Five weeks ago we reviewed Superman: Man of Steel for the Wrong Opinions About Movies podcast. The movie itself is muddled and violent. I came away from it confused. I don’t want to go too in-depth into why, because we talked about it at length on the podcast, but it boils down to the fact that I don’t know very much about Superman. In not knowing very much about Superman I have a very specific image of Superman in my mind that’s been cobbled together from 30 years of seeing him show up in Batman cartoons and hearing the way other people and the media refer to and revere him. Let’s say my understanding of Superman lives somewhere about my shoulder like a parrot, and the Man of Steel version lives two states over, possibly Mississippi. After I talked this out with my podcast cohorts I decided I had some learning to do.
Earlier this year I took a Gender Through Comic Books SuperMOOC, which on top of being fun and educational, forced me to read some of the comics that I had long known I should read but was avoiding for various silly reasons. One of those books was Superman: Birthright, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Francis Yu. Birthright is an excellent comic with a well-told story and I would encourage you to pick it up. It does a good job of staying mindful of Superman’s Kryptonian origins while giving Clark Kent some dimension of his own. It lets him occupy his own space in the DC universe without growing too large for it, which has always seemed to be part of the problem with the character from my place on the sidelines.
In my prejudices Superman is the boy scout. He’s too powerful as a being to be interesting in a fight and too mindful of his power and his place among the people on the earth to really break out and fill his own space in it. Reading Birthright began the process of breaking down those barriers by introducing me to the larger world around him and letting me see how he interacted with people of different creeds and races and locations. I got the sense that he’s a good guy to have in your corner. He’s understanding and patient and fiercely protective, which are all traits I can admire. But, I still wasn’t convinced that I could actually care enough to read more about him.
Up until Matthew had us watch Superman II to pair with Man of Steel, I had never seen Superman in a live action incarnation. Never a movie or an episode of Smallville or Lois & Clark. I was prepared for it to be somewhat hokey, given the age of the practical effects and the source material. Superman II took my breath away. It’s not the best movie ever, and I still haven’t seen the first Christopher Reeve Superman which might make II make more sense really, but Superman II perfectly captures the awe and reverence that I get the general sense of from Superman fans. It captures everything I understood about Superman from the collective conscience and it really is inspiring in practice. I can cotton on to why so many people would want to stand behind the arbiter of truth, justice, and the American way. (Well, truth and justice anyway. I hear he stepped a bit away from America and became a world citizen before the New 52 took hold of the DC universe.)
So, Superman. He’s not so bad I guess, and I have an oddly large amount of respect for the reverence we have for the look of Superman. Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, Henry Cavill, and Tom Welling all bear striking resemblances to one another. Clear blue eyes, square jaws, black hair that can be sculpted sleekly into a front curl or modified pomp. They worked to build physiques for themselves that would make audiences believe they could pluck and aircraft out of the sky. I can’t think of another superhero that has worked his way across the collective conscience in such an acutely specific way. When you’re talking about Batman, for instance, the look of Bruce Wayne as a man isn’t as important as the look of the suit or the feel of the world. Because Kal-El’s face IS the face that Superman shows to the world, it’s imperative that casting agents get it right. This brings me back, in a roundabout way, to Tom Welling, who is not really that great as an actor, but who looks the part in a way I think most people in their early 20s can’t.
After watching Man of Steel and being confused by my own Superman feelings and how they’d just been trampled all over, I decided to give myself a Superman education. I’m going to try to un-puzzle him for myself, which will involve watching all of the things and reading a whole slew of comics. Because it’s something of a tradition for me now to watch terrible TV for teenagers over the summer, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and tackle Smallville as the first step to that end.
Smallville ran from 2001 to 2011 and, at the beginning, was meant to show us Clark Kent’s life without the cape. What would it be like for Clark to grow up as a powered being among mere mortals in a town where the very dirt and drinking water was teeming with kryptonite? This is an interesting premise which, unfortunately in this case, has an exceedingly poor execution. I’m not a stranger to WB/CW shows geared towards teenagers and how frustrating they can be. I was ripe Dawson’s Creek age when it aired. I am familiar with the formula of the frustration/betrayal of the week and the circular relationships and the holier than thou dialogue that’s supposed to make the teenagers seem wise beyond their years. On top of this, because Smallville has to acknowledge the impact of kryptonite on Clark himself and the rest of the world, it started as a monster of the week series. And it drags.
It took me five weeks to make it through the ten seasons. The acting doesn’t really get better. The number of times I yelled at Clark for telling someone not to do something and then TURNING AROUND AND DOING IT probably hit a hundred. It’s rife with my least favorite of superhero tropes, which is that of the “I have to protect you, so I’m leaving you.” (In speech with my friends I refer to it as Peter Parkering, which sounds dirty, but is really just a call back to how he did the very thing to Mary Jane.) YOUR PARTNERS ARE ADULTS. LET THEM MAKE THAT DECISION. Well, they’re mostly adults, with the exception of Lana Lang who was a boring teenager and then an aggravating young woman and then pretty badass for about fifteen minutes before they wrote her off the show entirely.
Their main objective from the start was no capes, so in practice the series gave us the boring parts of Clark’s life: his frustrations with Luthors, his need to be on the football team AND save a revolving door of students we’re supposed to believe are his friends even though they definitely weren’t going to that school in the five episodes before, his failed college career, and his eventual and accidental slide into journalism, which I’m pretty sure only stuck because every one of his bosses was uber obsessed with the ubermensch and wanted him in a place where they could study him easily. This is what we get ten seasons of with Smallville. People have been asking me, since I announced triumphantly over Twitter that I was on the last episode, if it was worth it. And no, no it was not. Do not watch all ten seasons of Smallville. Especially do not watch them at the break neck speed of two seasons a week. At some point the name Clark starts to lose meaning, like when you say refrigerator a hundred times in a row. A season or so after that the same thing happens with Tom Welling’s face. I think I stopped recognizing it entirely. Why would you do that to yourself? Justin Hartley would really like to know. It will not teach you about Superman.
But it wasn’t all bad. Their Green Arrow (pictured above), while wildly different from the Ollie I got used to in CW’s new Arrow series–which is pretty good! watch that!–is incredibly charming and affable. Even when he’s been possessed by Darkseid I can’t bring myself to be mad at him. I would watch the show of him dating Lois Lane for ten seasons. Lois is another good thing about that show. Actually, pretty much every time that show introduced a recurring female character she was awesome. If you’re going to get something right, I can stand for that to be it.
Kara Zor-El threw Clark for a loop. Neither Oliver Queen nor Clark Kent was a match for Lois Lane. Even the introduction of Tess Mercer, as the Luthor proxy when Michael Rosenbaum stepped away from the show, could more or less handle her own. In the later seasons when Ollie had pulled together a group of heroes and entrusted Watch Tower to Chloe Sullivan, who had been a pretty rad female character from the beginning, there were glimpses of the show that I wanted to be watching. That show could have been amazing for ten seasons, but by that point they were only begrudgingly making that show, because Clark and Welling were getting older and eventually you would run out of Time When He Could Not Be Superman.
So, Smallville was a terrible plan for the beginning of my Superman education. It showed me a version of the character that was self-righteous to a fault, overprotective, paranoid, and dull. But maybe it’s for the best that I got this out of the way early. Maybe now as I do my further reading and watching I won’t be slowed down by this parody of the character that so many people love. I’ll be free to explore what it is that makes Superman so much a part of the fabric of our comic culture.
As of right now my plan for furthering my education involves the movies Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and Superman (1978), the television show Lois & Clark (1993 – 1997), and the comics Trinity, Kingdom Come, Superman: Red Son, and All-Star Superman.
Are there other things I should read or watch? What parts of the Superman character speak most to you? What should I be looking for and keeping in mind as I do my research? Have you watched ten seasons of Smallville? What did you think of them? Let me know! Link me to proper analysis, or heck, link me to your Ollie/Lois fanfiction. I won’t tell anyone it’s yours.