Before we get started, a disclaimer: I always feel a little uncertain writing about “Smallville” (Season 7 starts tonight, like you didn’t know). Most of this has to do with me not really watching the show. I do read the Television Without Pity recaps faithfully, and I will watch the occasional big-mythology episode, but I have not been there week in and week out. See, subconsciously I watch “Smallville” expecting to see Superman, which is kind of like watching “Gilligan’s Island” expecting a rescue.
If “Smallville” holds true to its original plan, it’ll wrap up with Tom Welling in costume, flying off into the sunset (or wherever). After all, that’s the premise of the show: a teenager grows up to become Superman. Thus, “Smallville” isn’t unique because it features a teenager with super-powers, it’s unique because the teenager is Kal-El of Krypton, raised as Clark Kent of Smallville. He pretty much has to become Superman — it’s an all but foregone conclusion. Otherwise, the show might as well be The Matrix or “Buffy” or “Heroes” or any number of plainclothes-superhero TV series. Those kinds of shows can do riffs on secret identities, hidden destinies, and saving the day, and so can “Smallville” — but at the end of the day, “Smallville” is specifically about Superman. It must ultimately reinforce what it dances around.
Therefore, as long as it remains an ongoing concern, “Smallville” will avoid the most identifiable components of the Superman setup: the costume, the flying, and the glasses. So far this hasn’t been too hard. Clark’s flying seems to be bound up in (and thus an obvious metaphor for) an unwillingness to unleash his full potential. (His newfound cousin flies, so she probably doesn’t have Clark’s hangups.) The costume will probably have some Kryptonian justification, a la the Christopher Reeve movies and/or Superman: Birthright. Clark has worn glasses too, temporarily, in one of the many episodes I haven’t seen.
Beyond that, though, “Smallville” seems content to be a Superman show without the Superman. It’s incorporated many Metropolis-period elements, including Lois, Jimmy, and enough superheroes to field a Justice League (with J’Onn J’Onzz and Supergirl to spare). For the most part I’ve enjoyed these bits, but the closer the series gets to a costumed-superhero series, the more out-of-place Clark looks in his red jacket and blue T-shirt.
And yet “Smallville” can’t be in a hurry to put Clark in The Suit. It would be the end of the show, literally; and the Superman “look” is pretty difficult to accomplish anyway. A lot of that has to do with the suit itself. Whether woven from Kryptonian blankets, or made of little S-shields, it can’t be too far removed from a thin layer of spandex. Batman and Daredevil can wear body armor, the Fantastic Four need unstable-molecule jumpsuits, and Spider-Man’s outfit was a marketing gimmick, but Superman’s got no such excuse. Plus, the cape is non-negotiable.
Moreover, the costume is the payoff not just for a single episode or arc, but for the whole frickin’ series. In the context of today’s costume-averse TV supers, this is a big deal. Raise your hand if you think someone on “Heroes” will commit to a costume, let alone wearing one to fight crime out in the open. Other plainclothes shows (and “The Greatest American Hero”) can get away with having their characters operate in relative secrecy, but “Smallville” appears to be building to that familiar world where the battles between Superman and Lex Luthor will be front-page news. Some shows end with their main characters married, in jail, or even dead. “Smallville” will consign its star to an unseen eternity in blue tights and a red cape.
At least Tom Welling should look fine in the costume, if PhotoShop is any guide. However, his Clark needs to show more of the combination of sincerity and power the role needs. Even Dean Cain and Brandon Routh had that certain twinkle in their super-peepers. Again, it’s part of the show’s premise, but Welling’s Clark doesn’t seem comfortable enough in his own skin to command a scene Superman-style.
Maybe that’s part of the show’s ultimate story arc, and the answer to fan complaints that Smallville-Clark isn’t distinct enough from his costumed future self. This may unleash a recursive loop of nerdity, but … I’m reminded of “The Enemy Within.” Just like Good Kirk (wimpy) and Evil Kirk (glam), there’s a benign Good Clark, who’s pleasant enough but never quite as effectual as you’d like; and then there’s Evil Clark, who gets more out of his powers and is generally more fun to watch. (Remember, that’s Evil Clark flying in the opening credits.) The notion that Smallville-Clark will become “Superman” through a combination of Good Clark and Evil Clark is just different enough to be intriguing.
Likewise, “Smallville” may well have Kara show Clark that going to full power doesn’t need to be scary. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if her idea to become “Supergirl” inspires Clark’s own codename and costume. That probably means she’d have to sacrifice herself heroically so he could use them in tribute, though; and I don’t like the thought of her being brought on the show just to die. You’d think Pa Kent’s death would be enough tragedy for Clark. (It was good enough for Christopher Reeve’s Clark….)
As for the visual differences between Clark and Superman, those glasses may have to work pretty hard. The post-Crisis revamp gave Clark the glasses and the costume at the same time. However, it also had Clark isolated in Kansas for the first 18 years of his life, and then traveling the world for the next seven. There were clear distinctions between the people in Smallville who knew all about Clark (Ma, Pa, Lana), the other Smallvillians who apparently didn’t get close enough (including the Luthors, per Birthright), and the Metropolitans who only knew the bespectacled reporter.
“Smallville’s” problem, though, is that Clark’s had to interact with so many people both in the town and in Metropolis that one wonders whether, say, Clark’s old football coach won’t recognize him in some Daily Planet photo of Superman. The classic dual-identity theory would account for this with the old “Clark’s too blah to be Superman!” bit, but as much as I’ve denigrated him, I’m not sure Smallville-Clark is that bland. Maybe I’m not giving the glasses enough credit.
In the end, I think “Smallville” will adopt the theory (or at least imply heavily) that Superman is an outsized, overstuffed personality too big for any mortal. To this end, the costume and the powers complement each other, collectively making Superman an Other — an entity, not a person — without the need for a disguise. This is the direction the Superman comics have taken for pretty much the last twenty years, and of course it finds support in the Reeve movies. It’s a more benign form of misdirection than the secrets-and-lies approach in which “Smallville’s” dual-identity subplots are couched.
Nevertheless, on some level, “Superman” will always be a construct. If there were a show called “North Pole,” it’d raise similar issues. (Once that red-and-white jacket goes on, and those reindeer take off, the adventures of Young Kriss Kringle will be over!) What remains will be, in large part, a symbol: used not just for warm fuzzies like goodness and truth, but also for marketing, merchandising, and other consumer concerns. Heady stuff!
It’s no wonder that “Lois & Clark” played the obvious superhero elements for laughs and “Smallville” eschews them by design. “Smallville’s” task is different, and arguably harder, than something like Casino Royale or even Batman Begins, because it will transform its ostensibly relatable hero into this … cartoon; this baggage-laden, yet lighter-than-air figure. A guy in a Superman costume can look like a dork, but “Smallville” must leave its audience as comfortable with Clark’s new identity as he is. That’s the real trick the series must accomplish, whether the emergence of Superman caps a multi-episode arc or is just a lightbulb moment.
It seems like the show will have to turn itself inside-out in order to set up Clark’s heroic career, and that sounds rather ghoulish. Regardless, I hope this is the last season, because I’ve been waiting six years for it to happen. We’ll see how much of “Smallville’s” personality survives in its Superman.