While emphasizing again that this series was not simply a Superman origin, it would be disingenuous to suggest that, at its core, much of the appeal of the series is the dramatic tension of watching events unfold with an eye towards how we know the characters are “destined” to end up.
So while it is more than just the “origin of Superman,” it is that as well. One of the things that rather amazed me as I tracked the storyline over the course of 200-plus episodes that aired originally over the course of ten years was how the creators really did keep their eye on the prize, so to speak. Despite a lot of odd digressions and certain confusing choices (see: Season 4’s overplot involving Lana Lang and her boyfriend both being descended from rival 17th century witches), the show never strayed too far from the core idea of Clark Kent and his evolution.
Impressively, Clark’s characterization and arc are kept remarkably consistent over 200-plus episodes. There’s barely a single storyline in the entire 9,000-minute epic wherein Welling’s Clark ever loses his heroic resolve, or fails to hold to the morals and values that his parents have instilled in him, and which we associate with Superman.
For all the “subversion” discussed above, that is one thing the creators never lose sight of or mess about with: Clark Kent as a hero to admire. That’s a truly astonishing achievement, when we consider the stalker/deadbeat-dad of Singer’s 2006 movie or the dubious morality of the 2013 film Superman, and realize that some writers and directors can’t sustain a truly heroic Superman for even 120 minutes, let alone 150 hours. Indeed, this was the “no flights, no tights” motto in the first place: To focus on the inner character of Clark Kent, and be sure to get that right, as that’s the most important thing. The clothes, after all, don’t make the man.
Amazing as well is that Smallville – despite some growing pains – managed to track Superman’s origin step by step to, basically, the “traditional” status quo. Gough and Millar’s original conception was, from the accounts I’ve seen, to show a young Clark Kent, growing up in Smallville, and to end it with Clark putting on the costume and flying to his new life in Metropolis, as Superman. Instead, the series just kept on going, years after the original idea was still sustainable. The writers had no choice (short of cancelling the series) but to nudge Clark on to the next step on his path, moving him to Metropolis and eventually getting him an internship at the Daily Planet, which in turn led to a full-time job as a reporter at the Planet, etc. … And with a full six years left of storytelling time to play with after the end of Season Four (the year Clark graduates high school), the creators had the luxury to take their time on all of these developments.
It’s a weird, marvelous feeling to watch the series from its beginning, with Clark developing powers for the first time while he deals with teenage drama and football games, and eventually proceed to a Clark employed at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane and eventually hitting upon this crazy idea of wearing thick-rimmed glasses and cultivating a nerdy identity so that he can serve Metropolis as a superhero without a mask. And all the intermediate steps are taken to get Clark to that point. The sheer magnitude of the show’s narrative scope is phenomenal.
The creators – with the advantage of working on a series with a predestined ending – even manage to pay off early-planted seeds much further down the line. My favorite example is Clark Kent meeting Perry White in Season 3. That episode ends with Perry telling Clark to look him up in Metropolis if he ever needs a favor. Six years later (six years!), Clark is fired from his job at the Daily Planet. Luckily, Perry also works there at this point (albeit not yet as editor-in-chief) and he talks the boss into rehiring Clark, finally paying off the “I owe you a favor” bit.
It’s not particularly deep, but from a pure narrative standpoint, it’s incredibly satisfying to see threads like that pay off, after so many intervening years.
Meanwhile, another argument against defining the show as “the origin of Superman” and for calling it “Superboy without the tights” is the series’ fetish for introducing so many elements of the Superman mythology – and even of the wider “DC Universe” mythos – into the narrative over the course of its ten years.
This was an element that troubled me back during the show’s first run. It seemed strange for Clark to meet almost his entire rogues gallery before ever putting on a costume and calling himself “Superman.” Almost every classic villain shows up to menace Clark Kent on Smallville, despite his superhero career not having officially begun. Lex of course is there from the start (albeit as Clark’s best friend for the first four years), but then we also get: Mxyzptlk, Brainiac, Zod, Morgan Edge, Toyman, Metallo, Bizarro, Livewire, Parasite, the Silver Banshee, Deathstroke, Intergang, and finally, Darkseid and several members of his Elite.
We also meet a host of other DC characters and concepts: Cyborg, Impulse, Aquaman and Mera, the Suicide Squad, Checkmate, Zatanna, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, Martian Manhunter, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Black Canary and most notably Green Arrow (who ends up a regular cast member for the last three seasons).
It just seemed “wrong” to me at first that Clark should come into contact with so many different characters before putting on the costume and calling himself Superman. Eventually, I realized this was all perfectly valid. As comic-book fans, we’re programmed to think of superhero stories tracking in a certain sequence, with the rogues’ gallery slowly building up after the superhero first arrives on the scene, but there’s no reason that things have to work that way. (Interestingly, Scott Snyder’s new Batman origin “Year Zero” apparently employs a similar reversal of expectation, with costumed villains turning up in Gotham City before Batman does, rather than after. Critics seem to be approving of this choice generally, so it’s interesting that Smallville showed the way in this regard.)
I also came to realize eventually that the costume and cape are not as essential as I had thought to my enjoyment of the Superman character. As long as the characterization was right (which it always was on Smallville) and as long as he had all – well, most – of his superpowers, then I was perfectly happy to watch Clark Kent fight Doomsday, Zod, Metallo, the Furies and whoever else in just his street clothes.
Oddly, in pondering this point while watching, I was put in mind of the 1966 Batman, in which – almost every time a villain showed up for the very first time on the show – Batman would recognize the character and their unique M.O. We rarely saw any “first” meetings on that show. It was always a villain Batman was already familiar with, as though he already had his set of villains ready to go on the first day he put on his batsuit.
And heck, if it’s good enough for Adam West, it’s surely good enough for Tom Welling, right?
It ultimately works out as another advantage of Smallville’s extended longitudinal trajectory. Upon a concerted, contiguous viewing of all the episodes in sequence, the entire thing starts to feel downright epic: the slow building up of the mythology, the increasingly large roster of enemies, the expansion of the universe to include so many DC Universe guest-stars, etc. Again, watching this series is much akin to reading a long-running comic-book, watching the continuity grow, expand and evolve with increasing speed and complexity. As such, it’s quite possibly, and surprisingly given its less geekily ambitious early “teen soap opera” years, the most faithful adaptation of a comic-book series ever crafted – because it adapts not only the characters and concepts of a mainstream comic, but also the same sort of narrative gambits – the slow and steady world-building; the use of recurring superhero “guest stars”; the long-deferred payoffs to early established plot points.
To many comic-book fans, that particular longitudinal storytelling form is as much part of the appeal as the actual content. From that perspective, Smallville is able to deliver the goods in a much more satisfying way than any two-hour film could ever hope. (Indeed, if I were forced to name a favorite Superman film, I would probably just pick a two-part Smallville story. I think I’d go with the finale of Season 5 combined with the premiere of Season 6. There’s your perfect Superman movie, right there.)
The Full Mosaic
Superman was 63 years old when Smallville debuted. There was a lot of water under that bridge already, and dozens of various, contradictory takes on the character and his fictional universe. Smallville was very shrewd, right from Day One, about which pieces it took from which versions and how it assembled them. Back in 2001, I certainly remembered the version of Lex Luthor’s origin in which Superboy accidentally causes an accident in young Lex Luthor’s lab that makes him lose his hair. However I also knew that post-Crisis Luthor was not a scientist; he was businessman. Along came the Smallville pilot, depicting nine-year-old Lex accompanying his father on a business trip to the titular small town, and getting caught in the very meteor shower that brings baby Kal-El to Earth. And what happens as a result of the radiation from those meteors? Lex loses his hair. A decade later, and Lex is now a young executive … but he’s bald, and it’s all Clark’s fault.
Smallville’s writers were almost always wickedly clever – and sometimes downright brilliant – in assembling disparate elements from their subject’s six-decade-plus history into new, surprising mosaics. That’s also true of the various pieces of the show identified throughout the above. It’s not just that the series subverted elements of the mythology in surprising ways; it’s not just that it repurposed Clark Kent and his supporting cast as the leads in an angst-ridden teenage soap opera. It’s that the show did all of these things at once, and these various creative impulses often collided in weird, surprising ways. It certainly didn’t always work; out of respect and a sense of affection, I’ve deliberately avoided harping on certain weak elements of the show (coughLanaLangcough) – but those weak elements were there, I don’t deny.
Yet overall, the underlying creative ideals that drove the show were all right on target, and those in charge of enforcing those ideals – the writers, directors, actors, FX artists, and so forth down the line – have left us with a gigantic amount of television that was and is at various turns clever, exciting, surprising, affectionate, irreverent, hilarious and touching. Of all the live-action adaptations that exist for either film or television, Smallville stands as the finest testament to the resonance of the Superman myth, and the most well crafted interpretation of the character in 30 years.