“Superman is boring” it’s a common enough refrain that’s it’s almost as much of a cliche to write as it is to read. His powers are too strong, his personality too uninteresting and his weakness to kryptonite laughable (especially in live-action form). All these criticisms have various degrees of accuracy but it’s not hard to imagine them being emboldened by the mixed-reception to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Sure, many angsty comic fans have strung Zack Snyder up for not “getting” the character but in his defence, Superman is a hard character to get right.
However, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that in the right hands, there’s a lot of potential to be mined here.
Disqualifying Man of Steel on account of its own divisive-reception, the last live-action take on Superman that didn’t immediately turn audiences away was CW’s Smallville. Though by no means perfect, Smallville understood that beneath all the powers and alien origins, Superman is still a person – and a fallible one at that.
Unlike the supervillains-in-training of Gotham, the Clark Kent we meet in the first season of Smallville is one with plenty of room to grow before he becomes the hero of Metropolis. He makes mistakes. He goes through his edgy emo phase. He engages in healthy relationships, as well as unhealthy ones. Like a lot of teenagers, the only constant for Clark is doubt about his future. As much about the burdens of superpowers as it is the benefits, Smallville offers up a portrait of Superman that’s unquestionably humanist in nature, even if Clark isn’t.
More oft-than-not, the problem with Superman adaptations is that they copy the character over to live-action but fail to correctly translate him to suit the medium. In the context of a comic, it’s easy to use Superman to explore what it means to be an alien and to have such incredible powers. There’s no special effects budget to worry about and the passage of time becomes more malleable. In those conditions, Superman CAN be everywhere at once. However, once we’ve made the jump to the big screen, that version of the character becomes a harder sell.
Smallville tackled this head-on by making Clark’s control over his powers a work-in-progress. We see him gradually develop and struggle to control each of his powers and come to terms with the responsibility they bestow. What’s more, we see that – like any good origin story – the hero (and person) that Clark becomes has as much to do with the people around him as it does his own intrinsic abilities.We see his friendships with Chloe and Lois inspire him to follow journalism by day and, later, his partnership with Oliver Queen pushes him to embrace crime fighting by night.
And then there’s Lex.
Lex Luthor is pretty much “the” Superman villain, and Smallville builds on this idea by positioning the unlikely friendship between him and Clark as a pretty major element of the series. The first six-or-so seasons of Smallville are as much about Lex’s path to the dark side as they are Clark’s own journey to become Superman. The show doesn’t just hint at the idea of a future rivalry between the two, it actively leverages it to the benefit of both characters. Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex is a fantastic match to Tom Wellington’s Clark Kent and we see the seeds of the people they will become in every interaction.
Looking back, the confidence of Smallville in the notion of growth is what makes it work. Unlike the last couple of Superman films, it isn’t afraid to let Clark grow. Same goes for the show around him. After three seasons of Buffy-esque high school adventures, the characters graduate to college and then go onto more adult lives. In comparison, Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent isn’t really built on any complex emotional journey – he simply is who he is. He’s the action-figure version of Superman that we’ve collectively trained ourselves to expect, and that’s why we get so quickly and easily bored of him in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Smallville is always looking for the natural next step – be it introducing Clark to the world of journalism through a job with The Daily Planet or group-based vigilantism through an early incarnation of the Justice League. Like Clark, the show is slowly evolving into the thing it was destined to become.
What’s more, these steps always feel earned. They feel like logical evolutions and transitions in Clark’s greater arc towards becoming the figure we know he will become. The inevitable payoff of watching Clark finally don the iconic red-and-blue costume lands better than any other plot beat presented by Superman’s big screen counterparts precisely because it is so earned. Unlike a film, Smallville has more than enough screentime to line up the dominos and to focus on sticking the landing.
The moment that Clark becomes the hero we all know is the moment usually the moment we lose our human connection to him, it’s the moment he becomes less of a person and more of a symbol. Fortunately, the final episode of Smallville is less about him becoming a hero and more about him realising he already is one. He doesn’t become Superman because he’s supposed to, he becomes Superman because he realises that’s who he already is.
The takeaway for whomever takes up the task of directing Man of Steel 2 is pretty simple. The key to telling good stories about Superman is to find the humanity in him. As tempting as it is to deconstruct the Man of Steel as an allegory of Christ – it’s so much more rewarding to explore and reconcile the idea of him as a person. To the people around him, Superman might have the powers of a god but, from his perspective, he’s just as flawed as the rest of us – and there’s a lot that DC’s cinematic universe could learn from Smallville when it comes to capturing the dramatic potential in this.