The appeal of “Smallville” and Superman

I was a Superman fan before I was actually a Superman fan.

Sounds complicated but it really wasn’t. As a middle school-er and then a young high school-er, the House of El crest covered the backs of all my school notebooks, ‘Kryptonite’ by 3 Doors Down was my favorite song, and, because of my superficial liking of the Superman aesthetic that I copied from a friend, I took to telling anyone who asked that I liked DC better than Marvel.

Eventually, I started watching the Superman movies. I discovered the graphic novel section in the library. I spent a fair amount of time searching up articles about Superman’s history and, by extension, books like Superheroes and Philosophy (because clearly I was a budding academic before I even knew it.)

Admittedly, my foray into the DC comic world had proven much more difficult than I anticipated. There were several iterations of my beloved Superman, many starts and stops, and I have still never quite gotten over my intense irritation at the multiverse DC comics is set in. Superman doing stupid things could be blamed on Superman from Earth 43.7 having wandered from his world into the pages of the comic I was reading. Beyond that frustrating fact, Superman’s history was long. Starting from the beginning beginning meant reading collections from the 1940s, which I found intensely entertaining, but I hadn’t yet found a version of Superman that I could completely get behind.

It was making me feel like a poser; at that point, I had almost abandoned my love of Clark and settled for Green Lantern, when, at long last, I rediscovered Smallville. 

I had a friend who’d suggested it to me years and years ago, when it was first airing on TV, but because I have this stupid aversion to doing what I’m told, or even suggested, to do, it never made my watch list.

It was the corniest thing I had ever seen. One episode in and I remember laughing at the horrible CGI, wondering who Chloe Sullivan was and if she was meant to turn into Lois Lane, and the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Clark and Lana was already overdone, yet I kept watching.

I watched the entire first season which was nothing but a string of almost unrelated story lines involving a meteor infected citizen of Smallville wreaking havoc and Clark stopping them in the nick of time. When he wasn’t tracking down “meteor-freaks,” he spent a lot of time making goony eyes at Lana Lang, hiding his true identity from his best friends and whining about how: A. he didn’t get to play football, B. He couldn’t keep the extravagant gifts Lex Luthor showered him with, or C. no one understood him.

AND YET.

Before I knew it, I had devoured the entirety of the show, watched every episode of every season, and am unashamed to admit, I openly wept during the ridiculous final montage in the series finale. I barely kept it together when Clark finally jogged (in slow motion no less) towards the camera, ripping open his shirt in the signature Superman move so that the last image was of the House of El symbol emblazoned on his chest. To this day, I still tear up when I watch the final scene of Smallville (even if I’m showing it in class, as a part of a lesson I’m teaching, unfortunately.)

What in God’s name happened in the middle to make me fall in love?

Even though Superman is arguably the most perfect superhero in existence, his human persona, Clark Kent, was always meant to be relatable. Clark Kent could have been anyone. Clark Kent was a regular person. Clark Kent could disappear into a mass and no one would be able to pick him out of a crowd.

But there was something wrong on both accounts: Superman was so perfect that no one could relate to being that flawless and Clark was so mediocre that absolutely no one could relate to being that flat. Both Clark and Superman are extreme personalities, and they’ve been written like that for years. I believe this is what people are alluding to when they say that Superman is “boring” and “unapproachable.”

Of course, over the years, both Clark and Superman’s personality have reasonably evolved, but the first time Clark ever really felt real to me was when I saw him race a train in the Pilot. Tom Welling brought a boyish innocence to Clark, which was indulged by the writers as he uncovered his various powers, engaged in typical teenage activities and even fell in love. There was a freedom in this iteration of Clark Kent that I didn’t often see when I read or watched adult versions of Clark.

I loved that Superman was…normal. Clark went to school. Clark did chores. Clark had a crush on the girl that lived across the way. He liked to stargaze. He loved his parents. He wasn’t super popular, but he had friends, and he was nice and gentle and kind. And yet, the writers of the show took no departures from Clark’s core character traits. Clark is loyal and will do anything to protect his loved ones. He gives the facade of being open while simultaneously keep a part of himself definitely barred off. And he loves. 

When describing what draws me to Superman over Batman, I often say that I prefer hope over despair, faith in humanity over wading in the dark recesses of the human psyche, when in reality, it is Clark’s love that I believe so strongly in. The way Clark loves his parents, Chloe, Lana, Lois…is the same way that he loves and believes in all of humanity.

Despite obvious short comings in their relationship, Clark doesn’t just trust his best friend Chloe, he believes in her abilities. He believes in her skill and loyalty, thus he entrusts her with the task of supporting him. Never mind that the Clark/Lana relationship lasted 8 seasons too long, Clark would have done anything for her. And I have said, more than once, that I have got to marry someone that looks at me the same way Clark Kent looks at Lois Lane.

Lois and Clark’s relationship taught me a lot about the kind of relationships that I want in my life. Lois and Clark are partners. They are in each other’s corners. They uplift and support. They are fierce friends and enjoy each other’s company. They are pursue greatness together, and have no room for resentment and jealousy in their garden. Lois is Clark’s biggest fan, and though he is much more silent about it, no one is more amazing than Lois Lane to Clark. What’s fantastic about Clark is that he looks at Lois in more or less the same way, from the time she appears on the show, until the end. When he sees her, Clark is bewildered by and slightly in awe of her audacity, her ferocity, and her passion. It’s the look of someone witnessing a beautiful force of nature.

Clark is just so gentle in way that I think only comes from tending animals on a farm. He wants nothing but to believe the best in people, so much so that he manages to maintain a rather good friendship with Lex for at least a couple seasons. Even so, that doesn’t stop him from having difficult relationships with others. Jor-El, or at least the artificial intelligence created by Clark’s Kryptonian father, is a constant source of conflict for much of the second half of the show. Jor-El and the Fortress inconsistently give aid and often have too much control for a dead man and a glorified computer. I will never forget when the Fortress holds Clark’s super suit captive until he “earns it” in season 10. I, too, would have been extremely irritated.

While many of my friends who have watched Smallville with me, easily tire of Clark’s surprise and confused look at the announcement of another problem to solve, it’s a source of comfort for me. I think he’s surprised because through it all, he holds fast to the idea that people are good, and the thought that they are capable of doing evil, no matter how many times it happens, will always surprise Clark Kent. Clark’s default is a belief in goodness, in faith, in hope. And for me, who wants dearly to hold to those principles, they often slip right through my fingers. Clark has seen so many horrors and yet he is optimistic that good will win the day. Every time.

Truth be told, personality wise, it makes more sense for me to love Batman. I relate to the world of Gotham more. Like Batman, I live in my head, am cold with selective compassion, and am prone to bouts of depression, spending much of my time alone. Bruce’s charming exterior is a familiar part of my personality and I hide my emotional dysfunction behind witticisms and amicability.

But when I see the shiny Daily Planet globe and the gleaming buildings of Metropolis, I don’t yearn for the gritty, dark streets of Gotham.

I am home.

Clark is love and hope and he and Smallville give me something to believe in. It helps me have faith and teaches that no one is beyond hope. Just because you naturally find yourself in Gotham doesn’t mean you have to live there.

It’s not what you are, but what you want to be.

And me? I want to always choose love, hope and the belief that people are good.

I’ll always choose Clark.

 

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