Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Justifying Lois

I’ve made some incremental progress on my intake of the final season of Smallville, which as it happens has been just enough to notice an interesting phenomenon in the storytelling approach. You may recall that the last time I mentioned my obsessive relationship with the show I invoked Stockholm syndrome to describe how happy I was that the narrative had reached the point where Clark and Lois officially became a real couple, underscored by Clark deliberately revealing his secret identity to Lois.

This may not be readily apparent to those of you who know Superman more as an instantly recognizable American icon and less as a character in an ongoing storyline with twists and turns that have been cataloged over the past 75 years, but here are some things to keep in mind. Lois Lane is an inseparable, indispensable part of the Superman canon, and has been basically since day one. The Fleischer cartoons, the radio serials, the television program, every Hollywood movie, Lois Lane is always in the mix. At the outset, there was a legitimate tension in the love triangle between milquetoast Clark Kent, godly Superman, and the woman who was a disdainful co-worker of the former and ardent admirer of the latter. But after ten or twenty years, the idea had become deeply entrenched that the romantic complications between Superman and Lois could never be resolved, and Superman had to keep Lois at arm’s length for her own safety. The notion became something of a high-concept meta-joke at DC Comics, where they would occasionally publish a story in which Superman and Lois were able to couple up, only to show that it ended in a different disaster every time (with the story subsequently wiped off the books as only a dream or something).

Oh trust me you are going to want to click to Superman-size this.

And that image - Lois dressed like Jackie O, pining for Superman, while bespectacled-and-fedoraed Clark Kent breaks the fourth wall and winks at the audience - is how a lot of people probably think of the characters even today, even though things in the comics (and other sources) underwent a radical shift in the 80’s and 90’s. Clark told Lois he was Superman and they eventually married in 1996, both in the comics (which are arguably the true home of Superman stories) and in the current tv series of the time, Lois and Clark. The tv show didn’t last much longer, but Clark Kent and Lois Lane-Kent, spouses and co-workers, was the status quo in the comics thereafter.

Smallville debuted about five years later, and there had been no backsliding in the comics in the mean time. Smallville was of course designed to be a teen soap, so marriage wasn’t really on the agenda the way that unrequited crushes and such were. And of course the show was about a highschool-aged Clark Kent and his family and friends, so the romantic lead was Lana Lang. Still, the character of Lois Lane was brought into the Smallville story in season four. First she and Clark were foils for each other, then friends, as Lana was gradually written out of the show. Then they were flirtatious friends, and Clark wrestled with whether or not he could trust her with his secret identity and/or expose her to the risk of being in the inner circle of his double life. (You know, all the stuff from the comics, condense. Though it didn’t feel particularly condensed.) Then FINALLY they got together.

Or, it feels more right to say, ended up together. That’s always been the difficult push-pull at the heart of Smallville, the sense that a lot of the overarching mega-story is pre-ordained. (The fact that various characters on the show throw around words like “destiny” at will doesn’t help.) I’ve had the odd argument here and there with fellow comics geeks about the merits of Smallville, and I’ve heard people dismiss it for getting things wrong, which I counter is only a valid criticism if the show is supposed to be a direct prequel, the adventures of the Superman we know and love (and yet there are a few dozen versions of the character who could claim that position, none more “right” than the other) back when he was a teen/young man. But whatever Smallville is, it’s not that (I argue), because Smallville doesn’t take place in the past, it takes place now, just as Superman’s comic/movie/whathaveyou adventures tend to take place now. So it’s not a prequel, it’s just a story, deeply indebted to the Superman mythos. And if that seems like splitting hairs, maybe it is, especially considering that Smallville has always carried itself with a certain sense of “we all know where this is headed.” Things might not happen on the show the way they happened in Action Comics, but the bottomline results would get things where they needed to go. For the many years that Michael Rosenbaum played Lex Luthor as a complex, conflicted frenemy to Clark Kent, his entire performance was heightened by the subtext of what the name “Lex Luthor” is supposed to eventually mean. By the same token, from the first moment Erica Durrance looked at the camera and said, “I’m Lois … Lois Lane,” it was exactly equivalent to saying “I am the one Clark ends up married to.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that, I hasten to add. I can’t believe they made it three whole seasons without Lois. She’s a fantastic character and, amazingly enough, she’s always been a fantastic character. Even in the 1930’s she was tough, brave, resourceful, a respected professional woman; narratively she often had to play the part of damsel in distress but she never felt like a stereotypical damsel. When DC Comics allowed the decade-spanning romance to progress to something more real (caveat: whatever that means inside the logic of comic books) it didn’t feel like a sales-spike stunt, it felt right.

So, in 2010 Smallville brought things between Clark and Lois in line with where they were meant to be. Again, this is almost 15 years after the very special wedding issue of Superman, and as the culmination of about five or six years of build-up within the universe of the show. And yet, the next few episodes of Smallville immediately after the Big Symbolic Kiss that seals the two characters’ fates together, what hoops have the romantic subplot had to jump through?

Proving that Clark and Lois belong together.

But they're both so pretty what more proof do you NEED?

It strikes me as superlatively strange, as if the showrunners felt their number one priority needed to be addressing the concerns of a very specific set of fans, namely the ones who would not want to see Lois and Clark live happily ever after. That group might be further broken up into subsets. One subset might be those who buy into the 50’s Superman who can never marry anyone because the risk is too great. So there’s a lot of attention paid to how ,firstly, Lois can take care of herself (coming through with a rescue even if Clark temporarily loses his powers), and second, how Clark needs Lois for emotional support, because being physically invulnerable isn’t enough to make the mental toll of being Superman bearable on his own. Another subset in the anti-Lois camp might be those who think a superpowered Kryptonian should be mated up with Wonder Woman or some other bulletproof member of the capes-and-tights set. I actually kind of love that in order to address this the showrunners returned to Smallville’s version of Aquaman, had him show up married to a fellow Atlantean (which to be fair is totally accurate to the comics, too), and then had Mera (the Atlantean bride) basically spell it out for Lois that humans belong with humans and supers belong with supers and ne'er the twain shall meet. Also to the show’s credit, it wasn’t as though Lois brooded on this until Clark said he didn’t believe it; Lois had the wherewithal to reject the notion herself.

But still, I have to ask, was any of this necessary? Putting Clark and Lois on equal romantic footing is far from groundbreaking storytelling, and the precedents had been in place in the show and the source comics for ages. Why get so defensive about it, over the course of multiple episodes? I can sort of see how, without this probing at the viability of the relationship, the show would be at a loss for its staple diet of melodramatic angst. Season ten is more or less a victory lap for Smallville to tie up any and all loose ends before the proper, well-planned-in-advance series finale. Clark is finally out from under the shadows of his various fathers and father-figures (Jonathan Kent, Jor-El, the Luthors) and all of his supporting cast have either moved on or found closure in their own ways. There’s a ridiculous amount of plot machinations going on as well (which I am just now realizing is also probably covering up for the dearth of standard soap-y elements): there’s a clone of Lex Luthor rapidly aging toward adulthood, there’s extraterrestrial embodiments of pure cosmic evil preparing to conquer earth, and there’s a shadow war being conducted between government agencies that want to control superhumans and rogue superhumans who want to answer to no one. Either large chunks of all that are going to be dropped or truncated, or the back half of the season is going to be totally bonkers. But either way I hope that from here on out that the show trusts the audience to accept Lois and Clark as a couple, and no longer feels the need to engage in rhetorical contortions to argue away objections that no one in particular is voicing.

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