The Justice League returns to Smallville tonight.
Old-time fans of the comic books who don't watch the show but know that it's about Clark Kent's life in his hometown before he went to Metropolis and became Superman are probably saying, "Hold on there, buster. The JLA? How can there be a JLA if Superman's not Superman yet? Is this one of those time-traveling episodes? Does Clark Kent meet his future self?"
Real old old-time fans of the comic books may remember that the original Justice League did not include Superman or Batman, they joined later. [Editor's correction: Howard Chaykin says I'm wrong about this. The Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader were part of the team from the beginning. And Howard would know. Not because he's old, as he claims, but because he's Howard Chaykin.]
But fans of the show who are also fans of the comic books know that while the producers of Smallville have great respect for the Superman story in all its forms---comics, the old TV show starring George Reeves, the Christopher Reeve movies, especially, and even Lois and Clark---they have never been afraid about veering from the mythology or adding to it. And what I've enjoyed about the show is that its additions to the mythology have been rooted in what is essential to Superman and have for the most part improved upon it more than changed it.
The premise of the series, that Clark Kent was living a fairly average life as a Kansas farm boy until his superpowers began to manifest themselves one by one and turned his life upside down, is consistent with the original comic books. Although it was never said exactly what Clark was doing before he turned up in Metropolis, the fact that Superman was a surprise to one and all and that nobody knew what to make of him makes it clear that whatever he'd been up to it didn't include being a superhero. The Superboy comic books were a big change to the storyline, a goofy idea that the first Christopher Reeve movie erased by plain ignoring it. Smallville, however, has rescued from the Superboy comics the notion that Lex Luthor and Clark Kent are close enough in age that they could have been friends back in their high school days---Smallville's Lex is a little older, he and Clark didn't go to school together but, the Luthor family fortune being based on fertilizers and the hybridization of seeds and the company's headquarters therefore naturally located in farm country, Lex grew up in Smallville and he and Clark met and became friends as young men. The result of this being one of the best things about the series, the casting of Michael Rosenbaum as young Lex.
That Clark's powers came to him later, that he was not a superkid, let alone a superbaby, is there in the movie. Clark is superfast, faster than a convertible full of cheerleaders and football players if not a speeding bullet, superstrong but not necessarily more powerful than a locomotive, but if he has any other powers like X-ray vision and invulnerability and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound by flying over them, he doesn't know it yet. This is implied in the first episode of the George Reeves TV series too. A baffled teenaged Clark is trying to explain to Pa Kent how he found a lost baseball by looking through a rock it was hidden behind. This is apparently the first time Clark has ever used his X-ray vision.
So Smallville didn't invent the idea that Clark was surprised by the appearance of his superpowers. What the show's added is the idea that Clark doesn't want them.
Superman, the superheroes' superhero, doesn't want to be a superhero. Clark Kent doesn't want to be Superman.
That's because in his mind he isn't. He's Clark Kent. He grew up a normal kid. His identity isn't tied to his superpowers. Given his druthers, he'd just go on being normal and boring old Clark.
This, if we've been paying attention to our Lord of the Rings and Discworld, is part of what makes him the greatest superhero. How do we know that Aragorn and Captain Carrot are true kings? Because neither one wants to be king.
Down the line, this will mean that Clark will become Superman because of a sense of duty and responsibility and a sincere desire to help, without being pushed into it by ego, vanity, neuroses, or a personal agenda.
But at this point in the series, Clark is still stubbornly resisting the principle that with great power comes great responsibility.
Enter the Justice League.
Actually, enter first and primarily Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow.
Oliver Queen/Green Arrow was introduced the season before last as a kind of Bruce Wayne/Batman surrogate, another orphaned rich kid who through intense personal training, a knack for techno-wizardry, and regular infusions of cash from his vast inherited fortune, has turned himself into a superheroic vigilante. Queen's parents may have been murdered, but he isn't crippled by guilt and tormented by an unfocused need for revenge. He is, however, a touch self-righteous and he has a bit of a spoiled rich kid's sense that the normal rules don't apply to him.
Basically, he's the bridge between Batman and Superman, a walking argument about how hard it is to be as good as Superman, how it's not inevitable that Bruce Wayne has to give in to the darker side of being Batman. In the show, the Green Arrow is a kind of preview of what Batman will be like after a few years of hanging around Superman and soaking up his influence. But he's also there to provide a bit of a preview of the friction that will exist between the World's Finest superheroes when they first start working together, only here it is Superman who has to be prodded and lectured and goaded into doing the right thing. Green Arrow has already signed himself up on the side of truth, justice, and the American Way and he's not very sympathetic with Clark's expressed wish to be left alone to live his own life his way.
He's already assembled the team that will be the core of the Justice League. Besides himself, there's Aquaman, Flash, who for some reason is calling himself Impulse, and Cyborg.
Yeah, I know. Cyborg's supposed to be hanging with the Teen Titans and if the timeline was being adhered to at this point he ought to be in kindergarten. Like I said, the producers of Smallville are fans but they're not dogmatic about it.
Tonight they're joined by Black Canary.
Unfortunately, this time out without the fishnets and black bustier.
Would you be surprised to hear that in my comic book reading days I had a thing for Black Canary?
Season Eight of Smallville premieres tonight at 8 PM Eastern and Pacific on the CW.