Friday, May 20, 2011
CGI Bomb Buzzes Metropolis: My Thoughts on the Smallville Finale
After ten years, two wars, the Bush regime, the popularisation of mp3 players and smartphones, the beginning of the economic downturn and about fifteen superhero movies, Smallville has finally come to an end.
Some months ago, I wrote an overall retrospective of the series' whole. I stand by what I said in that retrospective. The series overall was an interesting experiment in blending together a traditional teen drama and the origins of the Man of Steel. This experiment was doomed to fail as soon as the series was picked up for a sixth season, however, as it began unneccessarily prolonging Clark's youth and dragging all kinds of other elements of the mythos way too early into the proceedings. The show should have ended after five years and yet here I am five years later.
But nevermind that, the finale we've waited a decade for, has finally arrived.
Let me give you a bit of context. I've always, always, always been most excited for this finale. For me, Smallville never needed to go on for as long as possible. I used to sit around when I was twelve, imagining how it would finally end, with Clark becoming Superman. And while the ending we've been given isn't a hundred million miles away from how I imagined it, it's certainly very different. In saying that, I often suspected back then, that given the very real, unexciting palate the series had (mostly back in its earlier years) that the producers would chicken out from showing the full Superman costume in the finale and that we'd only see some computer-generated glimpses of Tom Welling wearing the suit, in keeping with the conservative visual style of the series (this style was very much scrapped in the later years though, when costumed superheroes started showing up with costumes that were 100% accurate to their comics' counterparts).
I used to suspect that perhaps the writers would shoe in some sort of plot-driven amnesia for Lex Luthor, so that he'd never forget any knowledge of Clark in Smallville (thus preventing him from using this to his advantage when Clark ultimately became Superman). I even used to think that if the show went on too long, the producers might just say "to heck with it" and give Clark another, less theatrical super-identity.
Unfortunately, all of the gimmicky stuff I suspected as a 12-year old ended up coming true within the chronology of the series.
In the eighth season, Clark became 'The Red/Blue Blur', a sort of proto-Superman who moved around in the shadows, but whose existence was more or less known to the public, and whose exploits were reported on by the Daily Planet. This allowed the writers to do the classic secret identity stories, without having to skip ahead to the 'Superman' years. Clark even had awkwardly 'trendy' costumes in the final two seasons, including a knock-off Neo costume (which, admittedly, actually made a modicum of sense, given that he was going for a stealthier approach) and the infamous 'Thriller jacket' (which made no sense, whatsoever). This made it even more frustrating that so many other DC characters were showing up with appearances faithful to the source material.
And in the finale, Lex did indeed lose all of his memory and Superman was only seen in CGI form.
For the other 50 or so minutes the series finale was on, there was some butchering of Darkseid and Jack Kirby's Fourth World characters, castrating them to the point where they were merely shabby knockoffs of the black-smoke demons from Supernatural (a far, far better CW series), right down to the human characters' blackened eyes, signifying that they were posessed by demonic forces. Honestly, this stuff didn't bother me that much. This finale was about Clark becoming Superman. Whatever villainous McGuffin was required in order for him to do that was always going to be trivial and forgettable. It's just a shame that a bunch of great Jack Kirby characters had to be raped in the process.
Then there's the matter of Lois & Clark getting married, or not getting married as the case came to be. For the first forty minutes or so of the finale, the entire focus is on the angst and melancholy of Clark and Lois wondering if they should go ahead with the wedding, given Clark's importance to the world, etc, etc, stuff that's been done a million times before and better, etc. The wedding scene was done fairly well, but again, it took too much attention away from the real reason I was even watching. And as happens so often in Smallville, the whole thing turned out to be a cocktease, with the wedding being interrupted and ruined and rendered inert until the end of the episode (spoiler warning: they end up getting married years later, in some pathetic attempt to keep with the comics).
The finale also saw the return of Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor and to be fair, he did a terrific job. His performance is one of the most developed of the entire series as he is now absolutely believable a version of the classic villain.
Unfortunately, the series' biggest storytelling folly comes in the aforementioned amnesia. I just can't believe the writers did this. I know why they did it; yet another desperate attempt to impossibly align the events of the show with the status quo of Superman, where most members of the supporting cast have little or no history of friendship with Clark Kent and certainly none of them (bar Lois) know he's secretly Superman. By the end of the seventh season of Smallville, Lex was not only extremely familiar with Clark Kent's heroism, but he had discovered that he was also not of this Earth.
Instead of trying to accomodate this knowledge by making this an exciting new version of the mythos, the writers copped out and ended up deleting seven years worth of character development. Not only this, but they erased Lex's mind. He wouldn't know how to hold together his bowels, let alone remember that Superman has a bunch of family members that Lex can kidnap and use to control his enemy. The fact that the writers went this route is a disgrace to the character, to past writers and to Rosenbaum's performance throughout the years. None of that means anything now.
But that's not even the worst part.
So, towards the end of the episode, Clark learns from the ghost of both of his fathers (don't ask) that he has completed 'his journey' and he is given the Superman costume. What happens next broke the heart of the 12-year old me.
Instead of donning the Superman suit and triumphantly flying towards the camera, up into the sky; Clark holds the costume and while he flies into the air for (sort of) the first time, the camera pans around one of the blurry crystals of the Fortress of Solitude, so that we can just barely see Clark awkwardly CGI the suit onto his body.
A small, humanoid blip buzzing into the sky suggests that Clark Kent is now Superman. After ten years, we get a small humanoid blip of CGI.
SMALL HUMANOID BLIP MY BALLS.
For the rest of the episode, we see mediocre CGI shots of Superman from a distance as he does various things, all admittedly bigger and grander than anything we've seen Clark Kent do during the course of the series. I wouldn't mind the average-quality CGI (it is TV after all), if we'd gotten at least one decent 'real' shot of Tom Welling in full Superman regalia. Instead of this, we simply get a bunch of closeups of the actor's head with his computerised cape flimsily flapping in the background.
I'm no filmmaking expert, but that seems like a very poor way to convey what is essentially, the birth of the greatest superhero in the world.
While watching the episode, I suspected that the lack of a suited Tom Welling was down to the actor's refusal to wear the costume. He's been well publicised throughout this long decade as saying he has no interest in playing Superman in costume and is only interested in the show as long as it's about Clark Kent's youth. Nevertheless, the changes in the imagery and level of fantasy in the show, specifically when costumed heroes began to appear in the series, suggested that we probably would see him in the suit.
Other theories suggest that the suit that appears in the Fortress throughout this season (which was a prop suit previously used in the Superman Returns movie) simply wouldn't fit Tom Welling, as it was designed for Superman Returns star Brandon Routh. Would it have been that hard to adjust it or make duplicates of the parts that didn't fit? I really can't buy this as an excuse. It would cost $100 max, to make a really good Superman suit that would look good for ten minutes of CGI-enhanced television. People would forgive you if it didn't look like a $100,000 Kryptonian suit of armor (which it was never supposed to be, anyway). Nevertheless, this kind of shameless laziness could be an actual reason.
One last, likely theory is that Warner Bros. don't want an iconic image of another actor as Superman, in the run-up to the marketing for their new Superman movie, starring Henry Cavill (seen above in a Photoshopped image, in case you're an idiot). I'll accept this, but it's still a fucking tragedy that this major cornerstone in the character's history had to be watered down because they were a little bit afraid of overlap. Would people really be turned off the new Superman just because they like the old one so much?
Anyway, at the close of the episode, the action skips forward seven years to the year 2018, where we finally get a good look at the familiar status quo. We see Jimmy Olsen (the real one, this time), we at least hear Perry White shouting out some dated catchphrase, we see Lois and Clark having familiar post-modern banter as a romantic couple and we see Clark remove his glasses (which, thankfully, he actually wears now) and perform a classic Superman-style shirt-rip, giving us the only truly iconic image we're likely to get of Tom Welling as anything close to Superman, while the familiar John Williams' Superman movie theme booms in the background.
I will say that in spite of my angry rantings about this episode, I did enjoy myself watching a lot of it. Even though it was a crying shame that they copped out on really showing us Superman, the wide-shots of him were nice to see (and the animation was pretty good, even if the CGI wasn't that convincing) and it was still cool to see him do all of the super-feats he did, like saving Air Force One (which he did in the first movie, in case you didn't know) and PUSHING AWAY A FUCKING HELL-PLANET CALLED 'APOKOLIPS' ON A COLLISION COURSE WITH EARTH.
Yes, that last feat was incredibly stupid, and an insult to the storytelling potential of Jack Kirby's Fourth World, but you can't deny the inherit coolness of Superman stopping an entire planet from colliding with and destroying Earth. Truly, a job for Superman.
And that's it. After ten years, we get an amnesia memory wipe and a bunch of TV-quality computer generated imagery. Honestly, it's maddening that it all ended this way, but really it's indicative of the crazy story decisions made throughout the history of the show. A story that made sense probably wouldn't have represented the kind of facepalmage the series initiated, over the course of ten years. I am really disappointed that the finale was so hit and miss, but then, the show was as well. But, in saying that, I can't really say that I didn't enjoy myself watching it. It may have been blood-boilingly stupid at times, but at other times, it was undoubtedly Superman. As much as I'd like to be a cynical perfectionist, demanding that every cheap TV show be as good as Christopher Nolan's epic cinematic ventures...I was pretty much cheering when I saw Clark finally rip his shirt open revealing the S. As wrong as everything else in the episode tended to be, that five seconds satisfied the twelve year old in me. But I'll always wish we'd seen something closer to the image below.
Over to you, Zack Snyder.