When I was a child, the world was protected by a group of grown men, often slightly out-of-shape, who ran around in signature costumes. These men, who often sacrificed friendships and family relationships, would devote their lives to saving humanity from the dastardly deeds of goofy looking bad men such as Mumbles and Egghead. To be honest, Dick Tracy was a lousy husband and Bruce Wayne was a businessman who never did any business, but as crime-fighters, they couldn’t be stopped. When I grew up, I was going to be just like them.
Well, I’m all grown up now, and suddenly I find that I am too old for the job. Today’s superheroes are apparently required to be under 25 years old, and they possess superpowers to fight supernatural villains with names like The Source and The Master (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Charmed, Dark Angel). These crimefighters have a sense of fashion matched only by their sense of right and wrong, and they are so good looking that both forces of good and evil salivate at the mention of their names. They are the coolest, brightest, most ass-kicking, head-chopping, spell-casting mothers you can imagine. And yet, this new breed views the whole superhero thing not as a gift, but as a big inconvenience. No, I am not at all equipped to be a modern champion of good. Clark Kent, however, still is.
Technically, Clark, better known as Superman, is 61 years old, having first appeared on Earth in 1938. Over the years, he has been subjected to numerous incarnations, starring in feature films, serialized film shorts, tv series, Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, comic strips, a radio series, and a Broadway musical. There are hundreds of websites devoted to him and Superman souvenirs can bring in thousands of dollars. He is undeniably the best-known superhero in the world. The fact that Clark Kent and his alter ego are beloved around the world bodes well for the WB’s excellent new series Smallville. It also creates the majority of the problems the show will encounter.
Apparently, this adoration for Superman has already translated into good ratings for Smallville, which takes the oft-told tale of Clark (Tom Wellig) and sets it in contemporary Iowa, in the placid town of Smallville, the creamed corn capital of the world. We first meet Clark as a toddler, having just emerged from the wrecked spaceship that has carried him to Earth. When farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (John Schneider and Annette O’Toole) discover him in their cornfield, they adopt him and decide to keep his origins a secret. Unfortunately, Clark’s spaceship brought with it a meteor shower that left death and destruction and set off a series of bizarre occurrences that will plague Smallville for years. This background information is all provided in an opening sequence so exhilarating and action-packed that it sets an incredibly high standard of excellence for the remainder of the series to live up to.
The remainder of the premiere episode suggested that the series will have no problem meeting this standard. When next we see Clark, he is a freshman in high school, unpopular and hanging out with the school’s geeks, Pete and Chloe (Sam Jones III, Allison Mack). Like most awkward high school boys, he has a crush on the homecoming queen, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), who is, naturally, dating the school’s star jock, Whitney (Eric Johnson). Lana’s a sweetheart, Whitney’s a bully, and you can pretty much figure out how the dynamics of this teen triangle will play out.
Clark’s life is more than teen angst and puppy love, however. He has always been aware of the fact that he is different—faster and stronger than the other kids—but it takes being hit by a car traveling at 60mph to really make him wonder about his past. After surviving the accident, which almost kills town rich-boy Lex Luther (Michael Rosenbaum), an unscathed Clark questions his own resilience. He confronts his father, who reveals the boy’s past to him. Although his parents can’t tell him exactly where he came from and they don’t know much about the boy’s growing powers, they do manage to convince Clark that he isn’t from this planet—just what every insecure high school freshman needs to hear. Suddenly, Clark must deal with not only his murky background, but also his destiny. This just as a former tormented high school nerd emerges from a coma with the power to electrocute, along with plans to kill everyone who ever made his life hell. Only Clark has the ability to stop him, which he does, of course, and he begins to realize that being different can have its advantages.
This basic tale—where the young superhero learns of his or her gifts and then struggles to accept them—is the latest trend in superhero plotlines, and has been covered thoroughly in recent years by, among other shows, Buffy and Charmed. But the audience already knows how Superman’s story starts and turns out. What’s missing are the middle chapters: and Smallville has an opportunity to consider the factors that shaped Clark Kent into Superman. Few of us can forget the changes we underwent, both physically and emotionally, during high school, and the series seems willing to look at them all, from getting your own car to getting your first kiss. This particular character’s duality has, of course, fascinated audiences for years, and the series is an in-depth examination of how this duality came to be, how Clark Kent incorporates both the boy and the hero into one complex life.
[If you know nothing of the Superman story, skip this next paragraph, as it contains spoilers.]
Having the audience already know the end of the story may allow the show’s writers some great opportunities for psychological drama, but it is also problematic in that many chances to build tension are ruined. No matter how the emerging love triangle plays out, Superman fans know that Lana is a temporary thing and that Lois Lane, the true love of Clark’s life, is still a few years down the road. There is no chance for long-term happiness for this couple, and believing there is going to be a happily ever after is a key element needed to get an audience to care about a couple’s emotional well-being. This same lack of tension affects Clark’s relationship with Lex, who will ultimately be Superman’s archenemy, despite attempts at bonding with him now.
Most important, though, is how we view Clark himself. No matter how many battles he must face or how many difficult lessons he must master, we know that he will emerge in about 10 years in Metropolis, doing just fine. If the writers veer storylines away from these eventual outcomes, viewers will undoubtedly cry foul. On the other hand, if the outcomes are too heavily foreshadowed, viewers will become bored. The writers will need to stay in a narrow zone in the middle, stressing the psychological aspects of the story as it develops, to keep viewers tuning in, a job they have done well in the first two episodes.
Also sure to keep viewers tuning in is Smallville‘s wonderful cast. Wellig, best known as Amy’s karate teacher boyfriend on Judging Amy, does a remarkable job conveying Clark’s conflicting emotions, but he is clearly too old to be playing a high school freshman. And it’s hard to believe that a boy this hot, with a body this tight, would be treated like the class nerd. Perfectly cast, though, is Kreuk, whose radiance and grace make it easy to understand why Clark would fall for her Lana. Try to take your eyes off her when she is on screen; it’s virtually impossible. And personally, I am always happy to see the underrated Annette O’Toole, who played Lana Lang in 1983’s Superman 3.
Coming after a series of popular Superman movies, Smallville confronts a legacy when it comes to special effects, but the show’s match most of what can be seen on the big screen. The accident scene, which showed the speeding car smashing into Clark, then both he and the car flying into the water below, was technically brilliant and frighteningly realistic. In episode two, Clark dreams of flying, only to wake as he is hovering a couple of feet over his bed, which he promptly crashes into. Compared to the accident, it was a simple effect to manage, but provided sharp comic relief. As Clark becomes more aware of his powers, the special effects team will have even more opportunities to impress.
Still, while the show may come up with high-tech effects, electrifying cast members, and thought-provoking scripts, nothing could ever replace the thrill felt by a six-year-old child as he gets lost in his first Superman comic book. No matter how many films or tv shows deal with the Superman legend, the wonder of that six-year-old is the hardest act to follow. Smallville comes closer than any Superman incarnation yet to capturing that sense of wonder, because it shows us the wonder that Clark feels as he becomes the man we love. Even if we know the end of the book, the middle chapters presented here are so much fun, there is no excuse for missing them.