I’m a lifelong Superman fan, which is why it takes some people by surprise when I tell them that it took me a long time to warm up to Smallville and even then, there are large chunks of the series that I tend to watch through the lens of “This is the alternate timeline where the equivalent of Biff getting the almanac happened and a lot of things got screwed up as a result.” But this isn’t a post about the merits of Smallville, so let’s not linger too long on the specifics of my issues.
One thing that put me off sampling Smallville early on was the attitude that came from many of those involved in the reboot. From a marketing standpoint, I understand the need to emphasize that this retelling was striving to be more relevant to modern teens and that it wasn’t just another take in the vein of the Christopher Reeve films, or the ill-fated Superboy series of the late 80s, or Lois & Clark in the mid-90s. Even so, boasting “no tights, no flights” couldn’t help but conjure up the specter of the mandates that had been said to plague the Jon Peters-helmed attempts at rebooting the character in a feature.
(As Kevin Smith was fond of recounting on the lecture circuit, and has discussed in numerous interviews, the three rules the producer laid out for him were: “I don’t want him in that suit,” for reasons I won’t repeat here, “I don’t want him flying” because he felt it looked lame, and “At some point, Superman has to fight a giant man-eating spider.”)
The tagline radiated embarrassment at doing a Superman show. It felt like what they wanted to do was “Superboy minus Superboy.” This underlined the conflicted nature of the show – it wanted to center on how Clark grew up to be Superman, yet it couldn’t resist bringing in more and more elements that were a part of Superman’s proper world. Before long he was battling Zod and Brainiac well ahead of their typical arrivals in the comics. He became a mentor to his young cousin Kara, who eventually became a Supergirl who fully embraced her heroic destiny before Clark did himself. Even more egregious was when the series formed a Justice League out of its established Aquaman, Flash, Green Arrow and Cyborg characters, and did it not only before Clark embraced his own codename and destiny, but had Clark completely irrelevant to the founding of the League.
Why separate itself so fully from the “usual” Superman story and then introduce so many common elements anyway? Why not just DO a straight up Superman show if you’re dying for access to the Kandor, Brainiac, and Supergirl toybox?
It’s the same question I find myself asking of Krypton. When the series was first announced, the early details were that it was set before Superman’s home planet exploded, focusing on Superman’s grandfather as a young man. Off of that logline, my reaction was, “Who cares about Krypton that far before any of the characters we know?” It struck me as a weird way to mine that particular intellectual property.
As more details about the show have become known, a different pattern has emerged. Though the show is technically a prequel, the hook is that enemies of Superman have traveled back in time in an effort to change history and erase Earth’s Greatest Hero from existence. This conveniently does two things – first, it gets around the concern that since it’s a prequel, we all know how this ends. Time travel allows for the possibility that canon could be broken at any time. It also builds in a reason to see characters like Brainiac well ahead of their scheduled appearance in canon.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Enterprise did the same thing. It’s as weird to me now as it was then. If you want to make bold choices by cutting yourself off from all the well-trod ground, then DO that, but don’t build in a backdoor that lets all that back in. It ends up feeling like you want to do a Superman show without anything that embarrasses you about Superman.
The reason why the Greg Berlanti-produced shows (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning) have felt like such a perfectly geeky delight is that they’ve never run from their comic book trappings. Just about all of the heroes wear costumes that reflect their comic book incarnations. No one here is running around in the “realistic” black leather look that the X-Men movies brought in to vogue as the alternative to yellow spandex. Those shows embrace their history.
If Krypton baffles me, then I’m entirely flummoxed by the announcement of Metropolis, another prequel which just got a straight-to-series order for WB/DC’s new streaming service. Set before Superman arrives in Metropolis, the series “will follow Lois Lane and Lex Luthor as they investigate the world of fringe science and expose the city’s dark and bizarre secrets.” How much do you want to be that this will involve Lex and Lois taking on proto-versions of future Superman villains? Which brings us again back to the question, why not just do a Superman show? The appeal of prequels should be to dramatize the story before the story we know. In practice, it becomes “the story you know, just dressed up enough to convince you you’re seeing something different.”
Is anyone dying to spend multiple seasons seeing what Lois and Lex were up to before their lives got incredibly interesting? Is there a way to make this concept satisfying to longtime fans and casual viewers without pulling the Smallville shuffle of bringing in all the familiar elements early? It’s the same thing that Gotham is doing – positioning itself well before the arrival of the hero, but introducing the villains in forms very close to their iconic roles.
If Krypton and Metropolis end up being in the same continuity and pull off something I said that Gotham should have done, I will be a bit more impressed. For me, Gotham would have been instantly more appealing if Bruce Wayne had been shot dead alongside his parents in the opening scene. Then you’ve got a real mission statement: “This isn’t the Bat-story you know. It will NEVER become that story and we are not going to spend years on the tease that Bruce is becoming Batman. This is the version of Bedford Falls without George Baily. Next stop – Pottersville!”
Krypton erases Superman from existence, and Metropolis is the story of that timeline without Superman and Clark Kent coming to save everyone from the supervillains. For some reason, that feels like a story worth telling, with bold storytelling decisions that have permanent consequences. Anything short of that feels like it’s just an effort to avoid telling a story about a flying man in cape and tights.
Embrace your geek, DC, and own it.