Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
At some point, years after Superman made his 1938 debut, the writers of the myriad comic books devoted to the character realized that the hero’s relationships with the people around him, notably Lois Lane, were what made the character work. Likewise, writers of later comics and movies recognized that Superman’s relationship to his humble, rural upbringing were what molded his heroic virtues.
Superman, born to the cold and antiseptic world of Krypton, grew up on Earth with the powers of a god. What kept him from fulfilling the frightening potential built into such a powerful position — other than in a few “alternate universe” stories — was the grounding he received growing up in the town of Smallville, Kansas.
Now in its third season, the TV series “Superman and Lois” gets both aspects of the character right. As high as Superman can fly, his relationships with Lois Lane and the town where he grew up are what keep him grounded — in a good way.
Granted, a previous series, “Smallville,” which ran from 2001 to 2011, focused on the small-town adolescence of Clark Kent and Superman. But “Superman and Lois” is the first such telling of the character as an adult, at the height of his powers and already a global hero; in this case, he makes the decision that living, as Clark Kent, in the small town where he grew up is the right thing to do — initially for his teenage sons, but also for Superman and Lois too.
“Superman and Lois” is probably not the best version of the hero ever brought to the screen — that honor might still belong to director Richard Donner’s 1978 film, starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder — but it is, in some ways, the version that is consistently truest to the story and character of the hero.
A Super Small-Town Life
Superman, his supporting cast of characters, and the places he calls home, Metropolis and Smallville, are well-known in pop culture history. Several of the movies, starring Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill, among others, have scenes set in Smallville and emphasize what a formative thing it was for Clark to grow up in the small town.
In the comics, Superman’s early years in Smallville weren’t explored until more than a decade after his debut. Smallville wasn’t even cited by name until the late 1940s. As the Superman comics grew hugely popular, DC Comics wanted to capitalize on that popularity and created Superboy, a spin-off character who split his time between Smallville and the 31st Century, where he was a member of the Legion of Superheroes. The Superboy comics set the tone for all Smallville portrayals to come, with a mix of small-town problems and super-hijinks.
Luckily, the comics haven’t forgotten Smallville. In 2019, the creative team of Franco Aureliani and Art Baltazar produced “Superman of Smallville.” The graphic novel for readers ages 7 and up finds a 13-year-old Clark, clad in cape, jeans and sneakers, dealing with a small-town mystery, all the while trying to protect his secret identity.
In the real-life small southern Illinois town of Metropolis, the community’s leaders do everything they can to capitalize on the town’s name and the lore of Superman. In 1972, the Illinois Legislature designated Metropolis as “Superman’s Hometown.”
Metropolis — which even has a newspaper called The Planet — would probably be better named Smallville. There are a few restaurants and banks and coffee shops and it looks like the setting for some cheerful Hallmark movie — in other words, a bit like Superman’s hometown.
In the town square, a towering 15-foot painted bronze statue of Superman, in his classic, heroic pose, stands watch over the town. Across the square, the Super Museum boasts “the world’s largest collection of Superman,” and that claim is likely true. The museum is stuffed with 70,000 items, including costumes and props from virtually every movie and TV portrayal of the Man of Steel, as well as a huge variety of memorabilia related to the comic book incarnation of the character.
Each year, usually in June, the town puts on a Superman Celebration and features guests, including actors from some of the movies and TV series. The 2023 celebration, which takes place this coming weekend (June 9 to 11), has advertised an appearance by “Superman and Lois” star Tyler Hoechlin.
When “Superman and Lois” started airing on the CW network in 2021, it seemed to be yet another spin-off in the network’s “Arrowverse,” which had begun in October 2012 with a Green Arrow series (titled simply “Arrow”) and continued with versions of the Flash, Supergirl and a legion of other DC Comics characters. Most of those shows have wound down and ended now, leaving the decision by the producers of “Superman and Lois” to let their series stand apart from that crowded universe look very smart.
Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch began playing Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane on those Arrowverse shows, but when they were spun off into their own series, a number of changes were made. Most notable was that Clark and Lois were married and well into their lives, not only with established careers but also twin teenage sons, Jon (played by Jordan Elsass, later Michael Bishop) and Jordan (Alex Garlin).
The other notable change, of course, was that Clark and Lois decided to leave Metropolis and move to Smallville, where the twins might better thrive in a smaller-school environment. The boys were not pleased but eventually made friends and settled into their new lives — just as one of them began to develop superpowers of his own.
Although Lois wouldn’t be “the world’s most famous reporter” at “The Daily Planet” anymore, she does begin working at the Smallville newspaper. And Clark sets out to concentrate on raising the boys — when he’s not flying to remote locations around the globe to respond to disasters both natural and man-made.
The series plays up the small-town drama, with Lois investigating a businessman who wants to take over the town and Clark reuniting with his childhood friend Lana Lang (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Another hero eventually enters the mix too: John Henry Irons, also known as the armored adventurer Steel (played by Wolé Parks).
Through it all, what “Superman and Lois” does best is lean into small-town family life: There’s the Kent farm, the diner downtown where everyone goes, high-school football games, backyard barbecues, and a mayoral campaign pitting Lana against the incumbent amid concerns about the town’s future.
Alas, unlike Metropolis, Illinois in our world, the Smallville of “Superman and Lois” can’t capitalize on its past as the place where Superman grew up: secret identity and all that. But anyone who’s ever lived in a small town knows it can be a difficult place to keep a secret for long. Especially a super one.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.