Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Remember when DC superheroes weren’t all about that grimdark life? In 2001, the WB (later the CW) welcomed us to sunny Smallville, the home of the Kent family, the Luthor fertilizer plant, and Smallville High where a young Clark Kent was bumbling his way through algebra, first loves, and emerging powers like X-ray vision. Every episode opened with the unmistakable and catchy theme: “Somebody save me, Let your warm hands break right through and, Save me…” And viewers settled in for 10 long years of watching the origin story of one of the oldest and most beloved superheroes in American pop culture unfold. Everyone knows Clark Kent becomes Superman; the key to Smallville’s long run and success was in inviting the viewer to watch how he became a hero. More than that, Smallville was so compelling because it became a story about what heroism is at all.
What does it take to make a hero, and what does it take to make a villain? Smallville approached these questions with plenty of time and space to answer them. Although we have no end of origin stories in superhero entertainment these days, Smallville was the first TV show to take a well-known superhero and deconstruct his heroism, to carefully unpack it over the course of multiple seasons—totaling over 200 episodes. Superman was an interesting character to do this with because he is so morally unflappable—thus he’s also probably the superhero most often portrayed as a Christ figure. He’s god-like, a son of Krypton sent to Earth by a “heavenly” father; he’s a protector; he’s self-sacrificial; he’s just so very good. Tom Welling’s portrayal in Smallville of a young Clark Kent struggling with his emerging powers on the family farm in Smallville, Kansas, is filled with an earnest integrity and a believable internal struggle that endeared him to fans of both the character and the show.Or perhaps it would be better stated that [Clark Kent’s] heroism isn’t in how he uses his powers, but in how he has to learn to lay his powers aside—over and over again.
But simply being powered and having integrity does not necessarily make one Superman—or any sort of hero, for that matter. It is in going through Clark’s origin story that we get to see all the ways, reasons, and times Clark Kent could have chosen to turn away—all the many times he could have decided not to become Superman. And we get to evaluate what makes him a hero, and what makes him worthy of the mantle of our favorite Son of Krypton.
Smallville is, for all intents and purposes, a soap opera—a dramatic story focusing on the same cast of characters in the same domestic setting utilizing a high proportion of melodrama. And although there are many external conflicts thrown at Clark Kent and company, the real driving conflicts, season after season, are interrelational: between Clark and his parents, Clark and his friends, and Clark and Lex Luthor.
But Smallville is also much more than a soap opera—a genre of entertainment people tend to look down on. Smallville is a surprisingly thoughtful superhero drama, which means that side-by-side with meteor-rock-induced madness and story arcs bloated with comic book hyperbole are examinations of the psychology of villainy and the culpability of good people in the downfall of the wicked. In Smallville, soap and melodrama are somehow easy bedfellows with classical crises of faith and Aristotelian virtue ethics. But isn’t this what good comic book entertainment should do? Fantasticize the mundane to draw forward stark, moral conversations? In between all the melodrama and (oft) cheesy action sequences are frequent moments of real tension that elevate Smallville above the campiness of previous televised superhero entertainment and also take it beyond the soap-iness of soap opera. In the first episode, for example, a teenage Clark Kent is strung up on a scarecrow post, cruciform, with an S painted on his chest, and it was clear the writers weren’t going to pull any punches when it came to their hero and savior symbolism.
It is still important that Smallville is a soap opera, though, for that allowed it to stay focused on, well, the smallness of its setting and cast. Throughout the narrative, Clark is bound to his community—it forms him and informs him, and he loves the people around him, even when they are deeply flawed. As an orphan sent to Earth and adopted into a human family, Clark’s sense of duty to his community is nuanced. His parents chose to love him, and he chooses to return their love, to uplift, and not to forsake them—even as he longs to know his first family and understand where he came from. Clark’s first community is his home, his second is the city of Smallville, but over the course of the show, as Clark grows and his abilities (and therefore his powers and responsibilities) expand, so also does his community. He moves to Metropolis and creates a new, larger, community there. And, of course, eventually Clark’s community will encompass the whole world—once he steps into his role as Superman.
Something Smallville doesn’t show until the very last episode of the very last season is Clark Kent putting on the red and blue spandex and cape and becoming the ultimate hero he’s best known to be. Fans have long quibbled over how long it took to get to that payoff—and if the writers made the right choice to hold off on letting him be seen as Superman during Smallville’s long run. Whatever your perspective may be, the purpose of Smallville was right there in the title all along. It wasn’t meant to be a show about the exploits of Superman. Smallville is a story of how an exceptional farm boy who just happened to be from Krypton navigated the social highs and lows of high school, college, and early adulthood—all while discovering and learning his powers, finding out about his birth family, and keeping his identity a secret from people who would exploit him. It is, in short, the story of how Clark Kent became a hero. Once he put on the cape, there was nothing left for Smallville to show us. Other stories (lots of them) have been written about Clark Kent as Superman.
But you don’t have to sit through 10 seasons to understand what it is the writers of Smallville were saying about heroism all that time. Clark’s heroism ultimately isn’t about his superpowers at all, but about his righteousness and his pursuit of justice. Or perhaps it would be better stated that his heroism isn’t in how he uses his powers, but in how he has to learn to lay his powers aside—over and over again. You can see this if you only watch a season or two, or even just a few episodes. It’s a message hard-baked into the show.
Smallville demonstrates that perhaps being a hero is found in being righteous in the face of an imbalance of power. Clark Kent is someone who has far more power than anyone else in Smallville—save perhaps Lex Luthor. Lex and Clark are both incredibly powerful, but their powers are of such a different substance as to not even meet; they run essentially parallel to each other. Clark could level the town of Smallville with his hands, eyes, and even his breath, but has no socioeconomic advantage over anyone. The Kents live a modest lifestyle and frequently struggle to make ends meet. Lex Luthor has all the usual physical limitations of the average human, but so much economic influence that with one stroke of his pen, he could influence, alter, or destroy the lives and reputations of anyone or everyone in the town of Smallville and beyond. The main difference between the two characters is that Lex Luthor frequently indulges his privilege, even before he becomes a villain in the show, whereas Clark daily holds himself back—often to his own detriment.
And this is what makes Clark Kent not only a hero, but also righteous. Theologian Bruce Waltke says this on the topic: “The righteous are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” The issue is not that it’s wrong to have power, but rather what you do with that power if and once you have it. It’s about stewarding power to lift up your community—coming to the defense of the defenseless. Some people cannot help that they are powerful or privileged over others. Neither Clark Kent nor Lex Luthor asked for the power they each hold, but what do they do with it? Clark’s ultimate nemesis is not someone equal to him in superhuman strength, but a wealthy, unjust businessman. Someone who takes advantage of his community for his own gain. But Clark uplifts his community, consistently to his own disadvantage. To become Superman, he has to learn to restrain himself for the good of others. He cannot pursue justice until he learns to deny himself daily. And that is the real story Smallville tells—the story of what makes someone a hero.
I know a lot of people are suffering “superhero fatigue” these days, but I’m thankful to be returning to a rewatch of Smallville. It’s soapy and fantastic and thoughtful and sometimes cheesy, but it also reminds me of the proper way to steward privilege and power in my community. It makes me think, in its own comic-book way, of what it means to be like Christ.