SMALLVILLE: NOT MAN BUT STILL SUPER
Fans attending last weekend's Comic-Con International were treated to extended trailers of the upcoming Smallville TV series. I planned on covering Warner Bros. Smallville presentation but ended up missing it. While I did catch glimpses of the impressive footage here and there, I managed to miss all complete screenings of the preview.
As luck would have it though, my copy of the pilot episode screener was waiting in my mailbox when I got home. Would the show measure up to the snatches of footage I saw? Would it be a worthwhile adaptation of the most iconic superhero of all time? I couldn't wait to find out.
First off let me remind everyone: this is not Superman. Also: this is not Superman. And, for anyone who's missed the point: SMALLVILLE IS NOT SUPERMAN.
Smallville is the story of the strange visitor from another planet by way of Dawson's Creek.
Having said that, I think the show is surprisingly true to the spirit of the comics, while still allowing for young Clark Kent to be an awkward, angst-ridden teen in spite of his extraordinary gifts.
The pilot episode opens in 1989. Smallville is the "Cream Corn Capital" of the world and it's about to take a beating. We meet Jonathan (John Schneider) and Martha Kent (played by Cynthia Ettinger here, but to be replaced by Annette O'Toole in the series), a childless couple who share a nice moment with young Lana Lang. At the same time, cold-blooded Lionel Luthor brings his son Lex along as he buys a cornfield from the locals.
In short order, the town is pummeled by the meteor shower that brings young Kal-El to Earth. The meteor sequence is a spectacular bit of effects, considering it's for network television (especially considering it's for the WB). While the shower does deviate from the comic book origins, it's a change that makes perfect sense. A single space ship crashing to earth would likely attract enough attention to make it difficult for the Kents to make off with it's toddling payload (and the ship itself). Coming down with a chaotic meteor storm makes the Kryptonian ship just another rock falling from the sky. This is one of the things I liked about Smallville: whenever it makes changes to the Superman canon, they seem to be well-reasoned.
The meteor storm provides the through-line that ties all the major players together, and gives Smallville a second story arc to play with. The crash isn't just significant for the Kents. Lana Lang loses her parents in the catastrophe. Lex Luthor loses his hair. And the town of Smallville inherits a new level of weirdness.
Flash forward to "Today." Lana (Kristen Kreuk) and Clark (Tom Welling) are teenagers. Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) is a young adult. Smallville is now "The Meteor Capital" of the world.
Clark is struggling with the difficulties of being a teen and trying to figure out what his place in the world is. You might wonder how bad can things be for young Clark Kent. He is super powered after all. But the show makes this work. too. Clark the bumbling, nerd isn't just an act. Yes, he's hiding his abilities from the world, but that just makes him more socially awkward. When he gets weak in the knees over Lana, there's a good reason for it. When the bullies get the better of him there's a good reason for that too.
Tom Welling does a fine job as Clark. He's definitely got the handsome Superman looks (even resembling a a young Christopher Reeve). He's also able to play the character with some depth. His longing to fit in and be normal seems very convincing, particularly in a scene where he admires Lana from afar.
Kristen Kreuk is even more appealing. She lends a lot of heart to the show as the girl-next-door. It's easy to see why Clark falls for her.
Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor is slick and ambiguous. We know his father's a ruthless bastard, but what about Lex? Is he just a spoiled rich kid or is he already the scheming megalomaniac that we know he will become?
We also meet Clark's friends, Pete Ross (Sam Jones III) and Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack). Like Clark, Pete is a geek trying to avoid the perils of high school. Chloe looks to be the focus of the secondary plot of the show: the weirdness of Smallville. She's an aspiring journalist who has been tracking all the the strange goings on in the town since the meteors of 1989.
One of the complaints I've had about superhero TV shows (like the recent Witchblade) is that they don't give us the superhero and when they do it's fairly boring. One of the things I hated about Lois & Clark is that there didn't seem to be much Superman in it. Knowing that Smallville would not feature a costumed Superman (or boy) and was not intended to be an action show, I feared the worst.
However, I have to say I'm pleasantly surprised. Clark does use his powers frequently in the pilot episode. Even better, he's not limited to just lifting some heavy objects when no one's looking (although he does do that too) or some in-camera speed tricks. The pilot finds various reasons for Clark to show us his stuff and oftentimes the super-stuff is supported by good quality effects. In fact, the pilot even provides a super-villain for Clark to square off with.
My only complaint about the pilot is that I found the interaction between Clark, Lana and Lex so interesting that I really didn't care much about the super villain subplot. However, it's a minor quibble as the subplot was still entertaining. I suspect super villains will be an ongoing part of the "weirdness" aspect of the show.
Fans might also enjoy the various seeds planted by the storytellers, that we can speculate lead to the eventual birth of the costumed Superman. The pilot shows us an S-Shield emblem in a few scenes, a red cape worn by Clark in another, a references to Nietze's Superman and so on. Look for even more when you watch the pilot.
The makers of the pilot episode have captured the spirit of the comic books, while also homing in on out a distinct direction for the show to follow. Smallville should appeal to Superman fans and newcomers alike.