Given how great a season of Smallville this has been, and the creative corners it turned over the course of its twenty three-episode run, there’s a real sense of suspense in the air with ‘Exodus’, that leaves the audience wondering how the writers will exit the season and set up events going forward.
The reveal, so to speak, of Jor-El in last week’s penultimate episode that propels the audience into the season two finale was another clear piece of intent from the writers’ room about how much the series as a whole was fuelling itself further by grasping the Superman mythology, and what becomes even more apparent here is how much showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, along with the talented group of writers they have assembled, are not going to be afraid of subverting expectations. There is a lot of excellent drama here, with the series throwing so many plates in the air that you’re kind of eager to see which ones the writers will smash and which ones they will grab (and if the plate metaphor is too much there, I sincerely apologise).
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We get a lot of enjoyable soap opera dynamics with the Clark/Lana/Chloe love triangle and with it the possibility that the previously lovable and loyal Chloe might be about to turn herself into a Lionel Luthor-associated antagonist, not to mention the build-up involving whether or not Lex and Helen’s wedding will actually take place. It does, but then the episode and the season throw in a humdinger of a cliffhanger anyway, one that comes out of nowhere but which will leave you entertainingly pondering where the third season might take it.
Where the real joy of the episode comes from is having Jor-El to play with. In live-action, the character has been played by famous faces, most iconically Marlon Brando in Superman: The Movie, an extended cameo that was the highest-paid appearance from an actor in 1978. Television had seen one-time James Bond, George Lazenby, essay the role in the Superboy television series of the late 80s, while David Warner took on the mantle in Lois and Clark during the 90s. Subsequently, we’ve had Russell Crowe play a Gladiator-inspired take in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, combining the action heroic strength of Crowe’s most famous Oscar-winning role with the wise, knowledgable and noble scientist characteristics of previous incarnations.
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Wise and noble are the most frequent words that are used to describe the character. Marlon Brando might have been more famous for toxically masculine characters in A Streetcar Named Desire, the complex brooding qualities of Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront and the most iconic of mafioso patriarchs in The Godfather, but his heartfelt Jor-El soliloquizing about how he would never leave his son even in the face of his and Lara’s death is amongst the most powerful and moving scenes in superhero cinema, which is really saying something since legend has it the actor read the lines off cue cards lined up along the model of the ship carrying baby Superman to Earth.
The noble Jor-El and Lara saying goodbye to their child as he flies away in a ship as Krypton is destroyed around it and them is one of the most iconic and famous images from comic history, but you get the sense that Smallville isn’t afraid to turn some things on their head here. That it portrays Clark and Lex as friends has always shown a willingness to do more interesting things with the Superman dynamics, but here they go one step further with Terence Stamp’s booming voice issuing ultimatums and even burning the House of El ‘S’ symbol into Clark’s flesh, a disturbing notion that might prove a bit too much for younger viewers enjoying the series for the first time.
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It’s one of many fantastic moments dotted throughout a great end to the season. If season one went for spectacle with its tornado and life or death cliffhanger, season two doubles down on showing that Smallville won’t be above subverting expectations and challenging what audiences expect from a series adapting one of pop culture’s most famous and oft-told stories.
In an era when there have been umpteen Superman adaptations on both the big and small screens, and when online fandoms cry out in Twitter-threaded anger whenever something is changed or doesn’t fit into their perceived notions of how these things should be adapted, watching Smallville double down on subverting expectations and being unafraid to do darker and challenging things with this material means that even as it’s on the cusp of turning 20 years of age later this year, it still has a reassuring freshness to it in an era when superheroes are everywhere, especially in the past few months when we have both a new Superman television series on the air and a new version of Zack Snyder’s interpretation of the character’s role in the Justice League.