For ten years, I have faithfully watched Smallville on the CW network, a period of time culminating in the series finale this past Friday. In that time, the show has been baiting viewers who tag along waiting and weeping as they anticipate catching a glimpse of the hero they expect to see—which in this case would be Tom Welling as Superman. But the show has refused to satisfy the loyal viewers and one can only wonder if perhaps the show’s star and director Tom Welling hates the man of steel.
Smallville told the story of the young Clark Kent, the mild-mannered alter-ego of the premier superhero, Superman as he grows from a high school student dealing with the usual teen angst and social issues coupled with burgeoning superpowers into the hero destiny has chosen him to be. The first couple of seasons saw young Clark learn of his strength, his speed, his x-ray vision, his heat vision and other powers as he went about saving his friends and neighbors from whatever crisis befell the town.
When the show first aired, the creative team had a simple principle, tell the story about Clark; keep the focus on the boy, not the hero. To that end, they had a mantra: “No Flights, No Tights,” referring to the red and blue uniform with the big red S and cape and the one power that most defines Superman. If the show had stopped at high school, this philosophy would have sufficed. Yet, the show suffered from its own success and it continued beyond the high school years. Once the show hit season five and Clark and his friends were facing College, the writers found it increasingly difficult to keep Clark on the ground.
The writers began developing convoluted plots that had more intrigue than action and dealt with emotional issues and artificial suspense rather than action. Even as Clark began to realize his destiny, the writers could not let him become Superman, because once that happened, the story became about Superman and not Clark. So the invented “The Blur” as a mystery man that saved people in a flash so fast that no one saw his face. This kept Clark center stage in plot development, and allowed him to act the hero he was supposed to be. This was flawed however as it was an obvious ploy to keep the show on the air while preserving the NFNT mantra.
They even introduced Supergirl who could fly as Clark was still Earthbound. In fact, the last three seasons saw so many characters flying that it was hard to understand why Clark never did. The writers even brought in other DC comics heros such as Green Arrow, Aquaman and Hawkman among many others as well as well-known villains like Toyman, Granny Goodness, Captain Cold and others. In the DC canon, Superman was well established before he dealt with these characters.
One reason for the steadfastness to the NFNT mantra was Tom Welling himself. He took over as director on the show in the fourth or fifth season and refused to consider ever putting on the suit. When it was presented to Clark in the ninth season, the first glimpse of it the viewer gets is as a reflection in Clark’s eye. No one ever sees the suit in its entirety—ever, and Tom Welling NEVER put the suit on, even in the finale. Jonathon Kent hands Clark the suit after Clark gets Jor El’s blessing to be the hero he is destined to be and Clark grabs the suit in one hand, then does the Matrix-like takeoff effect to leave the fortress of solitude. This is supposed to be a monumental moment for Clark/Superman where he dons the suit, does his heroic stance with his hands on his hips as the camera pans around him before saying up, up and away as he flies to save the Earth from Apokolyps. Did he do that? No, he just jumped up with the suit in hand and the scene flips to a wide-angle shot of the fortress and a blue streak flying out of it so fast that no detail is discernable.
The closest scene we get to seeing Superman in action is when he saves Air Force One from crashing. Superman grabs the wing of the plane and helps get it back on course and provides enough lift until the plane can fly itself again. This is also done wide angle so that Superman is a small figure lacking any detail and you couldn’t tell if it was Tom Welling or not. Of course, it was all done with CGI. We do get a shot of Clark’s reflection in the window of the plane as he waves at Lois Lane, but the only thing to be seen is Clark’s face…you cannot see Clark’s face in the suit.
Even in the climactic scene where Superman is pushing Apokolyps away from Earth, there is no full-frame shot of Tom Welling as Clark Kent wearing the Superman suit. The camera shows Clark’s face looking out as the danger passes and then the camera pulls back and just as he turns where you can see the suit, it fades into a hand drawn comic book frame of Superman. The final scene of the episode is Clark running to the roof of the Daily Planet to save the day once again and he loosens his tie and rips open his shirt to reveal the red S and it is CGI’d on his body.
The big question is why. Why go to these herculean efforts to avoid the suit? The NFNT attitude worked while the show was ongoing, but this was the series finale. The last show. Ostensibly, the show ends because there is no more to tell about Clark Kent in Smallville (by the way, the past three seasons have been almost exclusively set in Metropolis) and that he is ready to assume his destiny as Superman. If that is the end of the show, if the point of the show was telling Clark’s growth from adolescence to hero, then the culminating moment should have been the reveal of Superman in his suit flying to save the day. It may be cliché, but it is expected and what was there was more of a nod and a wink than a reveal. It’s like the writers, directors and producers went out of their way to keep Tom out of the suit. The only reason I can think of is that Tom Welling hates Superman.