last months of last year were a frightening time for this country.
Former certainties seemed shifting and elusive, no more substantial
than the dust of two towers once destined to stand for centuries.
In their search for reassurance many Americans seemed to turn to
the security of a sometimes imagined past, with all its perceived
strength and sense of a now lost normality. Televised tributes to
Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball were surprise successes, while the
usually youth-oriented WB network enjoyed high ratings for a new
show dedicated to a hero first spotted in a quiet town in Kansas
over 60 years ago.
him. That tall dark-haired fellow with a firm jaw and rock-solid
principles, a little staid, perhaps, even if he did wear tights,
but always someone who it was good to have around in a moment of
peril. Well, just when we need him, Superman is back. He has not
yet made it to Metropolis, but WB's Smallville is proving
a perfect venue for the Man (or, at least, High-School Student)
incarnation, as has often been the case in Superman's somewhat tangled
biography, involves a considerable reworking of his previously known
history, but this is unlikely to worry a fan base which has previously
weathered conflicting versions of, amongst other minor points, their
idol's powers, family, childhood, vulnerability to kryptonite, and
(poor Lois!) marital status.
WB's take on
the myth centers on a young Clark Kent, growing up in the unambitiously
named Smallville, Kansas. This Smallville is, as in earlier versions
of the super saga, a nostalgic slice of the Heartland, a dreamscape
of rolling prairie, grain silos, and red-painted barns, but brought
subtly, and undidactically, closer to early 21st-century realities.
The coffee shop serves lattes, many of the local farms are in financial
difficulty and the high-school principal's last name is Kwan. Clark's
social circle is also more diverse than in the past, and now includes
feisty, and vaguely feminist, Chloe (Allison Mack). Meanwhile, two
familiar characters, redheaded love interest Lana Lang and blond
Pete Ross both appear to have taken a spin in Dahr-Nel's Plastimold
(a machine which, Nixon-era geeks will remember, was used by Lois
Lane to alter her ethnicity in a 1970 story, the remarkable I
am Curious (Black)). These days, likeable Pete (Sam Jones) is
African American and Lana (Kristin Kreuk) is played by a raven-haired
beauty of partly Asian heritage.
Clark himself is largely unchanged, although in a skilful performance
the almost ludicrously handsome (this is the WB) Tom Welling
manages to portray him without the nerdiness that will make his
adult self the laughing stock of the Daily Planet newsroom.
Other basic plot details follow the traditional pattern. The emerging
Superman is still the orphan from outer space being raised by the
kindly Ma and Pa Kent (in an enjoyably anarchic piece of casting,
the role of Martha Kent is filled by Annette O'Toole, Lana Lane
from Superman III). Clark's unusual talents continue to remain
a secret, carefully hidden from a dangerous world by his protective
adoptive parents. On occasion, however, he has to use these powers,
for idyllic Smallville is not as safe as it first seems. Clark's
capsule was not the only galactic debris to have landed near this
tranquil Kansas town. The same night as Clark's earthfall, the whole
area was bombarded by other remnants of his shattered planet in
a meteor shower of such ferocity that Lana Lang's parents were killed
and a nine-year-old Lex Luthor became a candidate for Rogaine. Even
worse, twelve years later, fragments of Krypton are still scattered
all over the neighborhood with, all too often, the nasty habit of
endowing someone who encounters them with unpleasant, and usually
It is a clever
narrative device, rooting the action firmly in Clark's hometown.
Like Buffy The Vampire Slayer's suburban Sunnydale, farm-belt
Smallville becomes an appropriately sized arena for a superhero
on training wheels. A fireball-tossing football coach is extinguished,
a high-voltage villain is short-circuited, and an insect boy's sinister
schemes are nipped in the bug, but these are all relatively small
fry, vaguely believable so far as super-powered human mutants go.
The same could never be true of the far greater evildoers that Clark
Kent will encounter later in his career, which is why, when it came
to the bad guys, Christopher Reeve's Superman movies tended
to descend into camp. By contrast, like most successful science
fiction, Smallville can be, and is, played straight.
approach also leaves more room to explore the nature of Smallville's
inhabitants. There is little of the sort of characterization usually
labeled, well, "comic book." Even the twentysomething
Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) is presented as a complex, complete
individual. He is a fairly sympathetic figure, fruitlessly trying
to work out "issues" with his megalomaniac father, while
at the same time being unfairly snubbed by the rather stern Pa Kent
(John Schneider, no longer so easygoing as in his days as Hazzard
County's Bo Duke). Only when Luthor encounters a clairvoyant are
viewers given a warning of the horrors to come. Of course, as would
be expected from the Dawson's Creek network, much of the
drama revolves around adolescent angst. There's a hint of Archie
about this Superman. In a nice touch, shy Clark finds that
his adored-from-afar Lana quite literally makes him go weak at the
knees (her kryptonite necklace is to blame), a perfect metaphor
for the awkwardness of high-school romance. Lana, meanwhile, thinks
that she loves the dreadful Whitney (Eric Johnson), a WASPy jock
with the sort of preppie good looks that will almost certainly ensure
him a future role as the date rapist in a Lifetime movie.
But the core
of the show is, properly enough, Clark, and a great deal of its
charm comes from the degree to which we are shown a very human side
of the man who will be steel. There are, as one of the writers has
explained, "no tights [and] no flights." Young Clark's
powers are underplayed and the red cape, mercifully, is absent.
We are free, instead, to concentrate on Clark Kent himself. This
is only right, for it is the existence of his very human alter ego
that has always helped make Superman the most enduring and endearing
of all comicdom's superheroes. In Smallville, as elsewhere
in the canon, Superman is shown living an ordinary, rather humdrum
existence among the rest of us, concealing his extraordinary abilities
until the arrival of those dangers that call upon him to use them.
Job done, he then returns to his everyday routine. Adding to his
appeal is the fact that this is also an archetypically American
story. Superman is an immigrant, a refugee from a ruined older world,
who successfully adopts the values of the corn-fed heartland that
becomes his real home.
Much of the interest in Smallville itself comes from the
fact that the early signs of what lies in store for Clark are already
becoming visible. He is on Earth, the Kents repeatedly explain,
for a purpose, even if that destiny is still not yet manifest. The
easy option (football stardom, in one episode) is not for him, and
nor, it is understood, is the dark side. This Superman will be no
Nietzschean lout. In the meantime Clark wrestles with the conundrum
as to who he is, and what he will become. In the end, of course,
we know that he will embrace his humanity, his extraterrestrial
strengths, and the responsibilities that come from both. Except
in the most literal sense, it is not Superman's powers that make
him special, but what he chooses to do with them.
It is a potent,
and benevolent message, and one that should always find an audience
in this most optimistic of nations. Its traces were even visible
in a New York Post cartoon published in the bleak days immediately
after the World Trade Center attack. It shows a Ground Zero fireman
being asked for an autograph by an awestruck clutch of superheroes.
These include Superman, which should be no surprise. As Clark Kent
would always agree, heroism can take many forms. Yes, some heroes
may leap over tall buildings.
But, in real
life, others run into them.