Smallville Redux

After 216 episodes spanning ten years, last Friday marked the end of TV’s Smallville, the CW Channel’s series chronicling the life of Superman before he was known as Superman. Seeing as how Smallville played a direct part in transforming me from adult to fan boy, I would be remiss to let the show fade into the annuals of television history without providing some sort of commentary, especially since it also acted as a major inspiration for the creation of this blog.

Even though Smallville initially aired on October 16th, 2001, I didn’t see my first episode until late 2005 after moving to Chicago where I found myself suffering through a special kind of loneliness, the kind that comes from being without cable. To fill the void I turned to DVD’s, and it just so happened that Walmart was running a roll-back special on the show’s early seasons. The rest, as they say, is history.

What was it exactly about the show that had me plowing through a stack of disks in a mad dash to catch up the current season? To answer that I have to address the reason I moved to Chicago to begin with—my three sons. After the divorce I followed them from Houston, knowing that they would need their father more than ever, yet, at the same time I felt clueless in defining what that meant exactly.

However, somewhere during my Smallville marathon as I watched Jonathan Kent dole out guidance to his teenage, alien son, Clark, a question struck me: What kind of parent would someone have to be into to raise the most powerful being on earth? I mean, think about what Superman would be like if his parents gave into his every whim just to keep him from throwing another ear-splitting tantrum or kicking a tractor to Idaho. He’d be a spoiled, undisciplined brat with heat vision.

Mulling this over, I eventually reasoned that Ma and Pa Kent would have to employ some super powered parenting in order to imbue in Clark the strong moral guidance needed for being the world’s most powerful superhero. Despite the fictional details involved, my conclusion gave way to another thought: What’s stopping me from being that kind of father to my sons?

This then became the filter that I ran every episode through in my head, and there was a lot of material to work with too—Jonathon Kent’s lessons about actions and consequences; the contrasting messages about greed and self-preservation Lex Luthor receives from his father; the paternal validation Clark (Kal-El) needs from his Kryptonian father Jor-El. These were just a few, among many similar themes I jotted down in a notebook during commercial breaks.

Then, in Season 5, Jonathan Kent dies of a massive heart attack, an event Clark spends most of the reaming years trying to reconcile with the added weight from knowing his father’s death came about as a direct result of Clark’s poor decisions. Incidentally, it’s right around this same time that the program started to show signs its destructibility. Aside from a few sporadic exceptions, the writing deteriorated to the level of something you’d expect from cable access; Clark’s journey toward destiny was drawn out in tedious quests for ancient Krytonian relics, while aimless plotlines full of forgettable characters earned enough eye-rolls for me to sprain a retina.

Even more aggravating for me was seeing how some strange and unknown form of Krytonite, possibly pink, turned Clark into a whiny, little bitch. By the end of Season 7 even Lex Luthor seemed to be unable to tolerate the future Man of Steels’ super sniveling, and in the finale, Lex exited stage left courtesy of a structural collapse at the Fortress of Sulk-litude. 

Bereft of a central supervillian in the form of Lex, Smallville’s eighth season could be summed up in one word: contrived. What’s worse, as a hardcore fan, I was duped into a gimmicky scheme that centered around a twenty-one episode build up to a fight between Clark and Doomsday, the only being to ever kill Superman per the comic book cannon. The final battle, however, boiled down to about three seconds of footage with Clark (now referred to lamely as “The Blur”) zipping across the screen, a loud rumbling, and a flash of light—no punches, no pummeling, and no pictures of the actual Doomsday. Yeah, huge letdown to say the least.

As Season 9 loomed in the distance, I had all but given up any hope that Smallville could redeem itself. Still, I remained a faithful follower, if for nothing more than it being a novelty I was intent on seeing through to the end. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The writing, although not perfect, was at least good enough to evoke some of that campy charm from the “golden age” of Smallville, and I had difficulty containing my glee over the appearance of other superheroes like Hawkman. Stargirl, and Dr. Fate from the Justice Society of America. (Unless you’re a comic geek such feelings are hard to describe.)

Finally, after a decade in the making, my beautiful, imperfect, Smallville was ready to kick the Big Blue Boy Scout out of the nest to spread his wings and (hopefully) fly as the Man of Steel. It would’ve been easy at this point, to deconstruct storylines or to criticize character inconsistencies. Instead, I resolved to simply enjoy the final season with as much of the same fan-boy ardor that kept me company on those nights in Chicago as I switched out one Smallville DVD for the next. 

With the advent of Darkseid and the return of Lex Luthor, I thought Season 10 was among the series' best. The cameos by B-level heroes from the DC Universe gave it some added flair, and the larger storyline was not only cohesive, but also pertinent to the current times. More importantly, Clark’s character exhibited the clarity of purpose needed for bridging the gap between a farm boy and legend. This, however, brought with it a growing nervousness over the writers’ ability to pull off the Clark Kent/Superman transition in the end without it being cheesy. 

Few television shows can say they’ve lasted ten or more years; fewer still, have been able to produce endings capable of satisfying their loyal fans’ need for closure. With Smallville, such a feat contained an added degree of difficulty in that the show had to successfully leave viewers with an authentic Clark Kent ready to don the cape of the world’s greatest superhero. To fall on their faces after leaping this tall building in a single bound would basically defeat Smallville’s entire premise. No pressure.

So, did Friday’s two-hour finale manage to meet its fan’s soaring expectations? That depends. If your expectations included a newly minted, blue-clad Superman embroiled in a twenty-minute punch-fest with the immortally evil Darkseid after which our triumphant hero hovers outside Lex Luthor’s penthouse office where the two archenemies engage each other in an intense stair-down contest for the ages, well then, you probably felt a teeny bit let down.

Admittedly, I would’ve like to have seen actor Tom Welling’s version of Clark Kent actually wearing the suit as opposed to the innuendo of such via cross-cut scenes and red/blue streaks in the sky. And for Pete (Ross’s) sake, Lois could’ve at least christened him as Superman; thus, erasing that canker sore of a moniker, “The Blur.” [Eye roll]

All that notwithstanding, I was pleased. (Read: I bounced around on the couch for two hours with unbridled giddiness, while my skin was riddled with goose bumps.) A large part of this was because I didn’t expect epic levels of action, nor did I think that’s what cornerstone episode should be about. Why? Because Smallville was never meant to be about the exploits of Superman, but rather, the exploits that shaped Clark Kent into becoming Superman. In other words, the real focus was on character arc not cool fight scenes. On that level, the finale worked.

But the element I appreciated most was the retracing of the father-son themes that had grabbed my attention in the first place. In a series of apparitions (this is the comic book world—these things happen), Jonathan Kent returns to pass along his final words of wisdom allowing Clark to embrace his destiny and reconcile his past mistakes with his future responsibilities. Likewise, Lex Luthor’s father returns from an alternate dimension (this is the comic book word, etc., etc.) to literally resurrect the devious Luthor legacy via a crude heart transplant performed courtesy of Darkseid. And in a symbolic gesture, Jor-El affirms his son’s readiness for super-manhood by presenting Kal-El with the blue suit bearing the House of El’s big red “S” on the chest.

In the end, the final chapter of Smallville managed to achieve what both fans and critics of Superman have complained about most—relevancy. Whether it was intentional or not, by portraying a society gripped by fear and mistrust at the hands of Darkseid and his minions, the writers presented viewers with a parabolic world of the actual one we live into today. Wars, disasters, economic uncertainty—these are indeed dark times that have given way to divisions, bickering and strife. Hope for a better day seems at a minimum, and In fact, some even mock its very mention should anyone use it as rallying cry or campaign slogan. 

In Smallville’s final season, the world turns against Clark and his superhero friends, and in the bleakest moments, it was up to Clark to restore humanity’s faith in goodness by defeating the evil that clouded it. Before he could, however, Clark had to get past his own susceptibilities to self-doubt and fear, and in doing so his real feat was convincing others they could overcome theirs as well. 

I realize that an alien from a distant planet, flying around in his underwear and saving the world seems… stupid. But Superman isn’t about a bunch of sci-fi nonsense; he’s the living embodiment of hope carried out through heroic feats meant to inspire us mortals to live and act in a way that gives hope to those around us. Hope, whether people will admit to it or not, is the one they cling to when their world is at its darkest. And so, for as long as darkness exists, hope will always remain relevant, even in its symbolic forms.

Don’t agree? Then ask yourself why is Superman still around? Why is it that the crested, red “S” is the second most recognized symbol in the world next to the cross?* And why did millions of people keep coming back episode after episode for ten years, even when the show was a mess, to watch the story of a young Clark Kent? Because people want hope. Last Friday, Smallville reminded us of the hero that inspires just that. (Watch this video

*From statement made in the book, "The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero." Honestly, I have no idea how this could be objectively quantified, but I'll run with it as my bias on the matter is evident.

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