Friday, June 14, 2013

Superman Week: Smallville (2001 - 2011)

Smallville (2001 – 2011) is the longest-running superhero series in television history. 

The fact that this series ran so long also means that, to some extent, Smallville managed to out-live the snarky criticism it faced at the very beginning of its life, which compared the Superman “prequel” to Dawson’s Creek.

I still remember the early days when some geeks termed the program “Dawson’s Cape, or "Kal-El’s Creek.”

In truth, that comparison to another teen-centric WB hit series never exactly fit, and Smallville seemed to re-invent itself every couple of years, anyway. 

Smallville began as a series that was part-Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) and part-X-Files (1993 – 2002) it seems to me, since it focused on a team of adolescent “Scoobies" -- Clark Kent (Tom Welling), Lana (Kristin Kreuk), Pete Ross (Sam Jones III) and high-school reporter Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack) -- investigating “Freaks of the Week” from Chloe’s “Wall of Weird.”  

In this continuity, Clark arrived on Earth during a violent meteor shower, and Kryptonite -- or “meteor rocks” -- not only affected him, but transformed normal humans (and often high-school teenagers) into monsters with super-powers.  “Metamorphosis’ featured “the Bug Boy” (Chad E. Donella), “Cool” featured a boy Sean Kelvin (Michael Coristine) who could freeze anyone he touched, “Cravings” starred future Man of Steel (2013) Lois Lane, Amy Adams, as a girl with the insatiable desire to eat…everything, and so forth.

By the time of the second season, however, the Freak of the Week paradigm became less repetitive, and the series started to focus on myth-building, on charting Clark’s journey to manhood. Over the years Smallville became more confident of its identity as a more traditional re-assertion of the Superman legend, one featuring a variety of villains and heroes from DC comics, plus serialized story-lines of remarkable complexity and maturity.

One key aspect of the program that elevated it above mere rip-off of Buffy or The X-Files was the  on-going Clark/Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) relationship and dynamic.  In this universe, Clark and Lex become best friends for a time, but friends with opposite -- and opposing -- destinies.  The series often brilliantly played these two men as mirror images in terms of their choices and friendships, and even in terms of their family lives.

And the really great thing about Smallville’s long run is that it allowed a full exploration of Superman’s youth, without racing rapidly through any particular stage or period.  Even the great Superman: The Movie (1978) can't afford to linger, for long, on the Smallville interlude.  

So the first few seasons of Smallville involve Clark’s (Tom Welling) discovery of his extra-terrestrial origin, and the development of such powers as his heat ray (“Heat”) and X-Ray vision (“X-Ray”).

Meanwhile, the third season involves the creation of the Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic.

The fifth season brings about the death of Clark’s adopted father, Jonathan (John Schneider), and season seven introduces Supergirl (Laura Van Voort).

Finally, Seasons 8 through 10 move Clark and Lois (Erica Durance) to Metropolis and to the Daily Planet for the traditional Superman story we have come to expect in all iterations of the mythology. 

Although many times throughout the series, fans complained (loudly) about Clark’s slow progress  from adolescent to superhero, it’s also fair to state that there’s an arc and direction to Smallville, and that by going chapter-by-chapter, stage-by-stage, the series pays off in its high-flying 2011 conclusion (which features an inspiring, emotional reprise of John Williams’ “Superman March.”)

Also, Smallville universally kept things interesting by introducing different villains as yearly “Big Bads,” to co-opt Whedon nomenclature.  Brainiac (James Marsters) menaced Clark throughout Season 5. Doomsday (Sam Witwer) is the villain of Season 8.  Major Zod (Callum Blue) is the nemesis of Season 9, and so on. 

Meanwhile, the final three or four seasons also involve the incipient gathering of the Justice League, with Clark teaming-up often with Aqua Man (Alan Ritchson), The Flash (Kyle Gallner), Martian Manhunter (Phil Morris), Hawkman (Michael Shanks), Cyborg (Lee Thompson Young), and series regular, Green Arrow (Justin Hartley).

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to note how thoroughly Smallville honors previous Superman productions with meaningful guest roles for previous and beloved performers.  Christopher Reeves has a recurring role early in the series as Dr. Virgil Swann.  Terence Stamp (Superman II's General Zod) provides the voice of Jor-El in The Fortress of Solitude throughout the series.  Also, Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher, Margot Kidder, and even Lynda Carter make crucial appearances throughout the series’ run.

I know it is easy to quibble with details or get frustrated with pacing, but it’s difficult for me to understand how fans could not fall in love this modern Superman series, which demonstrates such tributes to the past, as well as such an infusion of characters from the comic universe.  Also, via the home scenes with Jonathan and Martha (Annette O'Toole) Kent, Smallville demonstrates genuine heart on a regular basis. 

My wife and I binge-watched Smallville two years ago, and it was a great experience.  I can certainly name some stinker episodes (like the vampire entry "Thirst"), but overall it's a grand and unforgettable -- and emotionally resonant -- re-boot of the Superman mythology.

1 comment:

  1. John, good review. I enjoyed the Smallville(2001-2011) series and think it will be hard to do another Superboy television series that endures as well as this one.