and lacked the budget it might have
had on a major network left it vulnerable to the common problem of guest stars with questionable acting talent and inappropriate Canadian accents — issues that plagued one-and-done villains or victims and recurring cast equally. For each perfectly amiable troupe member like Aaron Ashmore’s Jimmy Olsen or pleasant surprise like Cassidy Freeman’s Tess Mercer, we got subjected to embodiments of familiar DC characters who were vastly different than their comics counterparts and outright awkward delivering dialogue that required a deft touch, which sucked all the excitement out of seeing a Zatanna, Aquaman, or Supergirl in the flesh. My old Green Arrow action figure is less stiff than Justin Hartley’s Oliver Queen.

Smallville’s most thrilling moments were in fact borrowed rather than earned. I
recall fairly early on in the series hearing the briefest strains of John Williams’ classic Superman theme as we pulled away from a shot of Clark in the Fortress of Solitude and getting chills despite myself. The indomitable Christopher Reeve showed up in Season Two as a wheelchair-bound researcher with insight into Kal-El’s heritage. We eventually got guest turns from Lois & Clark’s stars, Teri Hatcher (as Lois Lane’s mother) and Dean Cain, plus Margot Kidder (the Reeve/Donner movies’ Lois), Marc McClure (their Jimmy Olsen, as a Kryptonian expatriate on Earth), and Helen Slater (the star of 1984’s Supergirl film, as her Smallville incarnation’s mother) — all in addition to the previously mentioned Annette O’Toole, who’d been Lana Lang in Superman III, and Terence Stamp, General Zod in Superman I and II, as the Fortress’s disembodied Voice of Jor-El,. That last fact led me to suspect for much of the series that the voice was not really Jor-El’s but that of Zod corrupting the crystals and messing with Kal-El’s head, in part because Jor-El came off as a dispassionate schmuck.

I picked up the boxed sets of Smallville’s past seasons cheaply during Season Six, having been told that with the graduation of Clark, Lana, and Chloe from high school and the introduction of DC Universe characters like Brainiac, Cyborg, Impulse, and Green Arrow the show was becoming less one-note, wider in scope, and more fun. When current television was sparse in the years I lacked cable, I caught up on the series in spurts, only to drop out again. Upon hearing that Season Nine was fairly epic and that Season Ten would bring down the curtain, however, I launched into a concerted effort in the summer of 2010 to plow through the latter seasons, concurrently with new episodes when they began, in time to watch the finale live in May with full perspective.

Although I’m solely responsible for my masochist returns to the series, I can at least now make an informed argument against this version of the Superman mythos. Worse than the show’s uneven quality overall is how the same inevitability of legend that lent it weight in concept was trivialized in practice, at first by the producers’ intense desire to constantly wink and foreshadow, then by their decision based on the series’ success to expand its costumed-crimefighting milieu without benefit of, you know, the guy being the guy. If the show had been, say, a take on Teen Titans or some prototypical Justice League project set in a scenario where Superman himself wasn’t seen onscreen, its patchy craftsmanship would be much less of an issue; comics fans can excuse a lot when it comes to their favorite graphic fiction getting adapted to live-action form, most of us understanding that the more literal the transposition the campier it will likely seem and so the more liberties must be taken to create a believable environment or simply a storyline that the uninitiated can follow. Even the big DC trinity aren’t incompatible with a range of interpretations, but at their core there are certain
kernels that can’t be ridiculed or ignored.

Smallville’s greatest stumbling block for me was Clark Kent’s genuinely offensive
levels of disinclination when characters up to and including Lana Lang willingly took
on the responsibilities their powers and technology bring. This was mirrored in producers’ insistence that for all its divergences the show was indeed a Superman origin tale working its way towards the icon of public consciousness. A Season Three episode involved a classmate of Clark’s who could see the ultimate fate of people he touched, yet when he touched Clark he saw an endless future, represented onscreen to the viewer as a fluttering red cape, which brought me a surge of excitement, unbidden, even as I clung to my belief in those early seasons — before other superheroes began popping up, which as mentioned above became a whole new head-scratcher — that Smallville’s Clark Kent would never actually become Superman.

He could surely never become an effective one and maintain a private life, after eschewing a proper disguise over ten years’ worth of activity, his cousin outed as a Supergirl, coming from the small town littered with fragments of kryptonite, all those rescued victims and vengeful villains aware of who he was. The single DC Universe brought about by Crisis on Infinite Earths, which swept away the parallel realities accommodating disparate publishing eras for a spell, did remove Superman’s primacy among his world’s heroes to keep him and his supporting cast youthful, but Smallville established so many local and global guardians who followed him in the comics — Kara, Aquaman, Mera, Green Arrow, Speedy, Black Canary, Zatanna, Cyborg, Impulse, Acrata, Stargirl, the freaking Wonder Twins, and more — there’s likely nobody left for the reluctant figure at its core to inspire.

Superman continues to inspire me. Smallville, not so much.

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