How Superman & Lois brings the Man of Steel mythos down to earth — and into a new era
This article was written independently by Entertainment Weekly's editorial team and meets our editorial standards. The CW is a paid advertising partner in Winter 2021.
Tyler Hoechlin remembers the moment he realized Superman & Lois would be unlike any of his past experiences playing the Man of Steel in the Arrowverse. It was during the first week of production on the pandemic-delayed pilot, in November. When Hoechlin arrived on the Vancouver set to shoot a scene from the sweeping montage that kicks off the CW superhero saga, he passed a monitor and was struck by the shot being set up — and not because it was some big action sequence. Rather, it was a quiet moment involving Clark Kent and Lois Lane's twin boys, Jordan and Jonathan.
"It was just the shot of young Jordan on the porch in the very beginning of the pilot where Lois and Clark are watching Jonathan throw the football at the tire, and then it comes down low and you see Jordan is kind of scribbling on his notepad," Hoechlin, 33, recalls to EW. "Just seeing that one shot was like an instantaneous thing of, 'Oh, okay. This is different. I have not seen this shot before on some of the other stuff… This is a very everyday moment.'"
That little slice of life aligns with the ethos of Superman & Lois. While it will have its share of epic fights and stunning shots of the countryside at golden hour, the show fancies itself a family drama first and foremost. It just so happens that the family includes fandom's most popular superhero and journalist.
The latest spin-off in Greg Berlanti's Arrowverse, Superman & Lois follows Clark (Hoechlin) and Lois (Elizabeth Tulloch) as they juggle their jobs and saving the world with raising their teenage sons: football golden child Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) and socially anxious Jordan (Alexander Garfin). With the specter of one or both of the boys possibly inheriting their father's remarkable powers hanging over them and the realization they've been prioritizing their careers at the expense of the family's wellbeing, the couple decide to leave Metropolis and move back to the Kent farm in Smallville. But a simple change of scenery doesn't make their lives any less hectic, thanks to Clark constantly flying off to save the day and the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Wolé Parks) with a vendetta against the Last Son of Krypton. Even with these larger-than-life threats, though, the series is much more interested in the mundane perils families face, such as economic insecurity, loss, and mental illness.
"The core of the show is rooted in this family and their struggles," Tulloch says. "The way [showrunner Todd Helbing] was talking about it was, you want it to be kind of grittier. You want it to feel grounded, and you want to really believe that what they're going through, other people can go through too."
While there have been many live-action Superman adaptations, none have explored the character at this point in his life. (The comics only reached a similar point five years ago, after DC's Rebirth initiative, which established that Clark and Lois had a superpowered son named Jonathan). For that reason, Helbing refers to the series as being "post-mythology."
"There's no version where Lois and Clark are married and have two teenage boys," says Helbing, whose first TV writing credit was on a season 7 episode of Smallville. "We're going to explore stories that haven't been told in a way that they haven't been told before."
"Seeing him struggle as a dad brings in a whole other element," says Hoechlin, who first appeared as Superman in the season 2 premiere of Supergirl and has since guest-starred in two Arrowverse crossovers. "To see somebody who, in one part of his life, feels supremely confident, but in the other areas is still trying to figure it out, I thought that was a really appealing way of approaching a character that had been done several times before… It's really an opportunity to feel uncomfortable. To find ways that he's having to work through his discomfort [parenting] and things like that is always a fun challenge."
Another challenge was figuring out how to make Superman & Lois in the first place. The show's origin story begins in 2019, following Tulloch's well-received debut as Lois alongside Hoechlin in 2018's "Elseworlds." Helbing decided to step down as showrunner of The Flash so that he could focus on developing new projects. "I actually was working on a couple other shows, and I swore that I would take a break from superhero stuff," he says. But that spring, Berlanti, on the verge of securing the rights to Superman, phoned Helbing and asked if he'd be interested in taking the project on. Helbing was flattered that the prolific producer thought of him for the job, but he was initially at a loss for what to do with Superman that would be new and fresh.
"[Berlanti] was like, 'Well, let's just do a family show,'" Helbing recalls. "He's like, 'Clark and Lois are married. I don't know anything else, so let's start there.'"
From there they started developing the series, using acclaimed family dramas like Friday Night Lights and Berlanti's own Everwood as their North Star. Helbing also drew on his own life for inspiration. For example, he initially considered giving Clark and Lois a girl and a boy but ultimately opted for two sons instead because he himself is raising two "wildly different boys." And the Smallville that the Kent family returns to isn't an idyllic portrait of Americana like it was on the WB/CW's Smallville. On Superman & Lois, Smallville has fallen on hard times, a detail that was inspired by Helbing's own hometown facing economic hardships during the Great Recession.
"Whenever I would go back, I would slowly see this town dry up," Helbing says. "There's so many small towns in America where this is happening, and it just felt like a current way to reflect on just kind of what's happening in our country right now. There's a line that Kyle Cushing [the husband of Clark's childhood friend Lana Lang] says where he's like, 'You know, it used to be that people would leave, go get educated, and bring their skills back to the town that helped raise them, and that's not happening anymore.' And I think that's true. Like I'm a perfect example of that."
Even with that strong foundation, writing the pilot was a challenge for Helbing. The hardest part was figuring out how Clark would reveal that he's Superman to Jonathan and Jordan. "Just like the way to make that feel real and not like it is a trope, not like people have seen that a million times before, and have it land on you as a viewer in the same way that it's landing on the boys and Clark and Lois," says Helbing, who wanted to resist referencing any of Superman's canonical unmaskings in favor of something more grounded.
Beyond the focus on raising two teenagers, Superman & Lois is also visually distinctive, moving away from the bright, poppy aesthetic of network siblings like The Flash and Supergirl. Taking cues from Interstellar, Days of Heaven, Man of Steel, and Friday Night Lights, Helbing — along with pilot director Lee Toland Krieger and pilot cinematographer Gavin Struthers — opted for an earthy, muted palette, reflecting the show's grounded tone and the poor state of its Midwestern town. They also convinced the CW to let them shoot in a widescreen aspect ratio with anamorphic lenses, tools usually reserved for feature films.
"[This] is Superman. We needed a canvas that has great scope and scale, which is why we shot it with anamorphic lenses," says Krieger, who previously directed the stylish pilots for Berlanti's You, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Riverdale. "Something we talked about is that there needed to be a bit of a gear change in the superhero landscape, I think, largely because look at where television is. You have television as superb as The Crown, Mindhunter, and Escape at Dannemora. The list goes on and on and on, just superb feature-level filmmaking in television. It's just a different world than season 1 of The Flash or season 1 of Arrow."
Speaking of the rest of the Arrowverse, there was a moment during development when Helbing wondered if he was pushing Superman & Lois too far away from the franchise, especially Supergirl, which is ending later this year and has already mined a lot from the Superman mythos.
"Obviously working in this universe for as long as I did, I wanted to feel like we were a part of the whole, [but] we were making these choices that were very different than a lot of other shows," he says. "After I talked to [Supergirl showrunners] Robert Rovner and Jessica Queller, they sort of released me from my fears. They were like, 'Look, Todd, you're more worried about this than you should be because Supergirl has existed for [six seasons] and Superman is off doing his own thing. He's on his own adventures. It doesn't worry us that they can simultaneously exist at all.' That was quite a sigh of relief."
While there aren't any overt references to the rest of the Arrowverse in the series premiere, you can expect some in the rest of the season. "There's a nod that I don't think anybody has picked up yet in episode 2," Helbing teases. "As the season progresses, you're going to hear a little bit more about it. You know, we have John Diggle [David Ramsey] coming over. So it's certainly not like we're ignoring anything. We're just not playing it the same way as it's been played on the other shows."
While Superman & Lois is a family drama at heart, it won't be lacking in superheroic adventures. In fact, Clark and Lois will each have their own nemesis: Clark has Parks' aforementioned stranger, and Lois will use her journalistic skills to match wits with corrupt billionaire Morgan Edge (Adam Rayner), who not only bought the Daily Planet but also has eyes on Smallville.
"Part of why I think this show is so timely is that you do have this billionaire evil corporate figure who is sort of relatable," Tulloch says. "Lois kind of has to take him on, on her own. At least at the beginning of the season, it really is her trying to take him down and Clark thinking, 'We just got to Smallville. Maybe let it go and let's try to fit in here a little more.' Part of what makes Lois Lane Lois Lane is that she is uncompromising, and [when] she smells a rat, she wants to go after him."
"We wanted to have a villain for Superman and a villain for Lois," says Helbing, "and then find a way for those two to speak to each other and ultimately merge in a way that's entertaining and satisfactory and speaks to the mythology of Superman." Coming into Superman & Lois, Helbing hopes viewers "shift what you're expecting to see" on a week-to-week basis. In the same way that every Friday Night Lights episode didn't culminate in a football game, the same can be said of Superman & Lois in terms of the comic book thrills. "Sometimes the Superman story is a true Superman story, and it's just him being kickass and influences the story in a way that you might not expect, which is episode 3. Sometimes it's a new villain, but it speaks to the larger picture of the season. Sometimes it has to do with the mythology of the season," says Helbing, who reveals that season 1 will feature the villain Killgrave. "We didn't want to do freak-of-the-week [like Smallville], we didn't necessarily want to do one villain, and we didn't necessarily want to do what [The Flash showrunner] Eric Wallace is doing, where he has a graphic-novel approach. We kind of wanted to do our own thing, but the true north was really: How is the family reacting to what is going on around them? And what's the true meaning of that?"
Superman & Lois — which also stars Emmanuelle Chriqui, Dylan Walsh, and Erik Valdez — premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on The CW.
This story has been updated to correctly reflect that there are six seasons of Supergirl, not seven as previously stated.
(Video provided by The CW)