Superman & Lois and Man of Steel Are Surprisingly Alike, and That’s Great So Far

Superman & Lois and Man of Steel Are Surprisingly Alike, and That’s Great So Far
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a dramatically complex father figure whose alien nature pushes him away from his troubled son! (Image: Dean Buscher/The CW)

Adapting Superman is always a daunting task. He’s the ultimate beacon of hope, to some that perfection makes him either too simplistic to be interesting or in desperate need of a flaw. Superman & Lois, the CW’s latest foray into the DC universe, straddles a line between the two that feels quite unlike anything it’s done yet — but also feels in conversation with Superman’s adaptive past.

Superman & Lois’ pilot episode, at first, does not feel like it’s from the same CW that has given us The Flash, Black Lightning, Legends of Tomorrow, Batwoman, and Supergirl. It doesn’t really feel like the same CW that gave us the first season of Arrow nearly a decade ago, just while it was still trying to feel its way through what an adaptation of the DC Comics world should look like in the modern era.

The answer then was Batman, the answer it might give now is Crisis on Infinite Earths. Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch’s Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane both appeared in the CW’s mega-crossover-meets-hallucinatory-event over the course of late 2019 and early 2020, but their arrival and energy here feels very different.

The echoes are still there — Lois, as loving of her husband as she is angry at the power structures around her, Clark, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as a Superman who loves being a hero in spite of the world around him. An early indulgence as we flash through a quick rundown of Clark’s origins and his early life together with Lois include a tooth-shatteringly sweet callout to the iconic Action Comics #1 cover, only with Clark in a recreation of the suit seen in the classic Fleischer shorts rather than his Golden Age threads — threads he gleefully tells an onlooking child that his mother made for him as he soars back into the sky. And so it goes, you think, that you’re about to sit down for an hour of another new CW-DC TV show: it’s cute and it’s warm, and it likes knowing things about the comic books that you know about the comic books as well.

Image: Dean Buscher/The CW Image: Dean Buscher/The CW

But you’re not. The pilot’s hour-long runtime flies by without a single acknowledgment of Barry Allen, Kara Danvers, or the fact that the last time we saw Clark and Lois they were helping sow back an entire multiverse wiped out by a very desiccated LaMonica Garrett. What Superman & Lois quickly reveals itself to be is less in conversation with the CW shows that came before it but instead in conversation with Superman’s film past. And more specifically, his most recent past in Zack Snyder’s 2013 reboot, Man of Steel.

Before you raise your hackles too much in apprehension, Hoechlin’s Superman has not suddenly developed a taste for snapping necks or levelling Metropolis (although he does get quickly ejected from it, between a double hit of losing his job at the Daily Planet due to cutbacks and the sudden tragedy of the death of Martha Kent, the event that draws Lois and Clark back to the small-town life of Smallville). Instead, Superman & Lois is similar to its cinematic predecessor in that it is fascinated with what makes Clark, in particular, an alien, isolated being.

In both Hoechlin and Henry Cavill’s Clarks alike, there’s the underlying tension and fear these men feel that knowledge of their dual lives will put the people closest to them in mortal peril. But beyond that in Man of Steel, that alien disconnect is mostly presented to us through Cavill’s Superman as a weapon of mass destruction: his alienness is the curse of his raw power, that he and people like him are an inherent danger to the humans who fear even his protection, let alone his anger, just by his superhuman distance.

In Hoechlin’s Clark — who admittedly bears the dramatic brunt of the titular couple in this debut — this alienness is examined in his inability to really connect with the people closest to him, the push and pull of his squeaky-clean public persona contrasted with a man who just wants to do what’s right for his found families, as complicated and messy and challenging as those trials can be.

Image: Dean Buscher/The CW Image: Dean Buscher/The CW

This dilemma for Clark is mostly filtered through the fact that Superman & Lois also introduces us to a titular couple who are not just married, but have been married: they’ve started a family, raising two teen sons, Jonathan and Jordan Kent (Jordan Elsass and Alex Garfin, respectively), who have grown up without an inkling that their father is the world’s finest superhero. Jonathan, much like he is in the comics — albeit older here — is the child Clark and Lois dreamed of in their most idyllic fantasies: loving, but independent, gifted, but not necessarily arrogant about it, a promising young athlete whose skills on the football field may be the earliest indication that Clark’s powers can be inherited.

Jordan is…anything but. An anxious, stressed-out child who’s developed into a quietly angry, troubled teenager, he’s the sort of kid that, were he anyone else’s son, Superman could seemingly immediately lift the spirts of, with a smile and some earnestly honeyed words about persistence and perseverance. But the fact that Jordan is his son creates a disconnect between the two that only pushes them further and further apart, even as Clark tries to pull Jordan back closer to him, a bridge that not even a man able to leap tall buildings in a single bound can seemingly overcome.

When the Kent-Lanes are drawn back to Smallville due to the aforementioned untimely passing of Martha (Michele Scarabelli) leaving Clark an orphan for the second time, this tension between the boys and their parents — Jordan and his father in particular — sets the stage for much of Superman & Lois’ most fascinating and emotional dramatic conflicts.

The frayed edges around the ideal Lois and Clark romanticised for their lives together form deep splits. For the parents, this comes in a harsh rebuttal from old friends they’d left behind in heading to Metropolis, a reminder that towns like Smallville exist under the intoxicating shadow of the cities that drain their livelihoods and most brightest natives. For the kids, there’s the swirling teen frustrations of young boys about to enter high school, suddenly stuck in some podunk town that to them was a boring prison they were sent to for summers because Grandma happened to be there — combined with the powder keg of Jordan’s struggles with his mental health and his rapidly decaying relationship with his family, his dad in particular.

Image: Dean Buscher/The CW Image: Dean Buscher/The CW

This powder keg inevitably and quickly sets alight, when after discoveries accidental and intentional by the brothers lead them to raise questions about there being something off about themselves and that their father is hiding something from them beneath the Kent family farm. Clark is forced to reveal that he is Superman to his sons — but Superman & Lois’ focus on the familial bonds at its core don’t turn this revelation into merely just the tried and tested “I kept this from you to keep you safe” the way most superheroic identity reveals do.

Instead, Clark’s secret plays out to Jordan in particular as a damning indicator of all the doubts and struggles he’s felt as a depressive young man: his problems are because he’s some alien-human freak, that his perfect brother might be perfect and more beloved by his parents because his alienness turned out to be superpowers rather than mental traumas. The all-out screaming match between father and sons breaks Clark more than anything could when wearing his supersuit; without parental figures of his own to turn to, he’s humbled by the self-doubt of whether or not he could ever be the father Jonathan Kent was to him.

The stress is likewise too much for Jordan, leading to some classic teenage rebellion. Skipping his family’s drama for a party he was invited to by the one girl he knows in town, Lana Lang’s daughter Sarah (Inde Navarrette), the young man’s swirling emotions and teenage awkwardness quickly create a dangerous situation that reveals the real twist of the Kent-Lane family’s dynamic.

Unlike Lois and Clark had anticipated, it’s Jordan who has inherited Clark’s abilities, unleashing a blast of heatvision when a fight over Sarah lands both him and Jonathan in a fistfight they can’t win. It’s a powerful moment, made more powerful by it galvanising the first steps of Clark and Jordan’s reconciliation, as the former recogonizes — with his wife’s help — that doubt and anxiety is not the curse of godhood that Man of Steel presented to its Clark in his alien nature, but something that makes this Clark and his sons alike more human than they could ever believe.

Image: Dean Buscher/The CW Image: Dean Buscher/The CW

Superman & Lois’s debut hour shines brightest when its focus is on this particular drama for Clark and Lois and their sons, the tempering of their seemingly perfect superhumanity with their imperfect, complexly human lives. But beneath them, the seeds are sown for longer threads to come this season that might threaten to pull away from this introspective conversation and back into what be, perhaps disappointingly so, more in line with the CW-DC shows we’ve gotten so far.

In the background of their tumultuous relationship with their sons and the fallout of Martha Kent’s death, Lois and Clark are given duelling “foes” to brush up against. On Lois’ side of things, it’s classic journalism: the sniff of a conspiracy that ties the venture capitalist plundering of the Daily Planet into mysterious financial crisis manipulations in the farming economy of Smallville, with all signs pointing the DC Universe’s finest investigative reporter firmly at Morgan Edge (played by Adrian Pasdar in Supergirl, and by Adam Rayner here), a minor comics character who’s been everything from a TV mogul to the secret leader of the Apokaliptan-linked organised crime ring Intergang.

Clark, meanwhile, is challenged by a supersuited masked villain who’s been prodding at nuclear power stations to draw Superman into a knock-out brawl in the climax of the pilot — a character only teased ahead of broadcast as “The Stranger” (played by Wolé Parks), revealed here as someone not of this Earth seeking revenge on Superman for apparently destroying his homeworld, with intimate knowledge of Kal-El’s true identity, the fall of Krypton, and Superman’s greatest weakness.

In true comics-adaption “it’s all connected” style, of course, the climax of the pilot reveals the masked villain, recuperating in his icebound base after stabbing Clark with a shard of Kryptonite, as none other than “Captain Luthor.” Suddenly the green powersuit (albeit a more subdued military green here, with non of Luthor’s trademark purple accents) and distaste for Kryptonians makes more sense, but like Intergang before it, it also feels like the yearning inevitability of Comic Book Things to Come on a show that shone brightest in the moments that weren’t necessarily about that.

Image: Dean Buscher/The CW Image: Dean Buscher/The CW

Whether Superman & Lois will successfully balance these two halves — one the CW’s past DC shows have always struggled to highlight beyond the melodramatic, even as they’ve excelled in embracing the other half, and the joyful lunacy that comic book superheroes can bring to the table — remains to be seen. But on one front at least, its pilot is a strong shot of promise that Superman & Lois is willing to treat its protagonists as just as fascinating and flawed outside of their comic book moments as they are in them.