A Superman Story for Today – Review of Superman & Lois Episode One

Superman & Lois. Source

Of all the comic book characters that have been created over the last century, none is more enduring or problematic to adapt than Superman. The Last Son of Krypton, the Big Blue Boy Scout, the Man of Steel… all the sobriquets used to describe the character of Clark Kent, aka Kal-El of Krypton, are so steeped in popular culture that you could ask a kid about Superman and they’d know who you were talking about without ever reading a comic or seeing one of the movies. The history of Superman on film and television has seen its highs and lows. From George Reeves in the 1950s to Christopher Reeve in the 1970s, all the way up to the 2010s with Henry Cavil, the adaptations of Superman’s adventures have not always been of the best quality but there are always elements that capture some of the essence of who Superman is.

The CW’s latest take on the Superman mythology, Superman & Lois, is a vastly different take on the character. After watching the first episode, simply titled “Pilot”, it’s one I find both refreshing and reinvigorating for a character that many have called boring and difficult to adapt to other mediums. Spoilers ahead for the first episode of the series.

Tyler Hoechlin as Clark Kent/Superman. Source

Instead of throwing the audience in to the early life of Superman, Superman & Lois instead uses a montage to bring us to the present day, long after Clark and Lois are married and with two twin sons, Jonathan and Jordan. The callbacks during the montage are wonderful, particularly the sequence where Clark saves a child from a falling car, echoing the iconic cover of Action Comics #1 where Superman made his first appearance. We see Clark and Lois meet, Clark revealing his true nature to her, their engagement and wedding, and then sliding in to married life with children. Pulling from the Richard Donner Superman films, Jonathan Kent passes away while Clark is a teenager, fueling his desire to leave Smallville and seek out the destiny he has waiting for him. We don’t get to see much of Michele Scarabelli as Martha Kent but her presence is felt through the flashbacks and the short phone conversation she has with Clark during the episode.

Tyler Hoechlin portrays Clark with warmth and brilliant awkwardness, juxtaposing the determined Superman with the affable Clark Kent. Elizabeth Tulloch also brings out the best of Lois Lane, far removed from the classic damsel in distress that Lois is often depicted as in the media surrounding the Superman franchise. Here, we find a stern but caring person, someone who is hell on wheels when her principles are at stake but also dotes on her children without spoiling them. Jordan Elsass and Alex Garfin approach their roles as Jonathan and Jordan, respectively, with just the right amount of teenage angst without it being the sole defining characteristic of their characters. I’ve never been a big fan of teen angst (which is why I tend to avoid many of the dramas produced by The CW) but it fits these two characters well. Jonathan is the easy-going brother: sociable, athletic, playfully teasing his brother without being insensitive. Jordan is the exact opposite of his brother: moody, withdrawn, but no less fierce. I have to give the writers credit for treating Jordan’s social anxiety disorder with as much respect as they do. It would have been far too easy for the writers to misrepresent Jordan’s illness or write him as crazy. Instead, we get a far more balanced character, one who is socially withdrawn but not uncaring, capable of intense emotions but unable to process them the same way as everyone else.

The catalyst for the show is the death of Martha Kent, which I felt was a bold move on the part of the writers. Having already shown Jonathan passing away early in the montage, removing Martha from the show leaves us without the moral bedrock Clark Kent relies on. From a storytelling perspective, this is an excellent place to start from, particularly when it’s revealed that Clark hasn’t yet revealed his true nature to his sons. At its core, Superman & Lois is a family drama, a story about how this family lives and grows through the challenges they face.

The passing of Martha brings the Kents back to Smallville, which has become a depressed flyover town, far from the vibrant place shown in the flashback montage. Many of the farms and businesses show foreclosed signs and there is a palpable air of despair that is conveyed in each of the Smallville residents that we see. The return to Smallville as the setting works better than I expected, largely because it takes away the easy storytelling options the writers would have if they stayed in Metropolis. By grounding the show in the every-day life of smalltown Kansas, we get to focus on the characters more than on the action, which is essential for a family drama like this.

Elizabeth Tulloch as Lois Lane. Source

We also get our first hints at the overarching story that will consume this season of the show, the Stranger (which is later identified as Captain Luthor) and the reveal that Jordan (rather than the athletic Jonathan) has inherited Superman’s abilities. Jordan developing powers is the right choice for the writers, since it makes for even more drama when combined with his social anxiety. Thrusting potentially god-like power on a teenager who already struggles with mental-health issues is a bold narrative decision, one I look forward to seeing the writers handle. Captain Luthor, wearing a power armor suit that allows him to go toe-to-toe with Superman, is even more intriguing, since it becomes readily apparent during their fight that he has a massive amount of animosity toward Clark. It’s outright stated that Captain Luthor hails from an alternate universe and has been cast adrift on the world of the show, which makes sense since Superman & Lois takes place within the Arrowverse after Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Beneath the special effects (which are some of the best I’ve seen on a CW show) is a story about how families learn and grow with each other. There are no artificial fights, no lack of communication simply for plot reasons, none of the things that tend to make these dramas so utterly bad. Instead, we see Lois and Clark talking about the issues their family is facing, with Lois standing firm on more than one occasion in defense of her family. The brothers are not at each other’s throats constantly. There’s sibling rivalry but it is clear from the start that the two of them watch out for each other and care for one another deeply. This is the Superman story we need right now: not a story about a god who flies through the sky but a story about a family and how they become better because of each other.

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