Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left: Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (Screenshot: Warner Bros); Christopher Reeves in Superman: The Movie (Screenshot: Warner Bros); George Reeves in Adventures of Superman (Screenshot: Warner Bros. Television); Tyler Hoechlin in Supergirl (Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW); Superman: The Animated Series (Screenshot: Warner Bros. Television); Tom Welling in Smallville (Screenshot: Warner Bros. Television)

The genial, earnest Superman of the small screen is the hero we need right now

From left: Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (Screenshot: Warner Bros); Christopher Reeves in Superman: The Movie (Screenshot: Warner Bros); George Reeves in Adventures of Superman (Screenshot: Warner Bros. Television); Tyler Hoechlin in Supergirl (Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW); Superman: The Animated Series (Screenshot: Warner Bros. Television); Tom Welling in Smallville (Screenshot: Warner Bros. Television)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

Over the better part of a decade, The CW’s DC Universe—once referred to as the Arrowverse and now, the CWverse—has expanded from grim-faced vigilantes lurking in abandoned warehouses to primary-color-sporting super-folks zooming through broad daylight. It took a bit of time (and a certain speedster) to push them over the edge, but the network has truly embraced the stranger, wackier, more earnest (read: fun) aspects of its DC Comics adaptations, a far cry from the stiff-lipped “no tights, no flights” credo of Smallville from 20 years ago.

Now here comes Superman & Lois, the first prime-time TV series to prominently feature DC’s world-famous Man Of Steel since Smallville leapt—or, rather, stepped—onto the small screen back in 2001. It’s lucky timing, considering network resistance to superheroes and their superpowers has softened considerably over the years, Supergirl is but a season away from hanging up her cape, Zack Snyder is resurrecting his scowling (and now black-clad) Superman for HBO Max, and it feels like we’re all stuck in a rut of malaise and cynicism. It would seem conditions are optimal for Superman and his particular brand of optimism to return to TV.

Expectations have been high for Superman & Lois, and not just because it’s “the new Superman show.” Though it’s meant to provide a much-needed burst of energy from a network franchise that has already put its flagship series to bed (Arrow, mercifully) and is about to begin the process of saying goodbye to one of its most beloved shows (Supergirl, sadly), Superman & Lois is an opportunity to reintroduce a version of Superman that hasn’t seen live action for far too long: a hero with the drive to help people, whose deeds inspire a sense of hope. Blue skies, red cape, big heart.

But this idealized version of the character, a reassuring presence in our pop culture lives for over 80 years, has undergone something of a transmogrification since the turn of the century. Shifting real-world attitudes concerning truth and justice in the aftermath of 9/11 were not kind to the good-natured superhero, and the subsequent “gritty” period of superhero films—ushered in by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight—all but sapped the cheerfulness of the character on screen. There have been faint glimmers of hope over the years, and Tyler Hoechlin’s cheery performance on both Supergirl and Superman & Lois has been an encouraging step in a happier direction, but overall Superman has been kind of a mope on screen.

One of the world’s most recognizable and beloved icons can’t seem to gain any altitude on film without coming across as (Rao help us) “realistic,” but—at least in terms of optimism and hope, goofiness and goodwill—he’s been allowed to soar on television. Superman is an easy character to take for granted. For just shy of a century he’s been our postmodern Apollo, our hallowed Moses analogue, all bundled up in the red of Santa Claus and the blue of a summer day. We’ve known who Superman is for so long that it’s become easy to forget why he is. And while a TV series has the space to examine a character and their motivations over several years, a movie has only so much time to delve into these kinds of particulars. In the case of Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, it’s better to rely on the public’s collective memory of Superman (murky as that can often be) and have him grapple with complicated themes than reiterate his qualities. Besides, complex times call for a complex hero to meet them, and if our world continues to change, shouldn’t Superman change with it?

It’s not a difficult question but creatives tend to get stuck on it anyway. Of course, Superman ought to change with the times—the innate purity of the character makes him incredibly amenable to change. (Just root through his many, many iterations in DC’s comic multiverse for literally hundreds of great examples.) As far as contemporary relevance is concerned, Zack Snyder (with writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer) took an approach to Superman in Dawn Of Justice that seemed sound in theory: Snare the Man Of Tomorrow in the various imbroglios of today, and a challenging deconstruction of the character will follow. Dawn Of Justice doubled down on Man Of Steel’s wary take on Superman (and continued to conflate “hero” with “god”) by foisting him into the anger, fear, and stupidity of now; the result feeling more like some perverse social experiment than an honest-to-goodness attempt at understanding how this “real-life” Superman might persevere during such dark times. (“Nobody stays good in this world,” Henry Cavill’s Supes mutters, as he flies off to maybe kill Batman.)

Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempted modern-day complexity, too, often at the expense of having fun. As a no-we’re-not-kidding-this-is-an-actual sequel to Superman II, Superman Returns sought to navigate the same cinematic heights of its forebears with a reprised John Williams score, an actor who bore a convincing resemblance to Christopher Reeve, and a storyline that stemmed from one of Superman II’s more infamous sequences, where Superman and Lois Lane’s chaste relationship was finally consummated within the crystalline confines of the Fortress Of Solitude. Superman Returns paid unflagging attention to fan service (going so far as to cast actors from the ’50s Adventures Of Superman show in minor roles) and even had a spritely sense of humor in places. But it desaturated the optimistic hues and warmth of the original films in favor of a moodier palette, replacing their late-’70s funkiness for a “timeless” art deco approach. As for its Superman, played amiably by Brandon Routh, he could often be seen moping around in the night sky as he contended with the consequences of leaving Earth for five long years, during which time his son was born with no knowledge of his birth father or his Kryptonian origins. For most audiences, the whole thing was a snooze.

No, it’s TV where Superman has been allowed to thrive. While it isn’t a live-action take on the character, no conversation about Superman on the small screen should take place without Superman: The Animated Series, a crackerjack, broad-daylight response to the jet-black Batman: The Animated Series. (The contrast and cohesion between these two shows might have been a point of inspiration for Snyder’s Dawn Of Justice, but alas, it was not to be.) Developed by Batman: TAS luminaries Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, Superman ran from 1996 to 2000, cranking out 54 episodes that hurtled the Last Son Of Krypton from the cornfields of Smallville to the skyscrapers of Metropolis, and, later, all the way to the fire pits of Apokolips. Unfettered by the limitations of special effects technology, Superman: TAS was a bonafide romp, ratcheting through a new roster of arch enemies (including Lori Petty’s Livewire) while lending Superman’s classic nemeses a proper gravitas. (Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor, especially, was a series titan.) As far as a representation of the superhero and his various philosophies (to say nothing of his spectrum of powers) is concerned Superman: TAS might be the most complete, if not the most faithful. Unsurprisingly, it’s the most fun.

In fact, ’90s TV was kind to the genial Superman. ABC’s unrepentantly daffy Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman debuted in 1993 as a faithful adaptation of DC Comics’ post-1986 reboot of the character, which chucked Superman spitcurl-first into the ’90s, the province of (according to the DVD box set) “computers, feminism, and double lattes.” As a milder onscreen Clark Kent, Dean Cain wasn’t a lovely goof like Christopher Reeve had been, and he hadn’t quite matured into the take-charge Daily Planet reporter we’d seen back in the halcyon days of George Reeves. The charismatic vacuum in this romantic melodrama was filled by Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane, which left Cain’s subdued hero to float infrequently (and rather unconvincingly) over a Metropolis skyline, a passive guardian who seemed to only jump out of his billowing business suits to momentarily thwart whatever dweeby villain the series happened to toss his way that week.

Still, the earnestness was there. And as we collectively made our way into the uncertainty of the 21st century, earnestness was about all the onscreen Superman had left. Smallville, ostensibly a Superboy show without the costume or the ability to fly, popped up with the same syrupy, soft-focused energy as other WB teen heartthrob shows like Dawson’s Creek. It would later lean into its wilder comic book elements (even bringing in cosmic-level supervillains Darkseid and Brainiac, though the show had to get creative in their presentations), but, really, what was the point? Tom Welling’s be-flanneled Clark Kent might have had the attributes of his comic forebear, but the show that featured him seemed vastly more interested in drama than superheroism.

Ten years later, Welling was finally allowed to fly, the only caveat being he had to take the entire show with him. The future of Superman on TV was up in the air. Naturally, this looked like a job for The CW. For an example of the uplifting potential in this latest televised incarnation of Superman, Superman & Lois, look no further than the opening sequence of its pilot: Tyler Hoechlin’s Man of Steel rescues a kid, returns a baseball cap to him. The kid graciously receives his cap and, in the spirit of the moment, offers a compliment to his rescuer in kind: “Cool costume!” Hoechlin, seen here strutting through the scene in a vividly colored Super-suit from way, way back in the Max Fleischer days (trunks and all!), smiles, and responds: “Thanks! My mom made it for me.”

My mom made it for me. More than being an appropriately goofy line lifted from the comics, it’s a lovely sequence that elicits warm, fuzzy feelings for a superhero who’s been put through the pop culture wringer. Superman & Lois still has its work cut out for it. As compassionate as Superman is to the people he rescues, as well as being one heck of a dad to his twin sons Jonathan and Jordan, the series has so far focused on examining real-world problems (a decimated Smallville economy and teen depression, among others), a creative decision that will clearly cast a darker shadow over this latest Superman series than we’ve seen in all his other TV incarnations combined. But, if we hold on to a bit of hope, this version could end up being the Superman we’ve needed: someone who might be burdened by fear and doubt, but doesn’t let those things deter him from pursuing his never-ending battle to ensure that good always triumphs over evil.