This article contains some spoilers for recent Superman & Lois episodes.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion within the world of geek pop culture about Superman – if modern audiences still respond to such a traditional do-gooder hero, whether the character should become a little rougher around the edges to remain relevant, or if we even still need stories about the Man of Steel when there are so many other iconic DC characters that have yet to make it to our screens in any form.
CW drama Superman & Lois does its best to stand as an answer to those sorts of questions, offering up a version of Superman that seems determined to remind us all why this character has long been DC Comics’ most iconic hero. Deliberately eschewing the frequently dour and violent aesthetic that has become a calling card of the DCEU’s take on the Man of Steel, this show is a deliberate return to the first principles of Superman’s story.
Earnest, heartfelt, and inherently optimistic, even as it tells complex stories about mental health and the struggles of small towns in an increasingly corporate America that steals their best and brightest, Superman & Lois never lets us forget that what makes its story so compelling is the humanity at its heart. It’s often said that every version of Superman is only as successful as its version of Clark Kent, and this show is one of the best examples of that axiom.
Ever since Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman arrived in the Arrowverse, the character has exuded a delightfully dated farm boy charm, a kind of completely unselfish all-American goodness that makes it seem possible that this Clark would be a hero in Smallville even if he didn’t have superpowers. He’s the guy you call when your cat’s stuck up a tree, or ask to join the local PTA when it needs to figure out how to raise more money, a man whose servant-hearted attitude shines through as something regular people just might be able to replicate in real life.
That’s always been the thing with Superman, though, hasn’t it? (Or at least, it ought to be.) We don’t care about Clark Kent because he can fly or shoot lasers out of his eyes – it’s always been his most everyday, human characteristics that make this character so appealing. Superman & Lois rightly remembers that and focuses its storytelling on the man at the center of it all, rather than the being from another planet.
And Clark has rarely been a more relatable figure than he is here. It’s Clark, not Superman, that we see Lois fall in love with via flashbacks. It’s Clark’s all too human love for his wife and sons that keeps him tethered to himself when Edge tries to corrupt and erase the foundations of who he is. And it’s the complex dynamics of his relationships with that very same family that set this show apart from every other Superman property that’s come before it.
In a less nuanced series, one might assume Superman would be an immediate Father of the Year candidate, what with his demonstrated history of inspirational speeches and can-do attitude. And yet, this version of Clark is often as stumped by his kids as any parent of teenage boys, often struggling to connect with his troubled son Jordan and fearing he’s neglecting the more traditionally normal Jonathan in the process.
Jordan shares many of his father’s Kryptonian abilities but often vacillates between resenting the restrictions and responsibilities his new powers place on his life and using them for what can seem like selfish reasons. (See also: Revenge on the boys who once mocked him, the opportunity to chase the high school popularity and acceptance he has up until this point been denied.) He’s a teenager, so it’s not like any of this is abnormal, but what a contrast with his father’s youth – an emotional conflict that this show smartly and frequently exploits.
Given the care (and special effects budget) that Superman & Lois lavishes on its cinematic fight and action sequences, this is a show that also understands getting the chance to see the Man of Steel in action this way is still an important part of the story it’s telling. (And let’s be honest, Hoechlin looks great in that suit.) But that action firmly takes a back seat to the larger family dynamics at work within the show, and the series is ultimately stronger for it. Because it’s through that bond that we learn that Clark Kent – that Superman – isn’t some cliché spewing automaton, but a man who still faces problems like any other, particularly when it comes balancing the needs of a world that depends upon him with his role in the family he loves.
Perhaps the idea that even Superman struggles with work-life balance ought to feel cliche or lame, but the fact that Superman & Lois acknowledges the trade-offs Clark must make to be a hero seems almost revolutionary. (And not just because this is an issue that is almost always framed as a specifically female problem.) Even though he has literal superpowers, Clark can’t be everywhere or save everyone all around the world at once, and the good he does do can often carry a steep personal cost in terms of missing important moments with his family. It’s one of the many small narrative ways that Superman & Lois reminds us that, despite the fact that he can fly, Clark faces many of the same problems and challenges we do.
Superman & Lois is remarkable in the ways that it uses parenthood and marriage to explore a new facet of Superman’s story onscreen. Clark may be one of the most powerful beings in the universe, but at the end of the day, he’s a husband and a father before he is ever a superhero. He believes in doing what’s right, and he lives those values – not just when he’s stopping trains from derailing, but when he’s trying to teach his boys how to be good men. And he treats his abilities as the gift they are, rather than an unasked-for burden he can never lay down. The end result is something that feels entirely new – and, for once, seems as though it could go anywhere. And given that this character has been around for nearly a century at this point, that feels like a fairly incredible feat.