Despite Clark Kent not donning the iconic costume and taking it to the skies until the series finale, Smallville was and still is the best Superman TV show that has ever been made. Before there was an Arrowverse or even the vast number of other comic book shows that exist today, Smallville was the show to watch after it premiered in 2001. Back then, most broadcast networks were hesitant in adapting superhero properties to the small screen. But for The WB (before becoming The CW,) the Superman prequel came at the right time and became a huge hit instantly. Despite originally only planning to run for 5 seasons, Smallville’s longevity got extended once The CW was born in 2006.
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Throughout Smallville’s run on TV, the creators brought in many characters from the Superman mythology. From major players like Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White, to iconic foes such as Darkseid, Doomsday, and General Zod, Clark ended up encountering many of these people before even becoming Superman. However, for as much Superman content that Smallville brought in and put its spin on, there was one rule that the series was built upon from the beginning: no tights, no flights. While Clark wore proto-suits and did fly (under special circumstances), Smallville only saw him as Superman proper in the final two hours of the series.
However, even if Clark only suited up and finally mastered the power of flight in the final episode, Smallville was, for all intents and purposes, still a Superman series. While many fans of the iconic hero see his tights and flight as essential to the character, Clark is more than what he wears and what heroic name he goes by. For 10 years, Tom Welling got to get to the roots of Clark Kent that haven’t been explored as much in other live-action adaptations, which were under time limitations to move past his origin story and establish him as Superman. Despite the strict “no tights, no flights” mandate, this is why Smallville became the ultimate Superman television series, and why it still holds up today.
Clark’s Actions Makes Him Superman, Not The Suit
While other Superman TV shows have featured Clark in the iconic suit, Welling’s version only wore the shirt piece during the final shot in the series finale. Pretty much every other scene where Welling was “in the suit” was just CGI, which led to much criticism from viewers. While it’s understandable that fans who had invested 10 years following this character were upset, what Clark wears isn’t what makes him Superman. It certainly is an imperative aspect of the Man of Steel, without a doubt, but Smallville gave fans 10 years of Clark being the hero that so many know him to be in the comics. From the first season and beyond, viewers saw Clark on a weekly basis saving people from various threats, whether it be meteor-infected baddies or super-villains from the comics.
In the later years, Clark began to explore his Kryptonian destiny in a way that other Superman media hasn’t done as much of. Even if Clark did meet huge villains like Metallo, Toyman, and Brainiac way before becoming the titular hero, they’ll always be in Superman’s life regardless. For Clark to face them as a young man made him even more prepared, hence why they may be more challenging in the future as he keeps encountering them. But ultimately, Clark’s actions are what makes him worthy of the Superman name by always using his abilities for the greater good. Even if he is missing the red cape and blue tights, Clark is a hero to the core regardless of what he wears.
Smallville Gave The Man of Steel Layers That Were Missing
One of the strongest elements that the Smallville creators gave this version of Clark were layers that made Superman even more complex. Throughout the early years of his origin story, Clark wasn’t necessarily interested in embracing the destiny that Jor-El had set up for him. It took him until the second half of Smallville for Clark to finally trust his biological father, and slowly but steadily explore his ultimate role as Earth’s greatest savior. But what makes Welling’s take on Superman so fascinating is that he was insecure and doubtful about his ability to fulfill that destiny. There was even a time where Clark lived as a mortal after losing his powers for good after failing to follow Jor-El’s orders.
Even though that didn’t last for long, there was still a moment in Clark’s life where he was happy to just be a regular human being. What makes a great Superman are the versions where Clark realistically does question whether this is what he was meant to do. But more importantly, is this something he wants to do? By the time Smallville season 8 got around to the Red-Blue-Blur phase of the origin story, it was evident that Clark was putting his heart into embracing his destiny. But the concept of seeing this particular hero – whose legacy span over decades – doubting himself and question if he could live up to this role, is what makes Welling’s Clark one of the most well-developed versions of the character on the screen in the modern age.
The No Flights Rule Honors Action Comics #1
Throughout Clark’s progression on Smallville, viewers saw him master one ability after another every season. However, one half of the show’s mandate was that Clark would never be able to fly, at least not before the very end. Even though Clark did fly on multiple occasions, it still never counted as his first official flight. While Clark technically always had the power to fly, it took him about 10 years to actually know how to masterfully use that power. From a production standpoint, it’s understandable that the restriction may have also been driven by budget costs. However, even if it wasn’t their intention, Smallville actually managed to honor Action Comics #1, the issue that introduced Superman to the world.
While the Man of Steel has been able to fly for decades in the comics, Clark actually didn’t have that power initially. When Superman made his debut in 1938, the Last Son of Krypton actually couldn’t fly at all. Instead, he traveled through super-speed or, as the saying goes, being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Throughout Clark’s super-saves, he was mostly getting from one place to another through the power of speed. But there were also occasions where he would literally leap in order to save the day. So while it’s understandable that viewers would be frustrated that Clark didn’t fly on a regular basis, it’s not like the idea of him only being able to run and leap never actually existed from the source material.
Smallville Made The Lois & Clark Relationship Refreshing
Smallville season 4 made a shocking move when they introduced one of, if not the, most iconic and important person in Clark’s life as Superman: Lois Lane. Portrayed by Erica Durance for 6 seasons, Lois entered Clark’s world much earlier compared to most Superman adaptations on-screen. Normally, Lois doesn’t become part of Clark’s journey until when he gets to Metropolis and starts working at the Daily Planet. In this incarnation, Lois is depicted as Chloe Sullivan’s cousin who comes to Smallville to investigate her relative’s murder. While initially meeting Clark as Kal-El (before being freed from Jor-El’s brainwashing), the two eventually begin the big relationship that ended in them falling in love with each other many seasons later. Even if this is unusual for the Superman and Lois dynamic, this was one of the best decisions Smallville ever did for this iconic couple in live-action.
For over 6 years, viewers got to really get to the meat of the Lois and Clark dynamic before getting to their destiny as a romantic couple. While the writers did indeed still have Lois not knowing his secret until much later, the way she becomes part of helping Clark embrace his ultimate destiny made their dynamic that more refreshing. It also allowed Smallville to add something new to the Superman legacy by not going the traditional route of Lois only meeting Clark after he begins his path as the Man of Tomorrow. By the time they’re finally together with Lois knowing his secret, the pay-off was incredibly worth it. Even if it took over 5 seasons, the journey that Lois and Clark take before finally reaching that point became one of Smallville’s best chapters.
The Smallville Version Of Lex Luthor Is The Best One In Live-Action
Just like there have been multiple takes on Superman in live-action, so has there been with the character of Lex Luthor. Smallville wasn’t only an origin story for Clark, but also for Lex and his destiny as Superman’s ultimate antagonist. While many actors have portrayed the iconic mastermind, the dedication and work that Michael Rosenbaum put into Lex over seven seasons make him stand out from every other performer. The decision to have Lex and Clark start as best friends before becoming the best of rivals is another reason why Smallville excelled at adapting the Superman universe in refreshing ways. With the addition of John Glover’s Lionel Luthor, Lex’s journey became one of the most compelling and understandable origin stories for a villain in modern storytelling. Smallville put the essence on Lex’s complicated relationship with Lionel, the constantly changing dynamic between him and Clark, and how the world essentially villainized him at an early point in his life.
To see someone having that many obstacles when trying to be good makes Lex’s journey truly tragic as he ultimately does becomes Clark’s nemesis in the seventh season. Rosenbaum’s Lex was also portrayed in a way where he couldn’t be ridiculed, like previous incarnations in other Superman media. Despite knowing that he was destined to become Superman’s biggest enemy, the writing always managed to make Lex’s journey intriguing, surprising, and refreshing. By the time Lex embraces his role as Clark’s nemesis, it feels earned and organic. While others have played Lex after Rosenbaum, it has never been on his level nor have they never had the same writing that his Lex had.
While Smallville followed the broad strokes of Superman mythology, it also benefited from putting its own spin on it for 10 years. From giving Lois an even larger role in Clark’s life (as well as her own origin story) to how they tackled Lex’s complexity as a destined villain-to-be, to Clark’s evolution as a superhero – those are part of what keeps Smallville as relevant as it still is today. Welling and Durance’s cameos in Crisis on Infinite Earths were partially a way to show gratitude to Smallville in paving the way for the comic book genre on television that exists today.
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