It’s pretty much redundant to say that the classic Clark-to-Superman transformation is archetypal, because Superman is the archetype for so many things superheroic. Accordingly, I will always make room for any version of the transformation, especially one staged like a walk-off grand slam, and accompanied by gratuitous John Williams music.
That’s — SPOILER ALERT! — pretty much how “Smallville” flew off into TV history last night (here’s the YouTube clip). Once it was announced that this season would be the show’s last, and once I realized I actually had some free time on Friday nights, I ended up watching a decent amount of these final episodes. (ComicsAlliance’s “Smallvillains” feature made it easy to keep up with the show otherwise.) Last night I also followed reactions of the faithful on Twitter, first at #Smallville and then #SmallvilleFinale. Now, I know, Twitter; but even discounting the OMG! factor, clearly the show developed an audience devoted enough to keep it on the air for ten years. Heck, it probably could have run until Tom Welling started to look like the Earth-2 Supes and the special DC guest-stars were Aztek, Kid Psycho, and Sugar & Spike.
Still, I was never one of those faithful, for a few reasons. The biggest was logistical: when “Smallville” debuted in September 2001, my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky didn’t have a dedicated WB station. We relied on Chicago’s WGN (which we got on cable) for WB programs, and when WGN dumped WB, the Frog’s lineup was parceled out over the later hours of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. We did have a dedicated UPN station — ah, WB and UPN! Has history made you plucky yet? — so I could watch the other new prequel show, “Enterprise,” as the Lord intended on Wednesday nights. “Smallville” I had to tape, and it was never that enthralling even when I did see it. Essentially, once I realized that “Smallville” wasn’t going to be Silver Age-style craziness with a “Buffy” sensibility — in other words, once I realized that “Smallville” would never make Lana Lang into Insect Queen — I lost interest pretty quickly. For all the grousing that “Enterprise” was just telling standard Modern Trek stories in a different time, at least it was using those familiar elements. “Smallville” had a definite end point — Clark flying off as Superman — but instead of building a feeling of anticipation, always felt like it was holding back.
Therefore, the only episode of the series which could do full-on Superman was last night’s finale. Certainly its plot sounded Superman-worthy: on Lois and Clark’s wedding day, Darkseid sends Apokolips hurtling towards Earth, where millions (if not billions) of the world’s population have been branded with the Omega-symbol of Anti-Life. The world is full of superheroes, including the Justice Society and the newer “League,” but the only one who can save the planet must also be inspirational enough to break Anti-Life’s hold on the world. At the end of the episode (SPOILERS again!), Superman stops Apokolips, saves Earth, and wipes out the Anti-Life infection.
Now, that’s not a bad way to insert Superman into a series already crowded with costumed do-gooders. It also justifies “Smallville’s” mission of telling limited Superman stories, because up ’til now, the world hasn’t needed Superman. In practice, though, “Smallville’s” big finish spent a good bit of time on gauzy character sequences — Clark and Lois getting over their premarital jitters, Clark and Lex renewing their relationship only to destroy it utterly, Lex and his sister contrasting their destinies — leaving little time for the actual Superman scenes to pay off. Worse, we never get a good look at Tom Welling in the red-and-blues, and I have to think it’s because he actually does not look convincing in the suit. After saving the world (see it here), Welling gets a Superman Returns-ish “watching from orbit” moment (shot from the neck up) which falls pretty flat; and when he’s waving at Lois from outside Air Force One (also shot largely from the neck up), he looks a little embarrassed. The best Superman bit comes at the very end, with the look-what’s-under-my-shirt move, and it too is frustrating because Welling finally shows some swagger. Maybe that’s the point — maybe he’s not supposed to look Super-confident in the first few minutes of his costumed career — but the show’s had ten years to figure out how to play these scenes, and they don’t really sell themselves.
That said, the #SmallvilleFinale folks were OMG!ing, tossing around the word “epic,” and crying their eyes out, because at last they had closure. I was initially interested in “Smallville” because it was a show about Superman, and I like Superman. However, apparently the parts of Superman which I like include some things “Smallville” didn’t want to touch. Along the same lines, “Smallville” was more interested in WB-friendly teen angst than I was, only recently turning into a more superhero-oriented series. In part it was a victim of success: no one expected it to run for ten years, each season prolonging Clark’s pre-costume career even as it made room for another few DC guest stars. Similarly, if there had been a plan to get Clark in the suit by, say, Season Five, with each year making clear headway (glasses come in at Season Three and they don’t come off ’til the red cape flaps), I’d have trusted the producers more.
Ultimately, however, I keep coming back to the one thing presumably uniting all “Smallville” fans: the need to see Superman. If you watched the show faithfully for ten years, surely the payoffs were more than enough. If you were more of a Superman fan, it still must have been nice to see Clark step out onto the Daily Planet roof and do that Super-strut into the camera. I’m now extremely curious to see whether “Smallville” affects the Superman mythology over the long term. There’s always been that symbiotic relationship between the comics and their adaptations, pretty much since the 1940s; and the Christopher Reeve movies have continued to influence the comics, even twenty-five years after Superman IV. “Smallville” has already started the process, supposedly helping to restore Clark and Lex’s childhood encounters, and bringing Chloe Sullivan to the comics as Jimmy Olsen’s girlfriend. However, those are minor details. Just as many of today’s fans grew up with the Reeve movies (and “Super Friends,” and reruns of the George Reeves show), many of tomorrow’s will have grown up with “Smallville.” Will they be a big enough group to exert a similar pull on future Superman iterations? Will they even be the type of fans to continue with Superman into future iterations?
Hard to say — but for now, they’re out there, they’ve got their Superman, and they’re probably hungry for more.