Image: The CW
How season 1 of the show secretly reinvented a ’90s comics plot for today
Just when it seemed like The CW was running out of DC super steam, Superman & Lois arrived with surprisingly warm grace, a confident response to the idea that Superman stories are boring. A simple twist made it stand out from its peers on The CW and beyond: making the Man of Steel the center of a family drama, as Clark Kent (Tyler Hoechlin) and Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) moved to Smallville to raise their teen boys — one of whom began to manifest superpowers.
That doesn’t mean Superman & Lois was light on action or comic book intrigue. In fact, it pulled off one of the deftest tricks I’ve seen a superhero show do: sneakily adapting one of the messiest and sprawling comic book stories into something that felt fresh and new.
At the start of season 1, Superman & Lois introduced two threats, one superhuman, the other less so. The first is The Stranger (Wolé Parks), a man in a suit of power armor seemingly hellbent on destroying Superman. The other is Morgan Edge (Adam Rayner), a businessman buying up Smallville to his own nefarious ends. These twin antagonists serve the dual purposes of the show nicely — the show, after all, is about Superman and Lois, and part of why it succeeds as a family drama is its focus on the community around the Kent-Lane family. Morgan Edge is a problem Superman can’t punch (or, at least, can’t solve by punching), but he is one that star reporter Lois Lane can tackle, and also give the show’s writers to tell stories about the decline of local news and how rapacious businessmen exploit the vulnerable, vanishing middle class.
Photo: The CW
However, it is also nice to have Superman punch things, and The Stranger is very punchable. He’s also a fun mystery: It’s suggested that he may be a new version of Lex Luthor at first, and that he comes from a world where Superman has gone rogue and conquered the planet.
Then, in its seventh (“Man of Steel”) and ninth (“Loyal Subjekts”) episodes, the writers of Superman & Lois invert these antagonists. First, in “Man of Steel,” The Stranger is revealed to not be Lex Luthor, but John Henry Irons, who in DC comics lore becomes the Superman ally Steel. Then in “Loyal Subjekts,” Morgan Edge confronts Superman and tells him that he is also from Krypton, his secret half-brother Tal-Rho. Tal Rho’s plan for Smallville involves using Kryptonian tech and something called X-Kryptonite to bring back the consciousness of dead Kryptonians in the bodies of Smallville’s citizens, thereby raising an army of Supermen to dominate Earth. The icing on the cake? The device he’s using for this process is called The Eradicator.
As any amateur ’90s comics scholar can tell you, telling a Superman story with both The Eradicator and Steel in it is pretty loaded territory. While both have appeared in many comics over the years, the two first appeared in one of the most notorious Superman epics ever: The Death and Return of Superman. Specifically, they’re introduced in the “Reign of the Supermen” arc, a story where, following Superman’s death at the hands of the monster Doomsday in 1993’s Superman #75, the hero was temporarily replaced by not one, but four new heroes bearing his iconic S.
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Each of them had a different claim to his legacy, and since Superman’s body went missing, a few even claimed to be him. The Cyborg Superman was a man-machine hybrid that claimed to be Superman rebuilt, The Eradicator was a visored zealot that claimed to be Superman reborn but fully embracing his Kryptonian heritage and not terribly interested in humanity. Steel, as we know, was a man in a suit of armor inspired by Superman, and Superboy, the best of them all, was the teenage clone of Superman, the brash young “Metropolis Kid.”
How “good” this stretch of stories are is a matter of taste, but they are remarkable in how additive they were to the Superman mythology, as every one of the Supermen introduced following Superman’s death frequently returned, particularly Steel and Superboy, who would become well-loved characters in their own right.
Making a straight TV adaptation of “Reign of the Supermen” is next to impossible. As it’s told in comics, it requires Superman’s death first (a wildly cynical move for the first season of a show called Superman & Lois) and then gets tangled up in an alien warlord arriving and destroying an entire city on the West Coast, an event that subsequently makes the Green Lantern lose his mind and become a supervillain. A CW show does not have time for all that, at least not without implicating a few other Arrowverse shows with the plot.
Photo: The CW
The wonderful thing the writers of Superman & Lois do instead is strip it for parts in a way that teases viewers familiar with comics lore, but uses those parts in the service of something unique. Superman & Lois, more than a lot of its peers, is designed to be the sort of show that would already exist without superheroes. It’s just as much a love letter to Everwood as it is a DC Comics adaptation, and figuring out how to make Superman stories work through that lens has resulted in one of the most earnestly beautiful superhero stories you can watch right now.
Clark and Lois figuring out how to relate and help their son Jordan (Alex Garfin), a shy recluse who struggles with anxiety and superpowers, as well as Jonathon (Jordan Elsass), their popular and athletic son who does not, is just as important to the plot as thwarting world domination. They’re kids who need love, and the show expands in their direction, taking the time to explore their love interests, ambitions, and conflicting feelings about having a dad who is literally Superman.
It’s easy to get exhausted by all of the capes on screens and the ways Marvel and DC comic book adaptations dominate the cultural conversation. Superheroes aren’t, after all, inherently interesting; there are piles and piles of lousy comics that prove you need just a little bit more than a guy with laser eyes to get people to care. There is, however, still plenty that can be said via superhero stories — and it’s refreshing that, in its first, remarkably graceful season, Superman & Lois found a way to do that.
Superman & Lois season 1 is currently streaming on The CW.com and on HBO Max. Season 2 premieres on Tuesday, Jan. 11.