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Superman in 2021 Rural America


Superman is back on TV, in Superman & Lois, the latest in the CW’s massively successful string of shows based on DC comics characters (alternately known as the Arrowverse, for the first series in the sequence, or the Berlantiverse, for producer and mastermind Greg Berlanti). The pilot episode aired this week, and it’s a remarkably assured hour, with a distinctive tone and a strong visual sensibility that set it apart from its sister shows. Tyler Hoechlin is instantly winning as the man of steel, capturing not only the character’s physique but the way he carries himself, that combination of total dorkiness, profound love, and an innate sense of responsibility. Elizabeth Tulloch gets less to do in this episode (especially for a character whose name is in the show’s title) but she also gets a few scenes in which she conveys Lois’s intelligence, stubbornness, and determination to get to the bottom of any mystery and expose any sordid truth.

The thing I find most interesting about Superman & Lois is the angle it takes on characters who have, after all, been around the block more than a few times. Instead of an origin story (Smallville) or a rom-com about the two’s early days as fellow journalists (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Superman & Lois joins these characters after more than a decade of marriage, with two teenage sons, Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) and Jordan (Alex Garfin). Even more intriguingly, it depicts them as struggling with the common problems of older millennials. They both have good white collar jobs and a nice house, but they’re also harried and run off their feet, less stable and less prosperous than they’d expected to be at this point in their lives. The pilot delivers its first kick in the teeth already in its first act, when Clark is fired from Daily Planet in a round of layoffs, following the paper’s purchase by a sinister billionaire.

It’s not such a surprise, then, when the Kent family return to Smallville, following the death of Martha Kent, to discover the familiar litany of afflictions we’re used to hearing about small midwestern farming communities—shuttered businesses on main street, farms struggling to stay afloat and being bought out by rapacious conglomerates, a population drain as anyone who can get out does so. The pilot’s story revolves around one of the Kent sons—who have been kept in the dark about their father’s identity—discovering that he has powers (I won’t say which one, but it’s telegraphed so broadly that it would hardly count as a spoiler if I did). At the end of the episode, Clark decides that the best thing for his family and for Smallville would be to move back home and try to revitalize both the Kent farm and the town.

Which is where my problems with the show start, because a premise that Superman & Lois clearly expects to me see as heartwarming and family-focused feels, instead, like an early midlife crisis, the act of a man who feels that he is losing control and thinks that regressing into a simpler way of life (or rather, the fantasy of same) will solve all of his problems. Fantasy, in fact, feels like the right word to describe the Kents’ decision, because for all that the pilot tries to ground itself in the harsh realities of the present day, it also has to ignore some of those realities in order to justify its story. Are the Kents truly happy to pull their children out of a high school where they are doing well (and which Lois at one point describes as one of the best in the country) in favor of a rural school in a financially struggling county, in a state whose education system has cratered over the last decade? Jordan, we’re told, has an anxiety disorder. How feasible will it be for him to find a therapist in Smallville, especially now that his parents are both self-employed?

These are all, of course, smaller offshoots of the main difficulty raised by the show, which is that Kansas in 2021 stands for things that a show like Superman & Lois will struggle to face up to—which pop culture, in general, has worked hard to ignore. The show clearly prides itself on centering the economic currents that have transformed the American heartland in the 21st century. But without acknowledging the political and social currents that have accompanied—and, to a certain extent, ushered in—that transformation, can it really hope to say anything of value? In one of the pilot’s central scenes, Smallville’s fire chief tells Lois that the reason the journalism industry is struggling is that reporters like her have become “too political”, and look down on rural people like him. There’s no acknowledgment of what statements like this are usually code for (the actor playing this character, meanwhile, is Latino, which feels like a deliberate attempt to forestall the audience’s preconceptions that instead comes off as contrived). It feels very much as if the show is desperate not to admit that the Kents are in Trump country, with all the ugliness that entails, which ultimately makes its setting feel no less unreal than Gotham or National City, for all the show’s pretensions to realism.

To be fair, this is not a new problem where Superman is concerned. The character is, after all, the very emblem of mid-century centrism. He’s powerful enough that he could take over the world, and the essence of his goodness is that he chooses not to, chooses to respect law and democracy and elected government. But that only works when the law and government can be respected, when you can take it as a given (or, more realistically, have an easier time pretending) that the “American Way” that Superman stands for includes equality, civil rights, and freedom. More importantly, it is an essential component of a Superman story that people are, by and large, good; capable of being inspired by Superman to greater compassion, generosity, and openness. Trumpism makes that a rather dicey proposition.

Superman & Lois‘s parent show, Supergirl (where Hoechlin and Tulloch first appeared as Clark Kent and Lois Lane) struggled with that question—not merely the existence of a fascist-friendly, racist, anti-democratic leader, but the fact that so many people are happy to support such a person. It never quite cracked the code, inevitably devolving into facile both-sides-ism, treating the people who rose up against fascism and intolerance as equally dangerous as those they were responding to, and solving most of its problems with a display of virtue and goodness on Supergirl’s part. Superman & Lois is positioning itself as a more mature, more somber look at similar problems, but so long as it isn’t willing to admit what those problems are, it’s hard to imagine it having greater success.

It should, of course, be acknowledged that I’m only responding to a single episode. There’s still a lot of space for the show to complicate its take on its setting, to address, for example, how queer and non-white people fare in Smallville, and what their take on the town’s misfortunes is. (On the other hand, former writer Nadria Tucker, who left the show when her attempts to increase diversity on and off-screen, and give Lois more substantial storylines, were stymied by the production, is less optimistic.) But given Hollywood’s determination to ignore the elephant in the room when discussing rural America, it’s hard to imagine that a show about a superhero is going to be among the first to thread that needle.

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