Superman & Lois premiere recap: Welcome home, Smallville
- TV Show
Superman & Lois launched Tuesday night with an extra-large series premiere. The CW series promises to take the Last Son of Krypton and Earth's Greatest Investigative Journalist in a bold new direction. They're married, with twin sons, juggling a major lifestyle change with an unexpected new nemesis. In this spoiler-heavy recap, EW's Arrowverse correspondent Chancellor Agard and critic Darren Franich discuss the series premiere in-depth.
DARREN: I didn't really know what to expect from this show, Chance. Unlike you, I'm a casual-at-best follower of Greg Berlanti's CW super-verse (and my favorite series is the way-off-on-its-own Legends of Tomorrow). But I enjoyed seeing Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch when they popped up as Clark and Lois in the crossovers. I'm also a born-again Superman guy, and I was intrigued to see if this series could do something new and good with one of the oldest comic book characters.
We can confirm the "new" part, at least. I enjoyed the pilot's focus on intergenerational family dynamics, with Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) and Jordan (Alexander Garfin) coming off as two very different teenagers. And I was totally fascinated with the economic hardship facing everyone in Smallville. The Kents' ultimate decision to move back to the family farm is certainly a fresh idea for this mythology, overturning the usual country-to-city narrative (and setting up some culture-clashing drama and comedy.) I have a few larger concerns about the larger plot machinations, which I explore a bit in my review. I'm curious about your reaction, though. What did you think of this series premiere? And can you talk about how it fits in with some of the larger shifts in the Arrowverse the last couple years?
CHANCELLOR: I think I liked the premiere, even if I'm not completely sure what the show will look like on a weekly basis. I think Hoechlin and Tulloch's dynamic feels very lived in and suggests a long history. The most interesting thing for me is how Superman & Lois doesn't look or feel like what I was expecting when the show was announced 17 years ago in 2019. Like everyone, I assumed the show would be brightly colored like the rest of the Arrowverse shows. Of course, we were wrong — and I'm glad we were. With its muted colors, which emphasize that Smallville has fallen on hard times, the cinematic aspect ratio, Superman & Lois doesn't look or feel like its network siblings. Visually, it reminded me more of Man of Steel than Supergirl at times.
While Superman & Lois is visually distinct from the Arrowverse, it feels very much in line with a major trend in the shared universe — specifically, the focus on parenthood. Later seasons of Arrow gave Stephen Amell's brooding archer two children; Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) and Iris West (Candice Patton) met their grown-up daughter from the future, Nora, in The Flash season 5, which was Superman & Lois creator Todd Helbing's last as showrunner; Black Lightning has been focused on the challenges of being a hero and parent to two super-powered children since the beginning. (What's interesting is how Superman & Lois shares a lot in common with the family dramas Berlanti made his name on, like Everwood, which has a very similar premise). That being said, it doesn't feel like Superman & Lois is rehashing well-trodden ground.
Superman & Lois' goals are distinct. Whereas on Black Lightning, you kinda knew from the pilot that Jefferson's daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) would suit-up at some point in the first season, I don't get the sense that Superman & Lois is ready to throw Jordan — the son who inherited Clark's powers — in a Superboy suit. The pilot's deliberate and sincere pacing gives the impression that it's interested in playing the long-game with this arc, tracking the slow development of Jordan's powers and the impact they'll have on his life.
Speaking of Jordan, I'm surprised by how much I loved the premiere's handling of the twins. I think Elsass and Garfin found the right balance of playing believable teenagers without making them feel annoying. As someone who dealt with his own mental health stuff from a young age, I related very much to Jordan, who suffers from social anxiety disorder. Beyond that, though, I truly felt for the boys because of how hurt they seemed after learning their father was Superman.
Darren, you're not only a reformed comic book geek, but you're also a father. How did you feel about the show's depiction of not only Superman but also parenthood?
DARREN: I love the connection you're drawing to the other CW super-parents. I thought a lot about other recent entries in the "Heroes With Kids" subgenre, like Avengers: Endgame and Logan to the very different set of twins appearing on WandaVision. Superman & Lois laps all those projects for pure Dad Content. With two full-time jobs, Clark's not home enough. He can't connect with the troubled Jordan, but he's also emotionally cut off from the exceedingly untroubled Jon — who, as a Metropolitan ladies' man jock, is very a different teenager from grown-up farmboy Clark. There's also a lot more talk about money than I've ever heard in any Superman story — and when Clark loses his job at the Daily Planet, it foregrounds all the economic anxiety bubbling through a lot of Superman & Lois.
I agree with you that the twins are pretty compelling. They're not, like, total enemies (which would seem forced) but also not best friends (which would offer zero drama). But as you point out, I'm in the upper tier of the CW's viewing demographic. So the part of the pilot that hit me most was Lana (Emmanuelle Chriqui) arriving with her two kids. Like Clark, she's dealing with her own growing-older struggles: a troubled marriage, one daughter with issues, her whole community spiraling downhill.
That said, the show hasn't fully figured out "parenting" as a narrative strategy. In the pilot, we hear a lot about Lois' prizewinning reporting, but the strong Superman focus reduces her to too many "Spouse at Home" scenes. Even two decades into a marriage, it seems mandatory that Lois and Clark maintain some kind of spiky chemistry. She has to keep Superman on his toes; she's Lois Lane, man! So I was baffled when she nodded along when her husband insisted she move herself and her entire family to a fading agricultural community halfway across the country. That is, like, midlife crisis talk (or maybe a touch of pandemic era white flight.) I know, I know: She's also moving to Smallville because something something Morgan Edge. But I worry all the attention given to Superman's paternal anxiety is getting in the way of Lois' side of the story.
I'm talking so much about the parenting stuff because I don't have a lot to say about the superhero stuff. The early use of super-breath was endearingly nerdy, and maybe a wink to Man of Steel skeptics that Superman & Lois won't be afraid of using the goofier powers. I can't get over how much the Stranger (Wolé Parks) looks like Master Chief in his space armor, and I was totally baffled by the episode-ending revelation about his secret identity. Chance, can you explain to me precisely who Captain Luthor is? And setting aside all the exciting delicate family drama, how did you feel about the flying-punching-heat vision corner of the series premiere?
CHANCELLOR: Honestly, I'm not sure if I completely understand what's going on with Parks' Captain Luthor. Even though the premiere doesn't reveal what his first name is, I'm going to assume this is a version of Lex Luthor from another world and we're dealing with the aftermath of "Crisis on Infinite Earths."
Specifically, I think Captain Luthor is a refugee from another planet that was destroyed when the multiverse collapsed in last year's five-hour crossover. Following the birth of Earth-Prime, which is where all of the Arrowverse shows take place now, several people from dead worlds wound up on this new planet, including a non-evil version of Kate Kane's sister Beth on Batwoman and several versions of Brainiac-5 on Supergirl. And so I think Captain Luthor is in the same boat, too. In fact, he hints as much during his fight with Superman in the premiere: "I know everything there is to know about the Last Son of Krypton. Where I come from, let's just say the two of us have history," says the Captain. "My world was destroyed, but somehow I managed to survive. I eventually arrived here and I learned you were here, too." If I'm correct, then this Captain Luthor reveal is probably the most overt reference to the larger shared universe in the premiere, which isn't nearly as Easter egg heavy as other Arrowverse pilots.
So, I'm mostly onboard with Captain Luthor. First, it's a pretty clever way for the show to have its own Luthor-figure — an essential part of any Super-story — without stepping on Supergirl's toes. While I love Jon Cryer's delightfully over-the-top take on Lex Luthor, I think it would've clashed with Superman & Lois' more grounded tone; Cryer would've gobbled up the Kent Farm and all of Smallville in one line of dialogue. Furthermore, even though Parks wasn't physically in the battle-suit and we don't see his face at all, he was still compelling because of the mix of menace, condescending curiosity, and bitterness in his voice, which also has this subtle seductive quality to it that adds an interesting shade to the character. But here comes the "but": I feel like every Superman thing uses the Luthors. When will Brainiac or Mongul get their time to shine? (Yes, I know Smallville did a diet version of Brainiac).
All of that being said, the superhero corner of the show is what gave me the most pause. While I liked how the action wasn't as neatly choreographer as it is on similar shows, I'm concerned about the relationship between Superman and Lois' father, General Sam Lane (Dylan Walsh), who frequently calls Clark away on important day-saving business. The General's presence feels like a remnant from an earlier version of the show that was more procedural and thus needed a character like him to give Superman his weekly case; however, here, it's just kind of sweaty. More importantly, though, I don't like the idea of Superman being at the beck and call of the U.S. military. Like making Superman an agent of the government calls to mind the less admirable and darker aspects of American foreign policy — especially in an episode where Superman flies all around the world — and is reflective of how the genre as a whole is a bit too cozy with law enforcement (ASIDE: It actually reminds me of Action Comics #900, in which Superman renounced his American citizenship so people wouldn't view him as an extension of the country's military). Clark and Sam's relationship isn't tense enough in the premiere. Like, Lois had more tension with her father than Clark did. While I understand some viewers might write this off as a quirk of the superhero genre and say I'm reading too much into it, I believe the show's sincere engagement with other real-world issues like economic disparity and the unstable media world invites this kind of consideration.
DARREN: "The Army's Pal, Superman," not really a Superman I groove onto. And General Lane's persistent presence is tangible residue from the frowny uniformed commanders second-fiddling in the Henry Cavill movies. I think the intention with Sam is to further complicate the central family dynamic. But his disappearing-reappearing "there's plot happening!" act gets old fast. I just don't buy this gruff ultra-high-ranking general as Lois' father, much less as Jon's and Jordan's grandfather. (Honestly — and I hope he takes this as an embedded compliment — Walsh doesn't look old enough.) Remember how Superboy-Prime caused DC comics retcons by bashing the fabric of reality? Kindly punch Sam Lane out of this continuity, please!
I agree with you on both fronts regarding Captain Luthor. We see more of Parks in next week's second episode, and his ruminative performance is definitely not creating a conventional bad guy. That said: You're right about the over-use of People Named Luthor. What's even more depressing is how many major Man of Steel stories default to tough-looking superstrong villains, as if the only way to tell a story in this mythology is to find someone big enough to beat up Superman. The show works hard to embed its main characters in a down-to-earth setting — but almost nothing about Superman's classic rogues' gallery is down to earth. Can it successfully incorporate green big-brained aliens and fifth-dimensional imps? Or does its mournful-serious aesthetic forbid those villains from appearing? In which case: What other villains are there? I agree that disruptive billionaires are 2021's greatest villains, but I don't see too many seasons in generalized socioeconomic animosity from Morgan Edge.
I think there's a common double-edged reaction emerging in our conversation. On one hand, Superman & Lois is doing something very new with very familiar characters. Oh, you can spot the cinematic reference points visually. I point everyone to your great talk with director Lee Toland Krieger, who shouts out both Superman Returns and Man of Steel. But neither of those movies advanced so far forward in the Kents' life — and neither dug so deep into a downbeat latter-day Smallville. And yet! All this exciting trailblazing means the show is operating without a compass of pre-existing material — really, what would Lois Lane think about Smallville? So there's a depressing fallback quality to some of the larger story decisions. It's a bold new post-mythology story… and the bad guy is a remnant from the last crossover. Clark loses the job he's had for almost two decades… and doesn't seem to think about the Daily Planet again. Next week, there's a trip to the Fortress of Solitude, and it sort of looks like every onscreen Fortress of Solitude from 1978 onwards, another bland ice cave.
So this series is a mixed bag, full of impressive ambitions I want to support. You mentioned Smallville, which is actually an intriguing touchstone for this new series. That ten-year saga began with another teenager juggling his emerging superpowers — and Helbing's first writing credit was an episode in season 7! You're the resident Smallville expert, Chance. Do you think its long run offers any insight about Superman & Lois's trajectory, as this new series gets past the big-budget gloss of the pilot and into the nitty-gritty of longform drama storytelling?
CHANCELLOR: One thing about pre-existing material: I think this is the rare time where what's happening on a DC TV show is mirroring what's going in the comics. (In general, Marvel is better at synergy. See: their attempts at making the Inhumans a thing a few years ago). Right now, you can watch this show about Clark and Lois being parents, and then you can go to your local comic book store and pick up two different Superman series which are largely focused on him and Lois raising their son Jonathan. It's not exactly the same, but it's close enough in a way that's cool.
Actually, I think you may be onto something about Smallville possibly being a good blueprint for Superman & Lois going forward, but just in the sense of recognizing the importance of forging your own path and not being constrained by continuity. Part of Smallville's success came from the writers having to figure how to take the Superman mythology and simultaneously de-weird it enough to make it palatable to a pre-MCU audience and exciting for the comic superfans. In other words: It didn't treat the canon as sacred text, instead choosing to create something new and different. I have faith Superman & Lois can do the same thing — and not only because Helbing told me they're treating the comics as a jumping-off point and not as law. Outside of "Crisis on Infinite Earths," the Arrowverse avoids large-scale adaptations, preferring to mix and match until they produce something fresh. Furthermore, I think the amount of new material in the premiere outweighs the familiar. Like, I'm not entirely sure what the show looks like on a week-to-week basis, but after nine years in this shared universe, that's kind of thrilling. I'm excited to see where the Powers That Be take the Man of Tomorrow and his family.