I think there’ll be only one more after this and then my formal review.
Above: Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Flash, and Hawkgirl from the opening sequence of the Justice League animated series. Below: Bart Allen, Oliver Queen, Clark Kent, Arthur Curry, and Victor Stone or Flash, Green Arrow, Superman, Aquaman, and Cyborg in the episode "Justice" from Season Six of Smallville.
One of the reasons I got such a kick out of Smallville was the respect its writers and producers and cast showed for all the tellings of Superman’s story that came before, first and foremost the Christopher Reeve movies, but also Lois and Clark, the several animated series---they even managed affection for Superfriends---the TV series starring George Reeves, the Fleischer Brothers’ cartoons, and, of course, the comic books. And Smallville’s initial premise centered on the one good thing in the Superboy comics, that Clark and Lex Luthor were best friends when they were very young men and neither’s destiny was known or certain.
I wonder if anyone counted all the allusions, direct references, homages, in—jokes, and out and out steals the show included over the course of its ten seasons. But they all came together as the series built slowly but steadily towards its thrilling final moments and everything great about Superman that has carried through all his incarnations was summed up in the final show’s very final shot.
But the genius of this was that even while paying tribute to the other Superman stories, Smallville still managed to tell its own version. It stayed true to its story of how the orphan from the doomed planet of Krypton grew up to be Earth’s greatest superhero. Along the way it regularly broke with the canonical narrative and added its own touches, touches that not only diverged from the old, old story but changed it, sometimes drastically, and yet often for the better. The show did things and went places that, even if it all hasn’t been reflected in the comic books, have been happily woven into my own private Superman myth. Lex and Clark’s reestablished broken friendship. His balancing friendships with Chloe and Oliver Queen. Lois’s falling in love with Clark first, before she’s even aware there is a Superman in the making. Jonathan and Martha Kent being relatively young when he’s growing up.
That last one has been incorporated into Man of Steel. The movie’s version of Clark’s childhood and youth owes everything to Smallville. Well, except for the movie’s Jonathan ambivalently teaching Clark to be a sociopath.
I’m not sure how many other references to previous Superman stories director Zack Snyder and his screenwriter David Goyer worked into Man of Steel. However many, most of them probably flew by me, along with the jokes and many important plot details.
Things fly by all movie long. The air is almost always full of stuff. Rocket ships, bullets and missiles, pieces of exploding planets, debris from crumbling buildings, cars tossed around by explosions, tornado-blown trees and cows on their way to Oz, falling aircraft, strange winged beasts over Krypton, angry villains, Lois Lane, and the occasional red and blue blur.
It’s often difficult to pick out specific images and lines of dialog in all the noise and confusion. But there is one scene where the air is filled only with snowflakes outside a window and things calm down long enough for us to truly take in what’s going on, and what’s going on is a dual-reference to Smallville and Superman II.
Clark has been doing his David Bruce Banner from the old Incredible Hulk TV show act, drifting around the country, settling but not settling in one out of the way place after another, taking odd jobs, reluctantly performing random acts of kindness and good deeds and then, after being forced to reveal his superpowers, moving on, and at the moment he’s working in a diner, with no apparent duties but to wear an apron and exchange smiles with a winsome waitress, when in struts a smirking bully of a truck driver looking to push around the other customers and harass the winsome waitress.
Ever the gentleman, Clark steps up to tell the truck driver to knock it off. The fortysomething trucker, who, unlike his big and burly progenitor in Superman II, is short and wiry, doesn’t back down. In fact, he dumps his beer over Clark’s head. Apparently, he’s used to intimidating six foot four inch, two-hundred and twenty pound twenty year olds. But instead of finding himself picked up and thrown out the door or through it, he gets to snigger as Clark stands there and does nothing for a moment and then takes off his apron and walks away, quitting on the spot rather than…rather than what? Pick up the bully and throw him out the door? Why doesn’t he do that?
I guess we’re meant to think he’s choosing not to kill the guy, as if, A. that’s his only option other than backing down himself and B. he hasn’t learned how to pull his punches yet, something you’d think Ma and Pa Kent would have taught him while he was still in his crib.
Maybe he’s worried he can’t deal with the bully without revealing his superpowers. Why he would think anybody watching a six-foot four-inch, two hundred and twenty pound twentysomething giving the bum’s rush to a middle-aged bully a head shorter than him, would assume he must have superpowers beats me. He doesn’t have to lift the trucker over his head, just grab him by the collar and hustle him out the door, maybe giving him a kick in the pants as he says goodnight and good riddance.
Whatever his reasons, he walks away. But the next thing we know, he’s taken petty revenge on the trucker in a way stolen outright from the very first episode of Smallville, where it wasn’t petty, just maybe a little juvenile, but excusably so. In that Smallville episode Clark is fourteen years old, a freshman in high school, and he’s getting a little of his own back against a gang of bullies, which he couldn’t do directly and out in the open without risking killing one or all of them because he hasn’t learned to pull his punches yet because he doesn’t have control of his powers yet, they’re still showing up and increasing in ways that take him totally by surprise. That’s important to the central premise of the first two or three seasons.
As for the Superman II reference: In that scene, Clark doesn’t back down. He gets beat up. He doesn’t have his superpowers anymore. He’s left them back at the Fortress of Solitude, he thinks forever. It’s not that he might not be able to pull his punches. It’s that his punches don’t pack the wallop they used to and the big, burly trucker is stronger than the now ordinarily human Clark Kent. This is a heart-wrenching moment for us because it dramatizes what we already know. Clark has made a terrible mistake in giving up his powers.
There is nothing heart-wrenching or recognizably and forgivably human in the scene in Man of Steel. And there are no resonances with those scenes from Smallville and Superman II. The references are there, they’re explicit, they’re well-meant, I think, and they’re inapt and inept. They don’t have either the emotional payoff or the storytelling logic of their originals and they don’t have anything to add thematically or narratively to this movie. They don’t connect this Superman with either Tom Welling’s Clark Kent or Christopher Reeve’s Superman. They don’t tell us anything about this Superman or this Clark Kent except that Snyder and Goyer aren’t ready for him to be ready to be Superman yet. They’re just in there to be in there and fill up narrative space. Which is generally the problem with the whole script.
Just about every scene is just in there to be in there. There’s no narrative logic only necessities of plot. We don’t learn anything about the characters because for the most part they aren’t characters, they’re just carriers of the plot at the given moment when they’re on screen. Snyder and Goyer aren’t using an action-adventure template to tell us a Superman or a Clark Kent story. They’re using the Superman myth as the template for a fairly routine action-adventure movie.
One more thing.
When in the coda of Superman II, Clark, his powers restored, returns to the diner to make a monkey of the trucker, it’s a very satisfying moment for two reasons. It’s great to see Superman being Superman in the kind of small, modest way that goes right along with his grander and more spectacular feats of heroism. He’s teaching the bully a lesson and showing the people he’s been bullying he can be stood up to. That’s what Superman does. He teaches and inspires. But also it’s fun to see him being a little petty. He’s doing this for his own satisfaction too. And we’re ok with it because by this time this Superman is Superman and he’s earned the right to be a little, well, human.
Don’t know why the clip doesn’t include the very important wrap up when Clark apologizes for the mess, pays for the damage, and explains to the dumbfounded owner, “I’ve been working out.”
And then there’s this, the final scene from the final episode of Smallville. If it doesn’t choke you up, you’re not really a Superman fan: