Saturday, May 14, 2011

Smallville: The End of the Beginning

So, spoiler alert, turns out that Clark Kent becomes Superman. Who knew, right?

With its series capper airing on the CW last Friday night after a strictly-enforced "No Fly Zone" spanning ten years, two networks, and two-hundred-plus episodes, Smallville closed the loop on Clark Kent's journey toward the red, blue, and yellow future that we all knew awaited him, and in the process brought the curtain down on the longest-lived incarnation of the Man of Steel in any medium other than the comic books that birthed him. While some questions were definitively answered, others were left frustratingly opaque, and in the end, the Smallville closer exemplified the challenge faced by any show that ends its run after as much time in the trenches, whether MASH or Cheers or anything else: it's not just about giving the characters narrative closure, it's also about giving the audience emotional closure.

And for Smallville -- which more than any other show I can think of was all about its finale from the moment it began -- the stakes on both fronts were perilously high, not least of which because an entire audience has come of age right alongside star Tom Welling on his decade-long trek from boy to man to superman. While I may have dipped in and out of that audience over the years, there's no question that when Smallville premiered in October of 2001, the decision by creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar to re-envision the quintessential super-heroic paradigm as a conflicted teen coming to terms with a legacy and destiny he doesn't undersand was a stroke of genius that not only paid immediate audience dividends, but also gave renewed currency to the Superman legend. In the interim, the comic book Superman had his origin revised three different times, and the movie Superman saw his franchise revived and flame-out, with yet another take now in the offing.

Meanwhile, TV's Clark Kent struggled to find his way, his future just at arm's length but pushed further and further out-of-reach the longer Smallville's run was extended. This in turn made him seem less like the World's Greatest Hero, and more like the dull-witted man-child I describe here. But then, ten years is a long time for any series to sustain itself, much less one whose entire existence is predicated on its closing minutes. And while there's no doubting that it lost its way at times, there's also no doubting the cast and chemistry that carried it to its highest highs and sustained it through its lowest lows. That cast was in full bloom in the finale, with return visits from lapsed 'ville-agers Allison Mack, John Glover and Annette O'Toole. And while it was great to see all the familiar faces, the real treat was surely the return of John Schneider as Clark's human father Jonathan Kent, and Michael Rosenbaum as eternal nemesis Lex Luthor.

Schneider, whose quiet dignity and considerable presence have been been keenly missed in the five years since his character was given the traditional "Jonathan Kent Dirt Nap," has made several appearances during this past year, and his role in the finale was most welcome, allowing Clark (and us) a final opportunity to bid the proper farewell to Smallville and Smallville. Rosenbaum's departure at the end of year seven had also left a considerable, nigh-insurmountable void, especially given how well the series' creatives had layered Lex's gradual transition from ally to enemy into its early years. His reappearance, however brief, not only brought his arc to a reasonable conclusion, but neatly re-stacked the deck to allow his many years of Smallville development to sit comfortably alongside the villainous role that's long been designated for him.

Lastly, we come to the man himself. I've already spoken at length about how impressed I've been with Tom Welling in portraying what's been a pretty thankless role at times, and the finale was no exception. While the early section's wedding day jitters stuff, with Erica Durance's Lois Lane (I'll say it again: the best live action Lois thus far) getting cold feet about tying the knot, did stretch a little longer than it needed to, it nonetheless provided a welcome showcase for Welling and Durance's easy chemistry, and gave a clear indication of why Lois & Clark are meant to be no matter which version of this story is being told. The days of teen Clark pining for high school crush Lana Lang (the conspicuously absent Kristin Kreuk) rightly seem like an eternity ago. And as far as whether the twosome actually take the plunge? Yes, and no. And that's all you get from me.

One thing I will say, which might be considered a minor spoiler, is that John Williams' "Superman March" should hereby be designated the official Superman theme of record, period. The same way the notion of Agent 007 being accompanied by anything other than Monty Norman's immortal "James Bond Theme" seems wrong somehow, so too does the idea that Zack Snyder's Man of Steel would take to the skies with anything other than the definitive Superman theme to carry him up, up, and away. But if this does mark the last time we get to hear Williams' immortal chords in a new context, then what a way to go.

Last fall, while assessing the lay of the land as Smallville entered its final stretch, I made this observation:
I don't see how, based on the status quo as it exists going into the last year, Clark believably becomes Superman without everyone in both Smallville and Metropolis saying "Hey, why is Clark wearing those funny tights? And whatever happened to the Blur?"
To be honest, I'm still not sure they've entirely sold me on that. But I'm also surprisingly okay with it. While Clark finally becoming the hero he was fated to be is perhaps the biggest open secret since we first met a ten-year old Anakin Skywalker and wondered what was up with his haircut, the final speed bumps he experiences along the way I leave to you to discover. It doesn't all come together as neatly as we might have liked it, but that was perhaps inevitable given the sheer impossible longevity they managed to sustain. In the end, for all its missteps (and there were a few), Smallville came to a conclusion that was both appropriate and necessary, leaving a ten-year legacy to be proud of, while also ensuring that the end was merely the beginning.


J.R. LeMar said...

I stopped watching this show years ago, but still tuned into the finale "just because."

First, let me say that I wholeheartedly agree with you on two points: Erica Durance is the best Lois Lane, so far. She was absolutely perfect. Blows Margot, Terri, and Kate out of the water. Although I suppose Noel from AOS was pretty close to what the comics version of Lois was @ the time.

Second, the John Williams theme. I get goosebumps every time I hear it. I said on another site that I don't even the producers of Man of Steel for having to come up with a new one, which I assume they'll want to do, and I initially agreed they should, in order to completely restart the Superman legend for the big screen. However, I never thought about it they way you just put it, by comparing it to the James Bond theme. You're right, they never change that even when they change actors, so why can't they keep this as Superman's official theme?

As for the show, meh. I didn't know what the heck was going on during the whole darn thing. And way too much didn't make sense, like the whole Superman/Clark/Glasses thing. And Lex's convenient mind-wipe, which totally negated his earlier conversation with Clark about how they were made to be enemies.

I think the biggest problem is that the show got away from it's roots years ago, yet still felt the need to somehow tie it all back to mainstream Superman continuity. Instead, it probably should have just embraced the fact that it had become it's own entity and ran with that. Don't worry about trying to bring back Lex and explain why he wouldn't know that Clark is Superman, or why Clark had to suddenly start wearing glasses.

If the show had just had Clark graduating High School, then maybe studying journalism @ Smallville University, and then ended after 4 or 5 years with him moving to Metropolis, it could have remained the "Superman prequel" that it was originally intended to be. But the show became a victim of it's own success, with the CW being unwilling to cancel it because of it's decent ratings, so they had to keep dragging it out. Once they had him move to Metropolis, start working @ the Daily Planet and become romantically involved with Lois Lane, they should have just said fook it, this isn't about Clark's journey to becoming Superman anymore. This is a show about a young man who happens to be named Clark Kent who came from another planet and possesses powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. It should have just remained "Clark Kent: Secret Superhero" and been about how he uses his powers to fight superhuman and supernatural threats that the general public isn't aware of. Sort of like a male Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

lorenonline said...

Like J.R., I had left the series several seasons ago, feeling that it had certainly lost its appeal. Happening on the finale on Friday, I could not help but feel pleased and, as Zaki describes, emotionally satisfied by the sense of closure offered. Although it included just as much of the cheese and melodrama that became a staple of the show in recent years, the finale rekindled the original themes of the show that seemed to make this Superman adaption fly.

Smallville's greatest moments explored the role of family and friends in the process of becoming a hero – or a villain. This included the highly entertaining episodes where Clark’s discovery of new superpowers exemplified the transitions of puberty and adolescence, and the more complex roles of father figures in the lives of both Clark and Lex. Although the concept that Clark and Lex had known each other during formative childhood/high school years had been explored before, the early seasons of Smallville broke new ground by telling us how much these two figures could be manipulated or inspired by their fathers. I was particularly happy to hear this echoed in Lex’s monologue in the finale (even though it was actually a clone of Lex with the heart of a Lionel Luthor from a parallel universe/plane of existence. Then again, maybe that reinforces the theme?).

In addition to the role of family in the creation of heroes and villains, the best episodes of Smallville also played with superhero dilemma of choice. Whether equipped with superheroic ability or financial resources, both Clark and Lex learned that the choices they make would have great consequences. This is best shown in the 100th episode in Season 5, where Clark’s decision to reveal himself to Lana, and then save her life – result in Jonathan’s death. This episode was in my mind the best of series, marking a high point in Clark’s coming of age story. If Smallville’s sole purpose was to create a meaningful installment in the Superman mythos, it would’ve ended with Season 5, with bits and pieces of seasons 6 and 7 added to allow Lex to kill his father Lionel and close out that story as well and truly turn Lex and Clark against each other.

Alas, the show continued and introduced any number of other superheroes and super villains that Clark really shouldn’t have met until he was donning the red and blue suit. As J.R. notes, this creates a lot of complications that have to be tied up awkwardly in order to stick with some semblance of Superman canon. Despite this filler, the finale succeeded in closing out the father/son and heroic choice themes and, through the reference to comic book portrayal of Superman and Williams’ music, reminded us of the story that the writers and producers originally set off to tell.

Eric Sean said...

I was vehemently opposed to Lois Lane showing up on SMALLVILLE at all but Erica Durance won me over pretty quickly.

I also thought that the series could have ended at Season 5 or 6. Ten years is great for the cast and crew (congrats, btw) but was terrible for the show's premise. Clark was starting to look dunderheaded and almost cowardly in his resistance to embrace his role as a hero.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

I WISH Clark Kent was a male Buffy. Joss Whedon (in both Angel and Buffy) did a much better job of plotting a story, forshadowing, doing character development, etc.

I think they could probably come up with a much better series if they just re-edited the whole thing from beginning to end so that the arcs were developed in a much better way.

Zaki said...

Yeah, the fact that they were making it up on the fly became painfully obvious right around the time they pulled the whole "Lana is a witch -- literally" thing out of the air. In hindsight, the biggest regret I have about this show is that they didn't have a clear sense early on of what the primary beats were supposed to be, and how they would hit those touchstones, leaving enough room for the yearly renewals that they kept getting.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

I found it easier to believe that Lana was witch than believe that Lana stayed a virgin after going out with Whitney (joined the army, was going off to war) and Jason (who followed her from France).

But yeah, the need help with the touchstones. That's a good way to put it.