Smallville never grabbed me during its original run. The WB’s (and later, the CW’s) youth-targeted spin on the origins of Superman was always on my radar during its 10-year run, but I didn’t watch it beyond the first five or six episodes that first year.
As the series progressed, I stumbled across essays online examining its supposed strengths while various friends continued to sing its praises. This wasn’t “Superboy,” they insisted. It was smarter. Yeah, the acting might leave a little to be desired, but there’s plenty to enjoy. You need to see it.
I found the first season at a local Goodwill a few months back and snatched it up on a whim. After sitting down to watch it, I finally see what they meant. So far, Smallville is a lovingly crafted spin on a quintessential American mythology.
Superman has seen so many reboots and reinventions over the years that only the most basic elements of the tale remain sacrosanct: The last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton is sent to Earth where he’s raised by a kind farmer and his wife. Upon discovering his unique powers—able to leap tall buildings, etc – the young boy grows up to become Superman, defender of truth, justice, and (in some tellings) the American Way.
Smallville develops this conceit over the course of Clark Kent’s stint in high school. It adds a number of surprising twists to the mythos, the biggest of which being the introduction of future arch-villain Lex Luthor as Clark’s contemporary and friend. Their relationship begins after Lex—brilliant, rebellious and angry—accidentally hits Clark with his car, sending them both over a bridge.
Clark, of course, walks away unharmed and drags Lex from the wreckage. Lex can sense the impossibility of the whole event. He knows the impact should have killed them both. And so their friendship begins, first as an expression of Lex’s thanks, but also of his genuine curiosity about this special young man. Lex, it turns out, is a very good judge of character. He knows Clark has a heart of gold; the more he sees Clark with his parents, Jonathan and Martha, the more his own family comes into stark contrast.
By contrasting Lex and Clark—their gifts, their fathers, the way they develop their friendships—Smallville extrapolates and renders an almost Shakespearean level of complexity from Superman’s simple origins. It prompts us consider how much influence we really have on the people around us, which values create a moral character, and how even honorable intentions can be twisted to serve dubious ends.
Crafting a solid story around Superman presents a number of challenges. His abilities make certain basic elements of conflict more difficult to convey. This was the problem I had with those first few episodes – for much of the show’s first season, Clark’s sickly reaction to Kryptonite (unimaginatively referred to in the beginning as “meteor rocks”) manufacture much of the show’s peril. Halfway through, however, the show wakes up to Superman’s real vulnerability: the only way to really hurt Superman is to hurt the people he loves.
The strength of Clark’s relationships, then, propels the narrative. His heroism, the inherent value he finds in others, evolves out of his sense of responsibility and love for his family and his friends. Even as he saves people’s lives, Clark tries to keep his abilities secret, and keeping those secrets means at times loosening bonds of fellowship he would like very much to tighten. It’s much harder to be Superman without a secret identity, and his heroism often comes at great personal cost. This young Clark has not yet achieved the status of a mythic hero, but I can easily see him getting there.
The show wisely paces the development of Clark’s abilities at a slow burn. When we first meet him, he can run fast and carry enormous weight, but that’s about it. He’s only just coming to understand how impervious he is to physical harm. The show has found clever ways to develop his gifts and wink at his destiny. At one point, Clark mentions he once tried to learn guitar, but had to quit because he kept breaking the strings. Another moment finds a friend asking him what he wants to do for a career – Clark doesn’t know yet, he just doesn’t want to have to wear a suit and fly everywhere. As for flying, those days are still a long way off where I presently sit, but they’re coming.
The acting does leave a little to be desired, but not as much as I initially suspected. Michael Rosenbaum actually succeeds in not only making Lex Luthor interesting, but someone who earns a fair amount of empathy. Other casting choices push right past any gimmicky predilections. Sure, Annette O’Toole may have appeared as Lana Lang in Superman III, but here, she’s Martha Kent, and while the show doesn’t give her many opportunities to bring her A-game, she shows up to play when the opportunity knocks. John Schneider might be a little one-note, but he makes me believe Jonathan Kent loves his son. And Tom Welling … I’d buy him as Superman. If you know me at all, you know that says a lot.
Is it perfect? No. It retains much of the flavor consistent with other WB/CW offerings. Solid pacing and storytelling make up for whatever it might lack in sophistication and nuance (but I would argue there’s plenty of sophistication and nuance to find). It’s a fitting take on a story that deserves a good telling. I’m looking forward to enjoying the remainder of the journey.