Superman Subverted: How Superman & Lois Reinvents the Man of Steel
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Superman & Lois.**
The CW’s latest iteration of the world’s greatest superhero opens with a quick retread of familiar events over a conspicuous voiceover provided by the Man of Steel himself, played here by Tyler Hoechlin. We see the iconic Kryptonian spaceship crash-landing in the middle of nowhere, USA, and its subsequent discovery by Ma and Pa Kent. We see Clark’s years as a youth in Smallville race by in a montage, leading up to father Jonathan’s untimely death. Then we come to the moment Clark meets intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Bitsie Tulloch), and they fall head over heels for one another. The next thing we know, we are off to the races, and Superman is doing his usual superhero thing, stopping a nuclear reactor meltdown with a dash of quick thinking and a lot of super-strength.
With the focus on Clark and his life instead of Superman and his superhero antics, the Man of Steel suddenly becomes humanized in very profound and important ways.For anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the character of Superman, these scenes are usually the ones that come to mind when asked to recount his history. Immortalized by dozens of stories in different iterations over the years, Superman and his well-known backstory are as American and familiar to us as baseball season and apple pie. And all of this is packed into the opening minutes of the pilot episode of Superman & Lois.
From the jump, this show slowly subverts our expectations for what an on-screen Superman story is supposed to be. The stuff that most often consists of the entire plot of another movie has here been condensed into a two-minute backstory. It is all treated so casually, almost with a handwave, that we might not even realize how taken aback we should be. And before we know it, we are spirited from the world of superheroes to a world that might seem even more familiar to us—the mundane, humdrum world of everyday life. And herein lies the genius of Superman & Lois, a total subversion of all the usual Superman tropes we have grown accustomed to seeing on screen, a complete reinvention of what Superman stories can and should be. In approaching the material this way, the CW just may have cracked the code to making Superman just as relevant today as he was in 1938.
There is a reason this show is not simply called “Superman.” This is not a rehash of that kitschy ’90s television series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. No, this is a show about the Superman and the woman who married him, and the life they have built together. There are moments of utter silence that permeate the pilot episode, threading through shots of Clark and Lois standing at the old Kent farmstead, gazing out across the flat Kansas expanse before them, trying to figure out their next move as parents, and where they stand as husband and wife.
See, Superman & Lois moves us far forward in time, to a point when Superman and Lois have been together for years. Their relationship has some miles on it, and they are both a little older and a little wiser. They have two teenage sons, Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) and Jordan (Alexander Garfin). The novelty of Superman has worn off, not only for the world, but also for Lois—the moment Clark steps through the door from stopping that reactor meltdown, Lois is on his case for missing his scheduled therapy session with Jordan. Before he can so much as greet her, Lois is gone again with the burdens of work.
He exchanges shallow “go get ’em” talk with football star Jon, then attempts and fails to make any kind of emotional connection with Jordan. Then, his mother (a criminally underutilized Michele Scarabelli) calls him, having glimpsed his handiwork on the news, and cautions him to not forget his responsibility to his family while out there saving the world. It all culminates with Clark standing in the dimly lit hallway of his home, having just saved the world, but without having any sort of real connection with most important people in his life.
A subplot involving a mysterious man in a suit of powered armor who knows a lot more about Superman than Superman knows about him offers the series the usual comic book flair. Yet this particular narrative element is treated as a secondary storyline. There is a moment in the pilot episode wherein Sam Lane (Dylan Walsh), Lois’s strait-laced military-man father, drops by the Kent household to give them an update on the situation involving the villain. Just when we think the story is about to delve into this plotline, Lois breaks in and reminds them that, despite what is happening on the world stage, the important thing is that Clark’s family needs him, that his priorities, in that particular moment, are at home.
Of course, this thread comes to a head in the big knock-down, drag-out brawl that we are accustomed to seeing at this point; however, even this battle plays into the show’s subversive tendencies, by actually having the villain best Superman with a shard of Kryptonite. At every turn, the show twists our expectations for how Superman stories are supposed to unfurl. But simply undercutting audience expectations does not worthwhile viewing make—when done carelessly, this particular style of storytelling can come across as more interested in being provocative than sincere. Thankfully, Superman & Lois does not make that mistake.
Instead, the story’s focus is kept on the smaller, more intimate moments that transpire between the four members of a family trying to navigate difficult life circumstances in the wake of one unexpected turn of events after another. “When we were dreaming about having a family,” Lois says to Clark, “it didn’t look like this, did it? Lost jobs, teens with severe anxiety, parents gone too soon.” These are words only spoken by people who have lived and experienced, words that the usual comic book fans, teenaged or in their early twenties, might struggle to relate to simply by virtue of being too young.
With the focus on Clark and his life instead of Superman and his superhero antics, the Man of Steel suddenly becomes humanized in very profound and important ways. This is a bold storytelling decision. By making these beloved characters grown-ups, more interested in real life struggles than in punching supervillains in the face, the writers develop a story packing an unexpected pathos that helps audiences swallow the pill of having their expectations subverted. In fact, the story here is told so earnestly and carefully and masterfully that perhaps some of us might fail to realize just how subversive this series actually is.
The Messianic connections between Superman and Jesus are, often times, not subtle. We have seen the imagery developed in the years since Superman’s inception, and then recycled time and again, both in the source material and in other media. Superman & Lois is far less interested in these parallels than other stories, yet their approach to the usual Superman mythology highlights one of the most significant aspects of the biblical narrative—the incarnation.
Most Superman stories tend to double-down on the parallels of otherworldly power and sacrifice. Superman & Lois, however, aims for something a little more reserved, but nonetheless profound. This series is interested in giving us a Superman who has gone through the ups and downs of human experience, who has experienced all the little twists and turns of human drama, even in the midst of greater cosmic conflict.
How many of us have wished we could just up, up, and away from the mind-numbing tedium of that nine-to-five, or punch through a wall to let off steam after a heated argument with our significant other, or a conversation after which we found ourselves unemployed? Superman & Lois presents to us a Superman who has experienced these things and more, a Clark Kent for whom being Superman has perhaps become an emotional crutch, a way of avoiding the humdrum problems of home. This series is here to remind us that even the Man of Steel gets it wrong sometimes and, ironically, reminds us that Superman, for all his parallels with the Messiah, is most certainly not Jesus.
Yet Clark’s willingness to admit that he got it wrong, his humility and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of his family, are qualities we can and should admire. If heroes exist to point humanity toward a better tomorrow, then perhaps the Superman we most need now, in a society where absentee fathers are an increasing social concern, and COVID precautions have forced people back into their homes, where all the little cracks in our most significant relationships are amplified, is one with the ability to recognize his flaws, a willingness to name them for what they are, and the bravery to face them alongside his wife.
Superman is the quintessential superhero, the archetype against which all others are measured. What has kept him alive and in the public awareness for generations is his malleability, his capacity to be updated with the times, without sacrificing his most timeless and mythological attributes. Superman & Lois, in giving us one of the most subversive takes on this character in recent memory, has perhaps produced the most important and emotionally resonant Man of Steel story of our time.