Smallville: A Retrospective

Today is Friday the 13th.  For many, this is a day of unspeakable superstition and bad luck.  I’ve learned over the years to have some faith in the balance of the universe.  Where the many have a bad day, I have one “super” day.  It started as a day like many others for me.  I went to work, I drank too much coffee, and I fought perpetual boredom.  Some personal setbacks kept the day from being anything but super.  It set the tone for what I feared would be the whole day.

Earlier this morning I received my first and only real piece of good news.  Many of the fan sites I read diligently reported that NBC’s Wonder Woman pilot would not be picked up.  For reasons too numerous to dwell upon here, I celebrated the moment.  No more would I have to dread the incredible wrongness of the costume, the plot elements, and the characterizations.  I could breathe easily that my favorite heroine would not have one more hit against her in her fight to win over public perception.  That left one small hurdle left for my fandom to clear this day: the series finale of Smallville, which promised the return of the hero that every other hero—including Wonder Woman—looks up to.

I remember vividly where I was in October, 2001, when Smallville first premiered.  At the first of the month, I had just started the job I currently hold.  I had just signed the lease on my new apartment.  Life was full of promise in spite of the horrors we had faced mere weeks before.  The nation’s spirit had been crippled on 9/11, and although fictional, I had hope that a fresh take on the character named Clark Kent was exactly the kind of inspiration we needed.  And even if the world couldn’t accept him because Smallville was “just another teen soap,” that didn’t matter so much to me.  I was looking beneath the awkward beginnings to see if I could find Superman.  A new Superman to inspire a new generation, such was my hope.

I couldn’t find him in there.  Try as I might, Superman was nowhere to be found.  There were elements there, but just as quickly as they were given, they were taken away.  I kept telling myself “every series starts a little shaky.”  I was determined to give Smallville the room it needed to grow in spite of the “no tights, no flights” rule coming from the press releases.  I called back then that the show would end with Clark stepping onto the rooftop of the Daily Planet, running at the camera, and pulling open his shirt to reveal the S-shield.  I knew that would be all we’d get.  I just knew it.

When season 2 rolled around, it was paired up with the short-lived bat-tastrophe, Birds of Prey.  I’ve made it no secret that I am a stickler for established character rules, and apart from Batman: The Animated Series, the Caped Crusader (and in this case, his progeny) had never been written “properly” outside of a comic book at any point since my birth.  I still believe that to be true in live action form.  But in 2002, BoP represented a threat to the growth potential of Smallville.  I became pro-active.  I started writing letters to WB, explaining where they could correct their early missteps on both shows.  When I saw no changes and heard no responses, that should have been a clue to me, but I remained vigilant.  I was rewarded when BoP as cancelled after a mere 8 episodes.  Smallville, however, continued to deliver a right note here and there and sour the rest just as quickly.  It seemed like every other week, I would threaten to stop watching the show.  Typically I follow through.  Something kept bringing me back.

Faith rewarded me in a single episode.  Airing February 25, 2003, the episode “Rosetta,” introduced Clark to the character of Dr. Swann, portrayed by my generation’s Superman, Christopher Reeve.  This was a milestone for me.  In his time, Reeve’s first film had taken Superman out of the dark slump the character had known since the death of TV’s 50s Superman, George Reeves.  Superman had known greatness again because of Chris Reeve.  Even as the franchise disintegrated around him later, Reeve had demonstrated nothing but respect for the role.  He had always been on record as saying he played the part with absolute seriousness, in the knowledge that he was but a temporary custodian of the character and his legacy.  In this episode of Smallville, my Superman appeared in a wheelchair, broken from his accident, and no less super.  In a blend of character greatness backed by the soundtrack score of John Williams, Reeve officially passed the torch to Tom Welling.  He had never done that with Dean Cain, Gerard Christopher, John Newton, or Tim Daly.  A year and a half later, Reeve would be lost to us.  Another year and a half after that, Brandon Routh would fly across our big screens for Superman Returns.  And while I enjoyed the film for the nostalgia, I knew something was missing: the torch.  Tom Welling had it.  The problem was that the people in charge of Smallville weren’t letting him run with it.  Then the news turned around.  The fans learned from sources that in fact it was Welling himself who was holding back the Man of Steel.  HE had been the one who insisted upon “no tights, no flights.”  To my fanboy mindset, this was betrayal.

But Smallville had another bright spot by that point, one that by all previous versions of the mythos absolutely did not belong within the era of the series: Erica Durance as Lois Lane.  I questioned, I continued to curse a little here and there (and more where a given episode demanded), and yet I knew almost from her first appearance that Durance would save the show for me.  I’ve said many times since, and I’ll say it again: she is the best, closest incarnation of the comic book Lois Lane that had ever been.  That’s hard for me to say after Dana Delany’s incredible voice-over work for Superman: The Animated Series, but Durance pulled it off.  More than that, she had an on-screen chemistry with Welling that made it all work.  Combine that with stellar performances by the rest of the cast, and the show should have been nothing short of awesome.  Only the writing fell short.  As the years passed, we’d get a bona fide Superman-level story, followed in rapid succession by three or four horrifically bad episodes.  The freak-of-the-week formula was gradually replaced with every villain from Superman’s rogues gallery you can name and a few that can’t except only by the comic book diehards.  Fans across the internet fell into two camps: the believers in Smallville, and those who couldn’t believe it was actually still airing.  Which camp was I in?  It depended on the week, to be honest… until this final season.

Something happened this year on Smallville that changed everything.  The idea of a hero we could believe in became a resonant, tangible concept again.  All around me in the movies and comics, the characters I’d grown up with were being shaken to their foundations and doing strange things out of character in an effort to win audiences.  They were proving their worth by losing their identities.  And it didn’t just happen with superheroes.  It happened with science fiction almost across the board, culminating this week with the rather unscrupulously backhanded end of the Stargate franchise for the foreseeable future.  Lackluster trailers for Green Lantern and the rumor mill churning non-stop for Wonder Woman made me uneasy because in both cases the writers demonstrated their unwillingness to embrace the true essence of these venerable heroes.  In Action Comics #900, the Man of Steel turned his back on his American citizenship in a backup story that was seemingly contradicted by the pages of Superman just this week.  Weak storytelling and bad marketing, combined with an ongoing lawsuit from the estates of creators Siegel and Shuster mean that the future is a little murky for Big Blue.  The light in the dark?  Smallville.  Who knew?

Tonight, Smallville came to an end, echoed in the symmetry of its inception.  Just as Bin Laden made news weeks before the series premiered, he did so again with his death just before Smallville’s final curtain call.  Ten long years of hopes, fears, concerns, questions, fan nods, classic characterizations, and that torch passed on by Christopher Reeve all culminated tonight in two hours of classic ending.  Fans of the series were treated to wrap-ups of all the loose threads and a big taste of the super-cheese they’d come to expect.  They were greeted with the returns of fan favorites Michael Rosenbaum, John Schneider, Annette O’Toole, Allison Mack, John Glover, and Aaron Ashmore.  They were given montage clips of a decade’s worth of superpowers and timely rescues.  Fans of the Superman character were given Welling in full flight and in full tights, backed by John Williams soundtrack music and little classic bits that echoed not only the years-long journey on this series, but also to nods to the previous films.  And as I called it nine years ago, the final shot was Welling on the Daily Planet rooftop, pulling open his shirt as he rushed the camera.  The classic Williams theme accented the S-shield, and the end credits played homage to the Reeve and Routh films.  I experienced tears of joy and even laughed a bit.  As far as this fanboy is concerned, they hit all the right chords with me.  Where others had failed, Smallville “got it.”  As the “dark” and “edgy” claims our screens now, Tom Welling leaves us with classic Superman, bringing hope and light back into the world as I hoped he would a decade ago.  The next leg of the adventure will be next year’s big screener, starring Henry Cavill and Amy Adams.  They have big boots to fill in the transition from the small screen, as does the rest of their cast.  No matter how it turns out, right here and now I can say that Superman has come back to us.

To the cast and crew of Smallville, my heart goes out in the greatest of appreciation.  No, the series wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but the missteps can at last be overlooked and even embraced now that tonight’s finale has wrapped up everything I could have ever asked.  Smallville has delivered a true classic into the ranks of the Superman mythos.