Tom Welling as a responsible but still fun-loving Clark Kent in the TV series Smallville, seen here in one of his responsible moments as he considers how best to put his superpowers to work helping him do the day’s chores around the Kent family farm. Unlike Henry Cavill's Clark Kent in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, who is neither responsible nor fun-loving, Welling's Clark enjoys having superpowers and welcomes the responsibility of being a superhero.
Over the course of Smallville’s ten-season run, we watch a teenage and then early twenty-something Clark Kent discover, develop, hone, and learn to use responsibly the powers and abilities that when combined and mastered will make him Superman. The last of his powers to appear is flight. The first two are superstrength and superspeed. A theme of the show is that Clark is ambivalent about having superpowers, mainly because they scare him. He doesn’t feel in control of himself and he’s afraid he might hurt someone. But on the whole he likes being superstrong and superfast.
Being the first is useful when he does chores around the Kent family farm. His superspeed is useful too, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Routinely he’ll go for a run for the sheer, simple pleasure of moving faster than a speeding a bullet. We see this best in an episode in which Clark meets another kid with superspeed. The kid calls himself Bart Allen. He also goes by the aliases Barry Allen, Jay Garrick, and Wally West. Whatever his real name is, he’s going to grow up to be the Flash. At the end of the episode, Clark and Bart/Barry/the Flash have a race that’s just pure fun for the both of them.
In another episode Clark makes a run from his house in Smallville to Metropolis and back, a round trip of a couple hundred miles, to pick up a pizza and he gets it home still piping hot. He does it because he wants pizza and it’s the best pizza in the Midwest. But he also does it because he can.
Smallville is a 218-chapter origin story: How Clark Kent became Superman. Really how Clark Kent decided to become a superhero. In too many episodes there’s some highblown but empty speechifying about accepting his destiny, but basically the show is all about Clark trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up while having to deal with the emotional and physical turmoils of growing up. For the first several seasons his one over-riding ambition is to just be a normal teenager. He wants to have fun, be liked by the other kids, and fall in love. He actually manages all that. But having powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal adolescents presents challenges and temptations that are also far beyond those faced by normal teenagers. He isn't normal. And not just in the sense of being different. He's not a freak or a geek. He is, it turns out, what most every other kid dreams of being. He is a hero.
In the true sense of the word, not in the celebrified sense that’s tossed around in the news and the media as if all it means is someone celebrated for having done a good deed and earned media attention for it. Being a hero is a calling, a vocation, and a responsibility. Heroes put the powers and abilities they could use to enrich and aggrandize themselves to work making other people’s lives better. Heroes live their lives in the service of others. They see themselves as having a responsibility. They believe they have been given powers and abilities---talents, skills, and know-how---for a reason.
One of the goofier moves Smallville made was to have Clark convince his parents to let him try out for the football team. Of course he makes the team and becomes the starting quarterback. This seems not only unfair to the other kids---not to mention dangerous. People break their hands punching Superman in the jaw. What would happen to someone who tried to tackle him on the run or, worse, who got tackled by him?---but it would also seem to be incredibly stressful, not just because he’d have to expend a lot of mental and physical energy keeping his powers in check so he didn’t hurt anyone, but because he’d have to be always having to decide when it was ok for him to score a touchdown and when he needed to miss a wide-open receiver or throw an interception or let himself be sacked in order to give the other team half a chance, let his teammates contribute and not win every game single-handedly, and, most importantly, not make people suspicious. But apparently, among his other abilities, is the ability to shift into a lower gear so that he plays merely at the level of a high-school All-American. He becomes a star and a hometown hero in a way that allows him to feel as if he’s earned it like a “normal” kid. So he’s popular, admired, justly proud of himself, having fun and...unsatisfied.
Disappointed, as a matter of fact.
The writers and producers of Smallville had great respect and affection for all the incarnations and iterations of Superman that had come before, especially Christopher Reeve and his first two Superman movies, and I have to believe the Clark as football hero story arc, goofy as it is, was inspired by one of my favorite scenes in the first of Reeve’s movies. In that scene, on his way home from school, teenage Clark Kent (played by Jeff East but overdubbed with Reeve’s voice) outraces a train and is waiting by the driveway up to the Kents’ farmhouse when a car full of his classmates, including his crush Lana Lang and his football star rival Brad, who left school well before him, pass by. Lana’s impressed and Brad’s flummoxed and Clark gets a kick out of having done both. But his father---earth father---Jonathan Kent (a wise and gentle Glenn Ford) catches him feeling a little too pleased with himself.
Jonathan: Been showing off a bit, haven't you, son?
Clark: I didn't mean to show off, Dad. It's just that, guys like that Brad, I just want to tear him apart.
Jonathan: Yeah, I know, I know.
Clark: And I know I shouldn't…
Jonathan: Yeah, I know, you can do all these amazing things and sometimes you feel like you will just go bust unless you can tell people about them.
Clark: Yeah. I mean every time I get the football I can make a touchdown. Every time! I mean, is it showing off if somebody's doing the things he's capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?
Jonathan:: No, no. Now, you listen to me. When you first came to us, we thought people would come and take you away because, when they found out, you know, the things you could do... and that worried us a lot. But then a man gets older, and he starts thinking differently and things get very clear. And one thing I do know, son, and that is you are here for a reason. I don't know whose reason, or whatever the reason is... Maybe it's because... uh... I don't know. But I do know one thing. It's not to score touchdowns.
In the Smallville story arc, Clark figures out that Jonathan’s right. He isn’t here to score touchdowns. Not only that, scoring touchdowns for a living isn’t what he wants to do. At a certain point he realizes that he doesn't want to just be good at something. He wants to be good and do good. He wants to be good by doing good, which I guess is the tautological definition of good. And from then on the questions he wrestles with are on what scale should he do the good he wants to do and can he handle the responsibility---and the loneliness: he has to decide, Does he want to live his life entirely for other people?
And that’s his story for the rest of the series’ run, Clark figuring out what his responsibilities are and how best to meet them. How best to use his powers and abilities to help people. And learning to find satisfaction and fulfillment and enjoyment in being a hero and, not incidentally, a responsible adult. Clark begins to look forward to spending his life doing what he’s best at and what he wants to do.
There’s a word for people who find satisfaction and fulfillment in getting to live their lives doing what they’re best at and what they want to do.
The reason flight is the last of his superpowers to appear is that it is symbolic. It’s the ability that makes him Superman by allowing him to use all his other powers and abilities to do the most good and help the most people. It seems as if he’s given the power to fly as a reward for finally embracing his “destiny”---almost as if he’s literally graced by God. But, really, he’s had the power almost all along. He’s just had to want to use it. It’s like Glinda tells Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she could have used the ruby slippers to take herself back to Kansas at any time ( I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that Dorothy Gale and Clark Kent both hail from Kansas, but if it is it’s one of those wonderful ones that give meaning to our appreciation of works of art), she just had to want to go home. It’s important that she doesn’t really want to go home until after she’s done all the good in Oz she can do. Clark could have started flying anytime. He just had to want to. Which is a way of saying he had to decide he wanted to be Superman.
Which raises a question.
Who wouldn’t want to be Superman?
The Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, that’s who.
In Snyder's universe, Clark Kent never has fun having superpowers. In fact he's been taught to be ashamed of them. In Man of Steel, for a long time before he puts on the cape, he wanders the world doing good but secretly because he doesn’t want people to know he’s there. He’s afraid they’ll think he’s a monster not a hero. That’s because he thinks of himself as a monster. He doesn't like himself at all. Which, apparently, has caused within him a too strong desire to be liked by others. He’s conflicted about that too.
A favorite trope of writers of the Superman comics over the years has been to build What If stories around the question What would Superman be like if the Kents hadn't been the ones who found him and raised him. The answer is almost always not Superman, that is not the good guy we know and love. Man of Steel is a What If story too: What if the Kents hadn't been the Kents we know and love? What if they'd been fearful, paranoid, and neurotic? What if their love had been selfish? What if they'd taught young Clark that other people were just plain no good and not to be trusted?
If the first Christopher Reeve Superman includes one of the best father-son scenes in movie history, Man of Steel includes one of the most horrifying.
After junior high school age Clark saves a busload of his schoolmates from downing when their bus goes off the road and plunges into the river, Pa Kent scolds him for it. He could have been seen. The outside world might have learned there’s a dangerously superpowerful alien in their midst. Clark asks what he should have done instead, let those kids die? And Jonathan’s answer is…
Jonathan re-appears in Dawn of Justice to teach Clark a corollary: There’s no point in doing good for others anyway because every attempt to do good results in harm done down the road.
Snyder’s Jonathan is a disappointed and cynical man, deliberately alienated and lonely. His only solace is his wife Martha. ‘She’s my world,” he tells Clark, implying she’s his only reason for living, just what a kid wants to hear from a parent, but also that she’s the only person worth living for.
The Kents are their own little world, living entirely unto themselves and for themselves, owing nothing to anybody else.
Martha herself reinforces this notion:
Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be... or be none of it. You don't owe this world a thing. You never did.
This is shocking to hear for those of us who took to heart Uncle Ben’s admonition to Peter Parker, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
Yes, that's Marvel, but I think it’s taken for granted that that was a line Stan Lee intended to tie Spider-Man to Superman. At any rate, it’s become a motto for all superheroes since. More than that, however, is that it’s an admonition for all us not to be bullies and an implicit instruction to do unto others because we have a responsibility to each other and for each other.
Zack Snyder’s Superman was raised to reject those ideas and ideals and to look out first and foremost for Number One.
Dawn of Justice continues Snyder’s What If story by asking the next question, What if a Clark Kent raised to be inward, self-protective, self-centered, and self-doubting became Superman before he was mature and wise and well-adjusted enough to handle the responsibility? Before he’d even accepted that he has that responsibility? In Superman, Clark doesn't go to Metropolis until he's thirty, having spent twelve years in the Fortress of Solitude being taught how to be a hero and a good person by Jor-el and Lara's ghosts. In Smallville, he arrives there still in his early twenties but wise and mature beyond his years, having spent the last decade working very hard on acquiring wisdom and maturity and a sense of grownup responsibility. Basically, in both the movie and the TV series, Clark doesn’t become Superman until he’s ready to be Superman. In Man of Steel, practically the day he puts on the supersuit for the first time he has to get right to work saving the world. From here on out, then, it's going to be on the job training for him. Of course he's going to make a few mistakes.
Like letting thousands of people while he wrestles with General Zod.
In Dawn of Justice, he's still making mistakes and still not having much fun being Superman. And, apparently, he's taking too much satisfaction in being beloved.
He’s essentially Superboy and not yet Superman. He has that adolescent ability to demand that adults (like the movie’s Batman) live up to standards and according to ideals the demanding adolescents aren’t emotionally mature enough to manage themselves.
There’s nothing inherently wrong (from a purely dramatic point of view) with positing a still very young and emotionally immature Superman who at twenty-three or twenty-four has to learn lessons about growing-up most young adults learn when they’re around sixteen or seventeen. But that type of young men (plenty of whom exist in real life) tend to be both annoying and boring. It’s a trick to make them interesting and sympathetic as characters in a movie, a trick Snyder doesn’t pull off.
His Clark is boring. And he’s annoying. And he’s definitely no fun to be around. And it doesn’t help that he’s paired with another conflicted, neurotic, humorless, inward-looking, self-pitying, and self-involved superhero who’s also not having any fun being a superhero.
It’s hard to see how their becoming friends will make either of them any happier or content with their roles and responsibilities, unless each one looks at the other and sees a version of himself that horrifies him.
Dawn of Justice ends with the hope that Batman has regained a small measure of sanity and the sister hope---based on the possibility that Snyder has read Joseph Campbell and understood an important step on the hero’s journey or that he’s at least seen the original Star Wars trilogy and absorbed the lesson of Luke and not just of Vader---that Clark is finally going to become the Superman we know, love, admire, and need.
But there’s enough in the movie that suggests Snyder’s long-term plans for the future Justice League movies involve dashing those hopes and that he’s going to give us another Batman v Superman face-off, this time between a powerless, helpless, and totally alone Batman and a thoroughly evil Superman.
Fun for the whole family or at least for the sullen, selfish, and self-loathing teenager in the house who needs to know that it’s ok to be sullen, selfish, and self-loathing because nobody’s any good anyway and life stinks no matter who and what you are.
On a related note, but not worth its own brief:
Not only is Snyder’s Superman self-loathing and self-absorbed and entirely without a sense of fun, he’s also entirely without a sense of humor. Smallville's and Superman's Clarks have very good senses of humor They’re also pranksters. In Superman II, he even saves the day by pulling a prank. If the fascistic statue of Superman that figures prominently in Dawn of Justice had been erected in either of those Clarks’ universes, if it didn't disappear overnight after its unveiling, pulverized into dust and blown away with a blast of superbreath, the city of Metropolis would have to dedicate a line in its daily operating budget to scrubbing off the painted-on mustaches and cross-eyes every morning.