Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Smallville Legacy

At the end of last night's "Supergirl" finale, I found myself thinking how much the end reminded me of "Smallville," particularly in the choice to play a thematically appropriate contemporary pop song to underscore the season's emotional denouement. It started me thinking about what the impact of "Smallville" on the current superhero-saturated primetime television drama landscape.

"Smallville" was very much a product of its time, designed more or less explicitly to capitalize on the success of "Roswell." The first X-Men movie premiered the year before, "Spider-Man" was still months away, and chasing the "Dawson's Creek" demographic as well as the fans of leather-clad Mutants made the choice for costume-free superheroics pretty attractive. From the beginning, "Smallville" wanted to strike a different tone than the previous decade's "Superboy" and "Lois and Clark"—the latter of which only ended four years earlier. The "no tights, no flights" edict held, even though the mere rumor of a similar edict on "Superman Lives" made Jon Peters a laughingstock among comic fans, even after it seemed like everyone but Clark Kent had a costume and a codename.

My feelings about "Smallville" are complicated, and I last left off the series somewhere in the middle of Season 7, so someone with a bit more comprehensive knowledge could put together a more thorough post here. But there's a pretty clear throughline from that 2001 two-episode premiere to what we have today, particularly on the CW. "Smallville" made Oliver Queen a major character, and there's no denying how that (along with an inability to use Batman for various reasons) leads to "Arrow" as a series. The success of "Arrow" and an increasing willingness to embrace the more outlandish aspects of superhero universes leads to "The Flash" as a spinoff, and the success of "The Flash" allows showrunners Berlanti and Kriesberg to develop "Supergirl" for CBS, as well as "Legends of Tomorrow." Meanwhile, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," for all its reliance on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the only current series (mostly) following through on the plainclothes superheroics model pioneered by shows like "Smallville" and "Heroes," and "Gotham" is following through on the original idea behind "Smallville"—a show exploring the adventures of a young Bruce Wayne.

It's easy to look at "Smallville" and see some of the traits that have since become some of the worst features of modern superhero adaptations: that attitude of being too cool for the trappings of superhero comics, of rejecting codenames and costumes and trying to reduce the scope of things to something less ridiculous. That sense of being ashamed of the source material for being silly. The kind of attitude that makes Mr. Mxyzptlk a creepy Eastern European mind controller is the same kind of attitude that gets us a Superman movie where the word "Superman" is only spoken once or twice toward the end.

But I think "Smallville" largely grew out of that phase, and its direct descendants have cast off that attitude almost entirely. We've got plenty of tights and flights on TV now. We've got full-throated support for names like Captain Cold and Reverse Flash. And I honestly don't think we would have gotten to this point without ten years of Smallville slowly acclimating television audiences to the Justice Society and the Legion of Super-Heroes and Red Kryptonite.

Ultimately, "Smallville" is responsible for merging the soap opera dynamics of superhero comics with the soap opera dynamics of teen dramas, in a way that helped to form the template for the modern superhero drama series. "Lois and Clark" had its share of clones and amnesia, but played much more like a sitcom than a soap, and the original "Flash" didn't last long enough to make an impact. "Smallville" found that synthesis, and in doing so built the foundation for a lot of what's come after.

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