Friday, March 19, 2010


"Not long ago, in the unexplored reaches of an unmapped swamp, the creative genius of one man collided with another's evil dream, and a monster was born. Too powerful to be destroyed, too intelligent to be captured, this being still pursues its savage dream."

Some clunky wording, but an opening that does manage, at first, to strike a chord of myth, and with it begins Wes Craven's SWAMP THING, a movie as uneven as the legend. Its full-scale rise-to-the-level-of-mythical moments are there, to be sure--they're just few and far between. It's moments of thud-and-blunder are there, as well, and while they don't entirely sink the project, they do condemn it to failing to live up to its potential.

It's potential was quite significant, too. The then-defunct DC comic on which it was based is excellent, and excellently suited for screen adaptation. Creators Len Wein and Berni Wrightson crafted a dark fantasy world where evil wizards in foreboding castles schemed to take their revenge against the society that had spurned them, and red-eyed werewolves haunted fog-shrouded Scottish moors, and dark caves held Lovecraftian creatures-from-beyond who plotted the downfall of the universe, and, at the center of it all, a man made monster by science. "Swamp Thing" was part of a renaissance of moody, excellent--and utterly under-appreciated--horror comics that appeared in the 1970s as long-standing Comics Code restrictions on the genre were lifted.

The movie falls well short of the comic, but in much the same way as the Grand Canyon is a bit of a ditch, there's a bit of a gap between the standard set by the comic and Bad, and, overall, the movie falls into it, often frustratingly so. Craven, a horror specialist, was a solid choice for director, but, oddly enough, his adaptation isn't a horror picture. It's an uncomfortable cross-breeding of a contemporary action picture with what would, in the '30s, be classified as a "weird tale." The weird end of it works. The action end of it mostly doesn't.

The cast is a genre fan's dream. Ray Wise is Alec Holland, a brilliant scientist working on a super-secret government project to build a better vegetable, plants with a stronger survival instinct capable of averting a future famine. Holland has set up shop in a particularly photogenic--and particularly swampy--swamp in Middle of Nowhere, U.S.A., and, as the film opens, we enter his world via stunningly beautiful genre fave Adrienne Barbeau. She plays Alex Cable, a new agent assigned to the project (her predecessor having been eaten by a gator). Barbeau has a great part in this; her character is smart, resourceful, and gets to kick a lot of ass as she thwarts the bad guys at every turn. The head bad guy on the end of all that thwarting is Anton Arcane, a shadowy villain intent on stealing Holland's work and using it to blackmail an increasingly hungry world. Louis Jourdan is probably the only actor in the world who could have made Arcane work, as written. The character is the sort of soft-spoken, laid back mastermind villain who sits around his posh estate sipping brandy while telling one of his doe-eyed followers how brilliant he is. It's the sort of part over which most actors would tend to ladle the camp. Jourdan instead plays it utterly straight, and utterly sells it. One of his followers of a significantly less than doe-eyed variety is David Hess, the World Champion of Cinematic Sadists, who, as Arcane's chief henchman Ferret, gets to run riot through all his boss's very dirty work. It's the kind of work Ferret really seems to love, and the casting of Hess represents another perfect mating of actor and role. Arcane tries to put the snatch on the plant project, Cable makes off with the notebook containing the secret of Holland's formula, Holland ends up doused in his own chemical stew, and it combines with the swamp into which he dives to transform him into a muck-encrusted, ambulatory humanoid plant-monster, played by Dick Durock. Holland, now the Swamp Thing, spends the rest of the movie trying to protect Cable from Arcane and his thugs.

That's the point at which things go awry. There are some good and even great moments thrown in along the way--the monstrous Holland's return to his now-destroyed lab, some great bits with a country-store-minder named Jude (Reggie Batts, who steals every scene he's in), a great scene between Cable and the creature when she discovers he's Holland--but, for the most part, much of the film's mid-section drops into underplotted-action-movie mode, and becomes a repetitive--and increasingly tedious--series of chases and escapes with Holland's notebook as the MacGuffin. A lot of it is badly done, a consequence of insufficient budget, the restrictions inherent in a PG-rated film (even the far more liberal PG rating of 1982), and just plain ill-conception. All of it looks as if it belongs in an entirely different movie. Harry Manfredini's score has the same problem. In its quieter moments, it's excellent, understated, and perfectly suited to the material. The opening piece can even make the word "weird" pop into your head. When it switches to action-movie overdrive, it's loud, booming, with martial elements in the mix, and, while it does what it can to build suspense and is well mated to what's on the screen, it's just as out-of-place.

The movie recovers in its final act. Lots of weird goings on, some strange images, a final showdown between Holland and Arcane. Like the opening act of the film, it's much closer to the spirit of the comic, but "closer," there, shouldn't necessarily be read as making the movie a horse-shoe or a hand grenade. It's entertaining. It could have been great.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ang Lee's HULK, & the Tyranny of Low Expectations

There's a reason practically nothing original ever comes out of Hollywood. The business suits holding the purse-strings at big studios don't want to take risks. They want the tried-and-true, over and over again. A successful formula is regarded as a priceless commodity, a thing to be milked until every dime has been squeezed from it then shelved so it can be pulled out in 10 or 15 years, dusted off and put through another good milking.

Upbudget "blockbuster" movies in particular aim for the lowest common denominator. The old dictum "nothing succeeds like success" is taken to its most ridiculous extreme in these films. They're almost invariably heavily derivative of some past success. Anything that may, at any stage, creep into them that may be unfamiliar to viewers is regarded as a risk rarely ever judged worthy of taking. Dialogue is kept to the absolute minimum and what little is allowed is kept to the absolute simplest--usually just a string of time-tested clichés used to glue together the explosions and CGI effects. These are films that don't want you to have to think, on the grounds that asking this of the viewer would alienate non-thinkers. Those clichés are both easier and safer. They, after all, became clichés because people have heard them before. And heard them. And heard them. Reaction is predictable, at least until the cliché has, by repetition, been ground to dust. The movies are even designed to tell you exactly what emotional reaction you should be having to what you're seeing. It isn't enough for Spielberg to show you the horrors of the Omaha beach landing in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN--he then has to show you the tearful soldier and give you the long, slow pan over all the scattered corpses to somber John Williams music. In case anyone got the idea it was a pleasant experience.

Even idiots, I suppose, need entertainment. The problem with most Hollywood fare--particularly the "blockbuster" breed--is that almost all of it is aimed at idiots and actively alienates anyone else. Movies like the TRANSFORMERS atrocities, the last three abominations traveling under (and travestying) the name of STAR WARS or anything ever touched by the hand of Roland Emmerich may be great for selling tickets to cretins and peddling plenty of tie-in merchandise but they're dreadfully stupid, unengaging and actively insulting to anyone who isn't a complete moron. They make lots of money, of course. There are lots of morons out there.

This doesn't mean there are no good, big pictures. It can be taken as a truism that personal art films don't get hundred-million-dollar budgets but Hollywood's "nothing succeeds like success" ethos do create a hierarchy of certain filmmakers who have proven themselves capable of generating box-office gold and while many of those who rise to the top of the heap are pop hacks, studio stooges and shit merchants like Emmerich, Michael Bay, and Brett Ratner, some of them are genuinely talented and, as proven successes, are sometimes allowed to take a crack at the big pictures and are often given a much freer hand than would normally be allowed on a show on which the budget had taken serious wing.

Ang Lee is one of the latter. A few years ago, he helmed HULK, Universal's uber-budget screen adaptation of Marvel Comics' mighty, gamma-irradiated Jekyll-and-Hyde. In real time, critical response to it was mostly quite positive. The popular response was very different. HULK suffered massive box-office drop-off after its first weekend, was written off as a flop (though its eventual gross doubled its budget), spawned a sequel constructed around the idea of making a movie as different from the original as possible and today, nearly 7 years later, is routinely reviled by those who haunt the movie-related corners of the internet, placed in the company of ELEKTRA and CATWOMAN whenever the worst comic-to-film adaptations are discussed.

In general, I consider the state of contemporary film criticism to be rather poor. HULK, however, was a case where the pros mostly had it right. It is a big-budget "blockbuster" flick, with all the baggage that implies. No film of that origin is ever going to be RASHOMON. It is, however, also an excellent film, one of the best comic-to-screen adaptations we've ever had. It isn't perfect. There are a few scenes that don't work, some corners that are cut, a clunky line or two in the script and an epilogue that should have been handled better but with all its flaws, it's still a mini-masterpiece and when measured against nearly everything else that's produced on a budget with a comparable number of zeroes, that "mini" seems more like an extraneous qualifier.

HULK tells the story of Bruce Banner, a brilliant but emotionally stunted scientist whose calm exterior conceals repressed childhood trauma. When a lab accident reacts with his unique physiology (a product of medical experiments by his batshit crazy father), the cork pops from the bottle and all that concentrated bad mojo is unleashed in the form of a full-body transformation into a huge green monster that grows in strength as it grows in rage. Jennifer Connelly plays Bruce's scientist colleague and estranged love, who is drawn to Bruce because his emotional distance plays into her daddy issues. And the daddy she's trying to find in another and fix by proxy is none other than the man who put away Bruce's own crazy father decades earlier.

It's a long story.

And that's one of HULK's strengths. The story is complex and involving, the polar opposite of the typically brainless excretions of the blockbuster factories.

That's also the beginning of HULK's problem with the audience it initially drew. Far too many of those who, in 2003, trekked to their local movie-houses to take in the opening-night show assumed they'd be getting a typical big Hollywood summer picture. With their heads filled with anticipation of two-plus plotless hours of a brainless monster brainlessly breaking things, they were utterly bewildered by having, instead, stumbled upon an actual film; well plotted, well paced, well played by a first-rate cast. Dashing expectations can be a risky proposition when it comes to movies. Usually, though, a film that exceeds our expectations is taken as a pleasant surprise. Not so with HULK. In a chillingly perverse twist, the movie, instead, has stood repeatedly condemned for, in effect, being better than was assumed it would be. Worse, it routinely took (and still takes) lumps for even trying to be more than just another disposable popcorn flick. It's both a "summer blockbuster" and a movie based on a comic book and there's an unfortunately common notion afoot that projects in those categories are supposed to be merely mindless rubbish for dazzling bumpkins. "Fun," defined in the most reductionist manner, and nothing more. Any pretense of being something more is just that. An affectation of unwarranted importance. A preposterous attempt to blow up the material into something more than it is. HULK, it seems, just doesn't know its place; it commits the sin of aiming for something more than mediocrity. In a sense, this is a testament to the film's quality. It clearly doesn't cater to such low expectations.

But that's a big part of why it took a beating from a loud segment of the public. Even allegedly professional film critics like Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum complained about the lack of "big dumb fun." Ang Lee, as she sees it, "anesthetizes his Marvel Comics mutant with a mopey psychological back story that leaves little unanalyzed space for fun." Charles Taylor, the gibbering git who used to grind out what passed for movie reviews over at Salon, dismissed HULK as a "leaden, pretentious flick" that is "just schlock art for the NPR set." It takes itself too "seriously." Lee "has no taste for the low." Lee "seems to be under the impression that he's working from myth instead of a good pulpy premise." And so on.

This is Beavis-and-Butthead level "criticism," albeit dressed up, Madison Avenue style, by a few words of more than two syllables. It's also, substantively, fairly typical of (if slightly more literate than) the standard grief the film gets from its detractors on the internet in the years since its release. In general, those who fulminate against it fail to make any real case for it being a deficient production. Honestly, on what planet is a movie rightfully considered problematic if it isn't dumb enough?

And that's only the beginning. Feeding off one another, advocates of HULK's irredeemable suction roll out a small, standard litany of related complaints with a regularity that numbs the mind. That's also the effect generated by the complaints themselves, which--hewing, always, to that same Beavis-and-Butthead level--amount to anything-and-the-kitchen-sink efforts to rationalize a dislike of a movie that, in truth, does little to earn it. The movie is said to be poorly paced. It isn't. Viewers who lack an attention span be advised up front that you may find HULK challenging but your own shortcomings in this area hardly amount to a problem with the film itself. The CGI Hulk character is bashed and it became fashionable to demeaningly compare it to Shrek. Other than both being some shade of green, the two characters have no similarities and the larger complaint, even if taken in any way seriously, falls into the category of whining about superficialities. Special effects aren't a story; they're just a means of telling one. I'm not a fan of CGI but the CGI Hulk was competent, and, for its time, state-of-the-art. If the criticism isn't aimed at the technology itself (and it isn't), it is without substance. You find few HULK detractors who don't knock the movie by making a grand show of noting that, when the mutant dogs appear, one of them is a poodle. And so on.

That's not to say the film isn't subject to any number of legitimate criticisms. It's just that most of what it gets doesn't fall into that category. And anyone who would throw out HULK in a discussion of all-time-worst comic adaptations, or, worse, mention it in that context in the same breath as something like ELEKTRA or BATMAN AND ROBIN is, to put it bluntly, a clown whose words aren't worth the breath wasted to give voice to them. Further, pawning off as a serious criticism that a movie isn't sufficiently dumb actively discourages even attempting to rise above the level of those genuinely bottom-of-the-barrel projects and I find this to be reprehensible. Ang Lee was aiming for something more with HULK and he succeeded admirably.

That is, of course, my own conclusion and no one is bound to agree with it. I certainly don't insist that a fan of typical Hollywood summer fare who disdains HULK actually offer some rational critique of the picture--I'm not a cruel man. I do, however, insist that, for anyone who expects to be taken seriously, HULK must be accepted or rejected for what it really is, not for having fallen short of some inane standard invented solely for the purpose of making HULK fall short of it. For my part, I think it's a misunderstood, if relatively minor, masterpiece, a film in the same vein as (if not necessarily on par with) BLADE RUNNER, EXCALIBUR and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST--all generally snubbed in their day, all eventually rediscovered, all now just as generally hailed as classics. I'd like to think this is the fate that one day awaits HULK. It certainly deserves it.


[Cross-posted to my movie blog]

Monday, January 25, 2010

SMALLVILLE: Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating Superboy

[Note: the remarks that follow are based on the first four seasons of SMALLVILLE, and are written without knowledge of subsequent seasons.]

SMALLVILLE is terribly addictive. The ongoing revisionist tale of Superman's youth was several seasons old before I first jumped on board. Exposed to it by a friend, I started at the beginning and found myself fanatically absorbing the entire first season in four days and most of the second in a few more before, other life matters intervening, slowing my intake to a more leisurely pace and, at the dawn of season 3, putting it aside entirely. I picked it up again in recent days and, in spite of some naysayers who'd told me its quality dropped off at that point, found it no less captivating. I've flown through season 3 and most of season 4, and decided, tonight, I'd finally sit down and write about it a little, under the title I conceived for a review of it after I first started watching it nearly five years ago.

is Stan Lee's version of Superboy. Stan, mind you, has had nothing whatsoever to do with the production of SMALLVILLE, and he never wrote DC Comics' Superboy or any of the Superman books on which the show is based, but the show's debt to Stan is, like the comic medium's debt to him, virtually incalculable. When he hit his stride, Stan was the proletarian poet of pathos, a prolific pioneer of funny-book fantasy who fashioned fascinatingly flawed characters, relentlessly burdened by brimming barrels of almost unbearable angst. In his hands, their extraordinary abilities were often as much curse as blessing, and their lives were divided between living out soap-opera-ish personal dramas and bravely battling their way through grand, operatic adventures filled with wicked irony, plentiful plot twists, resounding triumphs, and torturous tragedy. And Stan loved alliteration. Credit where credit's due, SMALLVILLE picked up its own penchant for same from the DC books from which it was drawn, but it's definitely Marvel, rather than DC Comics, to which the show is most indebted. Even those viewers with no knowledge of Stan's work would immediately recognize the show in the description I just offered. If Stan and the Marvel gang had created Superboy back in the 1960s, this is how it would have been, and if Stan and the Marvel gang hadn't done what they did then, there wouldn't be a SMALLVILLE today.

A lot of people on the internet, it seems, wouldn't find the latter to be so terrible a thing, and though my overall assessment of the series certainly differs from theirs, I'd even agree with a lot of the criticism they've directed at it, but they'd be wrong to refract my remarks about its addictiveness as quips about addictions often being bad things. SMALLVILLE, it's true, suffers from many of the same weaknesses as the '60s Marvel books it so resembles. It has a lot of their strengths, as well, though, and there's a very good reason why Marvel, in that era, became the industry leader in this sort of story and remained so for nearly five decades while DC's post-Marvel history became, primarily, a story of repeated efforts to copy what Marvel was doing.

Rather than bland stuffed shirts, Stan wanted his characters to be "real people with real problems." As Spider-Man, the Thing, and so many others learned under his direction, sometimes it sucks to be a superman. With great powers came great responsibilities, but the same abilities that could allow one of sufficiently altruistic bent to be a great benefit to mankind could also make one's life a real mess. Clark Kent, SMALLVILLE's embryonic Superman, learns the hard way that living with a secret identity means living a perpetual lie that requires daily deception of almost everyone around him. Adolescence is hard enough as it is, but Clark finds it's even harder when--X-Men style--it brings sudden manifestations of new powers he doesn't understand and can't control very well. Trying to live something akin to a normal life can, in any case, be rather tricky when one is forever having to run off and save some damsel (or dude) in distress, or battle some dangerous mutant. Throw in the revelation that he's from another planet, and that his alien birth-father may have intended him to conquer the earth, AND that said father seems to have left a computerized simulation of himself on earth to "guide" Clark to that goal, whether he likes it or not, and you've got a serious angst-fest on your hands.

Stan loved constructing his little soap-opera subplots and milking them for all they were worth, and SMALLVILLE lifts a page (or two, or a thousand) from his many books, setting up a love triangle between Clark, Lana Lang (the girl he adores), and Chloe Sullivan (a girl who adores him).[1] The fourth party to the affair is Clark's secret, which, like that of Stan's Spider-man, perpetually fouls him up with both women. Clark's affection for Lana has always seemed very contrived to me, because it's something that has never been given any sort of real foundation. Lana isn't someone with whom Clark falls in love because of who she is. She's just Clark's dream girl, and why he would find her so compelling is never explored. Making it worse is the fact that Lana (Kristen Kruek) is, unfortunately, never really allowed to be very interesting. It's hard to say much about her character--she doesn't really have much of one. Chloe, on the other hand, is a keeper. She's an original creation of the show, an intrepid girl reporter for the school newspaper--essentially the series' stand-in for Lois Lane.[2] One of the shortcomings of the tri-angle is that Chloe--so well-written and so vibrantly brought to life by the beautiful Allison Mack--is so much better a character than cold fish Lana that it's almost impossible to believe Clark (or anyone else) would prefer Lana to her. It's impossible to watch and not think "Clark is an IDIOT!" But, warts and all, the dynamics of this triangle underlie, to some degree, nearly every episode after it's introduced, and the series has managed to wring some very touching moments from it.

Then, there are those pesky Luthors, who are forever trying to uncover Clark's secrets, and have limitless resources at their disposal toward that end. SMALLVILLE appropriates the notion of a teenage friendship between Clark and Lex Luthor, the man who will one day become his greatest enemy. In the early seasons of the show, Lex has some sinister quirks about him, but he isn't a villain yet, and the series has, as an aim, charting, alongside Clark's rise to hero-hood, Lex's decline to dastardly no-goodnik. By way of character motivation, the Super-comics posited, for decades, the notion that, as teens, Lex and Superboy were friends, but that this ended in a lab accident for which Lex blamed Superboy--the decades of feral enmity that followed were laid at the feet of Luthor's anger at Superboy/man over losing his hair in that accident. A fellow so brilliant he could create devices that threatened entire worlds thus tragically spent much of his adult life trying to kill Superman, rather than simply joining the Hair Club For Men. Fortunately, those behind SMALLVILLE had a
much better idea, and brought it to large life in one of the series' great original contributions to the Superman mythos, the character of Lionel Luthor, Lex's father. Lionel is expressionistic foreshadowing personified--he is the very bad guy Lex will one day become.[3] Lionel gives Lex something he didn't have in the comics, a past that plausibly explains why he turns out the way he does. Lionel and Lex go at each other like cats and dogs, their relationship a perpetual feud between a seemingly omnipotent chessmaster and his unwilling understudy. Lex is horrified by the thought of becoming his father's son, and goes to great lengths to resist it, which makes for an interesting character study. The series makes good use of the fact that the viewer already knows how it turns out in the end by making an interesting, well-played, and original tale of how it happens; it's a story we've never seen, and it's a good one.

Michael Rosenbaum is spot-on as Lex, who, in his hands, is aloof, obsessive, and seems possessed of a terrible darkness lurking just below his calm exterior. If I have one serious complaint about the show's treatment of Lex, it's that I dislike how so many bad guys who come along are allowed to so easily makes him their bitch. His father is always ten steps ahead of him, and that always seems about right. Lex, however--even young Lex--needs to be at least ten steps ahead of everyone else (and with most "ordinary" people, he is). Lex Luthor doesn't call some security firm to deal with tattooed thugs who phase through walls, rough him up, and blackmail him--he gets his hands on some badass Anti-Tattoed Phasing Thug technology and makes them wish they'd never been born. In the first two seasons, he ends up on the wrong end of abuse way too often, and comes across, as a consequence, as far too ineffectual. You can't build an arch-villain that way, even if those abusing him
are possessed of super-powers.

A lot of people end up with super-powers in Smallville. Clark's arrival on Earth, as a child, was accompanied by a punishing "meteor shower"--a hail of Kryptonite, the radioactive chunks of Clark's destroyed home planet Krypton. In the comics, Kryptonite is lethal to Superman, but harmless to humans. The creators of SMALLVILLE decided, instead, to allow it to affect ordinary people, making its radiation a source of all manner of bizarre mutations. This offered a handy means of providing Clark with super-powered adversaries, but the basic plotline--someone is exposed to Kryptonite, gains super-powers, goes nuts, and is, in the end, stopped by Clark--was, for the longest time, repeated almost every week. The repetitiveness of the "freak of the week" formula became a top complaint by the show's detractors.

The show is, of course, guilty as charged on the point. It did run the formula to ribbons in the early seasons. Whatever one makes of the stories for which the freaks were used, there
are other types of stories to tell in a series of this nature. Relying so heavily on the formula didn't give them a lot of room to be told.[4] The freaks, who are mostly one-shot characters, are sometimes allowed to take up too much of an already-limited running time, time that would be better spent with some of the regular characters and extended plotlines. And a small town in Kansas were, nearly every week, someone gains super-powers and goes on a murderous rampage, and practically no one notices? Please.

But I do think those who most harshly criticize the freaks tend to overlook the good use the writers get out of most of them. SMALLVILLE's writers have demonstrated an enduring fascination with creating parallel storylines that compare and contrast the characters and their lives by holding them up against various mirror images of themselves--it's virtually the defining characteristic of the show's storytelling. The freaks have been especially useful in facilitating this. Taking another page from Stan Lee's playbook, the freaks are expressionistic constructs. They have quirks, obsessions, cravings that mirror those of the regular cast, and, gaining powers that allow them to act on such impulses without restraint, are made to serve as twisted, amped-up-to-the-nth-degree alternate versions of the series regulars. Even given the repetitiveness of the basic "freak of the week" formula, this has allowed for some first-rate storytelling. Clark is forever pining for Lana? The writers throw in a freak who is utterly obsessed with her, and eventually decides to do something about it. Chloe craves the warmth of a romantic relationship? Send a freak her way who craves warmth, as well--he drains the body heat off those around him, leaving them corpse-sicles. SMALLVILLE is a show on which the characters are learning and growing as they go, and this provides a useful means of dramatizing part of that process.

While the freaks sometimes take away from time that would be better spent elsewhere, they also often raise themes that are, unfortunately, too rich to properly mine in the time alloted. One of the rare freaks who made a return appearance, for example, was a shape-shifting girl who assumed the identity of others, one after another--as a consequence of doing so too often and for too long, she'd lost her own. A
very appropriate theme for SMALLVILLE. Her return appearance in which it was broached had the potential to be a real keeper, but, squeezed into a single, already-cramped episode, the idea barely got lip-service.

That isn't to suggest the series doesn't find something closer to the right balance more often than not. It does. There are weaknesses in the writing, though, there's no denying that. The generous rehashing of the "freak of the week" plot isn't the only repetitive element in the writers' work. Among other things, Chloe and, especially, Lana are stalked, kidnapped, and otherwise menaced
far too often. It's a convention of the genre, it's true, but if it's going to be so overused, the writers need to at least show a little more imagination in how and why it's done. Blatantly contrived drama rears its ugly head from time to time. Clark's inexplicable attraction to and preference for Lana is only one example. Another is Clark's horrified overreaction, in the pilot, to learning he was an alien. Still another is a pair of episodes with a telepathic kid who is dying. Clark becomes very attached to him and starts speaking of him as his brother, but the episodes never establish why he would come to feel this way, and the viewer can't even come close to buying it. It just comes across as hokey and insincere[5] The series is woefully in need of something that establishes a firm rationale for Clark keeping his powers secret from his inner circle of friends. We haven't really been given one, and, watching episode after episode, it's impossible to believe he would be so secretive for no real reason, given how badly it disrupts his life. To their credit, the writers do seem to recognize this, and make an occasional effort to address the matter. Never, in my view, particularly satisfactorily.

One of the least forgivable shortcomings in the writing is the terminal
underwriting of Clark's adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. For large portions of the early seasons, the writers treated them as little more than props. They were almost entirely undeveloped as characters, and, after the show established itself, were given virtually nothing to do. Their function too often became standing around looking grimly concerned about Clark, reciting cliche homilies, and repeatedly offering the same two or three canned sentiments warning him against the many dangers he may face in anything he may decide to do. Their dialogue eventually became virtually interchangeable from episode to episode. In the second season, Martha started getting some other things to do, and season 3 saw the beginning of some work on Jonathan, but as of 3/4 of the way through season 4, both characters are still terribly neglected.[6] One could argue it isn't really their show, but it seems gnawingly shortsighted when the parts are essayed by John Schneider and Anette O'Toole. They do their best to breath life into the characters, and do, at times, manage some nice touches, but it's unfortunate that, with two such solid talents at their disposal, the writers haven't shown more vision.

That isn't the only case of shortsightedness by the series' creators (though it is, in my view, the most glaring). While individual episodes are often quite good, the writers don't always keep an eye on the bigger picture. The show
is going somewhere. They tend to lose sight of this. Continuity gaffes also crop up from time to time. Martha Kent, at one point, goes to work for Lionel Luthor, which inflames Jonathan, but, after Martha discovers that Lionel has accumulated a tremendous amount of data on Clark (one of the series best plot-twists yet), Jonathan starts to see the benefit of having her in a position to keep tabs on Lionel's activities. This happens at the end of an episode; by the beginning of the next--only seconds later, when watching it on disc as I do--it's as if that never happened, and, after having gone into a rage at Lionel, Jonathan stands credibly accused of his attempted murder.

All these caveats aside, though, the writing on the show is, as a rule, quite good,[7] and that Quite Good makes a good mate with all the Quite Goods I've already mentioned. And there are plenty of others. The series' cinematography is of the quality of a feature film--rich, expressionistic, beautiful. Lots of imaginative camera-work. The production design is uniformly first-rate. The series' technical elements are superb in every aspect. It's a regular breeding pool of Quite Good that vastly outweighs the series' shortcomings, and its ultimate offspring is, in my view, the best thing other media have done for the Superman mythos since the first Donner movie.[8] It is endearing, and, I suspect, will prove enduring (if, with 9 seasons under its belt and more likely to follow, it can't already be said to be so). Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would have Quite Good reason to be proud of it.

Stan Lee, I think, has even more reason.



[1] Actually, this was preceded by another Stan-esque triangle involving Clark, Lana, and Whitney Fordman (Lana's beau as the show opens), but Whitney was edged out of the picture very quickly--he'd been effectively gone for some time before its made official.

[2] It's hard to overstate how well she's done; Chloe is a solid-enough character that she could carry a series of her own.

[3] While the series creators deserve a round of applause for their part in crafting Lionel, the real kudos belong to John Glover for making such an evil bastard such a relentless delight to watch; Lionel gets some of his complexity from the page, but Glover is really the one who brings it to life and makes it work, and he so owns the role, it's difficult to imagine anyone else pulling it off, and impossible to imagine anyone doing it as well.

[4] But, to be fair, the series does, eventually start telling some of them.

[5] The second episode, in which the boy dies, also strikes one of the most monumentally false notes of the run to date. The boy is dying, and this provides the basis for a story built around the theme of Clark coming to grips with his limitations. The boy's impending death is used to demonstrate that Clark can't help
everyone. And then, of course, Clark does help the kid, taking the boy up in a hot-air balloon as he'd always wanted.

[6] The consequences of leaving them so underwritten is that the viewer can never develop a feel for who they are. This is particularly problematic in Jonathan's case, because all we ever saw him do in the early seasons is obsess over the need to maintain Clark's secret and serve up one mindless rant after another against "the Luthors." These rants were frequently astonishingly unfair, when directed at Lex, and made Jonathan come across as a real prick, with little to contradict the impression (when, in one second-season episode, Lex finally tells him to shove it, I felt like cheering). He's also prone to other behavior that makes him not only unlikeable but a rather poor father to an embryonic Superman. Several times, now, he's blindly rushed off in angry--possibly murderous--rages at other characters. Because it was never given a proper foundation, his behavior toward Martha's father, when that character was introduced, came across as remarkably petty and even cruel. Ditto regarding a character in another episode who mistakenly thought she was Clark's mother. No one writing the show seems to realize this, or think about it.

[7] In spite of the fact that it does have too much overly serious, underly naturalistic talk about "destiny," SMALLVILLE mostly avoids the stilted, unnatural dialogue and over-the-top delivery so many filmmakers impose upon genre projects of this sort. When, in season 4, Lana Lang is possessed by the spirit of a dead witch and is handled in that way, it's surprisingly jarring.

[8] From shortly after I started watching it, I began to wish Warner Brothers would simply let the show evolve into the Superman feature-film franchise it was then in the process of rebooting. After the unfortunate SUPERMAN RETURNS, I felt even more strongly that this would have been the course to follow.