Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Return to Smallville - Season 5 - In Which I've Just Had It

Arrival - Brainiac's ship arrives, along with a few Zod-folk.  Clark loses his powers, hooks up with Lana
Mortal - Some guys escape from Belle Reve and decide to make their name by taking out Clark Kent, who is an urban legend at Belle Reve.  
Hidden - a former classmate of Chloe and Clark takes over a nuclear missile silo? and decides to dust Smallville to get rid of meteor freaks.
Aqua - we watched the first six minutes or so of this one before I remembered this episode is very bad and everything you need to see (YMMV) is in the pre-credits sequence
Thirst - vampires at Metropolis U
Exposed - Lois is a stripper
Reckoning - I'd never seen this one.  It's where Clark tells Lana, things go well until they go very, very bad.  It was actually like an episode of grown-up TV.
Vessel - Cliffhanger Season Finale where Lex becomes Zod and Clark gets tossed into the Phantom Zone.

So I really was thinking about a few overarching things in these episodes.  

"Smallville's" Clark Kent Bares No Resemblance to Superman In Other Media

So, we understood in the early seasons of Smallville that the show was about a teen-aged Clark Kent discovering new powers and his destiny (I get irritated with pre-destination, but this is TV).  The show frames him as a painfully earnest kid who has to live with secrets paired with confusion regarding his nature and origin.  

In your average Superman comic since 1938, Superman is a grown man with a job who sometimes doffs his work clothes to put on his pajamas and fight crime.  And since those earliest issues, there's been a (sometimes literal) wink between Superman and the audience that as Clark or as Superman, he has to cover for where his other persona is, was or will be.  But, a trick to that is that he doesn't always sound like he's stammering his way through an answer and getting his stomach in knots from lying.

Look, Superman straight up gas lights everyone around him 24/7, and finds it kind of zany.  There's a "prove I'm lying" quality to his hand-waving excuses.  And the comics accept the idea that, in reality, people's curiosity is pretty easily sated and/ or they do not actually care - Clark Kent is no one's main character.  But here, it's the whole premise for the show.  Chloe, Lex and Lana, ostensibly Clark's closest pals, are constantly like "Jesus, dude.  WHERE WERE YOU?" and he's like "I can't tell you.  You have to trust me." while his parents egg him on to bullshit everyone way past the point of it making any sense.

If the show assumes that the Clark of their show will become a loved and trusted superhero akin to Reeves' Superman, it's not setting that up.  There's always a lack of cheer and friendliness to our pre-Superman figure of this show.  He doesn't seem like someone who will ask you about yourself.  He's too busy brooding and worrying about LuthorCorp, Lana Lang and this week's disaster.  And, look, brooding happens. We all do it, but not... all the time (unless you live in Gotham).  Especially not Superman.* This Clark is not a Superman who will confidently speak to people and talk people off ledges, literally and figuratively.  He might stammer at them a bit.

Note to writers from 2006:  grim determination is not the same as confidence in one's resolve.

I wouldn't say Clark never obtains "confidence" - my memory of later seasons suggests otherwise.  But even then - he's sort of a black hole of energy or the show wouldn't need to surround him with cheerier characters in the later seasons.

I can't believe some of this made it past the script stage

I've also been pondering how sometimes the show just feels lazy or sloppy, giving skeptics all the ammo they need to verify their notions that superhero media is kind of stupid.  And the vampire episode alone leaves so many places where a Google search, totally possible in 2006, could have made the episode less... bad.

When Richard Donner was working on Superman: The Movie, he introduced the notion of verisimilitude to the cast and crew.  And that was - Superman is so fantastic, the world around him must be believable.  It doesn't matter if you're working with a show's internal logic or real-world logic, the set-up and performances have to be real in context.  The audience can't be given a reason not to believe that the characters or scenarios aren't real, even in their heightened reality - ie: this is not camp.  This is not winking.  This is not a pantomime where we don't take Superman seriously as an audience.  

I'll suggest part of what's made Marvel movies successful is that they pushed this notion further yet.  They care about whether the set-ups and situations in their shows and movies make sense - that you aren't pulled out by nonsense that doesn't work or doesn't add up.  Wider audiences can accept the premise of a Hulk because someone sat down and thought things through in ways that take cause and effect into consideration.  IE: We do not just give up on how the recognizable world operates because once we've introduced a flying man, nothing else matters.  

The vampire episode, Thirst, decided to be a Lana story, but the set-up is that the vampires are a college sorority that famously only admits one pledge per year, and they decide mopey ol' Lana is their perfect pledge.  It's a cute idea except it's the laziest writing I can recall ever seeing on a show where a teen runs a coffee shop while she's too young to drive.  

  • Unless you have the same person sticking around for twenty years at college, by year 4 you have four vampires - but somehow this sorority is famous for it's selection criteria which means they've been at this a while. 
  • If you're an ageless vampire who does keep sticking around, you have vampires called into the Dean's office for failure to graduate after amassing years of credits (and college isn't cheap, yo).  The writing can't decide if this has been going on for a bit or if it started very recently so it's all a little confusing.  
  • Calling pizza boys to your door to murder would get you immediately on the police's watch list the second time someone disappeared around your sorority house  
  • And let's not get into the horror of someone's daughter being atomized by Lana Lang and the article explaining what happened (fully researched!) all getting buried as tabloid trash by The Daily Planet.  THIS STORY SHOULD HAVE BROKEN LEXCORP.  If the Planet squashed it, it was written by a freelancer, and could/ should have been taken elsewhere.  
  • So Chloe put her personal ambition to work at The Daily Planet above a major story

But even the mundane stuff can't be dealt with.  

The episode suggests that Lana applied "late" to Met U and was accepted to begin during the term.  Which... I'll believe a man can fly before I think that makes any sense.  "Yes, please join this airplane ride already in progress."

And, the episode also includes the revelation that Milton Fine (aka: Brainiac) is posing as a history professor at Central Kansas A&M.  

Fun fact - history professorships are one of the most competitive spots on college campuses because universities tend to create a lot of History PhDs and there's only so many jobs.  And to get those jobs, you have to publish, which is a very long, very grueling process.  So even at Central Kansas A&M, Milton Fine would have had to have produced articles in journals probably have a monograph with a publisher.  

Like, I don't *expect* people to know that.  But I do expect if someone is writing a show with certain things as a premise - you can maybe look into how to make it actually work.   Make it make sense. 

These things are *fixable* with the slightest bit of thought put into them, but somehow a production was mounted that included hundreds of crew members, a cast of dozens, spaces rented, etc...   And no one stopped to say "is this stupid?"  

Lex Luthor is Completely Justified In Going Nuts

Here's what we know about Lex Luthor:  Everyone lies to him.  Constantly.  

In general, I'm not a big supporter of the idea that villains all need to have totally understandable origins and should be redeemed or be redeemable.  This isn't just a bad way to view media, it's legit a bad way to understand actual people in real life and in history.  Some people are just The Bad Guy and it doesn't really matter how they got that way.  I'm not worried about redeeming The Green River Killer or Mussolini.

In general in the comics, we understand Lex Luthor as a pathological narcissist with murderously fascist tendencies who knows how to alternately be the ultimate villain who DNGAF or as the tech businessman who can put on a good face for the public.  I don't mind the idea that Lex Luthor knew Clark in Smallville - that makes for an interesting parallel, and I think Mark Waid probably landed it best in Birthright.   But I also totally get the "didn't know him til we were both in Metropolis" bit.  And appreciate the madness of the Silver-Age lab-accident origin.

But in Smallville, Lex is an emotionally abused young man coming into his own and realizing he might have his own power on the day that he drives into Clark Kent.  We know from what the show told us that Lex was gaslit and lied to his entire youth, about his baby brother, about many things, and by a father who withheld his affection and approval in favor of constant criticism.  

It's almost pathetic that he reaches out to a 14 or 15 year old boy as a friend, and when he does same to the parents, the dad is openly hostile based solely on the family name.  From there, a gaggle of high schoolers lies to him, breaks into his house repeatedly, his involvement with their lives seems to routinely mean he's knocked unconscious or assaulted.  And no one will tell him what is going on despite the fact he seems constantly impacted by what is going on.  He can't make informed decisions, and when he *tries* to learn more, everyone yells at him or acts against him.  Or spins more lies right to his face.  It.  Is.  Bananas.  

A healthier person would recognize toxic people when he met them, but Lex isn't that guy.  In short - The Kents are absolutely the villains in Lex's origin story as much or more than Lionel.  

Jor-El or Clark Is Responsible for Every Bad Thing that Happens On the Show

No, really.  

Jor-El sending Clark through a warp to Earth along with a ton of meteors is ground zero for literally everything bad in Season 1.  By Season 5, we've plunged the Earth into riotous darkness, un-managed Kryptonian inmates are inhabiting bodies on Earth and Jor-El and Zod's weenie war which apparently ended Krypton has spilled over to another planet.  

TV and movies love to have a closed loop to keep circumstances personal for characters and keep the audience invested, but a failure of this show and Snyder's take on Superman is that they're constantly just cleaning up their own mess.  That isn't heroism.  That's being a fuck-up.  

Superman: The Movie has the Zod set-up, but it understands that to make Superman a hero, what he has to do first is help people who need it just because they're in a bad spot, not because Marlon Brando created a hundred mutant psychopaths.  He saves planes, cats, Lois, foils two robberies and misplaces a boat before the Lex plot even starts firing.  

But, here, Jor-El's games of "guess what I want NOW" basically fuck over the Earth on a weekly basis.  And when that isn't happening, Clark's deception about what he is to his closest friends and lovers is usually the culprit.    

This is bad writing/ show management.  I do recall the point of The Blur was to correct some of that leading up to the finale, but we're 5 years in and you just want for the Kents to call someone with more than a knowledge of how to bale hay to look into whatever the holy hell is going on, because they are so utterly out of their depths and it's costing lives all around them.

Speaking of...

Season 5 is When They Quit Worrying About Murder and Death

The body count by Lana's hands alone on this show is quite impressive.  I haven't seen that many episodes, but she killed a few people this season.  And it never gets mentioned ever again.  It's just a thing Lana did along the way.  

That's weird.  Normally murder is not something a regular 18 or 19-year-old bounces back from with zero consequence.

If it's not that, it's Clark half-finishing a problem - like in Exposed where we understand a shady Euro-guy has been stealing strippers from Kansas and trafficking them out of the country - Lois and Clark shrug off the fact several other women were kidnapped and sent to god knows where, but since Lois is fine at the end of the episode, they just head back to the Talon for a latte.  No call to the authorities - they're pleasantly surprised to find out Chloe did so.  

Oh, and a major story the Planet could have covered we're told winds up on page 73 (newspapers are not and never were numbered this way.  Jesus, Smallville writers... just look at a newspaper to see how they work and look) rather than above the fold on Page 1.  

But, yeah, the bodycount this season was substantial.  People were just getting killed left and right, whether it was security guards or whatever.  I mean, we did see the entire planet thrown into chaos, rioting, looting, etc... (with some deeply problematic borrowing of stock footage from the Rodney King riots) which I assume had a body count.  Not to mention all the people who would have died in traffic accidents, hospitals, etc... when Zod and Brainiac turned off all the electricity.  

But, cool, Clark.  You do you and keep worrying about Lana.


I am enjoying the show.  Say what you will about structure, story, plot and mechanics - they're coasting on the like-ability of the cast.  And they're bending over backward to do right by the Superman comics within the constraints of 2006-era CW budget and FX.  Still, woulda been nice if they also focused on Clark becoming anything like Superman along the way.


*paging Zack Snyder

No comments: