Picking up immediately from the events of ‘Tempest‘, the teaser sequence to ‘Vortex’ is loud and impressive. If Smallville‘s ‘Pilot‘ was all about destruction brought about by fire, then season two opens up with destruction via wind. Of course, Smallville takes place in Kansas so it makes sense that some sort of CGI tornado would make its way on to the show, and while the visual effects look very off their time, they don’t look cheap either, with the series not sparing any expense in terms of scale.
The debut of Smallville and the proliferation of superheroes on our movie and television screens came about not long after 9/11. Smallville itself debuted in October of 2001, with its second season starting a few months after the record-breaking box-office success of Sam Rami’s Spider-Man. It was part of a fabric of comic book inspired media that was about to help us escape our fears and anxieties over the threat of terrorism and the forthcoming economic crash, and it was also part of a pop culture landscape that dealt with our fears over where the world was going.
Also airing in the era of Smallville was 24, and Jack Bauer’s one-man army against every terrorist threat in America (or at the very least Los Angeles), while a large chunk of the television watching audience in the US and the rest of the world was about to go mad for the heroic scientists that worked in various parts of Jerry Bruckheimer’s America in the CSI franchise.
Even so soon after 9/11, the image of so much destruction in ‘Vortex’ would have carried weight, even if it was in the context of a Superman-inspired television series, but the series was part of that cycle of playing on a national and international audience’s need for comfort and that everything might be okay, even if our morals were going to go through the motions and the storytelling was going to be inherently more complex.
It’s those type of complexities that made 24 such a potent hit and binge-able classic (even if its right-wing politics are a little uncomfortable, particularly when it comes to the subject of enhanced interrogations), and ‘Vortex’ indicates that Smallville isn’t going to shy away from asking difficult questions of its characters and the audience. The Superman story is one predicated on a love of nostalgia and pure heroism, but the backstory should be morally messier than the Norman Rockwell-style image of Martha and Jonathan Kent finding baby Clark on a Kansas field, and Smallville is running with that.
A large chunk of the episode is centred around the search of Jonathan and Roger Nixon (Tom O’Brien) following the events of the tornado, with both characters stuck underground with no escape. It could easily fall into the realm of two male figures trapped underground debating their differences, but the episode uses the dialogue to fuel more fire over Jonathan and Martha’s decision to keep Clark a secret.
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Nixon is a morally scuzzy character, of course, and only wants to reveal Clark’s identity for his own ends, most of it financial, but there is a dark joy to be had in the character asking of Jonathan why he has his son doing chores when he could be saving the world, not to mention the fact that so far the series’ portrayal of journalists have been of characters grossly compromised in terms of their morals, which lays down the groundwork for why Clark and Lois Lane are beacons of virtue in doing what they do. It does come down to choice, and Jonathan and Martha will have the higher moral ground in that their motivations were to purely protect Clark, but it’s wonderful that in 2002, a piece of Superman-related media was daring to ask these questions.
Many fans of Zack Snyder’s interpretation of the character point out that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice do thematically interesting things too, but they always have to turn into large-scale action films because of the nature of a modern-day big-budget comic book movie. For all the flak those movies get (and I have my issues with Man of Steel, although I do confess to having a soft spot for the extended version of Dawn of Justice), they do take an interesting track in terms of Kal-El’s portrayal, but it’s also clear to see why so many either take against that portrayal or are left pondering why it is nobody can do this character live-action justice in this superhero saturated era that we live in.
For all the talk of how hard it is to do a modern-day Superman, Smallville clearly managed that supposedly impossible feat of keeping the character himself but asking big questions of his story and the elements within them. It’s an approach that the series is seemingly grasping with both hands as it enters season two.