A Smallville Retrospective
The Big and Small Legacies of Smallville
Over a decade after its finale and two decades after its premiere, two fans (Chris Souza and Geoff S.) reflect on the good, the bad, and the weird of Smallville, the show that launched a thousand ‘ships and still influences how superhero television works–and doesn’t work–today.
- What drew you to the show initially?
Chris: I remember seeing trailers for the show and not realizing it was about Superman at first. I just thought it was about weird things happening in a small town. I was just starting middle school and didn’t really know the Superman mythos very well, but I had always been drawn to nerdy sci-fi stuff like Power Rangers, then the Animorphs books, and I had become a Star Wars fan with The Phantom Menace (hey, I was a kid). Then I found out it was about Superman, and I decided I had to watch it. I remember it was a big deal that I had to decide whether to watch that or Frasier, because they were both on at the same time, and I ultimately chose Smallville. I was a weird kid.
Geoff: A recommendation from a friend, actually. I was aware of the show, but hadn’t made the time to watch it. It was several seasons in before a buddy of mine gave it a strong recommendation, and I started by renting Season 1 from a local video store. Like Chris, I was also a fan of comics, sci-fi, fantasy, and general nerdery. However, my own fandom had always leaned more towards Marvel comics over DC.
- What was your previous relationship to Superman or DC Comics more generally?
Chris: In addition to The Phantom Menace, another terrible movie I was obsessed with was Batman and Robin. A few of my friends in elementary school would even get together on weekends for quite a while and reenact scenes from it, with the intent to eventually film these scenes. YouTube wasn’t even around yet so I have no idea what the plan was for distribution, but we were convinced our version was gonna take the world by storm. That was a fun time.
As for Superman, I had liked the bits of the animated series I had seen, but it always aired at random times.
Geoff: For Superman specifically, I have memories of being terrified by the evil computer turning Annie Ross into a cyborg in Superman III, and maybe reruns of Superfriends when we visited my grandparents (who had cable). Years later, our whole family became fans of the Lois & Clark series that ran from 1993-1997, and then the “Dini-verse” animated Batman and Superman programs as well. So looking back, I’m surprised I wasn’t on board from the very beginning. That said, it was the autumn of 2001, and we had some unusual family events going on, to say nothing of more newsworthy events that year.
Chris: You know I just remembered, I also loved Lois and Clark years before Smallville! Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane had a big impact on young me.
- What was your relationship to the Smallville fandom while the show was on?
Chris: It was literally my first fandom. I had looked at websites for some of the other genre stuff I was into, but Smallville came out when I was just discovering what message boards were. In its second or third season, I was asked to be a moderator at one of the forums I went to, called The Daily Planet. No one knew I was 14. I loved the power of it but told almost no one IRL because I knew it was actually extremely nerdy. I eventually abdicated because I didn’t even have my own computer at home and was only able to fulfill my duties when I went to my grandma’s house.
Smallville led me to the Birds of Prey show which made me start picking up comics, so despite both of those show’s flaws, I’ll always have a soft spot for them. Being active on Smallville message boards also taught me so much about writing and made me a generally more literate person. I remember taking a vocabulary test in high school and I was the only one who knew what “deux ex machina” was because that term came up a lot on the Smallville message boards. And it taught me how to interact with fandom, in both positive and negative ways. (I will admit to participating the shipper wars and the just-as-toxic “Chloe Sullivan is really Lois Lane” theory wars.)
Geoff: None whatsoever. I was still using dial-up internet, and the closest I got to any fandom was trying to keep up with the behind-the-scenes leaks and set visits from AintItCoolNews.com. So I would talk to the friend who suggested the show while I was watching, but that was the extent of any fan community that I had at the time.
- Who were some of your favorite and least favorite characters on the show?
Chris: It’s even more embarrassing now because of what we’ve learned about Allison Mack and how much she has put other people through, but I had an unhealthy crush on and obsession with Chloe Sullivan. And I was convinced she was what the character of Lois Lane should be. She was smart, funny, and had way more personality than most of the other characters. But she always got the shit end of the stick, and Clark never paid any attention to her, which I thought was insane. I often contrasted her unfavorably with the show’s real Lois, who just didn’t have the drive or passion for journalism at first that I had associated with the character. But looking back, I can appreciate both characters for who they were. Lois was a breath of fresh air when she was introduced and I liked how she got under everyone’s skin, since everyone else was almost robotically polite.
Lex and Lionel were also great, and I would argue Michael Rosenbaum is the best Lex Luthor.
Lana was my least favorite. Everyone on the show seemed to worship her, but she just had no personality and was always trapped in the “love interest” role. She never got to actually do anything proactive or interesting until much later, when the show started to occasionally recognize her toxic tendencies.
I also struggled a lot with Clark, whose obsession with Lana became more boring every season, and who also just wasn’t very proactive.
Jor-El was another frustrating character because he started out as this abusive, controlling AI, and then just kind of…stopped being that gradually. I kept waiting for a twist that he was actually Brainiac or Zod, but that never came. He was just “good now.”
Geoff: I would second Chris’ listing of Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack) as a favorite, for some of the same reasons (including the unhealthy crush).
Pete Ross (Sam Jones III) was a good character as a male friend and confidante for Clark, and I was sorry to see him written out in the early seasons.
We are in agreement that Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor could be the best onscreen take on the character, and John Glover’s Lionel Luthor is fantastic in showing the kind of person that Lex might become one day.
And while Kristen Kreuk does what she can as Lana Lang, the character is just a wet blanket. Will she? Won’t she?
Michael McKean’s take on Perry White was a fun standout for me as well.
- What do you think some of the strengths and weaknesses of the show were?
Chris: I think it had a lot of strengths. The “meteor-freak-of-the-week” formula got old fast, but the basic idea of kryptonite affecting humans and creating a “Hellmouth” of sorts in Smallville was a good premise. Tying in Clark’s arrival with this great tragedy upon the town was something that hadn’t been done before, and gave the town some character. The family drama aspect of it was also a great angle to approach these characters with. The episodes that really dug into the Luthor family history, and made an effort to contrast that with the Kents, were always really strong.
Seeing Clark develop new powers was always fun, particularly in the episode “Heat,” where he starts getting uncontrollable bouts of heat vision whenever he’s turned on by a girl. That was hilarious, and one of the few times the show actually felt like it was realistically exploring what it would be like to be a teenager with these powers in a fun way. As campy as the episode was, it’s one of my favorites for the Buffy-like metaphor of it all.
Ultimately though, the show was terrified of consequences and lasting change. They almost always reset things to the status quo because they couldn’t have Clark grow up too much. Once the show started embracing some of the more DC comic-booky aspects, the show became a lot more fun, but it still couldn’t advance Clark himself too much, so he kind of stayed in this state of arrested development.
The continuity was just all over the place. I’ve already mentioned Jor-El, but there were so many other issues with characters acting out of character, or plot elements not adding up. They did the “character is secretly evil” twist at least twice, with Lex’s girlfriend and later Lana’s boyfriend played by Jensen Ackles, and both times it came out of nowhere and directly contradicted what they had already established for each character. So while it was always exciting to see the show embrace more serialization, even when they did that, the writers were often really bad at it.
Geoff: One major strength early on was that it had turned all of the Superman mythology upside-down, and that was somewhat unique in a mainstream presentation of a well-known and popular character. Most people’s impression of Superman is that he’s confident, capable, and puts on “Clark Kent” as a disguise. Smallville as a concept leaned into the fact that the character had to grow up feeling different and very much alone. They started with the premise that the lead character was always Clark Kent, first and foremost, and that Superman was the mask that he would eventually have to create when he wanted to help people openly.
But as Chris noted above, they leaned so hard into Clark being afraid and unwilling to be “out” that it became an awkward limit on where the show could go narratively.
- How do you think this show’s portrayal of Superman stacks up against other versions of the character? What about other comic book characters who were featured on the show: how do they stack up against other interpretations?
Chris: I don’t think he’s a very good Superman! Sorry, I don’t. And this is not a knock on Tom Welling, who looks the part perfectly and did good work when given the chance. But his Clark Kent is a moody wet blanket. He is stuck on the same girl for like seven years, he uses and gaslights Lex, he can’t seem to do anything without Chloe’s tech support, he neglects his friends…I remember thinking many times that it was hard to imagine him becoming the type of Superman who loves saving people and always sees the best in everyone.
Geoff: Smallville’s Superman is, well…small. Mostly because he’s not really Superman. At all. He’s a hormonal teenager who feels different and thinks that everything should be all about him, while being afraid of the possibility that everything is actually all about him. I think this show had a stronger influence on Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel than most people would think. Several critics have praised Snyder’s “realistic” story of an extraterrestrial godlike being coming to see himself as being on a mission to save humanity.
But Smallville already gave us that background, and showed us that deep down, maybe he doesn’t want to be a savior. Maybe he just wants to play football and date the prom queen and help out as a blur from the shadows when no one’s looking.
One of Superman’s comic taglines states that he stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.” The American way in the early 2000’s is very much reflected in Smallville’s Clark Kent who doesn’t want to have to be Superman. The United States engaged in multiple wars on multiple fronts, with general objectives, but no clear victory conditions, limited support at home, and an unwillingness to sacrifice our comforts in the face of global war and a recession that followed several years later.
Our Superman of this era was similarly unwilling to act at full strength (whether as a metaphor for the American military at war, or the American public in protest, I will leave to the reader), didn’t really know what he wanted, wouldn’t know how to get it if he knew, and didn’t want to make hard choices or live with the consequences that followed.
Chris: I never would have thought of that parallel. I agree with you about the influence on Man of Steel; I remember seeing the first trailers, which were very heavy on the flashbacks to Clark’s youth, and thinking “Wow, maybe this time they’re going to get it right!” And then outside of that one great scene with Martha calming Clark down at school after his X-Ray vision started, they just did it even worse, with the characters being unreognizable in my opinion.
- What do you think the legacy of the show is? How, if at all, has it impacted other Superman and superhero media?
Chris: I think there is so much of Smallville’s DNA in the Arrowverse, which I’ve seen all of. But at first I had to stop watching Arrow halfway into Season 1 because it was giving me too many Smallville flashbacks. They even used the Luthor mansion for the Queen mansion! But I started watching again when I heard that the show had seemed to recognize some of the flaws in the Smallville formula and fixed them a lot more quickly. When Oliver and Laurel’s chemistry wasn’t working out, the writers pivoted toward Oliver and Felicity as the main relationship of the show. It was pretty clear as early as Season 3 that the writers did not care that in the comics, Green Arrow and Black Canary end up together. They did their own thing based on what was working onscreen and what the fans wanted. Smallville never even had the guts to allow Clark to date Chloe, whom Felicity Smoake obviously draws a lot of influence from.
Arrow also introduced more of an ensemble early on, which became the template for every other Arrowverse show. Clark’s secret was such a huge issue on Smallville, whereas now, a bunch of people usually learn the protagonist’s secret identity in the pilot and then they pile more and more heroes and sidekicks as each season goes on. This has created its own issues, but overall I prefer it to the endless conversations about secrets and lies between Clark and Lana. If the show were made today, Lana would know Clark’s secret by the end of Season 1 and they would be platonic friends who are over each other by Season 3.
But ultimately Smallville paved the way for superheroes to be taken seriously on television. We’re a long ways away from that show’s infamous “no tights, no flights” rule, but it laid the groundwork for the explosion of these other shows. Arrow exists because they wanted to do a spinoff with Smallville’s version of the character. I’ll always see Smallville as a gateway drug to other, better projects. It led me to discover Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to comic books, and to fandom as a whole. So I mock it, but I also owe it a debt of gratitude.
Geoff: Smallville was ostensibly an experiment to see if popular, well-known comic book characters could be presented in a manner that was stripped of the familiar trappings that make them “comic book characters,” and it largely succeeded. The eventual expansion into more explicit comic-book aesthetics definitely paved the way for the entire Arrowverse, which took some of what succeeded in Smallville and then added back the “flights & tights.”
And as noted above, the reserved Clark Kent seen in Smallville is a clear influence on the reticent Kent of Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013). I have not seen the current Superman & Lois spinoff from the Arrowverse, so I can’t speak to how that compares.
Chris: Superman and Lois is great! It’s set in Smallville, but after Clark and Lois are married with children and have moved back to take care of the farm. It’s very well-written and the relationship drama isn’t as forced or prolonged as on Smallville, but it also feels like it could be a spiritual sequel despite the continuity being different.
When it first came out though, a friend of mine made fun of me because he always said “You rag on Smallville so much but I bet if they made a sequel or reboot series, you’d watch it.” And then he had to rub it in my face that I essentially am doing that now. So that’s fun.
Chris Souza is a full-time teacher, full-time husband and father, and fraction-of-the-time writer and editor located in Clovis, California. He still believes a man can fly.
Geoff S. gets paid to spend other people’s money. In his spare time, he makes lame puns and takes blurry pictures of his pets.