It’s hard to fathom now, but only twenty years ago, superhero movies weren’t big business in Hollywood. Heck, they weren’t big business on TV. But in October 2001, Smallville was about to change that.
Smallville‘s pilot aired on October 16, 2001, to critical acclaim and commercial success. The pilot episode broke the WB’s rating record for highest ratings for a new series (the network on which it aired before WB merged with UPN to create the CW) and, unlike its young protagonist, flew high for ten years. It finally ended on May 13, 2011, with around 3.39 million viewers tuning in to see Clark seize his destiny.
The question, of course, remains. What made Smallville such a roaring success? And, indeed, how did it influence the superhero TV of today? You have to remember, the WB (and later, the CW) were the network known for teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, and One Tree Hill. It was the last network expected to platform the then-longest-running science fiction show of all time. Let’s celebrate Smallville’s 20th Anniversary and the new Blu-Ray set, let’s dive deep into what made Smallville a success…
Superman’s Bare Essence
The most obvious reason for Smallville‘s success is Clark Kent himself. While comic book fans may differ, the general public saw Superman as your run-of-the-mill goody-two-shoes superhero. However, co-creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar pushed for a different take on the iconic hero: “We wanted our Clark Kent to have angst and edge, without losing the essence of who he grows up to be”, says Gough in a 2001 interview with KryptonSite shortly before the show first aired.
Indeed, Clark had angst and edge by the bucket-load. The super-powered teenager felt alienated from his peers from an early age due to his abilities – and learns of his alien origins in the pilot episode. Understandably, this doesn’t help his alienation any better and the knowledge that his spaceship fell alongside the meteor shower that killed the parents of his crush, Lana Lang, fills him with guilt. He spends much of the show desperately trying to hide his powers, afraid people won’t accept him otherwise and wishing he was “normal”. The creative decision to show Clark wrestle with the pains of adolescence and young adulthood makes it a relatable story for the audience. We all have personal struggles growing up and in life, and we can see those reflected in the young Superman.
Clark’s growth is also explored on a physical level. In the pilot, Clark only has his super-speed and super-strength. However, as the series progresses, he gradually develops his other iconic powers such as X-Ray Vision and Super Hearing. This is a byproduct of Kryptonian adolescence on Earth, and at first, Clark often struggles to use them effectively. The only power Clark doesn’t have until the finale’s ending is his flight ability. This is due to the show’s infamous “no tights, no flights” rule which swore that he wouldn’t fly, nor wear the suit during the series. In this sense, the character is grounded not only metaphorically, but literally as well.
Clark Kent’s Pals
Alas, Superman cannot survive on himself alone. He’s got to have friends and family fill out the cast. Where Smallville is concerned, it succeeds with the supporting cast in the same manner that it does its main character. Clark’s parents are somewhat younger than their traditional comic counterparts, so they can lend their son emotional support and strong values when he needs them. Canon foreigner, Chloe Sullivan, is an aspiring teenage journo who researches Smallville’s weird goings-on through the high school newspaper. Their struggles alone are as relatable as Clark’s, from Chloe’s growing crush on her childhood buddy and his parents’ struggle to raise their son.
But one of the most important relationships in Smallville is that of Clark and Lex. Like Clark, Lex is searching for his own identity and isn’t sure where he fits. Although a little older than Clark, he still has a long way to go to find himself. While he and Clark quickly become best friends, their relationship suffers throughout the show as Clark refuses to share his secrets with him and as Lex grows more evil. One of Smallville‘s best creative decisions is how Clark and Lex’s friendship leads them to their respective destinies.
You can see Smallville‘s effort to humanize its legendary characters at every turn. Indeed, you can see this effort recreated in modern superhero TV Shows. As former co-showrunner Miles Millar observes in KryptonSite‘s 20th-anniversary interview, Smallville “showed what kind of depth of emotion and character [movies and TV Shows] could get from a comic book world”. This can be seen from the small screen’s Arrowverse to the Marvel Cinematic Universe today.
Dawn of Justice
It’s telling that, even in later seasons when the showrunners amped up the superhero action and brought in more DC characters, it didn’t lose the magic that made it great in the first place. Justin Hartley’s Green Arrow was the first character to ‘suit up’ in the series, but he was made interesting via his conflict with Clark and their differences on how to fight crime. Arthur Curry, Victor Stone, and Barry Allen appear and yet, the show still prioritizes their characters first over the action. Because guest stars aside, Smallville was aware that its real superpower was its heart, something still apparent days when you watch the 20th Anniversary Blu-Ray today.
Certainly, the series had its fair share of downsides. Many agree that the Clark-Lana romance lasted too long (“That was probably a three-season love story that lasted six seasons”, admits Millar in a 2014 Sundance interview). And that Clark experienced way too much ‘aesop amnesia’, blaming himself for things that aren’t his fault and refusing to embrace his destiny over and over again. Fans also disliked the treatment of some characters i.e. Jimmy Olsen.
That said, every piece of art has its flaws. But Smallville did more right than wrong. It humanized a superhero that casual viewers thought was nothing more than a cliche and paved the way for emotional complexity in superhero television and cinema. That’s an achievement as super as the Man of Steel himself.
What are your favorite memories of the show? Have you bought the Smallville 20th Anniversary Blu-Ray? your thoughts in the comments below…