Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Christianity and the Small Screen: "Smallville"

"Somebody save me."

Those are the first words of the theme song (performed by Remy Zero) of the CW's "Smallville." The show is the story of how a crashed-landed Krytonian alien adopted as a Kansas farm boy, Kal-El/Clark Kent, became the infamous Superman. Going into the 10 season show, the executive producers agreed there would be no "no tights, no flights" at all - a decision that bothered a lot of Superman fans.

In this review, I wish to offer a few general words about the show while at the same time look at some of the themes that I, as a Christian, noticed. In terms of the show, one must remember when it was produced. The first episode aired on October 16, 2001. Budgets for cable shows were much smaller and the age of blockbuster superhero movies and TV shows were yet future. In one early episode, one character grabs her laptop and proceeds to get online via dial-up. Anyone remember those ancient days?

With that said, the show was an entertaining one even though it was saturated with drama and love triangles. We all know that Clark Kent ends up with Lois Lane, but that relationship doesn't come until much later. Clark is constantly falling in and out of love with Lana Lang among others. When Smallville focused on the main narrative and villain of each season (like Bizzarro, Doomsday, General Zod, Braniac, etc.) it was at its strongest. But too often it got sidetracked by drama and needless character conflict.

Nevertheless, for fans of Superman, this is a must watch show even though it is a considerable commitment - 10 seasons consisting of 218 episodes.

In regards to specific themes worth highlighting consider the following.


External Redemption

Many are quick to highlight a number of parallels between Superman and Jesus. I am sympathetic to that reasoning, but no doubt it has its holes. As the theme song indicates, Clark Kent is a savior-like character. He constantly saves "damsels in distress," his friends, family, his hometown, Metropolis, and even his enemies. The first persons he saves is ironically Alexander (Lex) Luthor.

One of the strongest parallels between Christianity and Kal-El regards external redemption. Smallville constantly reminds us that we all need to be both saved and to be saved by someone other than ourselves. Superman is an alien sent to this earth to be its savior. That is similar to the incarnation where, Christ comes, not from a distant planet, but from heaven itself in order to save sinners.

In order to be saved, we need someone outside ourselves to save us. The culture tells the opposite story boldly proclaiming that salvation is found within us. If we learn anything from this story, let us learn of the importance of external redemption.

Yet Clark cannot save everybody. One episode is particularly instructive in this regard. The Kent family essentially adopt (not legally) a young man with a troubled past named Ryan. In the eponymous episode, Ryan is dying of cancer. Clark stops at nothing to find a cure even tracking down a doctor who had some success in fighting against Ryan's particular cancer. He is ultimately unsuccessful and Ryan dies. The message is clear: Superman can't save everyone; he is not omnipotent.

This is a powerful reminder of why we need the God-man and not just a Kryptonian. Clark Kent might be able to fight Lex Luthor and Braniac, but he cannot defeat death. Only Christ can - and has - do(ne) that.


Adoption

Another major theme is that of adoption. One of the main premises of the show is that what makes the future superhero great is his adoptive parents. Even after his parents leave the show, Kent remains the boyscout because of their ongoing influence. In the last half of the series, they explore what it would have been like had Clark been adopted by Lionel Luther. Needless to say, he would have turned out different - not a hero, but a villain.

In this story is an exploration of the importance of manhood/fatherhood. Clark discovers his biological dad and thus struggles with his identity. Yet through it all, his understanding of what it means to be a man - and not just a human - comes from his adoptive father. The numerous scenes of Jonathan Kent teaching Clark and sharing with him wisdom are precious. In an age where manhood is rated "sexist" and fathers are either absent or absentminded, this is a welcomed part of the show.


Lying

One of the negative aspects of the show regards truth-telling - or the lack there-of. Clark is told by his parents and others to hide his identity. At the root of the growing hostility between Clark and Lex Luthor is this issue. Lex knows Clark is hiding something (how did this young high schooler save him from that crash?) but Clark refuses to tell him the truth. This puts a strain on their relationship. The two go from close friends to arch enemies.

But Clark lies to more than just the Luthor's. Every girl in the show is deceived as is all of his friends. The reasoning is obvious and simple. How would you respond knowing that the person sitting in class next to you is really an alien crashed on earth disguised as a common farm-boy? Could you be trusted with that information?

Later in the series they explore what would happen if Clark's secret was discovered. In this episode, Clark reveals his identity and results in both he and everyone he loves (especially Lois and Chloe) being hunted down by the government. The producers constantly reminded the audience why deception was crucial to Clark's success.

In Season 6, Clark explains why lying is sometimes best to Lois. His reasoning (consistent with the show): so long as it protects the people you love, it is the right thing to do. Lois Lane (who remains in the dark as to who Clark really is until the end) responds, "That is totally retarded." On this debate I side with Ms. Lane. What I would do if I discovered my best friend was a alien remains a mystery, but to rationalize deception under the guise of protection is done everyday and all it does is destroy relationships.


Christian Overtones

Finally, as hinted at above, there are numerous and repetitive Christian overtones throughout the series. This is inevitable as Superman is often portrayed as a godlike or Christlike figure. In the shows Pilot, Clark hangs as a scarecrow in the middle of a corn field clearly paralleling the crucifix. Even the cover of the season 1 DVDs portray Clark as a Christlike figure hanging from that "cross." In the Season 7 episode "Quest," Clark is asked if he knew what it was like to be worshipped while sitting in a church.

The overtones are found throughout the series. Kal-El's real father is given a god-like voice. There are Judas characters. Lex is a type of Satan character as seen in the prophetic caves. There are deaths and resurrections. Etc.

The show also explores theological and spiritual themes - a truth that runs through many comic narratives. In the Season 5 episode "Splinter" the professor and Clark debate the true nature of humans. Are we inherently good or evil? In "Lexmas" the archnemesis of Superman concludes that the key to happiness is money and power.


Conclusion

Overall, Smallville was an enjoyable show that is great for Superman fans, but the show has numerous weaknesses. Outside of the major characters, the casting was weak. The special affects were a few years behind and now look cheesy and cheap. The acting isn't the greatest and the stories are repetitive at times without cohesion. And then there were the endless love triangles and drama. Oh the drama!

But the show has many strengths. The beauty of comic book series is how natural they explore humanity, truth, and justice. The hero is constantly asked to do more than "save the day." The producers were strained a bit in telling their story and could have had more success had the seasons been shorter. Nevertheless, its Superman. Its hard to go wrong there.




For more:
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 1
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 2
Christianity and the Small Screen: The West Wing
Christianity on the Small Screen: The Office
Christianity and the Small Screen: "Smallville"
Christianity and the Small Screen: Fox's "House, M. D."
Christianity and the Small Screen: NBC's "Crisis"
Christianity and the Small Screen: FBI Files 
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