TV Discussion

Smallville 3×01 – ‘Exile’ – TV Rewind

Superman III is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it was one of my first experiences with the character of Superman. And while that film represented, in some respects, the beginning of the end for the Christopher Reeve cycle of Superman movies that began in 1978, by placing more emphasis on humour and comedy (along with a starring role for comedian Richard Pryor), it also featured the sight of the all good and pure character of Kal-El turning into something of a villain for the bulk of the film.

Replete with imagery of Christopher Reeve in the famous costume, five o’clock shadow permanently etched to his face and doing all sorts of dastardly things, like blowing out the Olympic Torch, straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and flicking peanuts into a bottle of alcohol in a bar, all the while getting drunk and increasingly anti-social, it also featured one of the all-time great moments of the series, with both Superman and Clark Kent separating as sole identities and getting into an increasingly brutal and sometimes nightmarishly surreal fight. None of it made sense of course, but it was a fantastically dark and twisted moment in a film that was otherwise silly and vanilla (apart from that other sequence depicting one of the female villains being violently turned into a robot, which owed less to big-budget child-friendly cinema and more to David Cronenberg).

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The idea of turning a character like Superman/Clark Kent into one more approaching a villain is an interesting one, and for all of Superman III’s problems it was the best element of it, and thinking back on it can sometimes make one believe that it’s a better film than it really is. The season three premiere of Smallville picks up from the emotional fall-out of season two’s tumultuous finale, and returns to a key plot thread from season two’s superlative ‘Red‘, with Clark being exposed to Red Kryptonite and turning into something of a douchebag, but instead runs with it to an even more epic degree, functioning not only as a great premiere for Smallville’s third year but also as a thematic and tonal sequel to that episode. Years later, Supergirl would also utilise Red Kryptonite to dazzling effect (even paying tribute to Superman III’s bar sequence with the peanuts) so it says a lot about how this trope is one that is still used today but which still works wonders.

It also gives Smallville a chance to revel outside its central setting for a while and put Clark right into the middle of altercations with cops, including Maggie Sawyer (Jill Teed), on the streets of Metropolis and in the middle of a storyline with crime lord Morgan Edge (the late Rutger Hauer). It’s a brilliant subversion of the type of dynamics that we know lie ahead in Clark’s future, where he’ll be battling crime elements like one Lord represents while working in tandem with Sawyer, but the use of Red Kryptonite allows the series and the story to play around with the type of plotting that we know from a million Superman stories and the plethora of movies and television shows.

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It’s a great opening for the majority of the time, although there are some plot holes that can’t help but have the audience going ‘but what about….?’. The only way Jonathan Kent can seemingly defeat Clark is to make himself temporarily superpowered with the help of Jor-El, and yet only last season we saw Jonathan and Pete cleverly use the green rocks to defeat an increasingly unhinged Clark in that episode. Yes, admittedly if they did that here then we’d lose that amazing cliffhanger involving Clark and Jonathan fighting and then falling off a skyscraper together, so what it might lack in plot cohesion it makes up for with entertaining incident and spectacle.

Also, it’s hard not to feel that the writing has badly handled the character of Helen, turning her from sympathetic and complex to more of a Dynasty/Dallas-type soap opera antagonist, seemingly trying to kill Lex and leaving him in a plane that has stranded him on a desert island becoming increasingly insane. It’s another form of exile, I suppose, that leaves both future hero and future villain in a similar manner of isolation, but it feels as if it’s come with the sacrificial lamb of a character who the writers did too good a job with and which Emmanuelle Vaugier was fantastic at. Instead of going the obvious way, they should have tried to double down on the good work they had done as opposed to going for something glaringly obvious, yet completely out of character.

Those nit-picks aside, it’s for the most part a blazingly confident and entertaining opening to the season and leaves you eagerly wondering where it might go next.

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