The DCTV universe has only been gathering steam in recent years. While DC has had a really rocky start in the cinematic world, the TV universe we see on CW has been pretty consistently high quality. And given just how weird the upcoming streaming-only Titans show looks, DCTV is likely to stay at the top of the heap for live-action portrayals of DC’s heroes. Of course, fans with long memories know that this wasn’t the first successful foray into live-action TV for DC. While their animated adventures had always been a hit, it was Smallville that showed us that DC could effectively have the best of both worlds. Specifically, this show illustrated that they could capture the imagination of comics fans and drama lovers alike by focusing on the rich characters as well the high-flying exploits.
Unfortunately, Smallville doesn’t really get as much credit as it should for the modern state of superhero TV. The show started back in 2001 and wrapped up in 2011, meaning that younger superhero fans are likely to have never watched the adventures of Clark Kent and his friends unless they happened to catch it on streaming. Without Smallville and its success, we may never have had great shows like Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, and more. Its characters, storylines, and amazing performances continue to ripple forward, creating a golden age for DC’s characters on TV. Don’t believe us? We’ve got you covered, as we’ve prepared a nice and comprehensive guide to 20 ways that Smallville influenced DCTV!
Most fans agree that the early success of Smallville can be chalked up to the relationship between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor. Lex does not initially start out as an obvious bad guy, so our characters have time to become best friends before slowly becoming mortal enemies. This is a beat we see multiple times on DCTV.
The most prominent example would be on Flash, where Barry Allen learns to use his powers thanks to “Harrison Wells.” We later find out that the real Harrison was replaced by Reverse-Flash, an enemy who took his place. This trope plays out in other ways, too, as when Supergirl has to deal with the idea that Lena Luthor (Lex’s sister) has been synthesizing Kryptonite behind her back.
Of course, Clark Kent couldn’t be going toe-to-toe with Lex Luthor every week, or marquee villains like Doomsday. And serial storytelling wasn’t big at the time, so the show compromised with the idea that the Kryptonite meteor shower over Smallville created an ongoing series of villains of the week for our hero to battle.
Arguably, this idea has been the biggest influence on DCTV. In Flash, our hero battles villains created by the same energy explosion that gave him his own powers. In Supergirl, she initially fights prisoners who escaped from a Krypton jail. And Green Arrow started out hunting down the corrupt men on his father’ list, giving each week a new villain for him to fight.
Some fans were a little surprised that we ended up getting a Supergirl TV show instead of another show focusing on her more famous cousin. However, seeds for this idea were planted years ago, when Smallville introduced us to our first live-action version of the character since her disastrous movie in the '80s.
The Kara on Smallville is not completely similar to the one we would get later on. However, they have similar DNA in that each one struggles to assimilate into human culture while simultaneously enjoying living among the “aliens” around them. Kara ended up being a fan-favorite character on Smallville, signaling very clearly that fans would be receptive to a solo Supergirl series.
There is a paradox to adapting comic books into other media. Part of the appeal of comics is their complexity and rich history, and part of the appeal of TV is the simplicity of instant gratification. How do you mix these two worlds and build a live-action fictional universe? Very slowly, as it turns out.
Smallville paved the wave by initially focusing on the town and then slowly introducing places like Metropolis, other heroes, and more complex stories. Shows like Arrow followed suit, getting audiences accustomed to a very small cast and then slowly added additional heroes, locations, and so on. This is how you get a show like Legends of Tomorrow -- by slowly filtering in “new” elements until they feel established to casual viewers.
Speaking of Green Arrow, he’s another character that may never have had a solo series if not for Smallville. This is because he became a prominent supporting character in that show, both as the vigilante Green Arrow and as socialite Oliver Queen. And he formed the cornerstone for much of the Oliver we would later see on Arrow.
Perhaps the most significant impression on the later Oliver was the “party boy” we see on Smallville after he finds out that Lionel Luthor had taken out his parents. He spent his time drinking, partying, and generally being an embarrassment before having to focus on becoming a true hero -- pretty much the arc of Arrow’s first season!
Some fans were upset with the early portrayal of Black Canary on Arrow. Instead of being a straight-up, focused hero like Oliver Queen, she struggled with some inner demons, which manifested in her becoming an addict. She eventually got her life together and became the hero fans were rooting for.
In its own way, Smallville helped influence this very specific arc. In that earlier show, Black Canary is not introduced as a hero. Instead, she is a villain who works for Lex Luthor before seeing the light and joining our heroes. From this point, she became more and more prominent, just as she would later on Arrow, which is ultimately a very satisfying arc.
A frustrating element of many DCTV shows is that the characters start out very inexperienced. You may expect to see the same character from the comics, but it takes a long time for characters like Arrow to transition from being, say, a ruthless vigilante to a stand-up hero. This is another trope that has its roots in Smallville.
The creators of that show had a clear mandate for the run: “no tights, no flights.” As such, we didn’t see Clark Kent in his iconic Superman suit until the very last episode of the show. And while DCTV generally doesn’t make us wait this long, Smallville influenced the idea of making us wait to see the completed hero.
A large part of what is cool about watching Flash is seeing the character find creative ways to use super speed. Even this element can be traced back to Smallville in some very specific ways. For instance, that show introduced us to a live-action version of Flash (though it was Bart Allen instead of Barry Allen) and emphasized speed quite a bit.
Many of Clark Kent’s super-heroic acts relied on his speed. And because of the show’s insistence that he not become Superman until the end, he was eventually known as “The Blur” due to him being too fast to be caught on camera. If this show hadn’t shown us how cool both Flash and super-speed could be, DCTV would be quite different!
In Smallville, Clark Kent had a support team that knew about his fantastic abilities. But early on, there was also Lana Lang -- the object of Clark’s affection and someone who didn’t know just what he could do. This served the narrative by “grounding” our character and keeping him down to Earth, which would continue to influence so many later shows.
In Arrow, Oliver starts out hiding his vigilante nature from Laurel Lance. And in Flash, Barry initially hides his abilities from Iris West. And on Supergirl, she tries to hide her alien nature and powers from characters like her boss as well as friends like Lena Luthor. If you don’t like this repeated trope, feel free to blame Smallville!
For better or for worse, DCTV relies a lot on flashbacks. The obvious offender here is Arrow, which made flashbacks to Oliver’s years on an island a focus for years. But other shows such as Flash would often rely on flashbacks to show us our heroes back when they were much younger.
And yes, you guessed it -- this is another “modern” trend that Smallville helped kick off. That show loved flashbacks, from showing us Lex Luthor losing his air to Clark getting flashbacks of how his grandparents met. And, of course, there are the requisite flashbacks to Clark as a young child and his adoptive parents coming to grips with an alien baby.
Casual fans of the Superman story were probably surprised at all the Krypton drama on Supergirl. While the planet is long gone, it still seems very much alive, with Supergirl taking on an evil aunt, escaped prisoners, finding the city of Kandor, and so on. However, this has a TV history stretching back to Smallville.
On that show, Krypton similarly refused to stay buried. Clark regularly received instructions from his disembodied daddy, Jor-El, and he eventually had to fight a body-hopping version of the Krpytonian bad guy Zod. And, bad as it was, he even dealt with Doomsday, a threat very specific and unique to Krypton’s heritage.
After the first season of Supergirl, they shook things up by adding in characters from the Legion of Superheroes. We see Mon-El develop a relationship with Supergirl before some timey-wimey shenanigans throw him into the future. He eventually returns with other characters from the Legion.
Considering the usual mandate to make things casual friendly, this may have seemed surprising at first. However, Smallville had proven years before that fans would enjoy the adventures of these time-tripping heroes interacting with our more familiar characters. And if we had not seen Saturn Girl on Smallville first, she may never have appeared on Supergirl.
As good as they often are, watching DCTV is often frustrating because of the romantic pairings. While the romances may be engaging, the show usually plays out the “will they/won’t they” angle for way too long. A great example is waiting an entire season for Barry to overcome the romantic rival and start dating Iris.
This tradition goes back to Smallville, which managed to carry it across multiple pairings. The initial will they/won’t they was for Clark Kent and Lana Lang. When Lois Lane was inevitably introduced, though, fans then waited for her to hook up with our hero. This hookup was preordained by Superman mythology and it still took forever for it to play out!
Maggie Sawyer ended up being a very important character on Supergirl. She helped our other characters discover who they are (especially her girlfriend turned fiancee, Alex) while also putting a face on the otherwise nameless police officers in the city. And as cool as she is, this character owes her live-action heritage to Smallville.
Yep -- Maggie Sawyer played a small but important role on the older TV show. She was just as tough and no-nonsense back then, and she helped to highlight Clark’s desire to work with law enforcement and generally not be a skulking vigilante. That legacy carried forward into newer shows as well when we see Supergirl teaming up with the local police.
Part of the tragedy of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor’s friendship is that Clark always felt responsible for his friend becoming a villain. He was haunted by the idea that if he had played things differently, perhaps telling Lex about his powers, he could have prevented all this from happening. And that specific kind of heroic guilt carried forward into DCTV.
For instance, Flash feels responsible for the Earth 2 villains that started cropping up after he opened the doorway. Supergirl feels guilt over her evil aunt and all those skeletons from her Krypton closet. Arrow, meanwhile, constantly faces his past coming back with a vengeance, like when Deathstroke attacked the city. Like Clark, each has to get over their guilt to win the day.
A classic superhero trope is that the villains must reflect the heroes in some way -- broken mirrors of what the good guys could have been. That extends to supporting characters as well, so when Supergirl got friendly with Lena Luthor, they had to contend with a new foe: smarmy corporate tycoon Morgan Edge. And Edge has a lot in common with his character’s first live-action appearance over on Smallville.
In the earlier show, Edge was more than a corporate thug -- he invariably got tugged into the world of superheroes and supervillains, scheming with Lionel Luthor while also trying to defeat Clark Kent. Accordingly, the Morgan Edge of Supergirl uses his wealth and resource to take on our heroine whenever possible.
Earlier, we talked about the slow evolution of our heroes and how both Smallville and DCTV really focused on the idea of the characters evolving over time. As a pretty literal extension of that idea, these two universes had something else in common with the slow evolution of the hero’s powers.
On Smallville, teenage Clark Kent did not start with his full array of Superman powers. He had to slowly discover these as time went on, ranging from laser vision to his iconic ability to fly. This really directly impacted The Flash on his show, as the character had to slowly discover new things he could do by tapping into the Speed Force.
In the first season of Supergirl, we got an interesting surprise. Previously, Supergirl was working with someone calling himself Hank Henshaw. Comic fans expected him to be a villainous cyborg, but it turned out to be Martian Manhunter in disguise. This was an awesome cast addition, and it owes a lot to Smallville.
That show featured Martian Manhunter as a recurring character. As on Supergirl years later, he is an African-American man when he appears in humanoid form. Also like on Supergirl, he spends his human days working in law enforcement. The character was quite popular and appeared in half of Smallville’s seasons, paving the way for the new portrayal on Supergirl.
Looking back, everyone comments on just how perfect Tom Welling was as Clark Kent and Michael Rosenbaum was as Lex Luthor. This is especially impressive because they were relatively unknown when they were cast. Welling’s biggest break before that was starring in a few episodes of Judging Amy, while Rosenbaum was mostly known for his voicework (including some awesome DCAU stuff).
Perhaps hoping lightning would just keep striking, future DCTV shows followed this pattern. Most of the leads from these series were pretty unknown to mainstream audiences. Stephen Amell’s longest-running credit before this was on the TV show Rent-a-Goalie, while Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist were mostly known for a few episodes of Glee.
When Supergirl started, one surprising element was just how prominent Jimmy Olsen was. In much of Superman media, he is just a minor character that is used for laughs (assuming he is used at all). On this show, though, he takes center stage as one of the main characters. This probably would not have happened if not for Smallville.
Smallville thought Olsen was so nice they played him twice! There was Henry James Olsen, who played a major role and married main character Chloe Sullivan. When this character perished, he was later replaced by his younger brother, Jimmy Olsen. The show’s insistence that Olsen could carry his own dramatic weight paved the way for an even beefier modern role in Supergirl.