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“Superman & Lois” is familiar and new

I’m just going to get this out of the way, the pilot episode of the CW’s new take on The Man of Steel, “Superman & Lois,” is in a word, perfect. Not only is it the strongest “Arrowverse” or CW pilot probably ever, it’s a quintessential Superman taken in a whole new direction and ranks among the best live-action depictions of The Last Son of Krypton ever.

I’ve written a lot about Superman in the past, so here are links to past writings, some a little more rambling than others… but it was a blog:

Why We Look Up in the Sky…
What a Knightmare. My review of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”
The Man of Tomorrow: My vision for a Superman movie
What makes him Super?
Superman returns
Through the darkness… Hope: The fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way
Superman saves everyone, regardless of who they are
How DC Comics found its soul in Superman’s red trunks
Superman Smashes the Klan” review
“Superman: Man of Tomorrow” review

The team behind “Superman & Lois” have taken the idea that “Superman is hard to do” and said “no he’s not.” The thing that the crew behind “Superman & Lois” gets exactly right about The Man of Tomorrow that other recent takes haven’t – you don’t fundamentally change the character or his personality to offer a fresh angle, you change the world around him. That’s exactly what “Superman & Lois” does and does it resoundingly well. That’s what so many “evil Superman” or “relatable” Superman stories get wrong and why they have become so tired or only a handful really work well (Injustice). The thing about Superman is that audiences are not supposed to relate to Superman, we’re supposed to aspire to be him – he is the ideal to strive towards. They have proven, it’s not hard to do a great, modern Superman.

Let me just breakdown why this show works in more specific, critical ways.

First off, the opening scene is efficient and brilliant. There’s no other way to say it. It’s about five minutes of the best Superman movie ever made. Akin to the opening of Grant Morrision’s “All-Star Superman,” it tells us everything we need to know to establish this Superman and his world – much of it is the widely-recognized tale. It shows Lois and Clark’s first meeting and tells their story and the birth of the twins.

What that opening scene also does is something truly incredible. In about fifteen seconds, it gives viewers a flawless depiction of Superman. He stops a car from flattening a kid and then – with a smile on his face – he gives the kid his hat, calls him a “friend” and we get the “nice costume/thanks my mom made it for me” bit from “Superman: For All Seasons” (which is one of my favorite Superman stories). Not only that, but in this scene Superman is wearing the exact suit from the classic and beloved 1940s Fleischer cartoons (more on that in a moment).

The reason this scene is getting such high praise on social media is because it captures everything Superman is and represents. He’s familiar and that’s the Superman that’s stood the test of time no matter how many times they try to make him more “relatable.” He is a friend, he is here to help and he represents the good in all of us. People don’t fear him; people are amazed by him because of his warmth and abilities. That is part of why he endures.

I saw this tweet from Marc Swint and it perfectly describes what we see: “Superman isn’t Jesus. He isn’t sparing us his wrath. He’s a good, hard working orphan immigrant, raised by good folks, doing what’s right because he has the power to.” That’s it. That’s all it is.

As for that suit, I will just say it meant the world to me. My earliest childhood memories involve watching and re-enacting the Flesicher cartoons. They are my earliest exposure to Superman that I can remember and what established not only my affinity for him, but of comics and superheroes in general, so to see that suit in live-action was just really special.

That suit also serves another purpose, though. His present day suit is more or less the Rebirth suit from the comics. It looks great, but the evolution between the Flesicher suit and the modern suit (and throw in the Supergirl suit) show how much he has grown in that time. It’s subtle and effective, showing he’s also been through some stuff.

The thing about the scene with the car and kid also does something few live-action versions of Superman have ever done. It’s pure Superman. It doesn’t matter which version you like or prefer or whatever, THIS is Superman distilled and presented in his purest form, brilliantly capturing everything about him in less than 30 seconds. Part of it all is how HE presents himself as well. He doesn’t give people something to fear or hate. The “friend,” the smile, the tone… It’s just pure. He’s giving people a reason to look up.

I’ve been a huge fan of Tyler Hoechlin’s portrayal of Superman since he first appeared on “Supergirl” back in 2016. I thought he capture the essence of the character perfectly and brought a sense of hopefulness that had been sorely lacking in recent years. He was – as Christopher Reeve once stated – a friend. Hoechlin’s portrayal in those “Supergirl” episodes and Arrowverse crossovers gave us a definitive Superman that represented 80 years of the character at his best and why so many – myself included –wanted him in his own series.

One of the things that made Hoechlin’s portrayal so impressive – contrary to what I’ve seen a lot of critics say – is that Hoechlin is smaller in stature than other that have played Superman. However, what Hoechlin does better than anyone since Reeve is carry himself as Superman. Portraying The Last Son of Krypton isn’t all about looks, a lot of it has to do with presence and Hoechlin has that. Now in “Superman & Lois,” we not only get a continuation of that Superman, but one with added layers. He’s still established and has clearly been around for nearly twenty years, but now he’s a dad and decides to move back to Smallville and he’s dealing with all the things dads – especially with two very different sons – deal with. While Superman has been a dad in the comics lately (I’m still not sure aging Jonathan up was the right move), we’ve never seen it in live-action. Again, nothing fundamentally changes about Clark, he’s just given a new, fresh set of challenges and it works really, really well.

The other half of the pilot’s rousing success is Bitsie Tulloch. Her first appearance as Lois in the “Elseworlds” crossover made it more than obvious she was perfect. You could see multiple versions of Lois from Noel Neill to Margot Kidder to Teri Hatcher rolled into Tulloch’s performance while making it her own. Not only does “Superman & Lois” give The Man of Steel new territory to navigate, the same can be said for Lois. Tulloch may end up being one of the definitive portrayals of Lois Lane and I am very excited to see where this journey takes her.

I honestly wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the Kent twins – this is after all a CW show and teen angst comes with the territory. However, this felt different than other typical CW dramas. It does indeed have all of the DNA of a CW show, but the chemistry between the brothers is pretty great and they play off Hoechlin and Tulloch very well. I kind of saw the twist coming, but that’s not nearly as important as the relationship between the brothers – specifically Jordan – and Lana’s daughter Sarah.

Speaking of Lana Lang – and this is a mild spoiler – the most shocking thing to me about the entire show so far was that Lana doesn’t know Clark is Superman. This is really quite different and a bit unexpected and I’m very curious to see where that goes, especially with her husband – who not for nothing, but totally would have been at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

There are two other twists on the Superman mythos that work for me as well. The first is Superman’s strong relationship with Lois’ dad as he no doubt represents the push/pull between being Clark and being Superman especially as a father and you already see the tension it causes with Lois. The other twist that works is the bad guy. He’s “revealed” in the final scene, but I don’t think it’s HIM… per se… I think there’s some time-travel or multiverse-spanning in play… plenty of intrigue there, plus the looming corporate menace that is Morgan Edge.

There’s so much set up and it will do what so many Superman fans – and detractors – have wanted for so long and take him to new, undiscovered territory.

Okay, the elephant in the room. It’s no secret that I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Superman. I really like Henry Cavill in the role, but he hasn’t been given material worthy of his charm or of the character. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this right now and this is not an invitation for people to come at me on Twitter about how I don’t understand things or whatever. Been there, done that before it was cool. My feelings are well-documented – especially when it comes to “Batman v. Superman” – but in the wake of the excellent Zack Snyder profile in Vanity Fair, it’s warranted. “Man of Steel” is a mixed bag.

Let me be clear, however, that I really like Cavill in the role and I hope he gets another swing with a more traditional depiction of Superman.

The cast is excellent, Michael Shannon’s Zod is tremendous, the score is fantastic, the Krypton imagery, mythology and technology is very well-realized, but the depiction of both Superman and Clark is dour and dark. In many situations, he’s his own worst enemy and does indeed give people something to fear, which is counter-intuitive to the entire point of the character. It just doesn’t work and the big bombastic battle scenes of wanton destruction still don’t sit right for any Superman movie. I will, however, go as far as to say “Man of Steel” is a decent movie, just a not a good Superman movie.

Frankly, for me Cavill was never really Superman until the theatrical “Justice League,” and while I realize the explanation is always “oh, well he was getting there,” I just don’t buy it, sorry. Sure, he came into a world that might have feared and hated him, but as I mentioned, he gave people plenty of reasons to fear him and it shouldn’t take three movies to change that, especially in some bizarre amalgamation of “Death of Superman” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” Though I’m sure we’ll get some version of that story of “becoming Superman” in the Snyder Cut. And no, I’m not going to waste any more time on “Batman v. Superman.”

Essentially, I saw someone’s reaction to the Snyder profile explaining that Snyder was just the wrong choice for what WB wanted to do with the DC characters. He isn’t a “corporate blockbuster” director per se; he has a very specific style and tone that just didn’t match or adapt to what the boardroom wanted or needed. This isn’t a knock on Snyder at all, but the idea that Snyder and the corporate overlords who ultimately needed to rival Marvel didn’t mesh is a pretty good point.

And that’s where I’m going to leave that.

In the aftermath of the overwhelmingly positive response to “Superman & Lois” and its depiction of Superman, I wish I could say I’m surprised to see the more hardcore Snyder faithful on the defense and going after people who are praising the new show. Like, really? Are we still doing this? It’s natural for comparisons to be drawn, it’s cool if you like both version or one version more than me, for example, but don’t go out of your way to go after people for disagreeing or not liking one. I don’t need someone bizarrely devoted to a single director or film to tell me why I should like that version and only that version or how I’m not a “grown-up” for not liking a thing. I’ll simply respond in my best Jed Bartlett voice to “Just be wrong. Stand there there in your wrongness and be wrong.” I mean, I’m not trying to be mean, but if you think “Batman v. Superman” is a masterpiece, please watch more movies.

“Superman and Lois” succeeds because of a team on-screen and behind the scenes that truly understand the character. They have presented a well-established, true-to-form and familiar Superman portrayed brilliantly by Tyler Hoechlin, a perfect Lois in Bitsie Tulloch and presented a new direction without changing the core concepts or personalities of either one of them, just giving them new challenges and new places to take their timeless relationship.

At the end of the day, this is the Superman that myself and many lifelong fans have been waiting a very long time for. Most of all, he’s the Superman we’ve needed all along.

He’s a friend.