Before Smallville – Revisiting Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

Man of Steel? More like Man of Romance. 

Ever since Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel launched Superman in Action Comics, he’s been a considerable force in pop-culture. From those wonderful Fleischer cartoons to Man of Steel, the character has stood the test of time in the face of so much undue criticism. Therefore, it’s only natural for writers to add new ideas to the mix. Over the decades, Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman has gone through seventy-seven years of permutations, even if his basic characteristics stay the same. The same goes for the love of his life, Lois Lane.

Television producer Deborah Joy LeVine tried to add a fresh slant to her version of the comic – a 90s TV show that proved popular with very young and older viewers (yet promptly alienated readers of the source material). Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman tells you everything you need to know in the title – the Daily Planet reporters are the main focus here and the Man of Tomorrow is almost an afterthought. Taking its cues from DC Comics’ oeuvre and Richard Donner’s treasured 1978 motion picture, the ABC show attempted to represent the character in a new light. He’s Clark Kent first, Big Blue second. In that respect, the producers were able to show the blossoming relationship between Kent and Lane in significant detail. In fact, their hijinks form the backbone of every episode in the first season, with only the odd glimpse of Superman in costume. Oh, for fuck sake…

Unlike the ’78 classic, the show doesn’t begin on Krypton. Instead, we’re thrown straight into the city of Metropolis, where Lane (Teri Hatcher) begins another day at the Daily Planet newspaper. An ambitious and head-strong reporter, Lois doesn’t count on bagging a partner in the form of mild-mannered farm boy Kent (Dean Cain). According to her, this “hack from Smallville” will never be her partner, but editor Perry White (Lane Smith) insists that they work together, regardless. After working hard to get his job and falling into Lois’ good graces, Clark decides to use his powers to help those in Metropolis. Of course, this means assuming a secret identity. A trip back to his hometown sees Clark consulting his Earth parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Eddie Jones and K. Callan, respectively), who attempt to give their “son” some support. The result? A red and blue costume fashioned from the material he crash-landed in. Superman is born, a romance with Lois begins, and I begin to weap at the missed opportunities.

In most respects, Lois & Clark plays like Moonlighting crossed with the Superman formula and I suppose that could work for someone. Lois and Clark’s friendship is born out of competition – each seek the biggest stories in Metropolis, but they must put aside their differences to uncover the truth. There’s nothing terribly original about this naturally, but the DC universe can give the “buddy” conventions a big dose of fun occasionally. As for that tired “love-triangle,” forget it. Clark loves Lois, but Lois loves Superman… you know the rest by now. Sometimes it seems like Miss Lane is growing attached to Mr. Kent, only for his alter-ego to arrive and sweep her off her feet… literally. This “will they, won’t they?” element is a staple of cheese television, but if it’s drawn-out for too long, it can become tiresome. In most respects, a show can lose its way when the characters finally make it happen – Moonlighting apparently suffered such a fate, and it later killed off this show, too. Who the fuck wants to watch a domesticated Superman show? And people still moan about Man of Steel.

If you really must revisit this show, make it the first season, as LeVine was still heavily drawing from the comics in the early-goings. That’s largely thanks to another member of the cast: Supes’ legendary foe Lex Luthor (John Shea). Abandoning Gene Hackman’s overly-comedic portrayal, Shea brought a dark and sinister Luthor to the screen; a billionaire who is willing to destroy Metropolis to satisfy his desire for power. While LeVine and the writers took plenty of liberties with the source material, he is closer to the modern Luthor of the comic books than the one rendered by Hackman. That said, it’s still difficult for me to accept Luthor with a full head of hair – if Michael Rosenbaum could go through the trouble on a weekly basis, why couldn’t Shea? But the actor is good in the role and suitably slimy, especially when he tries to make a move on Lois. There’s also a great dynamic between Luthor and Superman. From the “Pilot” onward, Clark is aware of Luthor’s villainy but the citizens of Metropolis consider him to be a saint, making things considerably more difficult. Lex’s plotline travels throughout the twenty-one episode first season, but has a very disappointing pay-off. Perhaps the producers were scared to take their focus off Lois and Clark’s treacly bullshit for two seconds…

The stories are the weakest aspect of the show, by far. They would get worse over its four-year run, but they were always rocky. Despite being a superhero series, Superman rarely gets a powerful villain to face, and they are usually petty thieves or deranged scientists. And in most cases, the villain is just another puppet for Lex in the early goings. This is enlivened by a few fun episodes (especially the story concerning an invisibility suit, or the military investigation into Superman that brought Zack Snyder’s interpretation to mind). But apart from the romance, there isn’t much here for genre buffs. The best episodes (like Smallville) focus on building the Superman mythology. “Neverending Battle” is an unexpectedly great instalment in which Luthor puts his new-found foe through the ringer in a bid to find his weakness. “Foundling” is also pretty important, since it reunites Clark with his deceased Kryptonian father, Jor-El (the legendary David Warner). Finally, I recommend “The Man of Steel Bars,” which sees the city blaming Kal for a winter heatwave.

I've seen more realistic Kryptonite in Toys R Us.

I’ve seen more realistic Kryptonite in Toys R Us.

Cain has always got a bad rep for some reason, and while his performance in the costume is often wooden, he’s a perfect fit for Clark. He’s easy to like with a warm persona and plenty of charm. Yet he doesn‘t carry off the heroic aspects quite as well – he’s a million miles away from Christopher Reeve or Henry Cavill (or Tom Welling for that matter). Yet he has sufficient chemistry with the truly stunning Hatcher. The latter delivers one of the finer portrayals of Lois, and might even be better than Margot Kidder. She nails every aspect of Miss Lane – her strength of character, her ambition, and the pain that she keeps well-hidden. She embodied the character completely and few have been sexier in her shoes. But the supporting players are memorable in these long-trodden parts, too. The late Lane Smith is one of the best to play Perry White and provides most of the comedy. Same goes for Michael Landes as no-one’s favourite geek Jimmy Olsen. While the actor is fun in the role, he was ultimately too cool for Clark’s sidekick, and was replaced by friggin’ Justin Whalin from season two onward.

Today, the special effects look very poor indeed, making this show look every year of its age. Shots of Supes taking to the skies were obviously achieved with greenscreens, yet there is good use of wirework at some points. It often pulled me out of the experience, but considering the age and budget of the material, it at least improved greatly on the classic George Reeves series from the 50s. Smallville was superior in every way for actual comic book heroics.

I know there are many fans of Lois & Clark, and you have every right to love it if you grew up on it, but having only seen the odd episode back then and with no memories to tarnish, I can only look at it as an overall disaster in the attempts to bring Superman and his related characters to the screen. Television, at least back then, couldn’t hope to bring DC’s flagship hero to life. And rewriting it as a screwball comedy certainly didn’t help…

Actually, the title theme was pretty damn good. Its got that at least.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Dean Cain is afraid of flying.
  • One of the early villains describes Superman as the advance guard prior to an alien invasion. He also wonders whether Superman has any telepathic powers. In the very first story featuring the character bestowed with the name “The Superman”, Kal-El was an evil advance guard with special telepathic powers.
  • Batman is referenced three times during the run of the series.
  • The wedding of Lois and Clark on the show coincided with their wedding in the Superman comics.
  • Prior to being cast as Lois, Teri Hatcher appeared on an episode of Seinfeld, where in one scene her character made reference to Jerry’s obsession with Superman.
  • From September 1996 to June 1997, this was one of two Man of Steel series on the air. The other was the vastly superior Superman: The Animated Series.
  • Phyllis Coates, who played Lois’ mother, was the original Lois Lane on Adventures of Superman (1952).

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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