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The CW’s Superman & Lois finds a new way to solve The Superman Problem

It takes up a familiar question: Are Superman stories boring?

Tyler Hoechlin in his Superman costume stands in front of a group of hazmat-suited workers at night in Superman & Lois Photo: The CW Network

In the opening minutes of the new CW series Superman & Lois, Superman (Tyler Hoechlin) narrates the story of his life so far. As a baby, he was sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El. He was raised in Smallville, Kansas by kind-hearted farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, who helped him understand how best to use his super-powers. He became a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper in Metropolis, where he fell in love with superstar journalist Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch). They got married and had twin sons: the athletic Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) and the socially awkward Jordan (Alexander Garfin).

This recap is fast-paced, filled with moments meant to remind longtime Superman fans why they love the Man of Steel, from a visual reference to the first Action Comics cover to a callback to Christopher Reeves’ bumbling Clark Kent in the first Superman movie. It’s a mini-salute to all the artists, writers, editors, actors, directors and producers who helped shape the mythology of one of the most famous superheroes.

But after the backstory and a short scene of Superman saving a nuclear power facility, under the guidance of Lois’s high-ranking military officer dad, General Samuel Lane (Dylan Walsh), the tone changes. The hero comes home to find one of his sons too busy video-chatting to talk to him, while the other is playing a violent video game where he plays a supervillain, clobbering Superman. When asked why, the teen shrugs and says, “Superman’s boring.”

Superman’s jock son Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) watches his shyer son Jordan (Alexander Garfin) play a video game in a dark room in Superman & Lois Photo: Dean Katie Yu / The CW Network

Is Superman boring? There was a time when that question would’ve been preposterous. In the middle of the 20th century, Superman comics were so popular that publishers pumped out new superheroes by the hundreds, in an attempt to compete. In the ’70s, the first Superman film proved the superhero genre could work on the big screen without coming off as too campy. The character is still splashed across children’s pillowcases and pajamas.

But in the recent DC Universe movies, Superman has felt like a second-stringer to the likes of Batman and Wonder Woman — and heck, even Aquaman. On the CW’s DC Comics-derived superhero programming blocks (a.k.a. the “Arrowverse”), Superman is getting the star treatment long after Green Arrow, the Flash, Supergirl, Black Lightning, Batwoman, Stargirl, and the team of minor-league heroes on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.

And even this Superman show doesn’t necessarily feel like “a Superman show,” inspired by comic book action and craziness. Based on the two episodes the CW sent to critics ahead of Tuesday night’s extended-length Superman & Lois premiere, the Arrowverse writing-producing team of Greg Berlanti and Todd Helbing seem hesitant to tell full-on Superman stories, with the grand sweep, big ideas, and sense of play as the classic comics. Their Superman has been tamped-down and compressed into the overall mission of the Arrowverse: to tell stories relevant to what’s going on in the real world.

In Superman & Lois, that means adjusting the narrative focus. There are still supervillains on this show, and dynamic, special-effects-heavy fight scenes. But through the first two episodes, the overall vibe is less Action Comics and more This Is Us.

The story begins with trouble in the Kent/Lois household. The twins bicker because they’re so different: Handsome, rugged Jonathan is the football team’s star quarterback; shaggy-haired Jordan struggles with depression. Lois, meanwhile, has become increasingly dissatisfied with the culture at the Daily Planet, where veteran reporters have been getting laid off while the paper’s new billionaire owner, Morgan Edge, pushes for more soft news and clickbait.

Clark Kent’s teenage sons Jordan (Alexander Garfin) and Jonathan (Jordan Elsass) stand with their mother Lois (Bitsie Tulloch) and gape at something offscreen in the CW show Superman & Lois Photo: Dean Buscher / The CW Network

The family faces one of its biggest crises — and possibly one of its biggest opportunities — when a tragedy draws Clark back to Smallville, where he contemplates a return to simple small-town living. In 2021, though, nothing is simple about small towns. The farming community is dying, and sees a potential savior in Edge, who has been buying up land for reasons unknown — though Lois suspects foul play.

All these problems are complicated by Clark’s larger mission, which has him getting called away by General Lane to deal with a mysterious masked super-being, determined to draw Superman into a fight to the death. These battles keep him away from home at the worst possible time in the lives of the boys, one or both of whom may be developing super-powers… something incredibly hard to keep quiet in Smallville, where everyone is scrutinizing the new arrivals.

Hoechlin and Tulloch have played Superman and Lois before in the Arrowverse, and both have a strong handle on their characters. Hoechlin plays Clark and Superman as conscientious and a little nerdy. He’s an alien with many interests, ultimately bound by a sense of obligation to his loved ones. Tulloch’s version of Lane comes off as the smartest person in any room, but she still tries (and sometimes fails) to be sensitive to anyone who doesn’t share her values.

Berlanti and Hebling’s creative team also has a clear understanding of Superman lore. The twins’ names matter, with Jonathan named for Clark Kent’s Earth father (reflecting Superman’s wholesome side) while Jordan is named for Jor-el (reflecting an alien’s feeling of… well, alienation). The show is peppered with jokey asides about Superman’s stranger powers (like super-smell); and it includes characters like Morgan Edge and Lana Lang, who may be familiar to comics fans.

But the overall look and feel of Superman & Lois might also be familiar to fans of Dawson’s Creek and The O.C. The Kent boys adjust to Smallville either by hanging out with the local teens at a rock quarry or by staring moodily across the seemingly endless Kansas flatlands. It’s long been a part of the Superman schtick that Lois flirtatiously (or sometimes derisively) calls Clark “Smallville.” Superman & Lois explores more of his connection to where he grew up, by showing what it’s like to come of age in a place so wide open that everyone can see you.

Superman & Lois isn’t the first TV series to attempt to humanize Superman. Smallville aired on the CW (and its precursor, the WB) from 2001-11, producing 10 seasons and more than 200 episodes of stories that generally minimized super-heroics in favor of dramatizing the emotions and relationships of a small-town youngster hiding a big secret. Before that, the late-’80s/early-’90s syndicated action-adventure Superboy featured multiple approaches to Clark Kent’s early life, including depicting him as a college journalism student, then later sending him to work for an X-Files-like paranormal investigation agency. In the mid-’90s, Lois & Clark aimed to be a workplace dramedy, sprinkled with fantastical interludes and swooning romance.

All these shows — and now Superman & Lois — have tried to work around what could be called “the Superman problem.” When a hero is essentially all-powerful, vulnerable only to a rare radioactive rock (and occasionally to magic), how do you introduce the kind of narrative obstacles necessary for a good story? The answer: Focus on what he can’t control, like the well-being of his friends and family.

The CW has also been down this road before, first with Smallville (whose producers famously promised “no tights, no flights”) and then with Arrow, which in its earliest episodes avoided the usual superhero trappings of costumes and super-powers. The network’s wariness toward “the comic book stuff” started to fall away when The Flash became a hit, at which point even Arrow started getting more comfortable with the extra-normal. The shows that have followed — including, most pertinently, Supergirl — have gone bigger and bigger with comics-inspired plot-lines and imagery.

Tyler Hoechlin as Clark Kent holds a truck up over his head in Superman & Lois Photo: Dean Buscher / The CW Network

Still, the balance of the storytelling in any given Arrowverse series focuses as much, if not more, on relationships and personal problems as it does on saving the world from scary monsters and super-creeps. A lot of these shows tend to start out bright and entertaining, then become increasingly dour, as the heroes and their friends wallow in their woes.

Superman & Lois actually starts in a fairly dark place, with subplots about economic anxiety and clinical depression. The first two episodes show a lot of promise — if only because Hoechlin and Tulloch are so good, and the Smallville setting is so picturesque. But the parts of the story about Superman handling a dangerous global threat so far aren’t as artfully crafted as the parts about his sons’ growing pains. The superhero scenes feel like an afterthought — and yes, in those sequences, Superman is kind of boring.

There’s a rich vein of imaginative and thrilling Superman and Lois comics that Superman & Lois could tap — and maybe still will. There’s no reason why a Superman show can’t be fun and cool, while still working in the social relevance and teen-friendly melodrama that anchors the Arrowverse.

One of the big dilemmas in the first episode is whether Clark should open up to the boys about his secret life as a superhero. Here’s hoping the show’s writers had a similar conversation while working on this first season. In the episodes still to come, it’d be great to see that the people making Superman & Lois know that one of their main characters is Superman.

Superman & Lois premieres on The CW with a two-hour pilot on Feb. 23rd at 8PM Eastern. The premiere will be available free online on Feb. 24th on the CWTV site.