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'Smallville' Takes to the Sky

Giving the Superman saga a well-needed kick in the tights, “Smallville” leads the way as one of the new formula-busting series of the fall season

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Superboy was always a dumb idea. In fact, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the Man of Steel in 1938, there was no Boy of Steel, no Smallville, no teenage adventures in tights. Kal-el, last son of Krypton, crash-landed on Earth, was discovered by the elderly Kents, and then smash-cut to adulthood and the whole superhero thing. But in 1945, DC Comics thought it would be neat to see Superman as a kid, and before long, Clark Kent was sporting spandex as early as age 7 and incurring the enmity of Lex Luthor by accidentally causing his hair to fall out (quite possibly the stupidest archenemy motivation in the history of stupid archenemy motivations). Dude, Superboy even had a super-powered dog named Krypto, which he dressed up in a friggin’ little red cape!

Like we said: dumb. Which just makes The WB’s Smallville all the more impressive. For comic-book fans beholden to Siegel and Shuster’s sacred text, this new take on Superman’s formative youth is something of a water-to-wine miracle: It has transformed sacrilege into something indispensable to the mythos; finally, Clark Kent has an adolescence that actually makes sense. Better yet for The WB, the show isn’t just for freaks and geeks. With a spandex-free approach that blends X-Files sci-fi and Dawson’s Creek pathos with wide-screen cinematic flair, Smallville (airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) is luring in those who don’t know kryptonite from crapola. Of course, having Tom Welling with his dreamy mug and abs of steel as Clark, and Canadian newcomer Kristin Kreuk with her emerald eyes and preternatural prettiness as Lana Lang, doesn’t hurt either.

Smallville‘s origins can be traced to two men who previously made a mark by slathering a naked cheerleader with whipped cream. That would be Michael Tollin and Brian Robbins, producers of the 1999 film Varsity Blues, who had been developing a series about the early years of Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne. When that went bust, Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth asked them to consider Superboy. After Tollin and Robbins signed on, Roth paired them with writers Miles Millar and Alfred Gough (Shanghai Noon). They quickly agreed on a philosophy: no flights, no tights. ”Our main interest was getting inside Clark Kent’s psyche and understanding why he becomes the man he does,” says Millar. ”Taking away the suit and the glasses was really to strip him away to a more human character and get to the heart of Superman.” Ironically, this down-to-earth approach threw Welling when he auditioned for the role. ”I found myself saying and doing things that were very cliché,” says the 24-year-old. ”After thinking about it for a few days, I finally said to myself, Just play him as a normal kid; forget about those other elements. I think it paid off.”

In fact, most of Superman’s superheroish conventions have been converted into either in-jokes (Clark’s loft in the barn has been sarcastically branded a ”fortress of solitude” by his father, played with a nice mix of grit and corn by John Schneider) or metaphors for adolescence: Some of Clark’s supertalents are emerging with the onset of puberty, like uncontrollable bursts of X-ray vision, or more obviously, his tendency to wake up hovering above his bed while dreaming of Lana. (”A superhuman wet dream,” cracks Millar, hammering home the symbolism.)

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