It’s sometimes hard to know what to think whenever American television or movies bring in storytelling elements related to Native America and Native American characters. More often than not, Native American culture isn’t really there to be explored as much as to be used a facilitator of sorts with which to insert white main characters and their own dramas.
Hollywood has frequently shown itself to have a vested interest in incorporating Native Americans into their works, but only if it can sometimes indulge in a bit of ‘White Saviour Complex’ or, even worse, showing the impact of those characters on the white person, with little regard to Native American characters themselves.
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It’s interesting that Smallville has now fallen somewhat into that trap, given its similarities to The X-Files at various points in the early stage of its run because the adventures of Mulder and Scully did the exact same thing. That show’s epic three-parter at the end of season two and into the beginning of season three dealt with Native American belief as it pertained to Chris Carter’s growing alien mythology storyline in that show, and now Smallville has thrown its own version of that theme into the mix when it comes to Clark exploring his origins.
The point in the show where the Kawatche Caves are introduced to the narrative, with the walls painted with clues to Clark’s future, is in itself a neat idea. Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson’s teleplay is not without enjoyment; the explosive opening is truly spectacular, proving that nobody does explosions on television like Smallville does, although it’s hard to shake the feeling that there are maybe three things too many blowing up on that construction site.
The impact that discovering the cave has on Clark and the rest of the characters does make for many great scenes, showing that Souders and Peterson have a great knack for writing these characters. We get the now requisite scene of future hero and villain talking about their destinies, and now the show has thrown in a prophecy of sorts hinting at what is to come it indicates how much Smallville isn’t afraid to lay on the foreshadowing thickly.
In any other series it would be a chancy thing that could potentially hurt it, but Smallville has always had a knack for turning what could be its most unsubtle piece of storytelling into one of its best gifts. One of Smallville’s potential problems is that it’s functioning as a prequel to one of the most famous pieces of pop culture; we know that Clark and Lex will become enemies and we know that Lana Lang is not going to be the one that Clark will be settling down with when he is older, and yet the inclusion of the Kawatche Caves is a neat idea with which to explore those ideas as the characters grapple with learning they have a larger destiny awaiting them.
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However, the inclusion of a shapeshifting theme and characters like Kyla (Tamara Feldman) and her grandfather Joseph (Gordon Tootoosis) does fall sometimes into cliche. Kyla herself has the potential to be an interesting character, and the series has always had fun with playing around with the Clark/Lana dynamic, especially when jealousies are involved, but they never really feel like three-dimensional characters in their own right, instead coming across as mere cyphers with which to push Clark’s journey.
Yes, this is Smallville and it is a Clark Kent/Lex Luthor origin story, and tropes like this were very much part and parcel of so much pop culture of the time, but it’s always a little disappointing to see it happen, not least when Kyla is frequently dressed as if she’s going to a Lara Croft cosplay convention – as if we needed any more reminding that the series was made in the early 2000s.