Superman & Lois review: It's a good premiere — but is it a show?
Make Superman sad, or make him evil. Ditch those red underpants and butch the bright blue tights into dark blue kevlar. Let him snap somebody's neck. Kill his parents — no, kill him! Now bring him back, in black! Almost three decades after the Man of Steel died hard and bloody in one of the bestselling comics ever, the "mature" or "dark" take on him is the conventional wisdom. Amazon has two shows about nefarious Superman-types. HBO Max promises to delete all Henry Cavill's smiles from Justice League. There's a hit videogame franchise where Superman brutally conquers the world — and, in a new Suicide Squad game's trailer, he incinerates an innocent human with heat vision. Superman & Lois takes a much bolder creative risk, transforming the hero into the most embarrassingly uncool creature in the multiverse: A dad.
The new CW series (debuting Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m.) arrives with a lot of runway. Elizabeth Tulloch and Tyler Hoechlin previously guest-starred as Lois and Clark across the network's DC lineup. In Hoechlin's seventh appearance, he played an evil Superman doppelganger in a black costume threatening to snap Flash's neck: Check, check, checkeroo. The 90-minute premiere welcomes fresh viewers, though, skipping from familiar crash-landing origins into unfamiliar territory.
Lois and Clark are married, living in a Metropolis brownstone with teen sons. Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) plays football and has a girlfriend. His twin brother, Jordan (Alexander Garfin), plays lonely videogames and suffers from social anxiety disorder. Raising a Winklevoss and a Zuckerberg isn't easy. Before the opening title even appears onscreen, Superman stops "a meltdown the size of Fukushima!" with ice breath — which makes him late for Jordan's therapy. "You really do need to be around more," grandma Martha Kent (Michele Scarabelli) chastises her son. "The boys need to see what a strong and loving and vulnerable man looks like." No, no, you're crying.
Hoechlin has a sweet smile, and the build of a decent athlete who doesn't go crazy with the weight training. In the opening montage, Superman rescues a little boy from a falling car. He sets the automobile down, picks up the dazed kid's baseball cap, and hands it back with a smile: "There you go, friend!" Hoechlin makes the line sincere and unforced, like he just helped his neighbor carry a couch upstairs.
He's a bit retro, is what I'm saying, and the notion of the last son of Krypton as a genial patriarch harkens back to a bygone Beppo-the-super-monkey era. But this old-fashioned man of tomorrow lives in a scary new today. The Daily Planet got purchased by billionaire Morgan Edge (Adam Rayner), and the paper's experiencing another round of layoffs. When Clark visits Smallville, he finds a typical 20th-century town gone to typical 21st-century rot. "It's hard for family farms to make it around here nowadays," a local tells Clark Kent — the boy raised on maybe the most famous family farm in pop culture history! Clark's teen crush Lana (Emmanuelle Chriqui) has her own kids, and she works as a loan officer, which in this debt-ridden burg makes her an angel of death. Her brooding fire-chief husband Kyle (Erik Valdez) keeps busy putting out meth explosions. "Everybody else we know moved away," Lana tells Clark. Is that an accusation?
An orphaned refugee lands in Kansas and gets shadily documented into American citizenship; a plucky midwestern boy zooms off to an exciting life in the big city. The Superman origin story is a double exodus, and Superman & Lois unconventionally zeroes in on the departure from Smallville as an act of abandonment. Is Clark a class traitor, the former farm boy raising next-gen coastal elite? Jonathan is a quarterback at "one of the most competitive high schools in the nation" — and a brash Metropolis kid who waves off Smallville as "a place where you can spend a full year in one afternoon." Meanwhile, Martha's farm is struggling — an idea direct from the Justice League movie, sans the batty billionaire to bail her out. Grandma is also saving money to pay for the twins' college, the implication being Lois and Clark can't.
I'm focusing on the world-building because there are story twists I don't want to reveal. Suffice it to say that the first half of this premiere is heavy on emotion and openhearted sincerity. I cried, but I'm also a dad, and Superman & Lois continues the onscreen superhero genre's midlife turn into parental tales. (See also: Iron Man's daughter, Wolverine's clone kid, yeesh, Wanda and Vision also have twins!) Jonathan and Jordan don't know about their father's secret identity. What if only one of them inherits his superpowers?
On a trip back to Kansas, the boys hang out with Lana's daughter Sarah (Inde Navarrette). The romantic implications turn soapy — will the former young lovers' kids also fall in love? — but the teen drama embeds into harsh realities. The Metropolis kids are rather innocent, actually, cloistered in their comfortable luxury city patrolled by a trusty alien supercop. Sarah comes from a community rifted by drugs and depression. "People around here? They catch this sadness," is how she sums up Smallville — not something I remember hearing on, like, Smallville.
This is just one of many spin-offs in Greg Berlanti's DC TV-verse. But Superman & Lois is also a reset, and maybe an attempt at audience expansion. Visually, the premiere stretches for awe: farmland horizons, Earth from space, widescreen portraits of sorrow and hope. It avoids the usual bantering CW playfulness, and fans of Supergirl will note (perhaps angrily) some canonical tweaks. The premiere is directed by Lee Toland Krieger, a go-to guy for stylish pilots. Riverdale, Life Sentence, You, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Deadly Class, Prodigal Son: Weren't those first episodes so fancy? Although, hmmm, didn't a lot of those series go downhill fast?
There's a lot to enjoy in the premiere — and some serious question marks. The CW also released the second episode to critics, where some problems really come into focus. A powerful mystery man (Wolé Parks) keeps causing nuclear meltdowns. In plot terms, this means that sensitive family drama keeps getting interrupted by Clark super-hearing bad activity on the other side of the world. That mix isn't sustainable, and it doesn't help that the villain's invulnerable exo-suit looks exactly like Master Chief from Halo. Much worse is the ricocheting presence of Sam Lane (Dylan Walsh). He's an army general in charge of, like, all national security. He's also Lois' father, which foregrounds the larger family story — but also makes the whole dynamic silly. Not everyone has to be related, and Walsh's generic heart-of-gold toughness detracts from the show's quirky personality.
The bigger issue: Lois is the fifth most crucial character in the premiere, sixth if you count the enigmatic stranger, seventh if you spark to Lana's quiet domestic tragedy. In episode 2, she starts a deeper investigation into Morgan Edge, which foregrounds a lot of Bigger Conversations about the state of investigative journalism. Something's missing here, though. You get zero sense of the work-life balance for an award-winning reporter with twin teenagers and a husband who's always away. I think it's crucial that Lois Lane seem just as busy as Clark Kent — that, in fact, her powerless professionalism should come off way more impressive than her invincible coworker-bae who's secretly writing his own positive press.
"You do your Superman stuff and I will do my Lois Lane stuff," Lois Lane tells Superman. That's the right mission statement, yet there are times when she's helplessly relegated to the Superhero Support Staff, like she's one of three people typing away at Flash HQ. Lois winds up spending a lot of time in Smallville, which offers great possibilities. All that brassy Metropolitan attitude, now making big waves in small pond! But we don't really see much of Lois' city life, so the contrast isn't as stark as it should be. You want to feel like someone from Billions just strolled into Friday Night Lights. The bare minimum, thus far not achieved, would be the elemental clarity of Green Acres' theme song: Fresh air vs. Times Square, farm living vs. hay allergies.
Superman & Lois turns on a couple big decisions that change the Kents' lives. One of those decisions is interesting, yet much easier than it should be. You keep waiting for Lois or the twins to say something spiky; instead, they nod along in agreement. Garfin gives Jordan a melancholy edge, but I'm skeptical of the show's ability to really dramatize his mental health. He stumbles over conversation with Sarah — and then just stops stumbling. I guess she likes him because he's quiet and different: Nice, but not not the plot of Garden State.
This is a hard one, really. I enjoyed a lot of things about the premiere, even if one final twist left me baffled. The second episode offers promising routes forward — and bends the larger serialized story in a dispiritingly familiar direction. In a letter sent to press, executive producer Todd Helbing describes the series as "a post-mythology story." That thrilling phrase suggests a bright new future of superhero stories that aren't forever adapting old stories into familiar vibes full of winky references. That future looks unlikely just now, with viewers gone cuckoo for Quicksilver cameos. So I hope Superman & Lois lives up to its ambitions, even though I worry it's taking on a lot. High-flying action, scenes from a marriage, cosmic twists, teen romance, Recessionary ruin, the notion that young Clark Kent liked Soul Asylum, global stakes, the American cultural divide: Superman himself couldn't carry all that weight. Which, after all, is why he needs Lois. B