The paradox of Superman’s popularity is this: He’s the best superhero in terms of powers, and the worst superhero in terms of relatability. Almost every time a new media version of Superman tries to do something new with the character, the general consensus is, “At least they tried.” And no series tried harder to make Superman different than the TV show Smallville. The show debuted 15 years ago today, making Superman — or at least Clark Kent — more relevant than he’d been in decades.
In the very first episode of Smallville, Clark Kent is brutally hazed by a bunch of scary frat boys who are kind of friends with Lana Lang. From that first moment, the message was clear: Smallville wasn’t “your father’s Superman,” and this particular Clark/Superman had the capacity to be humiliated and emasculated. Here was a version of Clark Kent who was presented as a real person, rather than a symbol of a fake “regular Joe” who was actually a Space God. Tom Welling’s Clark Kent was the furthest thing from this persona, which worked at the time. Back in October 2001, the last thing TV audiences wanted to see was “Superman” not preventing the terrorist attacks of 9/11. By moving Clark Kent out of the skyscrapers of Metropolis and into the cornfields of Smallville, the cult of superhero tales was perfectly aligned — for a moment — with the entire zeitgeist.
These days, the CW is seeing a full-on renaissance of colorful, upbeat superheroes, but it arguably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the success of Smallville. The show ran for a staggering ten seasons before it eventually went off the air in 2011. While Brandon Routh’s Superman “returned” in to the big screen in 2006, and the character was rebooted by the DC comics themselves multiple times, Tom Welling was Supes the entire time, albeit without a cape or tights until his very last appearance, and even then, it was just a glimpse.
Making a Superman show in which Superman spends the majority of his time in his hometown (Metropolis does show up eventually) means that the amount of retcon to the established mythos was more than just retcon: It was a totally differently reality. Here, Clark Kent and Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) are friends as young men; another realistic flip from other versions of the story. How does someone become your arch-nemesis if that person wasn’t first your friend?
If you were hanging out in comic book stores in 2001 — and this writer was — opinions about Smallville were insanely divisive: In a world in which Star Wars had been “stolen” from people’s childhoods by The Phantom Menace, many felt Superman was being similarly destroyed. But, at the exact same time, plenty of comic book fans loved it. I can remember the owner of my local comic book store in Mesa, Arizona saying this: “Hey, at least it’s different.”
Of course, over ten seasons, Smallville didn’t retain its edgy or “realistic” outlook on its characters. Lois Lane (Erica Durance) was eventually introduced and her presence was a mixed bag. Writing in his book Investigating Lois Lane, Tim Hanley says “While Smallville often featured Lois in heroic ways, it had exploitative tendencies as well.” What this means is that even though the show’s first team of showrunners — Miles Millar and Alfred Gough — had some good, profound ideas, this was still a show made for primetime television on a network then called the WB.
This means Lois was often scantily clad in her first appearances, and not necessarily in a good way. Here, feminist fans of Lois Lane might have felt like the previous TV Superman — Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman — was somehow more progressive than this version. But, as the show went on, Hanley writes, “Lois’s relationship with Clark was better handled and avoided this objectification. It was a slow build; Lois dated other men over the years, while Clark’s complicated relationship with Lana was a constant presence. Lois and Clark’s romantic feelings didn’t emerge until the eighth season.”
If you think this makes Smallville sound like a “soap opera” that also featured a “villain of the week,” then you would not be wrong. But when you peer at it a certain way, Superman in his most pure form is a character who appears in a regular serial, who generally fights different baddies every week, and has personal life problems which resemble a soap opera. Smallville didn’t always succeed in rising above those formulaic tropes, in fact, it kind of failed a lot. But if we’re being honest about the potential of what a superhero TV show could be on television, Smallville was surely greater than the sum of its parts.
For the vast majority of the show, Superman wasn’t known as Superman, but simply Clark. When he did start doing vigilante saving-the-day stuff, he became known as “The Blur.” Clark wasn’t nerdy. He didn’t wear glasses. He had real problems with his friends, with his family, and in his love life. All of this might have come across as a little silly, and it certainly wasn’t every single comic book fan’s cup of tea.
But, Smallville tried to be different. And in today’s culture of rabid, interconnected comic-book branding, there’s something still refreshing about a Clark Kent who never even needed to fly.