Tapping the Mythology
One of the complaints that comics fans make about Smallville is that it took hours and hours of television simply to retell “the origin of Superman,” which has been done so much more economically elsewhere. (Grant Morrison did it in a single page of All-Star Superman, after all.)
This misses the point. By their own admission, series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar were not comic-book fans. Their notion was to tap the broader, more universal image of Superman. That’s surely fair play, since the character long ago passed out of the exclusive realm of the four-color page and into general American consciousness, as a literally mythic figure.
Enough has been written about the idea of comic-book superheroes as modern American myths that there’s no reason to rehash that notion here. Suffice to say that it’s a dubious theory when applied to the entire genre, but if we’re talking about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation, then it’s hard to argue. Superman and his world – Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, the Daily Planet, et al – are all iconic cultural touchstones. Maybe eventually we’ll be able to say the same about Iron Man, but not so much right now.
Point being, Gough and Millar were not looking to “retell the origin” of a comic-book character, but to tap into something more primal. They wished to explore a figure out of American myth, a piece of folklore – and from a unique, unexpected perspective.
Was it that unexpected, or truly unique? Perhaps not. Portraits of legends as young men (and women) are certainly nothing new. The impulse to explore the childhoods of icons is a universal storytelling impulse – you can see it projects as varied as Young Indiana Jones, The Carrie Diaries, the 2009 Star Trek reboot and Muppet Babies. It’s the impulse that led Siegel and Shuster to create Superboy in the first place, six years after they created Superman. There’s something inherently appealing about experiencing the humble beginnings of a character with a grand destiny.
Gough and Millar’s main point of departure was the Richard Conner film from 1978, the only Superman film thus far to truly capture that sense of Superman as a piece of Americana. The early seasons of Smallville are redolent with that same energy, albeit they don’t ever quite duplicate the majesty of the first third of Donner’s movie. Yet what it lacked in big-screen scope, it was able to make up for the openness of its format as a long-running television program.
Its longitudinal, serial nature made Smallville much more akin to the comics on which it was based than any self-contained film could hope to be – e.g., in its ability to evolve, to plant narrative seeds early on that could then be cultivated over years of storytelling, to make dramatic use of characters who disappear for years and return unexpectedly, and even to course-correct if a storyline or narrative arc just didn’t seem to be working.
It also means, just by virtue of the sheer magnitude of screen time that the entire Smallville experience comprises (roughly 9,000 minutes), that the series was able to incorporate various nods, tips of the hat, and homages to earlier iterations of the Superman myth – devoting entire episodes to such indulgences – without entirely derailing its own distinct identity. In fact, the creators demonstrated their willingness to openly acknowledge Smallville’s precursors right from Episode 1, when they cast Annette O’Toole, who played Lana Lang in 1983’s Superman III, as their show’s Martha Kent. (It’s perhaps noteworthy in this context that O’Toole wasn’t the first choice; the original unaired pilot has a different actress in the role of Ma Kent, the only variance in the cast from the version that eventually aired.)
Stunt casting in TV shows has grown increasingly common; as the history of both film and television become denser with each passing year, it’s become more and more tempting to use clever casting as a way to comment upon that history. Smallville goes to extreme lengths, particularly in giving little shout-outs to the film franchise helmed by Alexander and Ilya Salkind in the 70s and 80s: Viewers saw Christopher Reeve show up twice, as a scientist with valuable knowledge on Krypton; Margot Kidder eventually turned up as another scientist, an ally (and ex-girlfriend) of Reeve’s character; the voice of Jor-El on Smallville was Terence Stamp, the Zod of the Salkind films; Helen Slater, 1984’s Supergirl, played Lara; Marc McClure, the Salkind era Jimmy Olsen, played a Kryptonian scientist. Meanwhile, Lois & Clark – Smallville’s immediate live-action small-screen precursor, starring Teri Hatcher as Lois and Dean Cain as Clark – also got its due: Hatcher got a brief cameo as a Lois’s mother, and Cain showed up as a villain – an immortal whose initials were “C.K.”
All very cute trivia, but does it mean anything beyond the winking inside-jokery of it? After all, the 1978 film featured Noel Neill (who played Lois Lane in the 40s and 50s) as Lois’s mother, and the 2006 film by Bryan Singer featured cameos by both Neill and Jack Larson (the Jimmy Olsen of that era). It’s just fun, and also tradition. I’d argue two things, though: 1.) This “tradition” is part of the point, and 2.) the sheer density and volume of Smallville’s references puts it in a unique place.
Millar and Gough, for one thing, didn’t limit their references to casting: They also recreate classic sequences from the Salkind films, usually with a twist, but sometimes played entirely straight with the exact same intent as the original. Memorable pieces of dialogue from those films (“Kneel before Zod”; “I will be with you all the days of your life”; “Statistically speaking it’s still the safest way to travel”; “Can you read my mind?”) are reused and/or repurposed. One episode, built around an extended black-and-white dream sequence, incorporates a bit of footage from the 1950s Adventures of Superman series. After Millar and Gough left the show at the end of Season 7, their successors, Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson, continued the trend, right up to the series finale, in which Clark prevents Air Force One from crashing, a la the 1978 film. The CGI Superman used in that final episode is even, arguably, evocative of the animated Superman from the classic 1940s Fleischer cartoons.
The shoe’s openness to incorporating pieces of Superman history from so many eras and sources bespeaks an awareness of Smallville’s place in that tradition. There’s a certain humility implicit there, a recognition that the series’ success is due to larger forces: Both Superman himself, that platonic mythic ideal, and the many various iterations that have existed over the decades, all of which helped pave the way for Smallville. Amusingly, a ninth-season episode of the show sees Clark attending a comic-book convention and bumping into a man cosplaying as Tom Welling circa Smallville Season 3 … a fun little bit of self-awareness: The series was smart enough to recognize that it is not any kind of ultimate, final word on Superman, but just another layer on the myth, to eventually be cleverly referenced by a future adaptation.
Subverting the Expectations
Of course, part of tapping into a source of great mythic power is recognizing the drama inherent in altering, interrupting or in some other way subverting the myth’s most recognizable elements. As noted above, much of Smallville’s take on the Superman legend was played straight and with appropriate reverence (see, for example, the creation of the Fortress of Solitude at the end of Season 4 and beginning of Season 5). But just as often, the “classic” bits were turned on their ear.
That’s certainly nothing new, and while the argument has been made that these alterations are an example of the cliché “Hollywood” mentality of changing for change’s sake, in the case of Superman – in which certain pillars of the myth are so very ingrained in the American consciousness – I’d instead suggest that such twists on the myth are a way of enlivening and invigorating our relationship to those pillars.
Consider again the Donner Superman, long considered the gold standard in terms of reverent adaptations, and how it actually played with classic Superman characters, tropes and catchphrases, rather than translating them precisely from the comics: Lex Luthor is never shown bald in the film (until the last 30 seconds or so), but rather in a series of gauche toupees; Clark’s very first transformation to Superman almost occurs in a phone booth, until he thinks better of it and finds an alternate locale; Perry White’s line to Jimmy calling him “Chief” after promising to get him a coffee with no sugar is “Don’t call me sugar!” Even 35 years ago, the myth was so familiar that it could already be played with, and we all got it.
Smallville was rather masterful at the art of subversion. It was built into the very premise: If this is Clark before he becomes Superman, then the rule – handed down to the writers, and also made known to the public – was “No tights, no flights.” And there, in one fell swoop, two essential features of Superman are eliminated. Though the writers broke the “no flights” bit a handful of times, we never see Clark in the classic costume until the final episode. Instead, the suit is often evoked and alluded to. The “S” shield doesn’t show up in its iconic form until the Season 6 premiere, which means the entire first half of the series can only give hints or glimpses. There were a multitude of times wherein, for example: the classic blue/red/yellow color scheme showed up; the letter “S” appeared at opportune moments, a couple of times even on Clark’s chest; the classic five-sided outline of the shield would show itself; etc.
This is another element that critics blasted, and certainly there were times when it became too cutesy, but I’d again argue that this way of interacting with the classic Superman iconography enlivened these aspects of the legend. The counter-argument ran that the show creators were “embarrassed” by the most intrinsic elements of the character they were adapting, but that’s a shallow line of thought. There’s a long tradition in artistic genres and media, wherein homage is paid to past greatness in seemingly irreverent, even disrespectful ways. In such cases, often the point is to reveal a new depth, a new unexpected dimension, to force the audience to see the subject in a different way, to focus on elements that aren’t usually focused on. In eliminating the costume, in deferring the use of the classic “S” shield, in limiting the “flights,” Smallville forced both its writers and its viewers to explore other dimensions of a classic myth, showing that – 70 years on – there are still new stories to tell, and new ways to tell them. (This is, of course, the very same logic that has given us dozens upon dozens of “Elseworlds” Superman comics from DC over the years … several of which number amongst the most effective Superman comics ever written.)
There’s a wonderful bit in the second episode of the series – it’s the scene that hooked me on the show, in fact, back in first run – which I still consider iconic of the way Smallville was able to repurpose and recontextualize classic Superman tropes. Clark is at Lex Luthor’s mansion, and Lex opens up a lead box on his desk, revealing the Kryptonite within. Much to Clark’s discomfort.
The twist: The Kryptonite in this case is decorative, part of Lana Lang’s necklace. Her douchebag boyfriend lost it; Lex found it. Now he’s giving it to Clark so that Clark can give it back to her, thus winning her affections. Lex is, at this point, quite keen to be Clark’s friend, and while Clark tries to hide his physical pain, Lex is shoving Kryptonite in his face saying go ahead, take it, this will give you all the power in the relationship.
That was the moment that made me realize this show had something special: An affection for its subject but also a willingness to play with our expectations. I stuck with it for years, and – as noted at the top – eventually came back to it to finish it out on DVD. And indeed, there were more and more twists to enjoy as time went on: Like in Season 5, when Lana Lang and Martha Kent both move to Metropolis while Clark and Lois live on the Kent Farm as roommates. Or Season 8, in which Jimmy Olsen and Doomsday compete for the affection for the same woman. (No, seriously.) Or Season 9, in which Zod and his followers meet Clark for the first time, and Zod commands them, “Kneel … before Kal-El!”