There’s something fascinating about the way pop culture reacts to the events of the world, depending on when it was made. Arguably the entire on-screen superhero genre of the 21st century has been in the shadow of the many dark events that have transpired on the geo-political sphere since the turn of the millennium.
Smallville itself debuted a few months after 9/11, and as it continued over the course of its ten season run, America found itself embroiled in bitter conflicts in the Middle East, specifically Afghanistan and Iraq; a result of how George W. Bush’s administration responded to the events of September 11th.
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Smallville isn’t a series that is about geopolitics. You can watch the series and enjoy its brand of WB/CW gloss-fuelled escapism, no questions asked. However, like so much of the superhero genre that was about to explode as the century continued, it’s hard not to see the response from the show and the writers to the events around them.
Even Smallville’s ‘Pilot‘ episode, which aired a few weeks after 9/11 itself, inadvertently found itself portraying footage of destruction on American soil (albeit filmed in Canada) that might have played too close to the bone and might otherwise have been erased completely if it had been anything else other than a prequel to the type of character that we sometimes wished existed in the real world.
It might seem like I’m getting ready to apply a deeper reading to ‘Visage’ that it otherwise doesn’t deserve – and to be honest it doesn’t. This is the second season Smallville episode that brings back Whitney, something which the series has been hinting at the last few weeks with the character being mentioned a few times and Lana sending him a break-up video.
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Of course, if we cast our mind back to last season, the character decided to leave Smallville and join the Marines, and with that the series presented to the audience a reference to reality that was unexpected. Comic books have always had a knack for using their colour panels and fantasy plotting to deal with the real world, and that even goes to their live-action depictions. How else to explain the MCU’s first film out of the gate, Iron Man, moving the comic book’s Vietnam-set origin tale to one in Iraq.
The shadow of the conflict in Iraq hangs over ‘Visage’ and Whitney’s return. Sure, it turns into a somewhat typical brand of Smallville‘s pot-boiler monster-of-the-week tales, and our first returning protagonist, last season’s Tina Greer and with it Lizzy Caplan, indicating that Smallville won’t be above reaching into its roster of rogue’s gallery characters to cement its growing world.
But Tina shapeshifting herself into Whitney not only returns Smallville to its own version of Single White Female but with its combat-heavy opening and depictions of marines showing up at front doors to deliver bad news to family and friends over recently deceased loved ones, it’s a reminder of what was going on in the world away from the television sets that Smallville was being viewed within.
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It gives the episode considerable charge that otherwise might not have been there, although in truth there’s still a lot to engage with here that makes the episode entertaining on a broader level. Caplan was entertaining the first time around and is even more so here, while a returning Eric Johnson is perhaps the best he ever has been on the show, although ironically this might very well be the last time we ever see him on the series.
There is fun to be had in having a returning villain on the series. After all, this is taking its cue from comic books where recurring villains are a mainstay. It’s a reminder, even as Smallville looks somewhat to the real world this time around, and allows Clark a poignant moment of introspection about his own brand of heroism if he wasn’t superpowered, that it’s still a world rooted in comics, of escapism, of recurring supervillains and superheroes. The eventual revelation that Whitney has died is a gentle reminder, though, that not all heroes make it out alive.