Wednesday, September 7, 2011


So last week I cracked open the Smallville Season 6 DVD set and plowed through the first half-dozen episodes over the course of my commuting on Thursday and Friday. I’m now past the halfway point of the series, which is kind of odd – Smallville was the geek-show I was eternally way behind the curve on, but at this point they aren’t making any new episodes and I’m slowly but surely catching up, however belatedly. Rounding that corner from the first hundred or so episodes to the second hundred or so also coincides with a slight shift in the series itself.

Namely, in Season 6, Smallville kind of goes batshit insane.

And I am not using that term loosely! Smallville started out as a teen drama coming-of-age story about a young boy who had a friend his parents didn’t approve of and who pined for the girl next door, and who also happened to be an alien with rapidly developing godlike powers and who was forever stumbling across other people who had gained their own weird abilities from radioactive meteor fragments that arrived on Earth at the same time as the alien rocket carrying our hero – and of course those others inevitably used their abilities to hurt people and only our hero, raised by the two most decent human beings on earth, could reliably save the day. By the end of Season 5, our hero (Clark Kent, just in case I’m being too coy) had gained and lost the girl next door multiple times, his powers were pretty much completely developed, his dad had died, his mom had become a state senator, and his former best friend (Lex Luthor) got to go full-on supervillain when he was possessed by an alien conqueror. Where do you go from there?

You bring in Batman, of course.

At least, I imagine that was the initial idea: as close as Clark had come to embodying Superman on the show, it would make sense to introduce a counterpoint, a complimentary ally who is in some ways cut from the same cloth and in other ways his polar opposite. Superman and Batman have always been yin and yang to one another. The Smallville showrunners must have found the storytelling possibilities in their pairing irresistible.

Except, again I imagine, there were some insurmountable corporate roadblocks. With Batman Begins and The Dark Knight handling Batman’s character just fine for mass-media audiences, there was no way they were going to let Smallville get its histrionic hands on Bruce Wayne. The merest mention of Gotham City had to have been a non-starter. But still! How great would it be to give Clark an ally in the fight against evil! But an ally with no superpowers at all, only highly developed skills and sheer determination! Someone rich, to contrast with Clark’s humble farmboy background! Someone dark, to offset Clark’s inherent goodness and light! And preferably someone who already exists in DC Comics’ immense seven-decade stable of characters, but just isn’t Batman!

So they wrote Green Arrow into the show.

Like a modern-day Robin Hood!  Exactly like that, actually.
Which actually is somewhat clever, because Green Arrow really does easily slot into all the categories I listed above. As written in the comics, Oliver Queen was a wealthy industrialist who ended up shipwrecked on a deserted island. He was eventually rescued but would have starved to death if he hadn’t taught himself to hunt with a bow and arrow. Once he was back in civilization after that experience he wanted more out of life and combined his newfound archery skills with a desire to make the world a better place and became a superhero. Skilled, detemined human – check; rich – check; dark – sounds goofy but trust me, check.

Of course I’m explaining all this because the one downside to using Green Arrow as opposed to Batman is that people know who Batman is and more or less what he’s all about. Green Arrow’s a bit closer to the bottom of the barrel (two-thirds of a stave down, I’d say, and that’s me speaking as a big old comics geek). So Smallville finds itself forced to do a lot of exposition work in order to set up the Superman/substitute-Batman dynamic with Green Arrow. And for six episodes (and counting, from my perspective) it kind of becomes Green Arrow’s show. They not only sketch out the basics of his origin and gimmicks but also create new elements to tie him into the Smallville mythology: he went to an elite private school with Lex Luthor, he immediately becomes romantically interested in Lois Lane upon meeting her (as did Aquaman in Season 5, funny enough), &c.

And, inevitably, they make a couple of missteps along the way, above and beyond the trivial little things that have to be changed to fit the parameters of Smallville’s own ramshackle internal consistency. Early on, discussing Green Arrow’s recent campaign to steal black market art treasures from shady plutocrats, Clark asks Oliver if the ends justify the means, and Oliver says “Absolutely” and Clark says “I could never believe that.” I get what they were trying to do there, showing Superman as the ultimate idealist who never compromises (because he can afford not to – he’s invulnerable) and Green Arrow as the pragmatist who bends the rules (because he’s only a man doing the best he can) but it’s Ollie’s answer that screws up the whole intent. He should have said “Sometimes” because that is the whole point. Clark/Superman is rigidly idealistic which is often all to the good but sometimes can cause him problems. Ollie/GA is more real-world flexible (like a bow – see, in some ways he’s a better counterpoint than Batman!) but that’s supposed to mean that he’s nuanced and able to judge different situations in different ways. Having Ollie proclaim that the ends always justify the means makes him just as limited and bull-headed as Clark saying they never do. The opposite of extremism is moderation, not extremism in the other direction.

But, then again, a character who can put things in terms of absolutes comes across with a bit more bad-ass of a vibe than a character who refuses to oversimplify, and Rao knows Smallville is all about family-friendly bad-assery (when it’s not all about plot contrivances that cause the young female leads to take off family-friendly amounts of their clothes) so maybe I should give the writers the benefit of the doubt. I’m essentially committed to another 104 episodes or so, anyway.

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