Television and streaming is bombarded with subversive superhero stories. Shows like Invincible and The Boys on Amazon and Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix tell of dark superheroes who plot and scheme like the villains they’re meant to defeat. With the juggernaut Marvel Cinematic Universe ruling the big screen, it’s TV where audiences get their fill of powerful beings who are flawed like us: jealous, dangerous, even reckless.
But one superhero show soars away from the pack, and it’s not because its superhero is even darker or more flawed than the rest. Instead, it reorients the genre back to its traditional roots, reinforcing that great power doesn’t just come with great responsibility, but requires it.
The first five episodes of Superman & Lois are streaming now on HBO Max. Here’s why you need to watch them before they fly away on May 17.
Superman & Lois
Superman & Lois, which premiered in March 2021, is the newest DC TV series on The CW and a direct spin-off of Supergirl (now in its final season). In a change from previous Superman shows like Superboy, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and Smallville, this iteration follows a matured and married Superman (Tyler Hoechlin, reprising his role from Supergirl) grappling with a new job: Fatherhood.
Together with his wife, journalist Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch), the two move back to Smallville to raise their boys, star athlete Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) and social outcast Jordan (Alex Garfin), who are as much the show’s main characters as their parents. But their idyllic life is disrupted when one of the sons begins developing powers — and an armored stranger waltzes into town seeking to kill Superman.
For genre fans juiced up on The Boys and Invincible, a Superman series about the Man of Steel as a father may come off as conservative, old-fashioned, even naïve. Superman’s ethos — “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” — similarly feels regressive, or at least at odds with ourselves after a hard year characterized by lies, systemic injustices, and white supremacy that resides within the “American way.”
But that’s long been Superman’s thing. Since his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman was a hokey social justice warrior who impossibly solved every Depression-era problem — greedy landlords, wife beaters, and gangsters — with a well-placed knuckle sandwich. His costume, with red trunks evocative of a circus bodybuilder, was always silly. Yet he is foundational to all things superheroes are today. You simply cannot talk about Watchmen or movies like Logan and Avengers: Endgame without first acknowledging how these stories swerved on the roads Superman first paved.
That’s why Superman & Lois is still so compelling in 2021. While superhero media zig zags in all tonal directions, Superman & Lois commits to the same ideals that have long defined the Man of Steel. Even the show’s novel premise — Superman is a dad! — is consistent with what we imagine, and what we want, Superman to be, allowing the series to stand on firm ground. While Invincible and The Boys wreak havoc, Superman is unwavering.
But while Superman is indestructible, the world around him is falling apart. Like a lot of economically depressed small towns in the 21st century, Smallville is a place no one wants to be caught dead in. While the lack of extras is perhaps a result of the show starting production in October 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, the desolate streets and drab scenery speak to an American town on the verge of collapse. (Compare this show’s scenery to the colorful and vibrant Blue Valley of Stargirl, where Nebraska looks lively.)
Superman & Lois sets its story in a place ripe for sinister billionaires like Morgan Edge (Adam Rayner) to take advantage of a desperate people (represented through Kyle, played by Erik Valdez), who willingly roll out the red carpet in the hope any of those meager profits trickle down.
A charismatic, Trump-like outsider is the perfect foil for a Superman played by Hoechlin. The Canadian actor’s effortless warmth and rugged charm make him the Superman we’ve always imagined in our heads but haven’t actually seen since Christopher Reeve; the fact he wears horn-rimmed glasses and wool sweaters better than the J.Crew fall catalog is a big plus. Though various actors have played Superman the last 40 years, each with their own strengths, Hoechlin feels like the first real successor to Reeve, who never felt defined by his time but was timeless. Where the radical, dangerous superheroes of The Boys represent a gray Tuesday, a Superman who smiles about his mom making his costume feels like a sunny Sunday afternoon.
In its own way, Superman & Lois is like watching my personal favorite image of Superman come to life. In the graphic novel Kingdom Come, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Alex Ross, the aging icons of the DC Universe come to blows with the next generation of superheroes. The book, published in 1996, was a meditative commentary of the comic book industry at a time when readers veered towards “edgy” and “dark” characters. In issue one, Superman comes out of hiding, wearing his iconic red and blue costume (and a blackened logo to signify a changed mood). On one unforgettable page, Superman carries two of the “edgy” characters, whose gritty costumes look like Halloween ripoffs compared to Superman’s iconic look.
Superman & Lois isn’t looking down on a show like The Boys — which is also good! But as alt-superheroes keep challenging Superman, they only make the genuine article that much stronger. In Kingdom Come, Batman tells Superman, “Ordinary folks decided you and I were too gentle and old-fashioned to face the challenges of the 21st century. They wanted their ‘heroes’ stronger and more ruthless.” Mark Waid scripted that long before characters like Omni-Man and Homelander became memes.
Superman & Lois doesn’t push thematic boundaries in the same ways its contemporaries do, and that’s because Superman never has to. He’s Superman. While audiences will forever be suspicious of an alien immigrant with powers to rule with an iron fist, the real question isn’t “When will Superman turn dark?” But rather, “Why won’t he?” Darkness is the new black, but this hero’s bright red, blue, and yellow never goes out of style.
The first five episodes of Superman & Lois are streaming now on HBO Max during the show’s temporary hiatus on The CW. The series will leave HBO Max on May 17 to resume airing new episodes on The CW. When the first season wraps in early summer, all 13 episodes will stream on HBO Max. And yes, a second season is on the way.
Superman & Lois is streaming on HBO Max until May 17.