As regulars know I don’t have a TV but I do watch DVDs and recently I’ve been going through DVDs of Smallville (borrowed from my sister, just so you know, I didn’t expend any money on them myself). I’m currently almost through Season 2 and yes, I will come out with it - I am kind of hooked.
For those who haven’t heard of it, Smallville is a TV series that follows the adventure of a teenage Clark Kent growing up in his hometown of Smallville, Kansas before he becomes Superman. Now, Superman isn’t a comic book character who’s ever held much interest for me. I prefer the darker more imperfect characters like Batman, Daredevil and The Punisher. And Smallville is not exactly reeking of high brow intellectuality and can be kind of teeny and soap opera-ish. So what’s got me hooked?
Two words - Lex Luthor.
The series would be pretty ordinary without him. I probably wouldn’t even watch the show without him. Both the character and the actor (Michael Rosenbaum) who plays him are brilliant and as far as I’m concerned he steals the show. They might as well just call the series Luthor.
In this re-telling of the Superman mythology, Lex Luthor and Clark Kent start off as friends after Clark saves Lex’s life when Lex accidentally drives his speeding car off a bridge. Before Lex loses consciousness as a result of the accident, he sees his car colliding with Clark. Clark, being what he is, survives the collision, of course. From that moment on, a friendship and an obsession is forged.
Lex is grateful to Clark and befriends him, and indeed takes quite a genuine interest in him and his welfare. And at the same time, though Clark has a different recollection of events, Lex devotes his spare time to investigating whether his weird recollection was the correct one and whether his friend has extraordinary abilities. This double-edge to Lex’s friendship is but one of a series of tensions vying within the soul of Lex Luthor.
The most genuinely “evil” character in Smallville in the early part of the series isn’t Lex but his father, Lionel Luthor (who is predictably, in one scene, shown reading Nietzsche’s Beyond good and evil). Lionel is the parent from hell and can genuinely be accused of psychological abuse of his son.
Most parents want their children to grow up to be honest and caring. Lionel wants to mould his son to the same heights of ruthlessness that he has reached so he can be a worthy heir to his business empire. This involves such games as thwarting his son’s business ventures behind his back including by engaging in corporate espionage. Indeed, what makes the Lex Luthor character so admirable in this series is that despite Lionel’s parenting skills or lack thereof, he hasn’t yet succumbed to the dark side.
Through most of the early part of the series, Lex is depicted as a flawed but ultimately noble character who continually resists the temptation to slide into the amoral muck which his father gleefully swims in. Where Lex does occasionally step over the edge it is more from excess than malign intentions. For instance, he is ruthless in his investigation of the extraordinary abilities he suspects Clark has, even going to the lengths of hiring a private investigator. He is equally ruthless in his attempt to protect and further the interests of his friends, including the younger Clark in whom he takes an almost brotherly interest. Some commenters even think there is an element of homosexual obsession in the relationship between the two, which is not as far fetched as it sounds.
If anyone is the true Nietzschean “ubermensch” in this series, it is not the physically superpowered but mostly bumbling, though well intentioned, Clark Kent, his mind filled with simple minded homilies passed down from his parents (and really, what sort of dope would prefer the vacuous Lana Lang to the more spirited and intelligent Chloe Sullivan?), but Lex Luthor who exhibits a magnanimity of soul and determination, including in his constant attempts to become a better man morally than his father.
And therein lies the element of Greek tragedy that undergirds the entire series, as there are hints throughout that eventually, Lex will succumb to his dark side, and that the relationship between Lex Luthor and Clark Kent will degenerate into the more familiar enmity of the comic book series.
This tragedy is rendered more poignant by the suggestion that one thing (among many others) which will drive Lex to the dark side is because Clark really has been lying to him all this time and is unwilling to trust his friend with his secret.
In this respect, the theme song for the series with the constant refrain “Somebody save me” could almost be read as a plaintive call for Clark to save his friend from evil by trusting him. This sets up another theme which has become more developed in recent comics, notably the short Lex Luthor - man of steel series, namely that the source of enmity between the two is Luthor’s perception that Superman is a deceitful alien who is ultimately a threat to humanity. If the series’ writers run with this idea, it would give even more depth to the Superman mythos and would be consistent with the idea that Luthor’s great virtues (like his strong belief in the rightness of his purposes) are also the cause of his moral downfall.