Smallville: Becoming Superman

In hindsight, Smallville's depiction of Clark Kent's teen years reverberates with real-world parallels...

This feature contains Smallville spoilers.

By the end of its decade-long run in 2011, Smallville still had a loyal and fervent fanbase that averaged between two and three million people. The CW series ended with a finale that had ratings on the higher end of that scale, but the viewership had certainly declined from the eight million-plus people who tuned in for its 2001 pilot. This isn’t too uncommon for any series, but among a Superman fandom that saw the character of Clark Kent soar to such great heights with Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s Superman and the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated series of the late nineties (the live-action nineties series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, for all of its virtues, had a bit more camp than some fans of the comic book iteration of the character like), Smallville‘s “no tights, no flights” rule was like a metaphor for the way that this Clark Kent seemed to drag his feet.

It was not uncommon for comic book readers to check in with the show from time to time and find that little had changed in Smallville, Kansas. Some faces around him may have come and gone, but Clark was still pining after Lana Lang – the would-be love of his life – and still trying to come to terms with how the responsibility that he felt came with his Kryptonian abilities meant he should also keep most people he cared about at arm’s length. For fans who came to the TV show through the Clark Kent character’s most lauded portrayals, there wasn’t quite enough to regularly tune into a show that was as much a product of a network looking to appeal to youth and beauty, as much as it was an exploration of Clark Kent’s journey to being Superman.


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Somewhat ironically, with the comic fandom consensus being that the characterization of billionaire Lex Luthor was one of the show’s strengths, it’s during these “post”-diabolically induced financial crisis days that I’ve considered Smallville in a new light. The lack of an assured bright future has trickled up to the higher echelons of the middle class, and the void between being an older young person and a full-fledged adult has probably most prominently been regarded in Lena Dunham’s Girls. In that show the main character is cut off by her parents, complicating her plans for literary greatness in the modern world. Clark’s decade-long journey to adulthood took place in a world where his father’s Kansas farm had realistic financial difficulties, though those difficulties did have a tendency to be most apparent in a fleeting emotional sense. More prominently, Clark’s paralyzing longing for the kind of life his adoptive parents have in lieu of a destiny as an alien “chosen one” is not without its parallels to real life. For more people than ever, a clear sense of upward direction seems like a very alien feat.

To be fair the “one step forward, two steps backwards” quality of Smallville is partially the logistical consequence of a TV show with a limited budget on (what was once the WB, but is now) the CW, which found a demographic niche with shows like Felicity that had a longstanding theme, alas, of young, somewhat (but never quite) requited love. Yes, Clark Kent saved people, which was very Superman-like, but for the bulk of the show’s run, the way that Tom Welling’s Clark interacted with the world at large was largely tethered to his romantic relationship, or lack thereof, with Kristen Kreuk’s Lana Lang. Over eight and a half seasons, Clark’s feelings for her were complicated by: a necklace with a small piece of kryptonite, a sense of guilt that her parents died in the meteor shower that accompanied his arrival as a kid, along with the dread that Lana will see him as inhuman, and continually, the feeling that Lana knowing about his abilities would endanger her life.


These complications reached their first real crescendo in the hundred episode of Smallville, Reckoning, when Clark takes Lana to the Fortress of Solitude and discovers that, after a little bit of shock, Lana embraces who he is. This sets off Lex Luthor who has just lost to Jonathan Kent in a senatorial election and who drunkenly drives after Lana in an attempt to know Clark’s secret. Lana dies, and Clark pleads with his birth father, Jor-El, to save her life – the time-travelling consequence of which is that, while Clark doesn’t share his secret with Lana and she lives, Jonathan dies in her stead. 

For much of the rest of the show’s duration, Clark struggles on the one hand, as he always had, with the great destiny that his seemingly cold, alien birth father wants from him, and the inability to let go of a changing Smallville, where all of what he loves about humanity comes from. When extraordinary complications result in Clark having to lie to Lana by telling her that he doesn’t love her, Martha Kent implies that maybe the reason he can’t be with Lana is because she’s not the one with whom he can share all of himself. Of course, Smallville was following a playbook where Lois Lane was the ultimate love of Clark Kent’s life, but the idea that Clark needed a relationship with more dimensions is a mature one that’s rarely easy to accept. Clark only does so when kryptonite becomes literally a part of Lana’s being.

In the series finale, Clark meets up with a resurrected Lex one last time in the remains of the Luthor mansion. The two have a dialogue in which Lex denounces the way that Clark fought and hid from the big destiny that he was supposed to have. While Lex, who inherited greatness in the form of lots of money and a dubious moral code, would have jumped at the chance, the kind of greatness that Clark was supposed to inherit seemed so alien that he had to come to terms with it in the most human way possible.

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I think the older anyone gets, the more it resonates – that it took Clark Kent ten years to reconcile both where he came from and what he could be as not mutually exclusive. The newest Man of Steel portrays a Clark Kent with more realism than ever before, but, TV tropes aside, Clark Kent’s ten-year climb out of a Smallville that he defined increasingly in terms of pathos had a kind of unacknowledged realism of its own. When he takes flight with Jor-El telling him to never let go of Smallville, it’s the place at the root of what helped him overcome ten years worth of tribulations – no longer a euphemism for the tribulations themselves. With no bright future happening for most people without overcoming ordeal after ordeal, it can be easy to define where one is in the same way that Smallville‘s Clark Kent did. Sorting that out without super powers is even more of a feat.

Read more about Smallville at Den of Geek, here.

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