Abstract and Keywords
For 10 seasons Smallville (2001-2011) remodelled Superman for audiences growing up with Clark Kent in an age perhaps uniquely defined by insecurity. Clark's struggles to understand what the audience infers is his pre-determined destiny are shaped within social realities very different from those of his comic book progenitor's. The show very smartly establishes tensions between good and evil not in terms of moral benchmarks but through complex exercises of power. Archaeology is an important vehicle for Smallville's revitalization of the Superman mythos. As a decade-long excavation and reinterpretation the Kryptonian's coming of age as the guardian par excellence of national and global security, a mysterious blend of artefacts, expeditions and ancient aliens are crucial sources of contestation and education for the young superhero. Through archaeological reference, education and exploration, the show sets up a flexible framework for responding to current crises in terms that resist the binaries under which such antagonisms are rendered in so much of the popular rhetoric circulating in the American geopolitical imaginary.
I stand for truth, justice and … other stuff.
Clark Kent, Class President candidacy speech1
At least hypothetically, Smallville is a likely location of new initiatives for criminally circumventing law enforcement’s existing intelligence network. Smallville represents one of the best places to hide for terrorists and other criminal entrepreneurs. For that reason, Smallville needs to be incorporated into the planning effort, but the planning effort, in turn, must understand and incorporate the special character of the nation’s Smallvilles and their police.
Futures Working Group White Paper2
In the penultimate, ninth season of Smallville several retirees from the Justice Society of America converge on Metropolis to encourage Clark Kent (Tom Welling) to embrace his destiny. Among these Golden Age superheroes is Dr. Fate (Brent Stait), who presents the young man with a tantalizing glimpse of the future:
‘When you saw my fate, what did you see?’
‘You will lead this generation as Hawkman once led ours.’
‘You sound like a group I met from the future [i.e. the Legion of Superheroes]. They hinted at my destiny, but they were as vague as you are.’
‘Then let me be specific. Although Lex Luthor is your ultimate opponent, you will triumph over him […] And when you (p.113) show yourself to the world, it will be a different age than ours, Clark, a silver age of heroism that will start when they look up into the sky at you with hope for tomorrow. You will help everyone to embrace it.’
(‘Absolute Justice,’ 5 February 2010)
Couched in well-worn allusions to the ‘man of tomorrow,’ ‘looking up to the sky’ and DC Comics’ ‘silver age’ of superheroes, Dr. Fate’s prediction is an echo of Superman past. Déjà vu haunts the entire series. With running in-jokes about leaping tall buildings and outrunning speeding bullets, Clark’s penchant for blue T-shirt and red jacket ensembles, and the prevalent primary colour palettes in set and lighting design, dramatic irony is the dramatic motor propelling Smallville’s decade-long deferral of Clark’s transformation into Superman.
Smallville’s longevity is attributable in part to the creative interplay between ‘the basic signs or syntactic structures that comprise the myth of Superman’ (Ndalianis, 2011, 86) and the conventions of serial melodrama. Guided by the ‘no flights, no tights’ injunction established by creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, Smallville remakes Clark Kent for a niche audience that was not necessarily Superman familiar or friendly. Choosing the lead from the cast of Judging Amy (Denison, 169) was a deliberate strategy to draw the female viewership of WB programmes like Dawson’s Creek and 7th Heaven (Jones, 1) to a series whose subject matter would also be of interest to the 12- to 34-year-old male demographic. Similar to the ‘melodramatically motivated television action series’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Denison, 164), which migrated from WB to UPN in 2001, Smallville moulds Clark Kent into ‘an archetypal WB teen[,] […] a conflicted hero who could singularly embody the coalition of identities the netlet hoped to attract as its audience’ (Shimpach, 100; cf. Wee).3
As fate would have it, the WB’s timing was perfect. Airing on 16 October 2001, the pilot episode’s delivery of the infant Kryptonian to the American heartland in a cataclysmic meteor shower registered as both an aftershock of the WTC attacks and the SF point of difference.4 A ‘revisionist gesture’ that ‘brings the series into alignment with post-9/11 responses’ (Hantke, 2012, 378), the fallout from the destruction of Krypton establishes the basic thematic and ideological context for a series that configures threatening differences to the body politic in terms of the kryptonite-enhanced abilities of ‘meteor freaks’ populating (p.114) Smallville. For a show whose protagonist is himself an alien and an alienated teen, Smallville allows, as Daniel Kulle relates, Superman’s traditional ‘conservative containment strategies’ to clash with ‘subversive body strategies’ (159). By collapsing Clark’s outsider status into the ‘inherently contradictory, transgressive experience’ of adolescence (Ross and Stein, 7), Smallville exposes Superman’s history of geopolitical mediation to the particular domestic fictions and cultural practices of post-9/11 American teenagers.5
In a television text that repeatedly refers to the material world of the Superman franchise, archaeology is a conspicuous medium for ‘recovering the memory of what Superman eventually came to be’ (jagodzinski, 173). Two archaeological storylines are particularly relevant for investing Clark’s intra-narrative destiny with the extra-diegetic concerns of viewers. The first is Clark’s discovery of the Kawatche Caves in season two (2002–03), the site from which the incipient superhero first gathers hard evidence about his identity from material remains left by a Kryptonian ancestor in the physical and cultural matrix of the indigenous ‘Kawatche’ nation. Tackling issues of heritage conservation and aboriginal land claims, the episode troubles the Superman telos by grounding Clark’s origin story in both the colonial imagery and eschatology of ancient astronaut discourse. The second storyline features Dr. Fate and the Justice Society of America, whose tutelage of Clark coincides with one of Smallville’s most direct engagements with contemporary politics, a story arc about balancing civil liberty and national security in a world threatened by global terrorism. At the centre of this debate is the aging Egyptologist-superhero Carter Hall (aka Hawkman, played by Michael Shanks), who mentors Clark in his final trial against the supervillain Darkseid, an ancient alien entity who has infected humanity with xenophobia, infiltrated the government, and created a secret police force to prosecute superheroes. Clark’s final battle before donning his signature cape and tights resolves the riddle of Clark’s destiny inscribed on the walls of the Kawatche Caves, and represents the culmination of a decade-long journey in which his messianic origins as a superior white being are deconstructed and methodically reconstructed in concert with post-9/11 anxieties of (ancient) alien invasion.
(p.115) The second-season episode ‘Skinwalker’ (26 November 2002) introduces a novel element to the Superman myth, a series of caves from which the fictional Kawatche First Nation claims ancestry. Meaning ‘skinwalker,’ the moniker ‘Kawatche’ denotes the secret ability to transform into wolves, an intergenerational mutation caused by exposure to kryptonite left by a Kryptonian astronaut five centuries beforehand. The discovery of the caves triggers a series of moral dilemmas for the nascent hero, who is disconcerted by the mysterious and potentially malevolent origin of his own superpowers. To further complicate matters for Clark, the site is a lightning rod for Kawatche ‘terrorism’ against powerful corporate interests infiltrating Smallville’s idyllic rural community. ‘Skinwalker’ thus establishes Clark’s early civic engagement within the problematic materio-political conditions of his own origin story.
The episode teaser opens with Kawatche professor of languages and activist Joseph Willowbrook (Gordon Tootoosis) confronting the foreman (Rob Morton) of a LuthorCorp office tower being constructed directly above the caves. Protesting his right to pass freely on ancestral land, Willowbrook is summarily removed and threatened with legal action. Night descends and the foreman finds himself being stalked by a white wolf. Extra-diegetic chanting intimates that the wolf is Willowbrook. Frightened, the employee accidentally fires a flare into a fuel depot and is killed in the explosion. Vacillating between the wolf’s grainy low-angle hand-held camera view of the incident and the guard’s terrified perspective, the editing invites the audience to consider conflicting points of view in what the police assume is a politically motivated murder. In an episode that typically mixes, as Cary Jones relates, ‘entertaining mystery-solving and crime-busting with regard to the conspiracies and corporate greed surrounding the Luthor Corporation’ and ‘monster-of-the-week-type phenomena’ (1), balancing perspectives is part of Clark’s weekly lesson in the vicissitudes of justice.
Drawn to the scene, Clark inadvertently triggers a cave-in and exposes an unexplored section of the complex. This attracts Willowbrook’s granddaughter, Kyla (Tamara Feldman), who is desperately cataloguing petroglyphs imperilled by the construction project. She is delighted to find a hoard of glyphs depicting the legend of ‘Naman,’ the mythical father of the Kawatche, a celestial being said to possess the strength of ten men and the ability to light fires with his eyes. The story foretells, she informs Clark, of Naman’s return to the Kawatche in their hour of need. Clark is caught in the precarious position of reconciling the decidedly colonial myth of a celestial saviour with his desire to understand his personal connection to the site, and, moreover, his superheroic moral duty to protect fragile Kawatche history while investigating the (p.116) suspicious death of the LuthorCorp employee. Falling into his heritage provides no revelatory satisfaction for Clark, for he must continue to undergo a constellation of trials to define himself within and against the ambivalent iconography of his ancient astronaut forebear. Moreover, the episode advances Clark’s narrative of becoming as a matter of negotiating what Shahriar Fouladi calls his ‘monstrous puberty,’ the conflation of socio-biological changes with the potential ‘corruption by internal or external forces’ that threaten to ‘overturn his traditional role as a protector’ (161). The petroglyphs corroborate his fear that he might inadvertently or uncontrollably unleash his superhuman powers on his adoptive home. Smallville re-historicizes the visual iconography of the superhero’s body through dramas of disaffected teenage mutants who redefine the borders of normalcy to which Clark, growing up with acute anxieties of his own difference, struggles to conform.6
In ‘Skinwalker,’ these concerns jostle in the televisual apparatus of teen melodrama. What follows is a shot-by-shot analysis of a one-minute-forty-second scene in ‘Skinwalker.’ Evocative of what television scholar John Caldwell terms the ‘zero-degree style’ of soap opera melodrama, the fixed thematic sets, minimal character movement, excessive acting and extra-diegetic mood music delineate the characters’ conflicting emotional and ideological stakes in the Kawatche crisis.7 The frequency of cuts (39 in total), the fixed and mobile framing, and the multiple camera angles emphasize political tension by fostering discrete axes of intimacy between the characters. The scene follows a conversation between Clark and Jonathan Kent (John Schneider), who is fearful that his adopted son, who is infatuated with Kyla and eager to learn more about Naman from Joseph, has misplaced his trust in strangers who seem to hold the key to his extra-terrestrial identity. To Jonathan’s surprise, Clark has invited Kyla and Joseph, who has just been released from custody, to dinner.
Shot 1 [opens from the commercial break with a close-up of Joseph Willowbrook speaking at the dinner table in the Kent farmhouse. Camera tracks out to reveal the assembled company while Joseph speaks; Martha Kent (Annette O’Toole) collects the plates]
Clark: ‘Do you know which star he came from?’
Shot 2 [close-up of Kyla, smiling knowingly at Clark, then turns gaze to Joseph]
Shot 3 [medium close-up of Joseph, low angle as he speaks]
Joseph: ‘The legend only tells that he left one day and flew back into the sky …’
Shots 4 and 5 [in mid-sentence, medium close-up of Jonathan, who looks disconcertedly at Clark; close-up of Clark, who returns Jonathan’s glance]
‘… promising he would send another.’
Shot 6 [medium close-up of Jonathan; Martha is out of focus in background taking plates into the kitchen]
Jonathan: ‘And that would be this Naman person you’ve been talking about, right?’
Shot 7 [close-up of Clark over Joseph’s shoulder as Jonathan speaks; Clark looks at Jonathan with a worried expression]
Shot 8 [close-up of Joseph over Clark’s shoulder]
Joseph: ‘Yes. Of course, that was 500 years ago. He’s a little late.’
Shot 9 [close-up of Kyla, who coquettishly bites her lip while looking at Clark]
Shot 10 [close-up of Clark, who returns her gaze, smiles, then sheepishly looks down]
Shot 11 [close-up of Joseph, sensing sexual tension]
Joseph: ‘You’re not from around here, are you Clark?’
Shot 12 [close-up of a surprised Clark, who raises eyebrows and opens eyes wide]
Shot 13 [medium close-up of Jonathan, who looks to Martha for help; rack to medium long shot of Martha in the kitchen]
Martha: ‘Um, actually Clark is adopted.’
Shot 14 [close-up of Joseph, who shifts gaze to Clark]
Shot 15 [close-up of Clark over Joseph’s shoulder]
Clark: ‘These, uh, these symbols seem to make up some sort of alphabet.’
Shot 16 [close-up of Kyla]
Kyla: ‘That’s the really weird part.’
Shot 17 [close-up of Clark, smiling at Kyla]
Shot 18 [medium long shot of Martha serving Jonathan pie while Joseph speaks; Jonathan acknowledges Martha with a smile]
Joseph: ‘Our people don’t have a written language …’
‘… I’ve seen a symbol here or there on artefacts, but never in a pattern before.’
Shot 20 [close-up of Clark]
Clark: ‘So you don’t know what they mean?’
Shot 21 [close-up of Joseph over Kyla’s shoulder as Kyla responds]
Kyla: ‘Grandpa’s studied a lot of ancient languages …’
Shot 22 [close-up of Kyla]
‘… I’m sure with some time he can decipher what the symbols are.’
Shot 23 [close-up of Joseph over Clark’s shoulder]
Joseph: ‘If Luthor doesn’t get at them before we do.’
Shot 24 [close-up of Jonathan looking up from his pie with furrowed brow]
Shot 25 [Martha passes in the background out of focus behind a close-up of Clark, who turns his head to follow her movement around the table]
Clark: ‘Mom, maybe you can talk to Mr. Luthor.’
Shot 26 [medium close-up of Martha surprised and caught out by Clark]
Shot 27 [close-up of Joseph]
Joseph: ‘You know Lionel Luthor?’
Shot 28 [medium close-up of Martha, embarrassed]
Shot 29 [close-up of Clark smiling gleefully as he speaks]
Clark: ‘Know him? Mom is his executive assistant!’
Shot 30 [close-up of Joseph, who looks away incredulously as Martha responds]
Martha: ‘I’ll do what I can, but …’
Shot 31 [close-up of Jonathan, who looks up under furrowed brow to Martha]
‘… it isn’t that easy …’
Shot 32 [close-up of Martha shifting gaze between Joseph and Clark]
‘… The situation isn’t that black and white …’
Shot 33 [close-up of a shocked Clark over Kyla’s shoulder while Martha speaks]
‘… That complex will create …’
Shot 34 [close-up of a shocked Kyla over Clark’s shoulder while Martha speaks]
Martha: ‘… a thousand …’
Shot 35 [close-up of Martha]
‘… desperately needed jobs.’
Clark: ‘And you think that’s more important than these caves?’
Shot 37 [close-up of Martha shrugging her shoulders and looking to Joseph]
Shot 38 [close-up of Joseph, looking away and shifting uncomfortably in his chair]
Shot 39 [close-up of Jonathan]
Jonathan: ‘So, um, does anyone want coffee with their pie?’
Shot 40 [close-up of Clark, glancing at Joseph, Kyla, then down. Scene ends, cutting to establishing shot of a sunset on the barn where Clark and Kyla retire. Their first kiss is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk)]
The rapid framing and focal length variation convey a wealth of paratextual information. Part of the conversation, the camera discloses meaningful, though partial information to each character. Repeated close-ups and reaction shots foster intimacy between Clark and Kyla within the hospitable old-time aura of the Kent family farm. By the end of the scene, however, the framing alters register, turning in on itself to foster mistrust, disappointment and the kind of indignation and embarrassment that cannot be washed down with coffee and apple pie. The tonal shift accentuates the ‘forbidden affair’ between the American boy and the Kawatche girl—forbidden too because the audience knows that Clark’s romantic destiny in his teenage years lies with Lana Lang, who dutifully obstructs Clark’s new love interest in the next scene—and advances the uber-plot of the Luthor family’s corporate hold on Smallville life. In addition, the frequent shot/reverse shots and over-shoulder shots engender in real time the emotional tensions simmering within the dialogue, techniques that flirt with Clark’s secret playing out in his attraction to Kyla. Moreover, the frenetic cuts triangulate and complicate romantic and familial alliances, and threaten to expose Clark through his burgeoning attachment to the Kawatche and their cause. The result is a ripple effect of clashing confidences and secrets between Clark and his parents, between Kyla and Joseph, and between the star-crossed lovers. The scene exemplifies how the ‘excess’ of serial melodrama8 invites, as Jason Mittell observes, ‘an engaging emotional response to feel the difference between competing (p.120) moral sides as manifested through forward-moving storytelling’ (244). Clark’s prevarications about his extra-terrestrial identity and terrestrial purpose are synonymous with his affective morality, his uncertainty manifest in emotional responses to particular crises as well as to the unpredictability of his potentially monstrous body mirrored in the petroglyph of Naman’s fiery gaze.
The camera also ‘unconceals’ villainy lurking within the increasingly fraught atmosphere of the gathering. Martha is distinguished from the other actors by occupying a unique ‘axis of action’ (Butler, 2009, 38–41), reflecting her revised identity in the series as the daughter of a prominent Metropolis corporate lawyer. Supporting the LuthorCorp project, Martha departs from her traditional role as the nurturing mother of the New Deal defender of the working class. As executive assistant to a man who also happens to be not-so-secretly attracted to her, Martha embodies conflicts between the rural and the urban, the family farm and corporate interests, heritage and progress. Her divided loyalties are symptomatic of the ways Smallville implicitly asks, to cite the title of Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004). Frank argues that
the Republican Party and the Bush administration have inverted turn of the century agrarian populism by calling upon the Midwestern cultural cache of honesty, innocence, and ‘traditional’ values to fuel culture wars regarding ‘moral’ issues [in order to] divert attention from the party’s economic agenda which favors deregulation, privatization, and lower taxes for wealthier people, […] goals diametrically opposed to those forwarded by early populism.
Jonathan, too, is enveloped in this paradox. His identity—carried over from Schneider’s portrayal of good old boy Bo Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard—is compromised by the secrets he holds, including his knowledge of Martha’s involvement in the LuthorCorp towers. Just as the historical discussion descends into politics and the fundamental antagonism between (Christian) idealism and (capitalist) materialism (jagodzinski, 176), Clark’s descent into the caves and into his own history is impeded by the ideological concerns ranged around the dinner table. An implicit question this episode—and indeed the entire series—raises is ‘what kind of ideological duty is the young Superman performing in the post-9/11 era of anxiety?’ (jagodzinski, 174). While answers are not easily forthcoming in a series that ‘parcels out incomplete pieces of closure’ that ‘always construct the foundations of new enigmas,’ its modified soap (p.121) opera style invites viewers to work out questions of morality along with Clark as he negotiates the vicissitudes of his super-teen life in a hybrid episodic and serial narrative form in which ‘[i]deological conflicts are never fully reconciled’ (Butler, 1986, 55, 54).9
The dinner sequence also exemplifies how teen melodrama destabilizes the myth of Superman by exposing Clark to, as Miranda Banks claims, broader cultural crises in representations of masculinity. She argues that Clark typifies ‘a new television hero who is motivated to action by enlightened dreams for an equal partner, emotionally fulfilling relationships and a sense of duty to his community’ (18). Like the male protagonists of Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, Dawson’s Creek and Roswell High, Clark departs from ‘the shy, insecure, neurotic or effeminate teen males of the 1950s’ cinema melodrama, paralysed by their emotions. Rather it is their willingness—often even eagerness—to be reflective and emote without losing control that sets them apart as a new type of hero’ (22). The transgeneric television format, in which ‘heroic violence resolves the action plotline in a single episode, but fails to resolve the continuing domestic melodrama,’ allows temporary closure for the casual viewer but extends dedicated fan interest in the ‘developing intricacies of personal relationships between recurring characters’ (Shimpach, 36). Mittell notes that the integration of serial melodrama into genres like SF action ‘has led to more fluid possibilities of gender identification and to the challenging of rigid stereotypes of gendered appeals’ by addressing a ‘wide range of viewers and […] a spectrum of affective engagements within a single viewer of any gender identity’ (246, 248). Within action/melodrama, the ‘apparently hetero, white, male action hero’ is ‘increasingly depicted as under all manner of assault, a conflicted, besieged, unstable subject facing personal as well as geopolitical crises’ (Shimpach, 31; cf. Duffy).
At the Kawatche Caves, geopolitics and identity politics are bound in the petroglyphs’ depiction of an epic battle between Naman and his arch rival ‘Sageeth.’ Like ‘a brother to Naman,’ explains Kyla, Sageeth completes Naman. Superman’s storied battles with Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) develop in a story world in which heroic action and villainy circulate within the emotional trauma of brother figures destined to be ‘torn apart due to the larger circumstances dominating their lives’ (Kohnen, 211). The caves’ secrets are ground zero for ‘retconning’ a new Superman mythos that is, as Jes Battis observes, ‘more interested in exploring what first brought these characters together rather than what will someday tear them apart’ (50). The (p.122)
Naman/Sageeth pairing reminds the viewer that identity formation for both young men unfolds within the private tribulations of teenage friendships and the external pressures of growing up mistrustful of parental figures. Like Clark, Lex’s character negotiates the extraordinary demands of a televisual environment that subjects him to crises of identity on a weekly basis (Kohnen, 211). In a self-parodic moment in ‘Skinwalker,’ Clark confides in his friend about his feelings for Kyla. ‘Have you ever wondered if you were destined to be with someone?’ he asks. Lex replies, ‘You’re asking someone who’s been fighting his destiny his entire life.’ Lex’s sense of destiny is motivated by his desire to safeguard the world from the clutches of his father’s generation, a paradox that is never successfully resolved because he inherits his father’s own ‘superpower,’ his penchant for corporate intrigue, a legacy that ultimately corrupts Lex and propels the conflicted Clark toward his destiny of becoming, as Dr. Fate puts it, the billionaire’s ‘ultimate opponent.’
In teen melodrama the kind of intradiegetic information conveyed by the enigmatic glances exchanged between the characters in the dinner scene is likewise evocative of, as Battis observes, ‘an array of silences that actually come to define a whole constellation of identities’ for Clark and Lex. The closeted nature of these ‘two (p.123) highly secretive and vulnerable men’ (45–46, 46; cf. Kustritz) has not been lost upon Smallville’s active online community. The characters’ on-screen chemistry has been routinely interpreted as ‘sexual desire, and “knowing”’ in online ‘slash’ and ‘shipper’ forums like HoYay! (short for ‘Homoeroticism, Yay!’), which tease out moments of queer spectatorship. The portmanteau name ‘Clex’ is thereby ‘slashed’ from the ‘various looks, touches, or pieces of dialogue that fans declare undeniably queer’ (Kohnen, 221, 212). At the same time, homoerotic desire is often sublimated into heteronormative triangulations of male competition for female characters. Clark, Lex and Lana are thus ‘shipped’ (i.e. ‘relation-shipped’) into ‘Clexana’ (Kohnen, 214).10 Analyzing Smallville forums on the interactive fan websites Television Without Pity (on which HoYay! emerged in November 2001 [Kustritz, 8]) and LiveJournal, Melanie Kohnen contends that female and male viewers who do not necessarily identify as gay demonstrate how ‘seeing queerly is practiced […] at a time in which cultural sexual norms are so hotly contested’ (210). These assaults upon the straight Superman are apropos of the potentially volatile nature of identity politics within Smallville’s melodramatic framework. ‘Embodying and performing competing masculinities,’ Shimpach relates, contemporary heroes in teen television drama form ‘composite characters designed to attract various viewing positions together into a (larger) composite audience’ (39). The queer gaze also encompasses the archaeological themes of the episode and the series as a whole. For the origin story of ‘Clex’ is also inscribed on the cave walls, the ‘erotic and ideological’ nature of their friendship visualized in the intertwined phallic imagery of the Naman/Sageeth (‘Nameeth’?) petroglyph.
Seeing queerly raises the thematic and political stakes in Smallville. Kustritz relates that ‘Superman’s very omnipresence and familiarity also mean that his cultural force remains vulnerable to appropriation by fans and lay critics whose public discussion and amateur art forms may use Superman symbolism to construct radically different counter-claims about the nation and national identity’ (8). Discussions by ‘specialty in-groups with unique counter-knowledge’ (9) of the subversive potential of gender-neutral, gender-transcendent and romantic homosexual relationships have opened Smallville’s Superman to more equitable formations of citizenship and political engagement. In ‘Skinwalker,’ Clark uses his abilities to save Kyla from a cave-in caused by Lionel’s excavation equipment, but his powers are otherwise ‘closeted’ (p.124) and ineffectual against the real-world corporate menace to the caves and indigenous culture. Ultimately, Lex saves the day by preserving the caves from LuthorCorp bulldozers. Amazed by the petroglyphs, he exclaims, ‘Incredible! These may be even more impressive than the caves at Lascaux.’ Overstated perhaps, but Lex nevertheless wrests control of the caves from his father by supporting a local protest led by Willowbrook. Directing his resources towards having the caves declared a heritage site by the State Preservation Society, Lex in turn secures the government contract for their archaeological survey. In ‘Skinwalker’ archaeology is a mode of rescue that displaces Clark’s traditional role as saviour, a role that is simultaneously being reconfigured within the queer thematics visualized in the archaeological figure of the Naman/Sageeth petroglyph.
Though motivated by friendship, their fated rivalry is quickened nonetheless by information the future supervillain withholds from Clark. For Lex secretly possesses a Kryptonian artefact that fits exactly with a niche in the caves, an octagonal key that will eventually open a portal to the Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic (‘Commencement,’ 18 May 2005). Drawing connections between the strange artefact, the petroglyphs, the mutant phenomena in Smallville and Clark’s secretive nature, Lex undertakes parallel ancient astronaut research into the identity of the alien visitor. In the third-season episode ‘Talisman,’ Lex develops a fatal theory about the caves. In a conversation with Clark, he observes that Naman ‘could conquer the world. He could become a tyrant if no one kept him in check. So, I’ve been thinking … anybody who’d be willing to fight him would have to be pretty brave. Clark, did it ever occur to you that the hero of the story is Sageeth?’ While Clark is plagued by the ambivalent motives of Naman’s messianic return, Lex is intoxicated by a myth that fuels his dangerously narcissistic mission to safeguard the world from both his father’s tyrannical hold on America and alien threats to security.
Mirrored in this fascinating drama of a fractious friendship—and the televisual leap forward in dismantling the fortress of rigid heterosexuality that Superman traditionally safeguards—is Clark’s impossible love for the Native girl. Kyla is a sacrificial victim who dies defending the caves and Clark’s secret identity, which she correctly gleans from the petroglyphs. Her tragic death—she ‘skinwalks’ into a wolf, confronts Lionel, and is mortally wounded in her escape—furnishes a cathartic conclusion to the young couple’s forbidden love; but killing her off allows Clark to perform the tricky manoeuvre of inhabiting the myth of Naman while disavowing the Native other, who represents the double threat of a mutant terrorist and the monstrous feminine. His role in the (p.125) Kawatche dispute ultimately sanctions the colonial myth he is reluctant to adopt for himself.11
In this regard, ‘Skinwalker’ opens a third interest, another way of thinking about conflicts that cannot be closeted within the caves’ origin story. The episode engages immediate geopolitics through Clark’s conflicted friendship with Lana, who lingers on the margins of his affair with Kyla. Just as Kyla is unavailable to Clark because of her Native and monstrous status, Lana is unavailable in a genre in which true love is forbidden to the protagonist, in this case until Clark masters his powers and is mature enough to commit to the responsibilities of being both Superman and Lois Lane’s (Erica Durance) life partner. At this moment in the series Lana is dating the former quarterback of the Smallville Crows, Whitney Fordman (Eric Johnson), who after graduation joins the Marines to fight terrorist threats against American interests. The final scene of ‘Skinwalker’ sets up new dramatic and ideological tensions: just minutes after Kyla’s death, Lana breaks the news to Clark that Whitney is missing in action while stationed in Indonesia. Clark’s is the first shoulder she cries on. The scene sets up the next episode, ‘Visage’ (14 January 2003), which takes as its subject the return of soldiers suffering with PTSD. While the show cannot address directly assaults upon military heroism at a time when flag-draped caskets were beginning to arrive on American soil, it does so indirectly through Clark’s struggle to reconcile his ambiguous status as a saviour and an alien invader in relation to Whitney’s career as a war veteran.
As a football star and fallen soldier, Whitney incarnates the kind of normative heroism that is irresistible to the home-coming queen Lana but withheld from the perforce retiring Clark. The ideological potential of the Whiney/Lana/Clark triad is amplified, however, through a potentially subversive form of lesbian spectatorship. Some backstory is required. The first-season episode ‘X-Ray’ (6 November 2001), which introduces Clark to his new ability to see through objects (including Lana’s towel in the locker room), explores the nature of friendships among girls organized in a hierarchy of beauty and popularity. The mousey Tina Greer (Lizzy Caplan), who is secretly a shape-shifting meteor freak, becomes jealous of Lana’s ‘perfect life,’ and plots to kill and replace her. Clark foils the plan and Tina is committed to Smallville’s psychiatric hospital, Belle Reve. In ‘Visage,’ Tina concludes that she is actually in (p.126) love with Lana. She escapes and assumes Whitney’s identity. But overly sensitive to Lana’s emotional needs, the war hero is a suspiciously perfect partner for Lana. When Clark circumvents Tina’s plot to marry Lana, the shape-shifter impersonates Lana’s new saviour, who reveals ‘his’ love for her. Enveloped in the simmering lesbian implications of the storyline and the effeminization of these all-American heroes, Whitney’s image becomes entangled in the threatening world of meteor freaks that envelopes Clark’s own ontological struggles as a superpowered alien living secretly among humanity. As Kustritz relates, ‘Tina’s abilities and the war in “Indonesia” present clear parallels with post-9/11 fears regarding the possibility of an enemy capable of penetrating American borders, infiltrating the country, undetected’ (7). Just as ‘Clex’ vouchsafes the inefficacy of masculine heroism in teen melodrama (Shimpach, 31), the gender-bending implications of Whitney’s return further assail the heteronormative order encompassing Superman and the American military-football complex. Circulating alongside the kinds of SF military films examined in ‘Battling Babylon,’ Smallville occasions through the dramas surrounding Whitney’s death and Clark’s interventions in Kawatche culture an oblique emotional and politically charged commentary on the contemporary alien invasion of the Middle East: the narratives of salvation that validate the periodic return to the cradle of civilization are sublimated into Clark’s conflicted feelings about his own cultural origins in the battle to possess and control Native North American cultural heritage.
The Kawatche Caves remain an important touchstone for Clark’s evolution in subsequent seasons. To this end, the producers resurrected another artefact from the Superman franchise to help Clark: Christopher Reeve, whose ‘star persona functions forcefully as a legitimizing force’ in the series (Ndalianis, 2011, 76).12 Reeve plays Paleo-SETI investigator Dr. Virgil Swann, who founded at the time of the meteor shower a secret society of wealthy socialites (including Lionel Luthor) called ‘Veritas,’ an organization devoted to investigating the prophecy of the return of an extra-terrestrial figure known as ‘The Traveller.’ In the second-season episode ‘Rosetta’ (25 February 2003), the caves come back into play by downloading the Kryptonian language into Clark’s consciousness when he inserts the octagonal key (recovered from Lex by Martha Kent [‘Insurgence,’ 21 January 2003]) into the niche on the wall. Accidentally burning a Kryptonian symbol on his barn door, (p.127) Clark attracts the attention of Swann, who shares with his protégé a cryptic message broadcast from Clark’s spaceship: ‘This is Kal-El of Krypton, our infant son and our last hope. Please protect him and deliver him from evil.’ The message also holds a potentially sinister meaning for Clark: ‘On this third planet from this star Sol you will be a god among men. They are a flawed race. Rule them with strength. This is where your greatness lies.’ Sent in the form of a prayer, the transmission from his Kryptonian father Jor-El (voiced by Terence Stamp) echoes the Naman legend, which the ever-sensitive Clark misinterprets as his destiny to conquer.13 Reeve-as-Swann invites Clark to consider the nature of power, morality and responsibility in a world where choices seem preordained and the Naman/Sageeth dynamic has the potential to become inverted—both palpable sources of anxiety for the superhero in training. As an alien invader, Clark must continually, melodramatically engage his threatening difference in a decade-long struggle to understand what it means to be a defender of truth, justice and … other stuff.
Leaping ahead to the final two seasons, Clark’s maturation into a journalist at the Daily Planet and his burgeoning attraction to Lois Lane take place against a background of black book projects designed to harness and manipulate the abilities of the young superheroes gathering around Clark. In this phase of Clark’s bildung, Smallville leverages the cultural capital of Superman mythology against the kinds of paranoid politics that compromise the very American Way that Clark is being groomed to defend. A benchmark moment in terms of Smallville’s archaeo-politics is the two-part episode ‘Absolute Justice’ in season nine. Retconning the history of the Justice Society of America to align temporally with the Smallville universe, the episode recounts the JSA’s passing into obscurity in the 1970s after its members refused to cooperate with the government’s black ops organization ‘Checkmate.’ Illustrative of Smallville’s rich DC Comics intertext,14 these golden age characters resurface to help the next generation embrace their vocational potential in a world sliding once again into the dangerous polarizations of power that delimited the JSA’s activities during the Cold War. In the episode, Dr. Fate teleports Clark to Carter Hall’s abandoned JSA museum. In a kind of comic book archaeology, Clark rummages through the dusty artefacts of the forgotten organization. He regards Flash’s Mercury (p.128)
helmet, Green Lantern’s power battery, Hourman’s hourglass and Mr. Terrific’s ‘Fair Play’ weight belt. He lingers over Hawkgirl’s mace and cracked helmet, a reminder of the fatal blow that killed Hall’s beloved wife, Shayera. Framing Clark within the display case and then gazing upwards at a painting of the JSA team ranged around their boardroom table creates visual and emotional continuity between viewers, Clark and the defunct JSA project, nostalgic moments that resist within the culture of superheroism the politics of difference from which Smallville garners its storylines (cf. Huq).
As in ‘Skinwalker,’ the final seasons of Smallville engage political themes through melodrama. In ‘Ultimate Justice,’ Dr. Fate tells Lois that ‘You are the one he will need; he is the one you will need […] The saviour, the one who will heal us all, the sentient power.’ In the first episode of the final season, ‘Lazarus’ (24 September 2010), Lois accepts a promotion to the Daily Planet’s African desk because she is afraid that a girlfriend will distract Clark from his greater calling. Concerned for her safety, the ever-suffering Clark accepts her decision with outward equanimity. The lovers are at an impasse. At once a sign of heroic stoicism, Superman has traditionally been wary of the kryptonite of romantic attraction and female agency (Farghaly, vii–xiv, 2013b). As Umberto Eco unequivocally relates in his essay ‘The Myth (p.129) of Superman,’ marriage with Lois is a ‘step toward his death’ (18; cf. Collins). But in a television series that furnishes its diverse audience with strong female characters who, like its male protagonist, are empowered by their emotions, Smallville’s hybrid action/SF/melodrama format clears a path for Clark and Lois to escape the genealogical snares threatening to mire the post-9/11 Superman in conservative gender politics. Karin Hirmer contends that as ‘a moral center, the All-American Girl for the All-American Hero,’ Smallville’s Lois Lane is ‘largely involved in Clark’s eventual “becoming”’ (250, 252). Nadine Farghaly also points out that Lois’s journey of self-individuation parallels Clark’s, enabling her ‘to help create Earth’s greatest superhero’ (296, 2013a). Lois is thereby instrumental in resolving the problematic origin story scripted in the Kawatche petroglyphs. By demanding equal partnership with Naman, she tips the scales in the fight against Sageeth.
In the episode ‘Shield’ (1 October 2010), archaeology furnishes a melodramatic context in which to reconcile romantic fatalism with audience expectations for gender equality. The episode sees Lois in Egypt covering a story on the discovery of a cache of artefacts dedicated to the goddess Isis. In the teaser Lois enters a tent and looks longingly at a papyrus record of the Egyptian queen and her husband Osiris. The camera refocuses on a shadowy figure outside the door. ‘They were star crossed lovers.’ The camera racks to a low-angle shot of Carter Hall stepping into the dusky light. ‘I guess you never know what fate has in store for you.’ Michael Shanks’s persona as Stargate SG-1’s intrepid Daniel Jackson authorizes Hall’s sovereignty in an Orientalized domestic mise-en-scene of veiled women serving tea and bearing washing water. In this environment the archaeologist relates the story of Isis and Osiris, of the love that inspired the ancient queen to brave the terrors of the underworld in search of her husband. The Hall-mark of Hawkman’s own eternal romantic cycle of reincarnation with and separation from Shayera, the Egyptian myth helps Lois put aside her personal fears and embrace her destiny as Clark’s partner. ‘With every great relationship comes a great burden,’ Hall says, ‘and the strength to carry it […] He can’t do it without you. You’re his Shayera.’ By bringing Lois to the emotional precipice, Hawkman offers a hopeful, romantic resolution to the political discord that destroyed his golden age dream of a better world.
The trope of ‘star crossed lovers’ intersects with the larger story arc unfolding in season ten. The secondary narrative in ‘Shield’ concerns Jor-El’s warning to Clark that an apocalypse is at hand, that a ‘dark force’ (i.e. Darkseid) is rising with the power to turn his son’s self-doubts against him, rendering the Kryptonian the ultimate weapon (p.130)
against his adoptive home. In an atmosphere of rising paranoia, the secret work of Checkmate garners constitutional legitimacy with the establishment of the Department of Domestic Security, which is tasked to enforce the new Vigilante Registration Act. An obvious analogue of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, the DDS is accorded extraordinary powers of surveillance, rendition and interrogation (cf. Cole; Hart; and Schulhofer). Its first victim is Oliver Queen (aka ‘Green Arrow,’ played by Justin Hartley), who registers only to be detained and waterboarded in an attempt to learn the secret identities of his colleagues (‘Patriot,’ 19 November 2010). These tensions reach critical momentum in the final episode before the mid-season break, ‘Icarus’ (10 December 2010). In an episode in which Daily Planet employees are being screened for weapons, Clark proposes to Lois. Lois admires her engagement ring in front of a threat advisory notice. DDS agents ransack offices, kick in the front door of the Kent farm, and arrest Clark’s friends without warrant or charge. Daily Planet editor and vigilante sympathizer Tess Mercer (Cassidy Freeman) is warned by cub reporter Cat Grant (Keri Lynn Pratt) that ‘If you don’t get with the majority agenda soon, somebody’s going to notice.’ Under control of the DDS, television becomes a mass media platform for spreading fear and inciting violence against superheroes. Darkseid’s henchman, DDS chief Lt. Gen. Slade Wilson (Michael Hogan), issues a call to arms: (p.131)
‘Too many civilians have been left feeling unsafe in their own homes. Too many people have suffered, while too few vigilantes have been brought to justice. It’s time these terrorists paid for their crimes.’ Critical of the ways news media manufactures consent for aggressive foreign policies and national security, Smallville issues an implicit warning against governmental incursions upon the very liberties supposedly targeted by terrorist organizations (Leone and Anrig, 7–8).
In ‘Icarus,’ Carter Hall undertakes one last mission as Hawkman: to save the world from Darkseid by saving Lois and Clark’s relationship. In the episode, Slade Wilson captures Lois after discovering her searching his office for evidence of Darkseid’s scheme to brainwash the American people. Hawkman rescues Lois but is stabbed in the back during the escape. Embraced in his flaming wings, they fall to the streets below. Dying, Hawkman affirms the revitalizing power of romance contained in the imagery of their fall, the immolation of Cupid and Icarus. Clark and Lois exchange a knowing glance when Hall with his final breath says, ‘You hold on to her, because there has to be a balance, Clark. We can’t do what we have to do with an emptiness in our heart […] I’m sorry I won’t be there to help you fight the darkness, but you have all the help you need.’ Though Hall’s death-bed speech encodes romantic attraction within the gendered binary of feeling/action, it nevertheless affirms Lois’s new destiny to fight injustice through active political and (p.132)
civic engagement alongside her partner. In a gesture that pays homage to Smallville’s active online community, Lois directs her vocational talents towards rallying support for vigilantes in print and social media in a plebiscite to decide the fate of the VRA (‘Beacon,’ 11 February 2011). The episode features Skype conversations of people supporting heroes as role models of responsible citizenship. The VRA is voted down in a show of solidarity that is instrumental in bolstering Clark’s confidence so that he can resist Darkseid’s corrupting influence. Empowered by the support of Lois and the community of citizens willing to set aside their fears of difference, Clark musters the courage to fly—cue the John Williams Superman theme—and catapults up, up and away to repel the planet Apokalips, the fiery version of Nibiru sent by Darkseid on a collision course with Earth (‘Finale,’ 13 May 2011).
However spectacular and cathartic, the preordained conclusion of Clark’s journey prompts dedicated viewers to parse the ellipsis in Clark’s class presidency speech, the hesitation between ‘truth and justice’ and the ‘American Way.’ For the much-anticipated image of Superman policing the skies is certainly problematic for a series whose protagonist is grounded in real-world problems of corporate power, gender equity, civil rights and sexual preference in dialogue with its fan base. Series endings are often unsatisfactory, and in the finale Clark is simply returned to his native comic book habitat. His high school friend Chloe (p.133)
Sullivan (Allison Mack) reads an issue of DC’s Smallville comic to her child at bedtime, a cute product placement advertisement for the DC/WB’s bimonthly comic released between 2003 and 2004. But the way Smallville raises questions about the nature of responsible citizenship through media archaeology of its popular culture hero makes it difficult to reconcile Smallville’s Clark Kent with his comic book progenitor. And we must remember, too, that any monument to the American Way in Smallville bears the scars of Kyla’s sacrifice of her life and her heritage to satisfy both the ontological demands of the Superman franchise and the epistemological tautology of ancient astronaut speculation from which the series remodels its protagonist. If, as Otto Friedrich puts it, ‘One of the odd paradoxes about Superman […] [is] that while he is a hero of nostalgia, the constant changes in his character keep destroying the qualities that make him an object of nostalgia’ (74), then Smallville’s contribution to Superman lore is that it demands rigorous examination of the nature of heroism at the nexus of adolescent dramas of individuation and civic engagement.
The final section of this study, ‘Cyborg Sites,’ entertains similar questions about origins and endings in Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Both narratives are structured on a search for a mythical home world by following archaeological breadcrumbs scattered across the cosmos; both trouble origins through the cyborgs (p.134) along for the ride. In each, material culture is a sign system for understanding the shared, embodied experience of materiality in time. Like Smallville, these SFFTV artefacts manufacture ‘mythical narrative[s] of perpetual self-renewal’ (Hantke, 2012, 389) for franchises that ultimately cannot reconcile desires for stable futures with the politics of origin. For the cyborg is always wary of such human endeavours.
(1) ‘Drone’ (30 April 2002).
(2) Buerger et al.
(3) Smallville migrated for its final two seasons to the new CW network, the product of a merger between WB and its rival UPN in 2006.
(5) Davis and Dickinson argue that the audience for teen dramas also include adults (3). Cf. Ross and Stein, 5. As Wee puts it, since the 1990s ‘the term “teen” had less to do with biological age and increasingly more to do with lifestyle and shared cultural tastes and interests’ (47). jagodzinski argues that Smallville’s version of Superman responds to the embodied mutation in X-Men as a trope for disaffected youth culture and broader concerns about the invasion of national borders (174). Cf. Bukatman, 2003, 48–78.
(11) The dominant culture’s appropriation of Kawatche heritage continues in the third-season episode ‘Talisman’ (5 May 2004), which involves a Kawatche youth who mistakenly claims the Naman identity for himself after temporarily acquiring Clark’s powers.
(12) The season-two DVD release includes the short feature ‘Christopher Reeve: The Man of Steel,’ which commemorates Reeve’s contribution to the role and his passing of the torch to Tom Welling.