There’s a reputation that Superman has for being boring. It’s undeniable, but it’s also unearned upon further inspection (in comics like Kingdom Come and Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, to name but a few). That reputation is something that blocks you from seeing your actual affection for him. Similar to how people in Clark Kent’s life can’t see past his glasses to realize he’s Superman. Okay that’s an indefensibly lame comparison, but it’s also kind of charming in its simplicity, commitment, and nostalgia. And maybe that’s Superman in a nutshell? Lame but charming and uncomplicated. And maybe that’s something that’s easier to get over the long haul? Something comic books and TV shows make more possible than movies, which are forced to focus on the broader strokes in a way that might seem outdated or basic.
So I’ve said a sacrilege there about Superman movies that I need to walk back before I actually get into Superman & Lois, the CW’s latest “Arrowverse” entry and an interesting spin on the Man Of Steel. Superman: The Movie is foundational — certainly to my fandom, but to entertainment culture, at large. A generation was made to believe that a man could fly thanks to Christopher Reeve. And that triumph brought with it a barrage of comic book movies — comparatively slow at first before speeding up, running into a wall in the ‘90s, recalibrating, and then becoming the juggernaut that we have before us with dozens of TV shows following dozens of film franchises that are all carving out their own plot of real estate. Superman helped make that happen. But has there been an important Superman movie since then? One that stands out as truly great? The answer is no.
All of this and all that’s to come are not meant as slights against the Reeve sequels (which contain loads of fun moments) or new efforts with Brandon Routh or Henry Cavil in the role. Those performances, first and foremost, capture the heart of the character so well. But when pushed into the box that is a two-hour movie, storytellers tend to fixate on the bolded points of the Superman mythos — Kansas, Krypton, Martha Kent, The Daily Planet, Lois Lane, Lex, he flies, he shoots lasers out of his eyes, he’s a good dude who wants to inspire hope… you get the picture. These are all good things, but lost in the projection of them and in anchoring a story to those points is the nuance. Not with regard to who Superman is. That’s very clear. No, it’s the nuance of what that identity means to him and how he struggles with it. Something that has been shown in the comics where there is ample space to mine the depths. Something which is not quite as abundant in all of his on-screen adventures. And that’s not to say no one has tried. But to truly appreciate Superman, you need that time to unfurl that story completely. And so, here we are with a chance to do exactly that.
Superman & Lois is, quite definitely, all about that story. Taking the baton from a season’s worth of appearances as Clark Kent and Superman by actor Tyler Hoechlin across other CW DC shows, they’ve quickly dispatched with the origin notes and taken us to a Superman in middle age. He is married to Lois Lane. He is the father of two barely high school-age teenagers with vastly different personalities. And he is failing them all. Not in ways that are obvious or born from purposeful neglect. But because, to an extent, we all fail the ones we love in that we can’t always be there for them or, most crucially and heartbreakingly, we don’t always have the right thing to say. We lack those superpowers and so does Superman in this show.
The sons (Jordan and Jonathan, named for Clark’s two fathers — Jor-El and Jonathan Kent) are as much a driving force of this story as Superman and Lois Lane — who is managing her career and the duality of loving Superman and all that that means. She’s also dealing with concerns about their ability to raise kids who don’t know their father as anything other than “Clark Kent: slightly unavailable father.”
I don’t think it’s spoiling much to give away that that dynamic changes a bit in the pilot episode as the family is drawn from their lives in Metropolis to Clark’s childhood home in Smallville, Kansas. Something done to help close the gap between Superman and his family and something quite central to everything that is surely going to happen with this show. Which is a departure from what we’ve seen across generations of Superman TV shows — from the ‘50s version with George Reeves to the original Lois And Clark in the ‘90s, and Smallville. Things are heavy here, at times. I don’t recall many Superman stories with mentions of at-home meth labs, teen suicide, elderly fleecing reverse mortgages, and a gutted heartland. All of these things point to a show trying to fit into a world where comic book properties go to an adult space — as interesting a choice as it is a potential challenge. Because Superman needs to occupy a non-adult space of wonder with a certain amount of joyfulness and boundless enthusiasm.
Yes, yes, the S symbol is wrapped up in hope. But it also needs to inspire smiles. And while we get a few bits of that here, specifically in the beginning when Superman connects with a kid over each other’s costumes (which is the literal reason I decided to watch this show in the first place), the wish is for more of that to be mixed in. Because, like Superman, these shows need to be all things for all Superman fans.
The first episode of Superman & Lois is fine enough, establishing a road map with some compelling performances and visuals that don’t feel much like they’re cheating us out of some of the wow of seeing Superman on screen. You’re not going to get chills like you may have had when you first saw Christopher Reeve or when Henry Cavil brought the character back (and let’s just be clear that Cavil’s work as the character feels as underrated as it does feel incomplete), but Tyler Hoechner has that glimmer in his eye and a purity to the way he plays the character. He makes it easy to fall into the idea that he can be your Superman. And that’s an essential building block, really. Which is all we really have at this stage.
This is a Superman that has the look down, a unique setup, and the show has the potential to take its time and go further than the movies and past shows have been able to go. A Superman project that can reveal the character to be the multidimensional and complex being that we see in many of the comic books. That’s the potential of Superman & Lois. Something that, if done right, will make you believe a Superman can be unboring.