The Precursor to the Arrow-Verse: What Smallville Got Right About the Comic Book Based TV Series
Before I begin this section, I have to give some of my own backstory. I have never liked comic books. I have several fundamental reasons for this, but because they directly explain my problems with several of the shows in this article, I’ll hold off going into why for now. Suffice to say, I never liked them when I was a child and well past that point.
That dislike did not extend to television series based on comic books. As a teenager, I was fascinated by several Fox cartoons based on them, especially Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, and Spiderman, which in the latter case was a precursor for cartoons to what the MCU would accomplish nearly a decade later in movies. Similarly, my problems didn’t extend to filmed versions of comics, I generally admire many of the movies within the MCU and consider Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy the cinematic high point for comic book adaptations.
I think the fact that I never truly got into the comic book world the way that most, if not all of the fans of this world did may have served me better than many of the traditional viewer. Because I had no idea about what canon was beyond the bare minimum of these stories (the secret identity, basic backstory, and knowledge of many of the villains in several of these worlds) I wasn’t fundamentally inclined the way far many too trolls are when the writers of these films and shows went off book. At my core, I viewed them the same way that I do everything else on TV: I was interested in good stories, well told. That may have been the reason I was drawn into one of the CW’s series that originated with the WB: Smallville, the story of Clark Kent’s childhood before he became Superman.
I watched the first six seasons of the series pretty much on a weekly basis and more or less abandoned the series at the beginning of Season 7. This had nothing to do with the quality of the show, but rather the fact that other series that I liked more were running against it. (One has to remember that in the late 2000s, streaming fundamentally didn’t exist, and what little there was had to be viewed on computer screens more than anything else. The idea of streaming a series days after the event was still a few years off and neither Netflix nor Amazon had embraced it yet.) But several years after Smallville ended, I ended up rewatching the entire series in a combination of syndication and streaming.
In my opinion, Smallville works all the way through. The producers had made it fundamentally clear that Clark Kent would not don the costume until the series finale, a vow that they kept. So much of the series, particularly in the first four seasons proceeded as a variation on The X-Files and Buffy, as Clark Kent became slowly but sure aware of his powers and tried to figure out who among his friends he could trust. The series diverged from canon in many ways, perhaps most crucially by having Clark save Lex Luthor’s life in the Pilot and have the two basically be close friends for the first five seasons of the series. In that we saw, not just the rise of Superman but the corruption of Lex Luthor and the series went out of its way to make the latter story just as important and in a way, far more tragic. Michael Rosenbaum was superb as we saw the good man who was within being worn down by his demons and the corruption of his own family, represented by his father Lionel (Jon Glover in one of his best roles.) You spent much of the first half of the series knowing Lex’s ultimate fate, but you kept hoping that somehow Clark’s could redeem, and when the series ended with the inevitable drawing of the lines between them, you could feel the sorrow when Clark said: “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”
It was not until the fourth season that the writers slowly began to trickle in other characters from the DC universe, also in their childhood. In the fourth season, we ended up meeting a young Bart Allen (The Flash), in Season 5 we met an eco-terrorist named Arthur Curry (Aquaman) and Cyborg, and in the middle of Season 6 we met the young billionaire Oliver Queen. The series had already set up some of the other elements of Clark’s life with us meeting Lana Lang as a series regular (I’ll get back to her in a minute) and eventually in Season 4, Lois Lane showed up to the town. In the second half of the series, Clark moved to Metropolis to start an internship at the Daily Planet where he would eventually meet a young Jimmy Olsen. Martian Manhunter showed up in Season 6, and in Season 7 so did Kara Danvers. There was also a slow but steady trickle of villains. Brainiac eventually showed up in Season 5 (a nearly unrecognizable James Marsters) Doomsday had an entire storyline in Season 8, and Zod who had been mentioned several times throughout the early seasons finally appeared in Season 9. We also would see cameos from many players who had smaller roles, including Amanda Waller and members of both Suicide Squad and the Justice Society.
What I think made Smallville work so well — in my opinion, its still the gold standard for comic book based television — was that all the way through, it kept you in suspense even though anyone who knew most of Superman the eventual fates of the characters. There were storylines that didn’t work — the potential love story between Clark and Lana became deadweight fairly early not just because Clark kept hiding the truth about itself but because anyone with even a marginal memory of the series knew it was doomed. But because it was true to the framework of the show without violating canon, it had the spirit of a DC comic but a fair amount of charm. The writers would pay tribute to this throughout the series — Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder had cameos early on, Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher who had each played Clark and Lois in a 1990s series had minor cameos and Jor-El was voiced throughout series by Terence Stamp. And the show made it fundamentally clear that everything we saw was a part of Clark’s backstory in a way the comic just never did. Martha and Jonathan Kent were almost background in the early stages, with Jonathan’s death being considering the defining moment of Clark’s life. When Jonathan Kent did die in the series 100th Episode because the show had spent five seasons showing us just how vital he was (and credit to the work of John Schneider for being the father we all wanted), it was gut-wrenching it really couldn’t have been in any film.
Near the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, in a discussion of comic books, Bill says that Superman stands alone because: “Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman.” Smallville is the counter-argument to this line. Its shows that Clark Kent may have been born Superman but growing up he wanted to be Clark far more than he ever did Superman. It shows Clark alternately rejected and accepting destiny, trying to make his powers part of him but not who he was, trying to have friends and romance, trying to be a normal person — in short, the struggles that come with growing up. From his first introduction, Superman was shown as someone who had to stand apart from the rest of humanity. Smallville fundamentally argues that Clark Kent wanted to be part of it. If you wish to read religious metaphors or arguments of destiny over free will into this, you’re welcome to — this has been a part of fantasy and sci-fi almost since the creation of it as a genre. But it doesn’t hurt that Smallville was also a crackling good adventure story, well told and with a very accurate sense of humor. The fact that it chose to make its final episode basically at the part where most Superman movies begin only goes to prove that this was the story of the journey of Clark Kent more than it was ever Superman, and that Clark was, in his own way, just as interesting as Superman ever was.
I did not intend to make this article a gushing rave for Smallville, because it wasn’t a perfect show. As I said, it spent too much time and energy over the first seven seasons on the Clark-Lana romance only to write her out of the story in Season 8 when Kristin Kreuk’s contract came to an end in a truly unsatisfying way. It also didn’t help that when Rosenbaum’s contract came to an end in Season 7, Lex Luthor was more or less written out of the show until the series finale, even though his presence was felt throughout the series, in truly messy and monstrous way. And the fact that so many of the stories dealt with meteor rocks (kryptonite, though it didn’t get called that until Season 3) and its aftereffects as sort of deux ex machina was an obstacle the series never worked around. But overall, Smallville was an immensely satisfying series that may have been the most successful product that the CW ever inherited from the WB, ending on the right notes. And that includes a key shift in Season 6.
As I said Oliver Queen was introduced that season by a then relatively unknown Justin Hartley. His relationship with Clark was clearly meant to serve as a counterbalance to that between him and Lex Luthor — by this point in the series, Clark and Lex were all but enemies. Oliver was already taking on the mantel of the Green Arrow, and the story of his rise to prominence and his friendship with Clark was well-handled. He was introduced initially as a love interest to Lois (who was actually more in love with the Green Arrow at the time, quelle surprise) and eventually he became friends and eventually married original character Chloe Sullivan (the now disgraced Allison Mack, one of the few characters who stayed with the series from the pilot). Throughout the series, Oliver was the focus of planning various aspects of the superhero world we all know — he formed alliances with the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg; we saw him form a relationship with Dinah Lance (introduced as a conservative anti-vigilante broadcaster) and eventually revealing his secret identity in the final season to the world. Hartley’s character was so popular that at one point, a Green Arrow with Hartley as the lead was planned for the 2007–2008 season but the writer’s strike that year scuttled the idea and Hartley stayed on as a regular on Smallville for the rest of the series’ run.
It’s interesting to think what a Green Arrow spinoff with Hartley as the lead would have looked like. Hartley was suffering from many of the demons that Berlanti would mine so well in his own show, but he genuinely seemed more connected to reality and more openly cheerful about what he was doing than what we actually got. Considering that the creators had already laid the groundwork for so many of the characters in the DC world and would continue to do so in a subtler way (back then, the DC world was still not part of the mainstream as it is today) it would have been interesting to watch. (Then again, there’s no guarantee it would have been as good: in 2004, the creators would try their luck in the world of Gotham City with their version of Birds of Prey, a female led series so messy and badly received it was canceled before half a season was over.)
Still, watching Smallville you got the sense of everything that a comic book based series could transcend the boundaries of television. For a while, it seemed that Greg Berlanti was going to be able to take the ball and run with it. The problem was, he ran too fast, too far and took up too much territory as we’ll see in the next article.