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Smallville’s Peter Pan Superman

  • Gary Robinson Contributing Writer
  • 2009 25 Sep
Smallville’s Peter Pan Superman


Regardless of what you think about Smallville, after eight seasons and 173 episodes, you must agree, this Clark Kent has staying power.   The latest TV take on Superman has doubled the number of Lois and Clark episodes and eclipsed George Reeves' run by more than 60%.   Never has the hero flown so long on television,

What makes the achievement all the more remarkable is that this version of Superman doesn't fly.  Indeed, some argue he isn't even a hero.   Before we delve deeper into the main character, however, let's briefly review the major developments in the series.

Devotees of the show recall the first season's heavy reliance on the Kryptonite-infected "freak of the week."   Thankfully, that one-trick pony was stabled fairly early as Smallville focused more on the relationship between Lex Luthor and Clark Kent.  Fans were tantalized with the foreshadowing of the future:  "Trust me, Clark; our friendship will be the stuff of legend."   

As the series progressed, Lionel Luthor came into the mix and the show offered a powerful meditation on Fathers and Sons.  In one corner stood a stalwart farmer named Jonathan, imprinting his foster son with his example.  In the other corner lurked the manipulative entrepreneur slowly driving his own flesh-and-blood to madness and murder.   As his relationship with Lex deteriorated, Lionel developed a strange attachment to Clark.  His clinging to Clark for redemption made for some fine dramatic moments:  

Lionel:  "Protecting him [Clark] is the only way I've found to pay for my sins. And isn't that what we all want—to repent and be forgiven?"

Chloe:  "You only want to get close to Clark because you know it's the closest you'll ever get to God."

At its best, Smallville made powerful memories:  Here's Lex staring blankly into the glass that separates him from his father at a mental hospital.  Lionel has subjected him to shock-therapy.  As father and son face each other, Johnny Cash sings "Hurt."  Here's Clark coming face-to-face with Dr. Swann, the man who will tell him of his origins.  The encounter between tragically paralyzed Christopher Reeve and Tom Welling, heir to the mantle, was as poignant as it was dramatic. Here's black garbed Kal-El, possessed by the spirit of Krypton, launching himself like a rocket into the sky.  Never has Superman's power of flight been more awe-inspiring (and, thereafter, more frustratingly absent).  For eight years, the quality of acting, special effects, and music have all remained high. 

Unfortunately, the major series flaw has always been its writing.  Plot threads become hopelessly tangled or abandoned.  Contradictions abound.  Surely the worst of the latter is the presence of Jor-El.  Clark's Kryptonian father is supposed to be dead.  Even assuming he'd anticipated his son's every question, even many of his actions, the idea of a running battle between a supposedly recorded voice and a living, breathing heir stretches credulity into the ridiculous.  Lana Lang was another drag on the series.   Granted, in the comics Lana was little more than a pest.   On this show, however, she became the Queen of Misery.  She fell into and out of love with Clark so many times, I lost count.  Just when we thought she'd disappeared forever, she reappeared with super-powers. 

One huge problem for fans is Smallville's constant siphoning the future, robbing elements of the mythos that shouldn't happen at this stage of Clark Kent's life:  Lois Lane, the Daily Planet, the Justice League, Supergirl, Jimmy Olsen, etc.  Doesn't the Lois Lane we all know only know a Clark Kent who wears glasses?  Granted, Superman's famous "disguise" leaves a lot to be desired, but how in the world will the producers correct such a profound altering of the Superman legend?   

Despite the series' shortcomings, the great arc of Clark's ascension/Lex's disintegration remained a compelling reason to watch.   Now, however, Lex is gone, along with Jonathan, Martha, Lionel, and so, it seems, the show's reason for existence.  Though it retains the title, plainly, it's no longer "Smallville" in tone or content.  What was once a series about Coming of Age (or, if you prefer, Fathers and Sons or even The Making of an Archenemy) is now a conglomeration of diverse and cynically placed elements from the DC Comics universe, congealing over a twenty-something soap opera with more in common with Beverly Hills 90210 than Superman.  The main character dithers over his destiny, having become a supporting player in his own show.  As Alex Wainer writes, "Producers kept the show running in place instead of letting him follow the hero's path--all for the sake of the CW having a show that hit the right demographics."

Stats about Smallville published in USA Today reveal:  a series consistently running dead last.   Apparently, somewhere along the way, for some reason, there was a surge in viewership.  Evidently, somebody's watching.  But why?  

Superman has always prospered as he reflects changing cultural mores.  Currently, American society seems stuck in a nether world between irresponsibility and responsibility, immaturity and maturity.  Adolescence (a distinctly western phenomenon unheard of in underdeveloped nations) has surged deep into adulthood.  Young adults have a hard time getting off the ground, soaring into marriage and career.   In such a milieu, should we be surprised when even Superman can't grow up? 

I used to think my dad looked funny wearing dark pants and white socks.  In fact, he was simply mature enough not to care what I thought.   He liked what he wore; it was comfortable and it fit.  Maybe "flights and tights" are just another expression of a maturity we want to push as far down the road as possible.  But as the apostle wrote, "When I became a man, I put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11).  Sooner later, super or not, a man's got to grow up.

Season 9 of Smallville premieres Friday, September 25, 2009 on the CW. Check your local listings for times. Seasons 1 through 8 are available on DVD.

Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and Superman fan living in Xenia, Ohio.  Check out his website, "Look!  Up in the Sky!" (