“Now look, Lois: Kent was a heck of a reporter, but so are you, and if anybody can find a way to save Superman, you can.”–Perry White
“I have voluntarily agreed to leave Metropolis by noon tomorrow. I believe it’s the best way to put all of your fears to rest.”–Superman
It’s not hard to determine what the biggest obstacle facing the production of Lois & Clark was: it was a Superman story without the money to make us believe a man could fly without it looking obviously greenscreened. Still, the creators made the most of what they had, and when the series was on its game, they showed that while they couldn’t show Superman fighting Darkseid for the fate of the world, they didn’t need to.
Take this particular Paris Qualles-penned episode, for instance, where the major enemy is…a heat wave, which as, you know, is a pretty hard thing to punch. And while the premise is ridiculous even in the best of times–Lex Luthor has found a way to control the temperature in Metropolis (and only Metropolis) and uses this newfound power to make the city believe that Superman’s actions are responsible for the ninety-degree weather in November–the way it’s handled absolutely sells it, because of the way the episode uses the premise as an excuse to pit the characters into conflict against themselves: Clark, unable to determine the truth of the matter (he is still solidly in his first six months of doing large-scale stuff as Superman and isn’t meant to be a super-genius here) is forced to consider that his actions to help people are also doing worse harm, and the Planet’s staff”s desire to believe Superman is blameless is placed in conflict with its mission to investigate and find out the truth, even if turns out to be an undesirable one.
Eventually, the “Superman causes heat” theory gains so much traction that Metropolis officials are forced to deal with it in order to prevent public unrest, and Superman, because he is Superman, does his best to cooperate, appearing before a judge and agreeing to not use his superpowers until the cause of the heat wave is determined, under pain of incarceration. However, because Superman is Superman, he cannot go five minutes without breaking it in order to save lives, therefore getting himself incarcerated until bail can be posted. Because he is an adult and respects the law, he does it without complaint; because he is a hero, he does it without apology. And it is this attitude that separates him from the current popular conception of the character, and makes him an inspirational figure rather than a terrifying one. In a modern superhero landscape that often conflates heroism with might-is-right fascism, it’s nice to see people argue that the ability to work with others and an understanding that yes, the law matters, even when it doesn’t work to one’s advantage, and that trying to argue that he deserves to get his way because he’s Superman is not kosher.
(Incidentally, one of the few false notes in the episode occurs when an incarcerated Superman is being taunted by his fellow prisoners, including one–the person whose assault Supes had just stopped–who begins tugging on Superman’s cape attempting to get him riled up. When Asshole finally takes a swing at Superman, the Man of Steel dodges, causing Asshole to accidentally hit another fellow prisoner, who then starts beating on Asshole while Superman watches, “unable” to help due to the fact that he isn’t supposed to use his powers, which is quite unheroic–what did punchee ever do to deserve it? )
Eventually, Superman is released, but the problem remains far from solved. Thanks to Luthor’s machinations, he eventually realizes that his position is untenable and decides that he’d rather leave Metropolis than let its citizens suffer. And, because he can’t just live there and ignore the cries of people in help, he decides that Clark can’t live there either. He is beaten without ever having to take a punch.
Thank heavens for Lois Lane. Throughout this entire ordeal, when Superman’s confidence is shaken, it is her unwavering belief in his innocence and her reporter instincts that allow her to consider possibilities others won’t, and allows the reporter to save the day, a fact that Superman is in no way embarrassed to admit. Sure, part of the reason Lois does so is due to the attraction she feels for Superman, but to say that’s the only or even main reason behind her actions would be dishonest: Lois does it because she smells a lie, and that will not stand.
It’s important to note that this isn’t Lois standing by her man–as I’ve mentioned, Superman has taken a far less bullish position than she does, and she finds herself disagreeing with him throughout the episode. She goes over him because he believes the world needs a Superman and will do anything in her power to assure that there is one. Even after the loss of her best friend (Clark, whose good-bye is a heartbreaker) leaves her an emotional wreck, she’s still there plugging away at the problem. It is this tireless search–which is in no way new or special to her, as we see in every other episode–that makes her Superman’s equal, and why she doesn’t need super-powers to kick serious ass.
Finally, there’s John Shea’s Lex Luthor, who is one of my favorite versions of the character, mostly because he reminds me less of Lex Luthors of old and more one of my other favorite amoral plutocrats, Gargoyles‘ David Xanatos. Particularly of note is his relationship with his assistant Nigel, played by the great late Tony Jay in the only live-action role I’ve seen him in: it’s less that of a superior and subordinate (as Lex Luthor’s relationships with anyone are wont to be) and more of grateful student and proud former mentor: there’s warmth there, and humanity, and the fact that Nigel feels free to make suggestions–such as when he notes that Luthor can take comfort in the fact that his failed weather control plot (also designed to get the city to fast-track the approval of his nuclear power plant–which of the two goals is the primary one is left to the viewer) at least caused a 2000% sales increase in Lexcorp’s air-conditioning division–and that Lex in turn feels grateful for that reminder makes the character feel both refreshingly human and in turn far more dangerous, because he can acknowledge when he misses things.
This is also fun. Not only does it save the production the cost of actually shooting the scene where Superman rescues a train, it goes a long way to giving the character more personality than “feels superior to everybody, hates Superman.” It’s details like that, combined with stuff like Clark realizing that not using his powers means he’ll have to use a tea kettle like everyone else that make the show feel alive.
One of the more interesting things about Lois & Clark as a show is the fact that it was developed by Deborah Joy LeVine, a woman who, as far as I figure, had no contact with comic books prior to her involvement in the show, and who nevertheless gets it far more often than many actual fans. It suggests that there’s no special trick to “getting” Superman and Lois and Clark, as long as one understands people.
So why is the current DC having so much trouble with him?