After the recent debacle that was “Wonder Woman 1984”, I wasn’t sure I had the stomach to see a new live-action DC superhero show so soon, let alone write about it, but well… here I am. While I consider myself only a casual fan of the DC universe (at best), it’s clear that their TV universe, as seen on the CW network, fares much better than their cinematic stuff. The DC TV shows (“Supergirl,” “Flash,” “Arrow”) seem to have a lighter, more genuinely comic book feel than their clumsy, oppressively ‘edgy’ multiplex counterparts.
While I’ve not seen all of the CW shows, I have been consistently watching “Supergirl” for its past five or so seasons, and while it’s become a bit tired in the two, the first few seasons had genuine merit (though I think the show lost something irreplaceable when the vampy Callista Flockhart left). It was on this show that the latest incarnation of Clark Kent/Superman made his debut, and Tyler Hoechlin gives the role an earnestness that’s been missing since Brandon Routh back in 2006’s “Superman Returns” (a well-cast Superman trapped in a deeply troubled movie).
Produced by Greg Berlanti and Todd Helbing (both veterans of CW’s “The Flash”), this latest version of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s 83-year old icon truly goes into new territory. Instead of Superman as an all-American spin on the Moses-Jesus/savior story, we see Superman as husband of Lois Lane and father of two teenage sons, moving to the midwest.
Pilot, parts 1 & 2.
In this version, all of the origin story and past movie/TV mythology is merely preamble; information given in the first few minutes to begin the story anew. This streamlines the storytelling and avoids yet another dull retelling of the same tired Superman mythology (which is already comic book holy scripture at this point). This abbreviated origin story wisely takes its cue from Clark’s TV cousin, “Supergirl”, which smartly fits hers into its opening credits sequence.
Note: We see a flashback during the prologue where Superman is wearing the earliest comic book version of his suit. A young boy comments approvingly, and Superman responds, “Thanks. My mom made it for me!” That moment also recalls the Metropolis pimp in “Superman: The Movie” (1978) who tells Superman, “Say Jim…that’s a bad outfit! Woooh!”
Yes, Clark Kent landed in Smallville as an infant, was raised by the loving Kents, went to work at the Daily Planet in Metropolis where he fell in love with reporter Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch), and yes, he told her all about his origin on Krypton before they got married; this spares viewers years of “I’ve-got-a-secret” shenanigans, getting to the heart of their relationship a lot quicker. Soon, we see their wedding and the birth of their twin boys soon afterward. This show isn’t going to be five years of a bachelor-Clark lying to the woman he loves.
The pilot episode sees The Planet (dropping ‘Daily’ from its name) undergoing a hostile takeover, and downsizing for the digital age (and the death of print journalism), meaning that reporter Clark Kent gets his pink slip. As if his day couldn’t get any worse, Clark gets a call from his mother’s doctor (an uncredited Gates McFadden); Clark’s mother Martha Kent (Michelle Scarabelli, of “Alien Nation”) had a stroke.
While flying to Smallville, Superman hears a dying Martha’s words reach him in the clouds…she wants her son to come home. Even at super-speed, Clark is too late; Martha is gone. Clark soon learns that Martha had a reverse mortgage on the farm, meaning the property could lapse to its lender. This lender turns out to be the same mysterious company that bought The Planet, and even the bank in which Lana Lang-Cushing (Emmanuelle Chriqui), Clark’s former high school flame, is employed.
Mysterious goings-on at nuclear power plants across the country get the attention of Lois Lane’s military father General Sam Lane (Dylan Walsh), who also know’s his son-in-law’s secret. An unknown savvy saboteur is slicing breaches into reactor core insulation, creating near-disasters which Superman is able to avert, while secretly testing his skillset. The general gives his son-in-law a discreet call. Superman is pulled away from his grief to deal with this disaster.
Clark saves the reactor by heat-visioning the rupture and freezing a giant chunk of seawater to col the core. The general wants his son-in-law to work on the situation full time, but Lois tells her dad that Clark needs to be with his family after the passing of Martha. Reluctantly, the general agrees with his headstrong daughter; right now, Clark’s place is with his grieving family.
While saving the nuclear plant, Clark missed an important day for his sensitive son Jordan (Alex Garfin), who struggles with social anxieties while enduring endless teasing from his jock twin brother Jonathan (Jordan Elsass), who just made the football team. Clark tries his best to reach out to brooding Jordan, but to no avail. Lois and Clark then take the boys to Smallville for their grandma’s funeral…
Note: Jonathan Kent is, of course, named after Clark’s adoptive dad, who is seen dying of a heart attack during the prologue, just as he died in most incarnations of Superman that I’ve seen, from the 1978 film all the way through 2013’s disappointing “Man of Steel” (where a tornado did him in).
In Smallville, there are a few awkward reunions as Clark reconnects with Lana and her jealous firefighter husband Kyle Cushing (Eric Valdez), who has a chip on his shoulders against these Metropolis urbanite Kents who’ve swooped in for Martha’s funeral. There’s tension when Kyle accuses Clark of taking off for the big city instead of giving something back to his rural roots, and he’s not entirely wrong, either.
Note: I appreciated that the show addressed the increasing tensions between rural red states and urban blue states, using the fictional avatars of Smallville and Metropolis as stand-ins. By taking two urbanites out of Metropolis and having them resettle in Smallville, the show attempts to build a bridge between the two, unlike previous versions (the Superman movies, “Lois & Clark”, etc) which often ridiculed Smallville as a hick town, while a life in Metropolis was often portrayed as ‘exciting.’ As someone comfortably nestled in the suburbs, I see benefits and issues with both.
Meanwhile, the Kent twins reconnect with the Cushing’s teenaged daughter, Sarah (Inde Navarrette), whom they’ve not seen since their last visit to Grandma’s place a few years before. Sarah is drawn to the sensitive Jordan, who struggles with mental health issues similar to hers. The three of them go to check out the Kent family barn, which was always a ‘forbidden’ place (“everything in there can kill you,” as dad once warned them). In the barn, Jordan climbs up a rickety ladder to fix a tweaked internet router when he accidentally slips; letting loose a barrage of metal cylinders which fall upon the twin brothers—yet neither of them are seriously hurt. In fact, Jordan shielded Johnathan from much of the impact. Back at the Kent farm house, Johnathan dismisses it as a lucky break while Jordan is understandably more curious. Returning to the barn later on, the twins discover a trap door which leads them to find the actual space pod which brought their infant father Kal-El to Earth…
Note: Discovering the ‘hidden truth’ in the Kent’s barn was a callback to “Superman: The Movie,” where a teenaged Clark (Jeff East) heeds the ‘call’ of his biological father’s Kryptonian crystal before deciding to leave home and set up the Fortress of Solitude in the North Pole. Since then, the ‘big reveal in the barn’ has been a live-action Superman staple.
Clark and Lois pull up in the family pickup truck when they see their boys rushing towards them, angry and screaming. The time has come to tell the boys the truth about their dad… and themselves. Clark tells his boys that what they found was the spaceship that brought him to Earth decades earlier, and that he is Superman. The boys don’t want to believe it, with Jordan reminding his dad that he “can’t even put up a Christmas tree without falling,” but Clark shuts the argument down by dead-lifting the entire pickup truck and hovering gently in the air with it. Okay then. Settles that.
Note: The ‘big reveal’ to the boys is the other shoe finally dropping, and it’s a relief that the series didn’t drag this out for too long. It would’ve gotten old very fast. Clark lifting the pickup truck to reveal his superpowers to his sons is also a callback to (and reversal of) a scene in “Superman: The Movie” where newly discovered infant Kal-El lifts a falling pickup truck to the amazement of his adopted father Johnathan Kent (Glenn Ford) and mother Martha (Phyllis Thaxter).
Always the investigative reporter, Lois begins digging about the reverse mortgage that Martha took out on the farm shortly before her death, and finds that she took out the funds not for herself, but to help other farmers in Smallville who were struggling (this is setting up a clear arc for later; what evil force is buying up Smallville?). Clark suggests they might consider buying the farm back themselves, since he’s out of a job and since Lois’ career at The Planet is hanging on by a thread. Clark’s ex-girlfriend and bank officer Lana facilitates the reverse mortgage into a sale to the Kent family instead.
Note: There’s a certain “Field of Dreams” quality to the story, where two former college radicals (or in this case, urbane journalists) return to tranquil rurality to raise their kids. Dan Romer’s music for the pilot also helps with establishing a mood of small town relaxation with moments of genuine tension and even awe.
The plot soon kicks into overdrive with the sabotage of yet another nuclear reactor, where Clark confronts the mysterious stranger who knows all about his Kryptonian origins. The villainous stranger is outfitted in a lead-shielded Iron Man-like getup which allows him to fly and evade Superman’s x-ray vision. Superman and the mysterious mega-bad guy trade blows in mid-air before taking their battle above the atmosphere. Once there, the mystery villain plunges a radioactive kryptonite-shiv into Superman’s chest, causing the weakened superhero to fall helplessly back to Earth…
Note: The kryptonite shiv was also used by Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) in “Superman Returns” (2006), one of many such callbacks to prior Superman lore made throughout the pilot episode.
Not realizing their dad is in peril, the Kent boys (on Sarah’s invitation) go to a rural rave in a Smallville quarry, complete with fireworks and kegs of beer (oh, these kids today…). Sarah and Jordan get a quiet moment alone together, where they talk about how they deal with their respective issues. Mistaking her cues for romance, Jordan kisses her, not realizing her boyfriend is nearby. Soon Sarah’s boyfriend begins beating on Jordan, with Jonathan valiantly jumping in to help his ‘weaker’ twin. Before long, Johnathan is pummeled by several Smallville toughs when an enraged Jordan uses his emergent heat vision to detonate a keg of nearby beer into a fireball! The fireball starts a blaze that alerts the Smallville Fire Department (and Sarah’s firefighter father).
Note: The minute the fisticuffs started between the Kents and Sarah’s boyfriend’s posse, all the kids had their phones out, recording the fight. Doubtless a future episode will reveal that they recorded Jordan’s use of heat-vision, which was dismissed by the SFD as an exploded “methane pocket.”
At home, Lois sees the Smallville rave fire on the local news and secretly signals her super-husband to come home to his family. Meanwhile, Superman is still plummeting to Earth, before memories of Lois and the boys give him the strength to pull the shiv from his chest and regain his superpowers right before impacting the streets of Metropolis. Recovering quickly (hey, he’s Superman…), Clark immediately flies to Smallville and finds fireman Kyle on the scene, taking care of the errant Kent boys.
Realizing that Jordan’s latent superpowers are finally emerging and that life in Metropolis would complicate things exponentially, the Kents have a talk with their boys about resettling permanently in Smallville. With the traumatic reveal of Clark’s true identity to their twin sons as well as Jordan’s newly emerging powers, the more relaxed pace of life in Smallville might be just the ticket to help the boys settle into this new phase of their lives.
The coda sees the mysterious lead-shielded, extraterrestrial adversary of Superman (Wole Parks) fly back to the sacred Fortress of Solitude in the North Pole, where he gains access and removes his helmet, identifying himself as a “Luthor.” We see only the back of his bald head…
Note: Since Lex Luthor (Jon Cryer) is already an established villain in the TV DC universe, I wonder if this villain is a son/relative/genetic-creation of Lex Luthor? As I’ve said before, I’m only a casual fan of the DC TV/cinematic universe at best (my Superman touchstone is the late Christopher Reeve), but I’ve watched enough of Supergirl to have seen Cryer’s Lex is in this universe, and judging from the voice and color of this Luthor’s bald scalp (brown), I’m assuming it’s not Cryer’s Lex Luthor?
To be continued…
Buying the Farm.
Normally the idiom ‘bought the farm’ means dying (as in buying your grave plot), but in this case, the decision to have the Kents resettle on the family farm is a smart decision for many reasons. First of which, it reestablishes the series firmly at the site of its most successful spinoff “Smallville,” which ran for ten seasons (2001-2011); longer than any prior live-action superhero TV series, let alone a Superman spinoff. Clearly, there was some kind of magic in the ‘superhero in rural America’ concept that really clicked. “Superman & Lois” was wise to return to that particular well.
With the lone exception of “Smallville,” every Superman movie and TV series (1952’s “Superman”, 1987’s “Superboy”, 1993’s “Lois & Clark” and 2015’s “Supergirl”) have all taken place in Metropolis (Superman’s version of NYC) or National City (Supergirl’s answer to Los Angeles). They have been traditionally urban shows, reflecting urban-dweller values. While I live in a blue state myself (with many swaths of red), I can certainly see the value of reaching out to a broader audience base. Not to mention that the ‘superhero living in the big city’ idea has been done to death.
Moving the action to the less-hectic Smallville also gives the Kent family room to breathe and fully absorb the trauma visited upon their sons in the pilot episode. The boys just learned that their dad has been leading a double-life as a superhero, and that they are both half-extraterrestrial themselves! It doesn’t help that Jordan struggles with social anxieties as well. That would be a hell of a lot for any family to process. So from both a business sense and a character sense, relocating the Kents to Smallville really works.
Meet the Kents.
As Clark Kent/Superman, Tyler Hoechlin does a solid job. No one will ever fill the late Christopher Reeve’s red boots as far as I’m concerned (though Brandon Routh truly impressed me), but Hoechlin brings an earnestness and sincerity utterly absent from the brooding ‘edgy’ incarnation seen in the recent DC Justice League movies. Despite Hoechlin’s youth (he’s only 33), he convincingly tackles the paternal stuff as well. Clark/Superman as a full-time dad (not the deadbeat bad we saw in “Superman Returns”) is all new territory for live-action Superman, and I’m curious to see how it pans out. The fact that Hoechlin is younger than his TV wife and TV ex-flame actually fits with the Superman mythology, as the Krypton native is supposed to age more slowly anyway. Christopher Reeve was several years younger than Margot Kidder as well.
Elizabeth Tulloch’s Lois Lane was a bit more problematic for me, only because so much of her performance in the pilot is seen in reaction to other things. We have yet to really see her Lois Lane on her own as a character. When they do a more Lois-centric episode, I’ll certainly look forward to seeing more of Tulloch’s take on her, but in the pilot, she comes off as stressed out mom and a part-time Nancy Drew (the mysterious reverse mortgage subplot). While there was a lot going on with her in this pilot, here’s hoping the once-feisty, independent Lois Lane isn’t reduced to just ‘the mom’ in the show. That’d be a real disappointment. However, judging by the smartly crafted pilot, I’m sure Tulloch will get her chance to shine very soon.
Alex Garfin as the sensitive, latently super-powered Jordan is clearly the more interesting of the two twins, and the actor fills the kid’s sneakers. I also appreciated that Jordan gives a face to the struggles many kids have with social anxiety. I have friends whose kids struggle with this very issue. There’s also a real opportunity for Superman to play mentor to a child who struggles with powers much like his own… or are they? Perhaps human DNA has changed the superpower mix somehow? This is ripe opportunity for future exploration in the series.
The less interesting twin is Jonathan (Jordan Elsass), who plays the more confident brother as a typical (slightly douchey) jock, but with a sensitive enough side to listen to (and defend) his brother when necessary. Not having superpowers (yet) turns out to be a relief to the young football hero, who now feels his accomplishments on the football field are “a hundred percent legit.” I’m wondering if there are any super-abilities in Jonathan that simply haven’t emerged yet?
So, like a lot of relocating urbanites these days, the next generation of Kents are opting for a simpler life on the farm. This is interesting new territory to explore for the 83-year old iconic characters of Superman & Lois. There are a lot of ideas to explore; the reconciliation of red and blue visions of Americana, how a city gal like Lois adapts to farm living (cue “Green Acres” theme) or how a world famous superhero fares as a father. As to whether or not this series is habit-forming, that remains to be seen… but I’m definitely curious about this show’s all-new flight path.
“Superman & Lois” can be watched for free on the CW network, or streamed on CW’s streaming service. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are nearing closer to over 502,000 as of this writing; over half a million people. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest, but it will take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (one may be vaccinated and unwittingly carry or spread coronavirus). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
And yes, real heroes wear masks!