‘Smallville: The Complete Series’ – The birth of Superman on Hulu

Smallville launched in 2001 as a superhero series by way of a Dawson’s Creek-style young adult melodrama: teen angst with a kryptonite boost and moral lessons in a freak-of-the-week serial. Tom Welling looked more like a Tiger Beat cover model than a small town farm boy, but his gentle blue eyes and aw-shucks smile made his high school freshman Clark Kent all innocence as his powers emerge as he grew up—not your usual problems with puberty. The producers made a point of never putting Clark into the familiar costume. This was a show about the boy—and the man—before he was Superman.

The show stands up to the revisit. His touch-and-go almost romance with Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang, high school cheerleader and girl-next-door of Clark’s dreams, provides the teen soap portion of the show while the revolving door of mutant-of-the-week threats (inevitably fellow townspeople transformed by the kryptonite meteor shower that brought Clark to Earth) provides the superhero adventure. Somehow the high school body count and the extreme behavior escapes the notice of the authorities, a condition that will continue throughout the series. But the strength of the show lies in the warm family relationships (John Schneider and Annette O’Toole as his rock steady, salt of the Earth adoptive parents, who balance moral backbone with just a touch of modern sexiness) and Clark’s unlikely friendship with former bad-boy millionaire trying to make good Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), devoted to Clark and his family while struggling with his own family issues. These stories were the foundation on which the Smallville superhero universe was built.

The second season opens in the wreckage caused by tornado that rips through the town on Prom Night, but that’s just the beginning of the eventful sophomore high school year. In “Heat” he discovers heat vision when his hormones start to surge with thoughts of Lana and in “Red” he finds the personality-changing effects of red kryptonite. Luckily for him, best buddy Pete (Sam Jones III) learns of Clark’s secret, giving him a confidante. As far as the mutant freaks, as the super powered villains as dubbed by Clark’s gal-pal and conspiracy nut Chloe (Allison Mack), go there’s a youth-sucking harpy in “Redux,” an over-acheiver with the ability to be in two places at once in “Dichotic,” and what seems to be the walking dead in “Visage,” and Lex gets his own supervillain: his icy industrialist father Lionel (John Glover), who makes Machiavelli look like a pushover. One last highlight: Christopher Reeve guest stars as a scientist privy to Clark’s secret in “Rosetta.”

Smallville – photo credit: Warner Television
Smallville – photo credit: Warner Television

The second season ends with Clark under the id-boosting influence of red kryptonite and the third season opens with him as a super-powered thug in Metropolis. It takes Clark’s adoptive father Jonathan to make a deal with the devil—in this case, Clark’s Kryptonian father (voice of Terence Stamp)—to save the boy from himself, which is the beginning of a mortal trial for farmer Jonathan and a complicated journey to manhood as both Kryptonian child and citizen of Earth. Season four introduces Chloe’s cousin Lois Lane (Erica Durance), setting the table for the eventual transition of Clark’s affections from Lana, who falls in love with future Supernatural star Jensen Ackles and discovers a family legacy of witchcraft that dates back to middle ages. Jane Seymour has a recurring role as a mysterious power player with a particular interest in Lana and her ancestry, and Lex begins his transformation to villain as he battles his ruthless father and stockpiles secrets while making his play for the stones of power from the planet Krypton. The season ends with another apocalyptic rain of meteors upon the besieged small town.

Clark goes to college in season five, which brings in a mysterious college professor (James Marsters) who is apparently from outer space, and introduces Aquaman, Cyborg, and Braniac to the mythology; season six introduces Green Arrow (Justin Hartley), the alter ego of millionaire playboy Oliver Queen and the leader of the team of heroes called the Justice League; and season seven brings Clark’s cousin Kara (Laura Vandervoort), aka Supergirl, to Earth. Through it all, Lex continues his descent in supervillain darkness, which includes wooing Lana.

The Lex and Lana stories comes to an end with the season seven finale and the show was originally slated to end as well, in part due to falling ratings, but an upsurge in viewers convinced WB to bring it back for an eighth season. Clark makes his move to Metropolis to join the Daily Planet as a reporter and romantic sparks begin with Lois. And while he sheds his farmboy casual of the jacket and T-shirt for a more formal button-down shirt and tie, the red and blue wardrobe is still alive, even if it’s only a smeary color scheme that results in the nickname “The Blur.”

The recharged series kept on flying in its urban incarnation until the creators decided to bring it to its inevitable conclusion in Season Ten, which plays as a valedictory season, bringing back heroes, villains and family from the past (including John Glover as Lionel Luther and Michael Rosenbaum as the once and future villain Lex). We measure Clark’s evolution with a 200th episode “Homecoming” celebration that brings him back to Smallville High and a “A Christmas Carol” odyssey guided by former villain turned 25th century hero Brainiac 5 (James Marsters) and complicated by a tangle with the evil Clark of the dark alternate universe (which, cliché aside, provides another piece in his struggle with identity). About the only person missing this season is Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang; her absence (apart from archival footage) is glaring given the roll call of guest shots, but it’s a minor issue.

Smallville – photo credit: Warner Television
Smallville – photo credit: Warner Television

It’s a strong finish to a show that actually improved in its final seasons. Lois takes charge of the Clark makeover (enter nerdy, clumsy Clark with glasses) and, as promised, the series ends on the long-awaited and highly-anticipated sight of Welling’s debut in the familiar red, white and blue costume, streaking off to save the world as Superman. By the time Superman makes his long awaited debut, it feels earned. To date, it remains the longest-running superhero series on television: 218 episodes over ten seasons.

It also won three Emmy Awards for sound editing.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Smallville: The Complete Series [DVD]
Smallville: The Complete Series (20th Anniversary Collection) [DVD]
Smallville: The Complete Series (20th Anniversary Collection) [Blu-ray]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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