I know I’ve been gone from the blog for a while and this is a weird way to come back, but for over a decade I’ve been harbouring really strong feelings about how Smallville, the CW’s Superman-as-a-teenager show, squandered two storytelling opportunities and I need to finally express myself. 🙂
Smallville had two common licensed television problems; the pacing and writing was sometimes awful because they had to stretch their dramatic arcs out over a season and hurry to produce the shows on schedule, and they weren’t allowed to mess with the DC properties very much resulting in pretty weak character development. They maybe should have committed early on to only running three seasons – their high-school years seem interminable and most of the actors were in their 30s by the time it finished it’s run. But I suppose being renewed endlessly because you’re a hugely popular show is a good problem to have.
Missed Opportunity #1:
There’s an Episode midway through Season 3 called Shattered, where Lex Luthor, who to this point has been scheming and nasty but not “evil”, is being manipulated by some conspirators to believe he’s losing his mind. The episode comes to a head when someone (who is actually trying to kill Lex, it’s not just in his head) tries to run him down in a car. Clark shows up at the last moment and saves Lex, debris and twisted metal everywhere, and finally Lex knows that his suspicions about Clark’s powers were true. Nobody believes him, and minutes later he’s whisked away to a mental hospital where the final, poignant shot is of Lex, straight-jacketed in a cell, while Johnny Cash’s Hurt plays us out.
In the next episode Asylum Clark feels bad for Lex being in the hospital but does nothing – he doubts Lex’s sanity and leaves him in a dangerous situation “for his own good” – but also to protect Clark’s identity. Clark and his friends eventually discover that Lex may hold a key to unraveling the conspiracy, and only THEN Clark goes to save him, but it’s too late and Lex’s short-term memory has been erased through drugs and torture.
From there the story continues, with Lex reset to the plot points of the previous season, only rarely making references back to this situation. But what we saw play out was huge for the mythos of Superman. Clark is basically an omnipotent being, and can accomplish anything set before him. What makes Superman an interesting character is not the struggle to lift the biggest boulder, but what he choses to do with that power. And in these two episodes he intentionally leaves his friend to suffer. It’s not just inaction or confusion that prevents Superman from doing the right thing, but his own self-interests. This is a very dark morality play!
The writers missed a chance to turn the whole Superman-Lex relationship on it’s head here. Had Lex’s memories started to trickle back, we would have had a chance to empathise with Lex. Not only were his family and friends actually out to get him, but his best friend was really a malevolent god, an unstoppable monster who can tear cars apart and smash through walls, who chose to allow (and partly caused) Lex’s torture, among a litany of other tragedies that Clark could have stopped in the preceding 3 seasons.
This would have been huge because it justifies everything we know about Lex – that he obsessively hates Superman, that he’s threatened by Clark’s great power, and often (in the comics) believes he’s doing the right thing for humanity by bringing an end to our caped hero.
But no – we dive into a love triangle for a few episodes and everything is forgotten.
Missed Opportunity #2:
At the end of the 5th season, for their 100th Episode, there’s a full-on Lex/Lana/Clark love triangle happening, so Clark finally makes a stand, reveals everything to Lana, flies her to the Fortress of Solitude and proposes marriage. A little later she tells Lex, who’s upset to lose her, and moreover to Clark, the aforementioned malevolent god-monster. He has a freakout. She races away in her car, but Lex follows her to apologize. She calls Clark to warn him that Lex knows everything, but just as Clark is racing to her, a schoolbus (making the rounds after dark?) comes out of nowhere and plows into her, killing her.
Lex stands there astonished, while Clark races up at super speed only to find he’s too late.
Lex again believes Clark is a dangerous monster who’s indirectly responsible for her death, and Clark knows Lex was chasing after Lana when she died – THIS is a set-up! It’s all out war – the pretenses of friendship can finally be dropped, paranoid and well-prepared Lex can go toe-to-toe with an outraged god – and there’s still 6 episodes left in the season! They’re going to tear Smallville apart brick by brick! Can Superman learn to forgive? Can Lex admit his own failings? Are we all doomed?
But a commercial break later, everything is re-set by a time-travel crystal, and Clark changes the timeline so Lana lives and someone else dies. The incredible momentum this could have lent to the show is thrown away for (I assume) actor’s contractual obligations – but how amazing would it have been if they killed off a tentpole character on a Christmas episode?! This would have been an unprecedented move on primetime television, a decade before Game of Thrones made character-cide a popular pass-time.
There were so many places the writers could have gone without this deus ex machina reset to the status quo that infuriates me – despite a number of strikes in previous episodes, this is where I finally gave up on Smallville in frustration and dropped it off my must-watch list.