I did something I thought I’d never do. I watched a new episode of Smallville this week… and it made me realize that this show is far more genius than anyone is giving it credit for. Let me tell you why, but first, a little background:
When Smallville first started, I was a total fan. I bought the first 3 seasons on DVD, because I loved the clever treatment of Superman’s origins, and waited eagerly for the moment when Clark would finally accept his destiny. And then there was the horror that was season 4. I could analyze why that was the downfall of the show, but thats a different conversation for a different day. Instead, I wanted to talk about what brought me around to giving it another shot, which was this week’s two hour special event: “Absolute Justice.”
First, I was amazed by how much the show had changed since I left. Only two regular cast members I remembered were still in the opening credits, and the show had a completely different setting and premise than the Smallville I remember. I was back in familiar territory though, when I saw the mediocre special effects and atrocious acting I was used to seeing on the show. However, the greatness that is Geoff Johns had written a pretty damn cool script, and even though it was filled with superhero cliches, they were fun, and it was cool to see some old school DC comics, full costume, ridiculous over-the-top super hero action. I liked the sense of history that everything had, it made the cast seem like their actions were more important, like they were part of a bigger tapestry of a larger universe, which is something I don’t remember the show ever really doing before this.
But watching this episode made me realize something. Something I should have known from the start. And I don’t know why I didn’t realize this sooner:
Smallville is not a show about Clark Kent becoming Superman. It is a story of an alternate reality in which Clark never became Superman. Furthermore, it is an analysis of what happens when a clearly gifted person, with incredible potential, actively rejects that potential, chosing to confine themselves to self-doubt and fear. Ultimately, it is a satire and condemnation of “emo” culture and philosophy.
This is kindof genius. The concept is, to take the most noble of heroes: Superman, and show what happens when he actively choses to deny his obvious calling (so obvious that every other character in the show tells his about it to his face) and purposefully not become a hero. Had the show adhered to the comics (or the spirit of them, atleast), Clark would have become Superman for real somewhere twoards the end of season 4, but instead, the rest of the DC Universe continues to form around him in it’s normal course. What you get, then, is a fully formed Justice League, full form supervillians, the Amanda Waller goverment thing, and the other ancillary heroes, all forming as they normally would, but without the leadership and inspiration of Superman.
By playing Clark as a self-concious, dim-witted emo kid, you get a castrated, emo Superman who is kinda trying to do the right thing, but he’s not smart enough to put two and two together, not that he has time to, with all his whining and moping. This leads to a castrated, emo Justice League that can do some good, but will never live up to the potential we all know it should have. The writers, by beating us over the head repeadely with references to Clark’s “destiny,” reinforce the idea that things are not as they should be, that they would be so much better if only Clark had taken his mantle. It becomes a morality tale that warns against denying your gifts and passions. Essentially, Smallville is an analysis of the harmful nature of the “emo” culture and mindset: set in the DC Universe, where this subversive analysis recieves the maximum amount of contrast against what should be a Universe of noble heroes. It’s a genius concept, and I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner. The fact that all 9 seasons have lead to this shows brilliant foresight by the creative staff.
I also love that this show is on the WB, which gives it’s message added weight. The WB is king of whiny emo dramas, and by setting Smallville there, it provides a biting satire against the rest of that networks programming. No doubt this is slipped right u nder the networks nose, and they realize they are the target of such brutal satire.
It does seem odd to me that DC would be willing to have it’s most beloved characters subverted so brutally in this way, but I have to give them credit for going with this, it’s a bold move to let your company-owned characters be completely exploited for the sake of making a social point, but I think it’s one worth making, and by subverting the Superman character specifically, gives it a weight it wouldn’t have obtained otherwise.
I do still want to see a regular Superman show to contrast this one, that really does show the real Man of Steel in a positive, noble, truly heroic light. But I guess we’ll have to wait for that.