Superman is one of the most indelible pop culture icons the world has ever seen. Since his creation by the team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and his first appearance in the pages of Action Comics #1 in 1938, he has appeared in countless tales, and not just in comic books. Newspaper strips, novels, films, television series, animated features, video games; Superman has conquered them all.
With so many Superman stories to choose from in so many different mediums, longtime fans continually debate which of them is the best, while new fans face a difficult choice when deciding exactly where to dive in to the ongoing legend.
Though not as universally beloved as Superman: The Movie, nor as steeped in history as the long running DC Comics series, Smallville renewed the Superman legend for a new generation. For ten years, it distilled the essence of Superman and his world into a weekly show, ultimately producing 218 episodes. Readily available on DVD (and recently on Hulu), the series is a great way for any new disciple of the Man Of Steel to immerse themselves in some of his best stories to date.
Here are 15 Reasons Why Smallville Was The Ultimate Superman Story.
15. Villains On Screen
Scores of villains were thrown at Tom Welling’s Clark Kent during Smallville’s ten-year run, many of them members of Superman’s often underrated rogues gallery, and some of them making their first appearances in live action.
Brainiac, played by James Marsters, is just one example of an iconic Superman villain who came to life for the first time on the series. Whether for budgetary or creative reasons, Smallville’s Brainiac wore the disguise of a human, rather than appear overtly alien as he does in the comic books. Still, he was one of Clark’s fiercest rivals on the show, and even returned (in a friendlier form) as Brainiac 5 for the show’s 200th episode, “Homecoming”.
Two more of Superman’s greatest foes were also featured on the show: Doomsday and Darkseid. Sam Witwer played Doomsday’s human half, Davis Bloome, with the monstrous killing machine himself making limited appearances, while in the final season, Darkseid was the overarching villain, serving as Clark’s final challenge before he fully embraced his destiny as Superman. Admittedly, the TV budget was stretched to the breaking point by the task of bringing these two hulking villains to life. Darkseid mostly appeared as a cloud of mist that occasionally resembled his famous visage, while Doomsday was clearly a man in a suit (although it could be argued that suit was a more faithful recreation of the character than what we saw in Batman v Superman).
14. Clark’s story
Like most superheroes, Superman is a dual character: the powerful hero, and the secret alter ego. Most Superman stories, by definition, focus more on the ‘Super’ and less on the ‘man’. The Clark Kent side is always there, but it’s Superman who has the big moments and is stamped on the posters and merchandise. That’s to be expected, especially in blockbuster films like Superman: The Movie and Man Of Steel.
As superhero stories go, Smallville was unique. By focusing on a young Clark Kent and his life before he became Superman, it chronicled the formation of that eventual “hero”, and just how ‘Kal-El’ would distill his qualities and strengths into his two personas, Superman and Clark Kent. Neither of them are a lie, nor are they the whole truth.
In the early years of the show, Clark saved the day quite a bit (while ensuring his identity was never revealed), but in later seasons he made attempts at establishing a heroic persona, even taking on a name: ‘The Blur’. It was an early attempt at the balance he would one day perfect. We only got the briefest glimpse of that fully realized hero (at the end of the series finale, and in a flash-forward during the 200th episode). Nevertheless, we know that by the end of the series, he had figured out just how much of Kal-El belongs in Superman and Clark Kent.
13. Giving back
It was big news in 2013 when DC Comics responded to the popularity of John Diggle, an original character created for The CW’s Arrow, by incorporating him into the comic book universe. It was a well deserved honor, as David Ramsey’s performance on the show had made the character a standout.
It wasn’t, however, the first time a character originally created for television made the jump into the comic book world.
When Smallville premiered, comic book fans recognized a lot of the characters: Clark and Lana, the Kents, Lex Luthor. But one of the most important members of the cast was a newcomer to the DC world. Allison Mack played Chloe Sullivan, a school friend of Clark’s who nurtured dreams of becoming a star reporter at a big city newspaper. Mack brought charm and warmth to the role of Chloe, who had unrequited feelings for Clark in the early years before eventually marrying Jimmy Olsen and later Oliver Queen.
12. Mainstream hit
With the proliferation of superhero movies and TV shows today, it’s easy to forget there was a time when they weren’t so common. When Smallville first aired in 2001, it was the only real comic-based television show around, and superhero films were just beginning to make an impact. X-Men had been a hit, but the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film was still months away, the Dark Knight was still in cinematic exile after the embarrassment of Batman and Robin four years earlier, and Superman himself hadn’t been seen on the big screen in almost 15 years. While a show about Superman’s high school days sounded good on paper, there was no reason to believe it would be a big hit, or appeal to a broader audience than just comic book fans.
But appeal it did. The mixture of high school drama and super heroics (which had served The WB well with Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was a smash, setting a network record with 8.4 million viewers for the series premiere. On a network that skewed to younger audiences, that was huge, and meant that Superman and his supporting cast were, well, cool again. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and The CW’s slate of interconnected DC shows, Smallville proved that mainstream audiences were hungry for superheroes.
11. At home on TV
Comic book movies are big business (and will be for the foreseeable future). That’s awesome, especially if we keep getting movies as good as The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. That said, it could be argued that television is where comic book properties really shine.
Think about it; when you follow a comic book, you go to the store every month to get the new issue, and follow along with the story. A television series works in much the same way; every week, you watch a new episode and get a little more of the story. It’s not an exact parallel, especially since the rise of streaming serves and ‘binge watching’, but the fact remains; the monthly release of a comic book series is quite similar to the the weekly cadence of a television series.
Smallville was arguably the first superhero show to prove that point, and it clearly paved the way for all the shows we enjoy today. It also proved that Superman himself translates well to television, and frankly, it’s about time he made a return.
10. Lois who?
Nothing against Lois Lane; she’s a great character (see #9). But it’s one of the more predictable elements of the Superman saga; Clark and Lois, together forever. Smallville made it to that point eventually, but in its early days, it was a different love interest who captured Clark’s heart.
Though the character already had a 50-year history when Smallville premiered, Lana Lang was likely unfamiliar to all but true Superman enthusiasts; certainly not a household name like Lois. Portrayed as Clark’s childhood sweetheart in many of the comic books (and some film and TV projects), it was only fitting that Smallville include her in its cast.
Played ably by Kristin Kreuk, Smallville’s Lana was the quintessential girl next door for Clark to pine over. Much of the show’s early drama revolved around Clark’s attempts to balance his desire for a normal life and relationship with the demands of his greater destiny, and he and Lana were always coming together only to be pulled apart.
Kreuk departed the series after the seventh season, her character having been through the wringer. Not all if it was great (the season she spent possessed by a witch, for example), but the chemistry between Welling and Kreuk and their characters was a big contributor to the show’s early success.
9. Lois Lane!
Now that we’ve applauded Smallville for giving Clark a fresh love interest, it’s time to commend it for doing a great job introducing the classic one!
Joining the show for its fourth season, Erica Durance made an immediate impact as Lois Lane. With Clark and his friends in their final year of high school, Durance’s Lois provided a more worldly perspective for them to play off of. Cleverly, the producers didn’t rush Lois and Clark into a romantic relationship. It wasn’t until the show’s final years that the pair began dating and ultimately got engaged. Instead, Clark’s relationship with Lana was allowed to run its course, while he and Lois developed a friendship (and occasional rivalry). It was a lot of fun watching Clark and Lois pal around (and snipe at each other) for a few seasons until the sparks that flew between them became impossible to ignore.
Smallville’s Lois ultimately wound up at the Daily Planet, of course. Throughout the series, Durance always instilled her Lois with passion and plenty of nerve. No damsel in distress, she always gave Clark (and his heroic alter ego) a run for his money.
DC’s Cinematic Universe has been polarizing to say the least, but the Justice League movie looks promising. Still, when it hits theaters this November, it will do so more than a decade after Smallville introduced the first real live action incarnation of the super team.
Yes, there was the 1979 TV movie Legends of the Superheroes (with Adam West’s Batman!) and the 1997 pilot Justice League of America, but they weren’t terribly faithful to the source material, and they’ve mostly been forgotten. Smallville, though it was Superman’s story, introduced other DC heroes as it progressed, including Impulse, Aquaman, Cyborg and Green Arrow. By the show’s sixth season, with all of those characters established, the series brought them all together for the episode “Justice”, which saw them team up to thwart one of Lex Luthor’s schemes.
The characters would return sporadically throughout the rest of Smallville’s run, with Black Canary added to the ranks. It may not have been the classic lineup, but it’s the closest we’ve gotten to date.
7. DC Deep Dive
The DC universe is incredibly vast. With hundreds of thousands of comic book stories to draw from, the producers of Smallville were in no danger of running out of ideas.
To their credit, however, they didn’t simply limit themselves to Superman’s own stories. Obviously he was the focus, and many of his best known allies and enemies appeared. But the series also reached deeper into the DC vaults for characters and stories that were decidedly less well known, but no less entertaining.
Throughout the series (and especially in later seasons), the series sprinkled in a number of heroes and villains that even devoted comic fans may not have expected to appear on a Superman show. From the Justice Society of America and its roster of Dr. Fate, Hawkman and Stargirl to the Wonder Twins, Zatanna and Booster Gold, plenty of DC’s “lower tier” heroes were showcased.
On the villainous side of things, lesser known characters like Titan, Plastique, Toyman, Icicle and Granny Goodness turned up to menace Clark and friends.
6. The Kents
Superman’s loving upbringing with the Kents in Smallville is an absolutely crucial element of his character. The unconditional love he received from his adoptive human parents, as well as the lessons they instilled in him, form the bedrock of his heroic identity, and ensure that he will never use his god-like powers for evil.
Smallville was no different. Arguably, the series was the best showcase the characters of Jonathan and Martha Kent have ever received. Unlike the feature films where they generally appear only briefly (and often in flashbacks), Smallville, in its early years, was essentially the story of the Kent family. Not only was Clark learning to understand his powers; so were his parents. Some of the most memorable moments from the first few seasons featured Clark and his parents marveling at his developing powers, whether he was accidentally hurling a tractor into the sky or setting the barn on fire with his heat vision.
The roles were cast perfectly on Smallville, with John Schneider bringing integrity and strength to his Jonathan while Annette O’Toole (once Lana Lang to Christopher Reeve’s Clark) excelled as the warm and compassionate Martha.
5. A guiding light
As the oldest and most powerful of DC’s iconic characters, Superman is often portrayed as leading the way for his fellow superheroes. He has the powers of a god and could easily force humanity to serve him, but instead he chooses to serve humanity.
That makes him more than just another hero in a costume; he’s a beacon of potential for humanity to follow. As Marlon Brando’s Jor-El so eloquently put it in Superman: The Movie, “They can be a great people, they wish to be… they only lack the light to show the way.” Superman is that light.
The ten-year journey of Smallville was all about getting Clark ready to take on that role; to be the symbol of hope that humanity needs. The values instilled in him by the Kents were crucial in that process, as were the many tests and challenges he endured from the Fortress of Solitude’s artificial iteration of his father Jor-El. Clark often doubted his ability to fulfill the destiny that his parents saw for him, but he eventually overcame his fears. When the Legion of Superheroes visited from the 31st century, they were in awe of Clark due to their knowledge of his future (their history), while in “Homecoming”, Brainiac 5 cast him in to the near future and he actually met his older self, who had fully embraced his role as Superman.
4. A true origin story
Every superhero needs a good origin story. It’s a critical element in creating a heroic character. Granted, some origin stories, like Batman’s, have become almost comically familiar at this point, and depending on the hero and the format, sometimes its best to excise the origin and jump right into the action. That’s certainly the case in movies, where the limited running time makes it difficult to include an origin story that is both effective and compact.
A television series has no such problems. Modern shows like Arrow and Supergirl have devoted episodes, even entire seasons, to their hero’s origins. Smallville, in concept, was an origin story from start to finish.
When we meet Clark in Smallville, he is just beginning to discover and understand his powers. He is far from the confident and capable hero he will one day become. He struggles with the temptation to use his immense powers for personal gain, whether it’s using his x-ray vision to see into the girl’s locker room or allowing his natural strength and speed to catapult him to football stardom. The guidance of his adopted parents is crucial as he endures the constant struggle between using his powers responsibly or abusing them. Through trial and error and years of experience, he learned the lessons of heroism the Kents and Jor-El were trying to teach him.
3. Celebrating the past
The producers of Smallville made it a priority to honor the legacy of the Superman franchise, both in the characters they included in their story and the actors and actresses they invited to make appearances.
Easily the most notable of these was Superman himself, Christopher Reeve, who made a handful of appearances as the mysterious Dr. Virgil Swann. A billionaire and physicist, Dr. Swann was a founding member of the Veritas Society which believed in the inevitability of alien visitation, specifically ‘the Traveler’ aka Clark. Though other members of Veritas had less noble aspirations, Dr. Swann was committed to protecting and guiding the Traveler and served as a mentor for Clark.
Reeve’s Lois Lane, Margot Kidder, also appeared on the show. Fittingly, she was cast as the assistant of Dr. Swann, Dr. Bridgette Crosby, though sadly Reeve passed away before the two could appear together on the show.
Later in the series, the stars of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman got their chance to return to the Superman saga. In a bit of genius casting, Teri Hatcher played the late mother of Erica Durance’s Lois Lane. Superman himself, Dean Cain, was eventually cast in the role of immortal villain Curtis Knox (Vandal Savage in all but name).
2. Tom Welling
Christopher Reeve will forever be Superman in the hearts of many. Henry Cavill looks the part like no other actor ever has. But nobody has played the dual role longer than Tom Welling. With ten years and 218 episodes under his belt, it’s unlikely that any actor will ever surpass the breadth (and the running time) of Welling’s pre-Superman adventures.
As the lead in the long-running show, Welling had a herculean task ahead of him, both in living up to the character’s legacy and being the lone actor to appear in every single episode. Though Smallville was an ensemble show, Clark was the foundation, and it was his journey to becoming Superman that kept fans tuning in for a decade. To Welling’s credit, he never faltered under the pressure, always imbuing his Clark with the inner strength, uncompromising morality and compassion that Superman is supposed to have.
1. The best Lex
A hero is only as great as his villain, and in Lex Luthor, Superman has an adversary for the ages. There’s a reason Lex has been a key villain in all of Superman’s cinematic and animated adventures to date; he’s an iconic character almost on the level of Superman himself.
With apologies to Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, Clancy Brown and all the other actors who have taken on the role of Lex, Smallville’s take on the character is arguably the best we’ve seen to date.
When viewers first tuned into Smallville, they might have expected to see the youthful Lex Luthor living up to his villainous destiny by being a constant enemy of the young Clark Kent. Instead, they saw a conflicted young man struggling between his family’s dark legacy and his own desire to walk a brighter path. Rather than become enemies, Smallville’s Clark and Lex were fast friends. Watching the relationship between the two friends gradually deteriorate over the years until they finally became enemies was one of the most compelling, and often heartbreaking, elements of the show.
While Tom Welling’s Clark was instrumental in that process, the true ‘MVP’ of the series was Michael Rosenbaum. The subtleties he layered into his performance kept the audience riveted as his Lex slowly but surely transformed from a flawed but caring friend to a paranoid, deluded villain. Rosenbaum’s Lex was the greatest of the show’s many accomplishments.
What are your memories of Smallville? Is it one of your favorite Superman stories? Let us know in the comments.
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