Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thoughts on Smallville, Continued

So the last post was a bit rough on Smallville, so let's balance that out a bit. I've been watching the old episodes of the show online as they're posted. Three new ones a week. One of this week's was called Faded, about a guy who can turn invisible and uses his power to kill people.

That's not the interesting part. What I liked about the episode is that it begins with Clark saving this guy's life. Clark sees him about to get hit by a car and pushes him out of the way. The guy, Graham, spends the next twenty minutes trying to repay Clark for saving his life. Then Clark finds out he's a killer. In the end, the killer is killed.

But Clark takes a moment to think about things. If he'd never saved Graham, then the next person he killed would still be alive. Should he have saved Graham?

The show, in the words of Chloe Sullivan, says yes: "Save first, ask questions later." Clark seems to accept this, though he doesn't really comment on it. It's all too short an exchange. And it puts the moral decision in Chloe's philosophy, not Clark's. That's not a huge problem, since we're the moral creatures we are because of other people's advice as well as our own contemplation. It's part of the show's characterization of Superman that virtually everything we know and love about the character originates elsewhere in his teens and early twenties. More than any version I've seen, Smallville makes Superman an accumulation of moral influences, rather than a philosopher in his own right.

Ah, but I'm veering toward harsh criticism again. Let's backtrack and veer in another direction.

This episode, more than any other of the show, made me think. The truly great Superman stories are all about what Superman would do in certain situations. Not just, what would Superman do if a monster attacked or a volcano erupted or Luthor hatched a real estate scheme. But what would Superman do if he found out that he was dying (All Star)? What would Superman do if he were forced to kill someone to save the world (Whatevert Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?)? What would Superman do if a group of anti-heroes killed villains, but were embraced by the public (What's so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?)?

This episode, for a minute at the end, poses the question, What would Superman do if he found out he saved a murderer? It's a good question, one I haven't seen in the comics (though I haven't read 75% of them--do you have any idea how many Superman comics exist?). We see how Smallville answers it: Save first, ask questions later. How would the comics answer it?

I suspect that the golden age wouldn't pose the question. But what about the Weisinger era? I suspect that it would have come up in a different way: Superman saves a guy, finds out he's a killer after the guy kills again for whatever reason, but then by some strange and magical circumstance (Mxyzptlk?) is thrown back in time to see if he'd still save the guy. Superman wouldn't question himself--he'd save the guy, but this time he'd find a way to stop the guy before he kills again and put him in jail. Mxyzptlk would get angry that he really caused no trouble, but Superman would have a speech about how you save everybody (similar to Smallville, but in the mouth of the protagonist). Then he'd trick Mxyzptlk back to the 5th dimension and call it a day. All in all, a nice eight pager.

Using Mxyzptlk is probably too easy, but hey, I'm not a Superman writer.

It doesn't quite feel like a siver age story to me. Would it come later, in the 70's? The theme feels right, but I can't see the story happening that way. I think it would have a lot of conversation between Superman and the killer. It's certainly not an 80's story, or a 90's. Right now, it might work, except that Superman is so embroiled editorially determined fiat that it wouldn't work. Then again, by all accounts Mort Weisinger was the fiattiest of all editors. So what do I kow about it?

So that's my thought on Superman for today.

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