Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Smallville and the Ubermensch

Smallville shows us a Superman that most of us have never read, heard, or thought about. A Superman before he was 'Super'. Certainly, he has his powers and he is perfectly capable of using them for good, but Smallville is about the journey in getting there; getting to the point where he is willing to put on tights and cape to go fly around full-time to save people from danger.

Social Connections

The primary reason Smallville has been so appealing to me is its incredible success in humanizing Superman/Clark Kent. I have never been so impressed by a TV show's ability to present situations that I can genuinely empathize with through experience. Most of Smallville (Season 1, where I am at) is about Clark and his years in high school, how he copes with friendship, love, and day-to-day life as a teenager that is secretly far more unique than his classmates.

What one would expect would be for the show to focus on Clark's powers and his learning process in using them safely and, in that, Smallville is no slouch. But what surprised me was how, instead of being simply a sequence of superpowered events, the show spends most of its time on Clark and the people around him, what makes them happy, sad, and how they each learn in their own ways how to approach life and each other. Clark may have superpowers but, for all intents and purposes, he could be completely powerless and Smallville would still be a great show.

It is hard to write about how something that deals with abstract feelings and social concepts can do so in such a brilliant way. But I can say this. Even though Clark is, at his core, a superhuman, it is very rare for me to empathize so completely with someone in book, film, or show. Despite his powers, he goes through high school and events in his personal life in a way that resonates with me personally and relates to my own trek through high school and, for that matter, life. The actors portray their characters brilliantly, the writing seems great to me; each of these elements combine to make me really feel for Clark, his friends, and even his enemies. It addresses teenage conflict and drama, but in a way that isn't overly emotional or hard to take seriously. Even the villains are easy to relate to. I've yet to see a villain-of-the-day who I didn't feel some connection with; most are honest, ordinary people who utilize unexpected powers in ways that are often wrong. But you can see where they are coming from. This is an impressive accomplishment, particularly since I've never seen a villain-of-the-episode method able to do that.

Powers and Portents

But, despite the mesmerizing character interactions and relatable story events, this is still a show about a young Superman, and his powers are of great importance. In this, Smallville is succeeding, although with one hitch. At this point, the show represents Clark's powers in three manifestations: his incredible speed, his super strength, and his x-ray vision. Each of these is utilized reasonably and, though you can see budgetary constraints holding down the extent of their use, I rarely found myself skeptically raising an eyebrow or losing immersion in the show whenever they showed up. Even though Clark is empowered thus, he still gives a sense of vulnerability and danger when needed, and only occasionally does it occur to me how outclassed other villains are when he is put next to them.

However, part of that has to do with the gratuitous use of Kryptonite everywhere in the show. For those not in the know, Kryptonite is a mineral from the asteroid shower that originally destroyed Superman's home planet. When he arrives on Earth in his escape pod as a child, he is accompanied by some of the Kryptonite residue from his planet's destruction. When he is near Kryptonite, though, his powers are weakened considerably and he is vulnerable to pain and death like any normal individual.

The problem is a complex one for the show, and I both understand and condemn their use of Kryptonite within every single episode. It has been used in a good way with how it has brought powers to normal people of Smallville; seeing how a person like you and me reacts and uses unforeseen powers is always interesting. But the bad part about this is that, no matter what, Kryptonite is almost always used as an equalizer to bring Clark nearer to the villains' power level. Every single time so far, Kryptonite has been nearby when Clark goes to confront the villain and, every single time, he is weakened by its presence, knocked around for a bit, then overwhelms the villain when he is distanced from it.

So far this hasn't bothered me that much, as the use of superpowers has been a mostly pleasant diversion from the meat of the show: character interaction. But, if this keeps up, it is just going to get more and more annoying and feel more and more contrived. We'll see what will happen, but thus far it represents a caution sign for me. If it continues, and issues like this become more and more prominent, it will weaken the show as a whole.


So far I am greatly enjoying Smallville. It has shown me a side of Superman that I've never seen before, and I am able to fully accept Smallville's casting as having excellent representations of Clark, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, and his adopted parents. So far, compared to the aspects of Superman's character I touched upon in the previous post, Smallville has been doing an excellent job of balancing Superman's unique and inherently lonely character with his gradual bonding with humanity as a whole. Time will tell with regard to the other facets, the danger of abusing his powers for his own goals and the potential for his idealistic heart to blind him from the murkier paths of life.

I will talk in more detail about this and the characters when I finish Season 1 and write a review of it. Until then, I can definitively say that, so far, Smallville is a great show and, so long as nineties-era music and the occasional teenage 'emo-ness' doesn't bother you, it is definitely worth checking out.

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