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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal: Saying Good-Bye to "Smallville" 
12th-May-2011 10:46 pm
Smallville Potential
On Friday, ten years of nerdy glee come to a conclusion with the series finale of Smallville. Ten years is obviously a great run for a television series, and as I noted in an earlier entry, this makes Smallville the longest-running sci-fi or fantasy series in North American television history. Personally, it's the sort of thing that resonated on a number of levels: I always loved the DC superheroes, particularly coming to be a Superman fan with the much-needed 1987 John Byrne makeover of the character that refocused the persona of the character on Clark Kent. I also like a coming-of-age story, a smalltown Midwestern story, and perhaps most interestingly with the story of young Clark Kent, a story of the moral education and journey of a character. In his novels, Elliot S! Maggin had drawn my attention as a kid to the importance of the moral development of Clark Kent, as Martha Kent consciously turned his reading in certain directions, for example, getting my young attention span to notice that in the development of a great hero story, it was the formation of Clark Kent as much as the strange effects of Earth's environment on his Kryptonian physiology that really made him Superman.

Is this too much thought for a fantasy TV show? Deal with it. I've been grading and proctoring tests all day, and had to miss the Dean's cool rooftop party to do it: I could do with a little less of reality's drudgery for a bit. :-)

So, Smallville's take on the character has had ten years of highs and lows, with a few real stinkers along the way as well as some of the best Superman stories ever [the season premieres, including the Pilot are apparently free in HD on iTunes right now for a limited time], although this final episode looks to be the actual first appearance of Clark as Superman. The show has actually been dragging this out for years, I think, with Clark having hit the "Superman" point a few years back, but the showrunners awkwardly married themselves to their original "no tights, no flights" rule. This rule made sense in keeping the focus on Clark when he was 15, rather than having the show about the superhero persona, but for the past few years Clark's presence has been creating the whole DC universe of heroes around him, influencing many of these characters, but not as Superman, which is awkward. Superman has a symbolic function in the DC universe as an ideal that is just as important as everything else he can do. It's still somewhat workable that Clark has this influence on those he encounters in these various storylines, but it's awkward in the overall story to not have had the Superman persona be the great inspiration for a new age of costumed heroes. Clark's functioning in the shadows (because of this commitment by the producers to their earlier rule) and being known popularly as "The Blur" by all the people who can't see who is helping them at super-speeds, has been so dragged out as to long distract and detract from the stories. Or, at least, that's my feeling. Fantasy works by a commitment to the realism of a fantastic situation by the authors, actors, and producers of such fair: the "willing suspension of disbelief."

Some fans think these last seasons have been the strongest of Smallville's run. Myself, I thought the production team couldn't take the "superhero" era with quite that willing suspension of disbelief that characterized the earlier stories of the younger Clark, leading to occasional hints (and mercifully, usually just hints) of the cheesiness with which television producers seem compelled to distance themselves from the fantasy of their own efforts. The CW's utter dropping of the financial ball in the last three years also ate into the show, which suddenly could no longer afford to do all the location shooting that they had previously done in and around Vancouver, and which lent the show wonderfully cinematographic weight. Becoming an almost entirely set piece ate into the artificial realism needed for such a show, even if it did give fans insight into production challenges. (Just how many shots can be done on the same fake Metropolis street, and the street behind the studio?) In retrospect, killing off Jonathan Kent in the fifth season on the 100th episode was too early, even if the show wanted to make that death a key part of their take on the Superman mythology. (Not all versions have Jonathan Kent dying so early.) The loss of the parents made for the loss of one of the best strengths of the show: the drama of child- or personal-development in parenting, as contrasted in Clark and Lex through Jonathan and Martha Kent opposite Lionel Luthor. Of course, one has to become an adult, but that doesn't require the loss of one's parents, even in Hollywood, I'd like to think. In fact, this was perhaps another part of where I thought the show took a wrong turn: in the fifth season we began to see occasional aspects where the show seemed to marry itself to the version of Superman of the 1970s-80s Christopher Reeve movie franchise, starting with recreating the 70s crystalline "Fortress of Solitude." I can understand that that was a cost-effective set to create: alien and with minimal special effects required, but the return of "crystal Kryptonian technology" was a sudden departure from the show's earlier use of a sort of morphing-metal-and-light technology based in CGI special effects and quite distinct in its own design vision. And, after a seven-year focus on the Lana Lang character, the show didn't do as convincing a development as it could have of Clark's realization that Lois Lane was really the love of his life. Again, some of the clunky interference (as I heard it) from the CW network ("Make Lana a hero, too!" "Have her come back and go out with a bang!" "Girl power!") seemed to have something to do with that, and made for a long and awkward misstep in the overall story.

But that's me focusing on the negatives of the last few seasons. Unfortunately, for me as well as for most other human beings, it's easier to say what is wrong than to articulate what is good (goodness and pleasure, are, after all, the deeper and truer realities): the show succeeded in a variety of other ways. There were still some great episodes, every bit as good as anything the series ever did. And I have to cheer for just how much of the DC universe began to appear in live-action form on the show in the last few years (often for the first time on film): Green Arrow, Black Canary, Cyborg, Impulse, J'onn J'onzz, Zatanna, the Legion visiting from the 31st century, the Justice Society of America with Hawkman, my fav Doctor Fate, the Sandman, Stargirl, Amanda Waller and Checkmate, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, as well as Supergirl (who managed to be "Supergirl" for about a year before tomorrow's premiere of Superman). With the DC and Marvel movie franchises showing how "serious" takes (as opposed to the camp of the 1966 Batman television franchise, and much of that 1990s movie franchise) of this kind of sci-fi/fantasy can do well as stories (and as money-makers), I'm hoping Smallville leaves an impressive legacy for the small screen as well. I've seen pics from the Wonder Woman pilot recently filmed (I'm not overly hopeful, from what I've heard of the take on the character: they should have used what George Perez and Greg Rucka achieved for her in the comics; Whoops! Looks like NBC just passed on that pilot today, so that series won't happen), and heard rumors of the CW playing with the character of Raven, which is certainly an interesting choice for a possible series focused on a single character, although I think she has to be handled delicately.

The best thing, of course, is to stay close to the universal: Clark Kent's story works because he's the ultimate outsider trying to fit in, a kid who feels different because of who he is and what he can do. It's about child-rearing, moral development, and the task of making yourself into someone of use to the rest of the world. In other words, the best of it is simply the human story writ large. That's the success of a best-selling book (still going strong after 1600 years!) like Augustine's Confessions: we read his story to only discover that at some point we are also reading our own. So I'm going to miss Smallville as one of my favourite stories re-told, and re-told pretty well. A weekly excuse (or opportunity) to suspend disbelief and be the wide-eyed kid in the movie theatre chomping popcorn and having a blast is worth having, and if it was something that could be done well enough to keep my adult mind and artistic standards satisfied and engaged for a decade, well, then, all the better!

One trivial thing that's been fun the last year or two has been the increasing use of little Chicago details being used as Metropolis. Here's the thing. I like recognizing details. I am, for some reason, particularly geeked by geography, and, in an example of the World's Lamest Hobby, will (when, admittedly, I'm usually really bored and suffering from insomnia) try to discover the real-life locations of filming locations on my Google Earth. Smallville has long since received such treatment from me. Thus my being kind of geeked to recognize Chicago (where I've never lived, mind you, but around which my life has revolved, until my recent emigration to New Orleans) standing in for Metropolis.

DC Comics' two big fictional cities – Metropolis and Gotham City – have both long been distinct images or metaphors for New York City: Metropolis being the big, shiny, bright "City of Tomorrow," and Gotham being the avatar of the decaying, corrupt, sinkhole of a city gone bad. But in the comics, both were East Coast cities, co-existing in the fictional universe somewhere with New York itself. (My guess would be to put Metropolis in Connecticut or maybe Delaware, and Gotham in New Jersey.) In Smallville, this tradition was broken with by putting Metropolis in the Midwest. At first, I wondered if they might be putting Metropolis near the location of the real Metropolis, in southern Illinois. But the real Metropolis is no metropolis. (But why didn't the intersection of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers become a huge metropolis? You'd think.) Instead, Metropolis quickly became a replacement on this fantasy version of the world for Kansas City, although far larger and more urban than Kansas City, and with occasional glimpses of port facilities greater than you would expect to find on the Missouri River.
Nevertheless, that put it a few easily drivable hours from the fictional Smallville, Kansas, and as Clark grew older and Metropolis began to figure more prominently in his future, it was convenient for the show and the writers.

And while glimpses of maps and city layouts identifying Metropolis with our Kansas City were to be seen for some years on the show, in the last two seasons or so, suddenly it was glimpses of maps and city layouts that I suddenly recognized as Chicago that were becoming visible. The map showing the spread of the doomsday virus: hey! that shows that the outer edges might affect my family! And then this establishing shot began to be used: downtown Chicago reimagined as downtown Metropolis, shot from over Lake Michigan. A digital reconstruction of the Chicago skyline, with, left to right: the dome-capped building containing Watchtower in the distance replacing Chicago's Aon Center; the vast darkness of the LuthorCorp building replacing Chicago's John Hancock Center; then the Daily Planet building replacing 900 N. Michigan. The tall building to the right in the distance, not used for anything particular in Metropolis, replaces the distinctive Chicago presence of the Sears Tower, now the Willis Tower. These digital figures from Metropolis are transplanted and enhanced building from Vancouver. Watchtower is a vastly heightened Sun Tower, while the upper stories of the LuthorCorp building are provided by the office tower complex at Central City Shopping Centre (actually in the Vancouver suburbs in Whalley, Surrey, British Columbia), and the Daily Planet building is Vancouver's Art Deco masterpiece, the Marine Building with a digital globe added. When I first recognized that lakeshore curve at the base of the picture as the curve of Lake Shore Drive, in front of the Drake Hotel and heading up into the Gold Coast – I admit it, it was the kind of little detail that just geeked me out.

Beyond that, I had to laugh a few times at "the kind of little details" I noticed. My chief academic skill is using sources and noticing connections across vast amounts of data. That seems to come in for noticing these sorts of trivial details that amuse me or that I find interesting, but even I thought I was slightly ridiculous, for example, when I started making connections even into the commercials during this final season of Smallville. But there it was: a car commercial, for the Ford Fusion, I think, I suddenly recognized as being filmed on the Warner Brothers lot in in Burbank, California, in front of the building that had been the Daily Planet in ABC's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in the mid-1990s. The night that I saw this, the commercial was followed (or preceded) by a cosmetics commerical featuring Lost star Evangeline Lilly, who had started her career floating in the background as an extra in early episodes of Smallville while a student in Vancouver. It seemed polite, in effect, that she was now sponsoring the show that helped her get going in the business. And the fact that I was noticing connections between commercials and the show was absurd enough that at that point, even I thought I'd rather turn that part of my brain off for a bit.
Comments 
13th-May-2011 04:58 pm (UTC)
Hi Mike,

Russ Stewart commented on your Facebook post.

Russ wrote: "I, for one, was geeked that the venerable golden age Red Tornado was written into the series."

See the comment thread
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