‘Smallville’ Anniversary: Looking Back at the CW’s First Superhero Series

     May 13, 2016


When The WB Network premiered Smallville in 2001 as a modern take on the Superman myth, costumes and capes weren’t considered cool. Even the X-Men traded their spandex for black leather, and Tobey Maguire had not yet swung into theaters as Spider-Man. Iron Man was more than a half-decade away, and Superman himself hadn’t been seen in movie theaters since 1987. A concept like a Batman vs. Superman film or a notion that there would someday be a handful of comic book related TV series on at the same time seemed like a dream that would never come true.

Interestingly enough, Smallville premiered from the ashes of a prequel project involving another DC Comics icon. In 1999, at the height of their success, The WB developed writer Tim McCanlies (The Iron Giant) and Tollin-Robbins Productions’ script for a series involving a young Bruce Wayne before he’s Batman. Unlike the later Gotham series, which focuses on the adults and the villains, Bruce Wayne centered around a 17-year-old Bruce with shareholders who are out to kill him — literally. While the pilot script had some good reviews, Bruce Wayne did not even get to the filming stages, likely quashed by the Warner Bros. movie division. With Batman off the table, The WB rolled the dice by going after a concept that studio executive Peter Roth had been wanting to do for decades — a series about a young Superman.


Image via The CW

Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar developed the series that would eventually be called Smallville with a pilot script that humanized the Clark Kent character and brought him in line with the kind of programming that the young WB audience craved. To play the iconic role, Gough and Millar recruited a new actor and former model named Tom Welling, whose few credits included a sexy role on Judging Amy. Similarly, newcomer  Kristin Kreuk was cast as Lana Lang. Solidifying the trio was the most experienced young actor so far, and an early highlight of the show: Michael Rosenbaum (Urban Legend) who yes, had to completely shave his head for the part. Allison Mack, Eric Johnson, Sam Jones III, Annette O’Toole, John Glover, and John Schneider all helped round out the original cast of the show, which premiered October 16, 2001 — a little over a month after the horrific events of 9/11 left TV audiences wanting a hero to root for.

The pilot was directed by the now Emmy-winning David Nutter, and the look of the series was set by directors including Greg Beeman (Heroes), who stayed with the show for a little over 100 episodes, and directed the series finale. While some fans derided the show’s “Freak of the Week” format in the early days — in which a usually young person is exposed to “meteor rocks” that give them strange powers — the friendship between Welling’s Clark and Rosenbaum’s Lex, as well as the romance between Clark and Lana, kept audiences watching. Allison Mack’s Chloe Sullivan also became a quick fan favorite, with some fans speculating that “Chloe” might be Lois Lane in disguise, a notion that was quashed (on-screen at least) when the actual Lois Lane showed up with Erica Durance in 2004.


Image via the CW

Flash forward to almost ten years after the series premiere, Smallville had survived the move to a fledgling network at a time when their new channel, The CW, had higher priorities mostly involving pretty-young-rich-people dramas like Gossip Girl. The show had gone from “freaks of the week” to full-on superhero events written by DC Entertainment’s own Geoff Johns, with the romance between Clark Kent and Lois Lane also told on screen in those final seasons. Several cast members, including Rosenbaum and Kreuk, departed the show, as did creators Gough and Millar. Ultimately, Smallville reached 218 episodes. And then it was over.

That end came with the two-hour series finale (appropriately titled “Finale”) which aired five years ago, on May 13, 2011. Many cast members who had departed over the years — including Michael Rosenbaum, John Glover, Annette O’Toole, and even John Schneider, whose “Jonathan Kent” was killed in the show’s 100th episode — came back for the big end. Some fans were disappointed to see that Tom Welling wasn’t very visibly seen in the Superman costume, but no one can deny that the shirt rip that concluded the series, combined with hearing the classic John Williams “Superman” score, gave audiences goosebumps.

Tom Welling has since surfaced in small roles including Draft Day and Parkland, and was set to produce and star in a new series titled Section 13 which was in contention for CBS, (which unfortunately did not order a pilot to film during this development cycle). While doing press for The Choice, the often reclusive and press-shy Welling finally addressed his time on the show and what it meant to him. “There was a lot of growing up I needed to do on that show. Fortunately, Clark had no idea what the hell he was doing and I had no idea what the hell I was doing,” Welling said to Buzzfeed‘s Jarett Wieselman earlier this year. “We kind of grew up together.”

Tom also, in a roundabout way, defended his decision not to go full Superman in the series. “This needed to be a show about Clark Kent, not about Superman,” Tom said. “That was always the rule: No flights, no tights. When we got into Season 5, they started to say, ‘Well… maybe…’ But I always maintained that’s not the show. Thank god Peter Roth knew that and always championed in our favor. … It was an incredibly unique experience,” he said.


Image via The CW

Welling’s co-star Kristin Kreuk, who left Smallville completely in 2009 and didn’t return for the series finale, came back to The CW in 2012 with a new take on the Beauty and the Beast TV series (which is wrapping this year).

Michael Rosenbaum, whose return for the Smallville season finale excited many fans, now stars as the lead of the TV Land series Impastor, while Erica Durance (sort of) played another DC Comics icon in 2012 as “Annie,” a character who believed herself to be Wonder Woman, in an episode of David E. Kelley’s Harry’s Law. Allison Mack had a role on FX’s Wilfred, and TV’s original Green Arrow, Justin Hartley, moved on to a guest role on Hart of Dixie.

Aside from the Smallville guest players who appeared in small roles in Zack Snyder‘s Superman films, one former cast member took a major role in TV’s current Super-show, as Laura Vandervoort, who played Kara/Supergirl on Smallville starting with Season 7, appeared in CBS’s (now the CW’s) Supergirl series for three episodes as the villainous Indigo.

As for the creatives behind the camera, many names familiar to current genre and superhero TV series helped shaped the series over the years. Creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar went on to AMC’s Into The Badlands and MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. Jeph Loeb, who wrote many of Smallville’s most exciting early episodes including “Red” and “Insurgence,” is now the Head of Marvel Television, bringing characters from that other major comic book universe to the small screen. Smallville alum Steven DeKnight also helmed his own comic book show for Marvel, running Marvel’s Daredevil in its first season for Netflix. Daredevil has also recruited Mark Verheiden, who wrote fan-favorite episodes including “X-Ray” and “Perry” and kept it in the DC comic book world as an EP on NBC’s Constantine.


Image via The CW

Pilot director David Nutter has continued to direct pilots for the CW, including Arrow and The Flash, both shows that would surely owe a lot to Smallville for leading the way. Elsewhere in the DC TV universe, Smallville’s Glen Winter, who started as a director of photography on the series and worked his way up as a director, helmed the first episodes of both DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. (Winter is also known as one of the most prolific and well-regarded directors of Arrow and The Flash, with actors frequently acknowledging his work.)

Smallville made stars out of Welling and the rest of the cast, with fans still paying attention to every move they make to this day. The series gave a generation their own take on the Superman legend, showing what a hero Clark Kent could be, even without the flights or the tights.” Because of it, TV executives know that a comic book hero’s journey can be told over many seasons of episodic television, and one could argue that the familiarity audiences had with the Green Arrow character on Smallville paved the way for something like Arrow. (Although, rather than getting Justin Hartley and doing a Smallville continuation, the show enlisted Stephen Amell. We all know where that story goes.)

From Arrow came series like The Flash and even a return to Kryptonian TV with Supergirl. And, of course, FOX has given us Gotham, which, like Smallville, tells us a story from a young hero’s perspective while at the same time exploring the depth of the world’s villains, giving characters like The Penguin the same humanity and attention afforded to Smallville‘s Lex Luthor.

Smallville may have signed off five years ago, but in the words of Jonathan Kent, the fan base will “always hold on to Smallville” and that ten-year journey has an indelible place in TV history.

All ten seasons of Smallville are available on DVD, and the entire series was collected in a huge box set with exclusive features in late 2011. While the show has not yet been offered on Netflix, it is expected to land on Hulu later this year.


Image via The CW