(This article was originally posted on Creators.co and is reposted here with permission.)
I judged Smallville for using characters like Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, or Oliver Queen and J’on J’onzz – characters and stories that were distinctly SUPERMAN – for a time when Clark was obviously not Superman. “You can’t do that!” I would cry, “you’re cheapening the moment they do show up!”
Maybe it’s because I’m re-watching the show now (today marks the 15th anniversary of its premiere on the WB) at a time when superhero stories have changed so much (and increased exponentially), or I’m just more flexible, or understand more, but I think it all works really well.
Especially in the wake of Max Landis’ Superman: American Alien, Superman stories can be anything. Not only that (especially in the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) there is no real canon. Obviously there are things about characters that make them those characters (otherwise they would be unrecognizable over the years), but there are more things that can change about a character and their world than there are things that can’t.
When Smallville first aired, it was pitched as Superman’s origin story. The implication, for me, at the time, is that, when the show ended, he would be the Superman I knew and loved. With that assumption came all the things I had read, that all those details would follow: Lana Lang being in Smallville while Lois was in Metropolis; Clark meeting Lois and Jimmy for the first time at The Daily Planet; Clark meeting Batman and the rest of the Justice League. All of my preconceived notions about Superman, all those facts and details, would remain crystallized, untouched by the show, until he became Superman. The unchangeable things about him – his commitment to doing the right thing, his powers, etc. – I would see develop, and that makes sense — all that had to come from somewhere, but everything else was off-limits. The show had a rule, “No tights, no flights,” and I extended that to a lotmore.
The truth of the matter is, at some point, maybe by design or necessity or both, the show stopped being just Superman’s origin story, and a story about Superman. He wasn’t called that, of course, and he didn’t have the costume, or come out publicly to the world as Superman, but it was as much a story about this man from another world and his interaction with this new one. For all the punching and villains and world-saving plots, Superman, as a character, as a comic, as a story, is, at its core, about an outsider finding his place in the world.
The best Superman stories are often ones that examine Clark’s identity (even calling him “Clark” is not entirely accurate and just shorthand): Who is Kal-El of Krypton? Who is Clark Kent of Smallville? Who is Superman? Who is he when? Do they inform one another? Are they identities he switches? These aren’t questions that are best served by having hard and fast answers, but rather just explorations.
And is that not what Smallville is? An exploration of this boy (later, man) and his place in the world? Yes, it was, for a time, a teenage soap-opera, but before long (especially once Geoff Johns came on board), it became concerned with Clark and his role on the planet (appropriately, after he started working at the Planet).
So, no, now, I can’t object to Clark Kent working at The Daily Planet before he becomes Superman, because that’s just what happens in this version of Superman.Smallville may have started as a “before” show, but that had its limits, so it became a “during” show. (Those terms are inelegant, but they’re the best I have right now.) The show realized before I did that there is no one moment that “Clark” becomes “Superman.” It’s a journey. There may be a moment before he comes out publicly, but that’s a detail. He could be (and on the show, is) Superman before he puts on the costume, before he’s interviewed by Lois Lane.
Smallville was a longer-form exploration of Clark’s identity. It had many, many flaws, but that idea was at its center. Much like its modern, darker counterparts, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it examines what it takes to make this outcast into the hero we all know. I think what left many fans unsatisfied aboutMoS and BvS was that we never received that triumphant arrival, the moment where Kal-El, son of Krypton and/or Clark Kent, son of Kansas, floats above the world in his costume, the hero we all know and love. (I remember saying to my younger sister after we saw Man of Steel for the first time that I was disappointed there was no moment where the crowd looked up and cheered. Say what you will about Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, but the end of the airplane sequence is always moving.) The (gorgeous) image we receive of an outstretched hand appealing for help to BvS‘ version of Superman is framed as troubling, as part of a discussion – not the arrival of a hero.
To BvS‘ credit, it truly is a depiction of what it would be like if a figure like Superman arrived today. The problem, I imagine, for most viewers is that that cynical reality was part of the narrative. By point of contrast, Captain America: Civil War examines those same realities of superheroes in the modern world, but it doesn’t give the audience that same critical eye. The audience understands that these are heroes in the wrong place at the wrong time; that there’s a misunderstanding and we’ll move past it so we can look up to our heroes again. Batman v Superman provides no such comfort.
Smallville was deconstructive of Superman in its own subtler, lighter way. It used the elements of Superman we know and love to build him into that character we know and love – not have him step onto the scene that way. It lost some of its luster (for me, at least) as it moved into its later seasons, but that’s really when it became its most aggressively “comic book.” (I do not believe the latter caused the former.) I’ve lauded The Flash for doing things like introducing King Shark (I’m never going to get over that), but Smallville gave us our first live-action iterations of not only the Justice League, but also Braniac and Darkseid. It was a show as steeped in the “canon” as anything else, but it just did it in its own way, in its own time.
I think we can all benefit from giving stories room to do things in their own way, in their own time. I believe the events of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will pay off (and not because of public pressure, but because of a long-term plan by those in charge) much in the way Smallville for me, retroactively, paid off. There are good Superman stories being told now (“Last Days of Superman” by Peter Tomasi and Superman: American Alien, specifically), and there will be more told, just as there have been. Just as Clark/Kal/Superman struggles with his own identity, there’s always more than one version of Superman – and that’s okay.