Since Superman’s debut in 1938, various mediums, including radio serials, TV shows, movies, animated projects, and non-comic book material, have presented numerous interpretations of the iconic character to diverse audiences. Following a hiatus from the airwaves, the Man of Steel made a comeback in 2001 through the WB-turned-CW series, Smallville. This series, narrating the origin tale of a teenage Clark Kent (Tom Welling) evolving into Superman, succeeded where other live-action adaptations faltered: by emphasizing the significance of his bond with his adoptive parents.
Jonathan and Martha Kent: The Architects of Superman’s Moral Foundation
While the earliest Superman comic books didn’t emphasize Ma and Pa Kent’s impact on their son’s crime-fighting career (back when they were Sarah and Eben Kent or Mary and John Kent, depending on the project), it wasn’t long before they became integral to the Man of Steel’s expanding mythology. Starting with issues of Adventure Comics and Superboy during the Silver Age (1956-1970), which frequently recounted Superman’s younger years as the Boy of Steel, Martha and Jonathan Kent evolved into the definitive “Ma and Pa” Kent. Under these names, Superman’s parents emerged as the most influential figures in his life, significantly shaping his character. Parenting a superpowered alien from Krypton isn’t something everyone can handle, but the Kents’ moral strength and strong work ethic provided the ideal foundation for a young Clark to learn essential values.
Over time, DC Comics altered its approach. While Jonathan typically met his demise before witnessing Clark’s transformation into Superman (or shortly thereafter), DC Comics started keeping both parents alive well into adulthood, notably with The Man of Steel reboot written by John Byrne. (Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie adhered to the traditional narrative, but the comics opted for a different trajectory.) Following this trend, Smallville excelled in leveraging Jonathan (John Schneider) and Martha (Annette O’Toole) to mentor Clark as he unraveled the extent of his powers. Across the initial five seasons, as Clark explored the capabilities of his Kryptonian physiology, Jonathan and Martha provided unwavering support. Without Jonathan’s insightful guidance on each newfound ability and Martha’s steadfast encouragement, Smallville’s Clark Kent would not have evolved into Superman. This becomes increasingly apparent as the series progresses, notably emphasized in “Luthor” (Season 10, Episode 10), where an alternate reality depicts a world where Clark was raised by Lionel Luthor (John Glover) and mirrors his dark path.
Smallville, Clark Receives Steadfast Support from His Parents
Navigating through the complexities of growing up involves making mistakes and learning valuable lessons. In the realm of Superman-related media, the portrayal of Clark Kent rarely delves into significantly poor decisions. However, the depiction of Smallville’s Clark Kent stands out as a unique exploration of a flawed hero who grapples with substantial errors over the course of ten seasons. Clark’s journey unfolds as he disrupts his own life, distances himself from loved ones, inadvertently triggers his mother’s miscarriage, and tragically becomes the catalyst for his father’s demise in the series’ pivotal 100th episode (“Reckoning”). Nevertheless, each misstep serves as a crucible for growth, shaping Clark into a better person and a more resilient hero.
A poignant example occurs in “Exodus” (Season 2, Episode 23) when Clark, willingly succumbing to the influence of Red Kryptonite, leaves Smallville, driven by shame for his actions. Throughout these tumultuous moments, his parents steadfastly support him, never abandoning their son or withholding forgiveness for his lapses in judgment. Jonathan goes to great lengths, even striking a deal with Jor-El (Terrence Stamp), to rescue Clark from the consequences of his own recklessness—a decision that ultimately contributes to Jonathan’s later demise. This intervention forces Clark to confront the fallout of his choices.
Rooted in the moral teachings of the Kents, Clark’s inherent goodness prompts him to consistently risk his life, whether powered or not, for the well-being of others. His belief in the potential goodness of individuals, influenced by his parents, is evident in his enduring trust in Lex (Michael Rosenbaum). This trust is a reflection of the Kents’ teachings, encouraging Clark to see the best in people. However, as the narrative unfolds, mirroring Jonathan’s cautious nature, Clark’s trust in Lex diminishes, showcasing the intricate interplay between parental influence and personal growth.
Martha’s profound love for her son takes center stage in “Crusade” (Season 4, Episode 1), marking a pivotal moment in Smallville’s narrative. It is through Martha’s unwavering love that Clark manages to overcome the mind wipe imposed by Jor-El. Martha’s willingness to risk her own life to save her son becomes a catalyst for Clark’s return, a reunion that coincides with Jonathan awakening from his coma. In essence, Smallville’s distinctive strength lies in its ability to anchor Clark with the genuine love and support of his family.
While other Superman adaptations, such as Superboy and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, also emphasize Clark’s connection with his parents, Smallville distinguishes itself by making this familial bond the narrative focal point. The entire storyline of the show is intricately framed around the enduring influence of the Kent family’s love on Clark’s journey, contributing to the unique and special nature of Smallville.
Smallville’ Showcases Jonathan Kent’s Lasting Impact on Clark, Beyond His Passing
When Jonathan Kent met his demise, Clark had already completed high school. In a narrative tradition reminiscent of earlier portrayals, including Superman: The Movie, Smallville sees Pa Kent passing away before witnessing his son embrace the cape and soar into the skies. Nevertheless, Jonathan’s impact on Clark’s life and the shaping of his destiny persists strongly in the show’s concluding five years. Far from diminishing, this circumstance underscores the robustness of their bond and highlights the enduring significance of Jonathan’s moral teachings and unwavering character in Clark’s formative years.
In the episode “Void” (Season 5, Episode 17), Clark experiences a brief death and has a profound encounter with his father in the afterlife. In this ethereal realm, Clark expresses his difficulty imagining a life without Jonathan. However, Jonathan, steadfast in his belief in his son, emphasizes Clark’s destiny as a symbol of peace and justice, urging him to return to the world of the living. This poignant moment is just one example of how Jonathan continues to influence and guide Clark, even from beyond the grave.
In the later episode “Lazarus” (Season 10, Episode 1), Jonathan’s spirit persists in offering guidance to Clark. Encouraging his son to pursue his destined path, Jonathan foretells that this journey will culminate in the series finale. Before reaching this point, however, Clark must confront a world where he was raised by Lionel Luthor, leading to two visits to Earth-2. During the second visit, Clark encounters a broken and isolated Jonathan Kent. Demonstrating the man he has become under his father’s guidance, Clark inspires Jonathan’s doppelgänger to continue living and reconcile with Martha in “Kent” (Season 10, Episode 17). This moment serves as a powerful reminder that not only would Clark have taken a dark path if raised by the Luthors, but the Kents themselves would have experienced profoundly different lives.
The culmination of this journey occurs in the series finale, where the ghost of Jonathan Kent symbolically hands Clark his cape. This poignant gesture makes Smallville’s finale a remarkably fitting and resonant transition from an ordinary man to the iconic Superman, marking one of the most impactful on-screen superhero evolutions.
Smallville’ Masterfully Portrays Martha Kent’s Integral Role in Shaping Clark’s Life and Destiny
In Smallville, the role of parenting extends beyond Jonathan, with Martha playing a crucial part in Clark’s journey, particularly in the later years. Although she is part of the main cast for only one season following Jonathan’s death, Martha assumes a new and essential role in safeguarding Clark. While Jonathan was the guide for new abilities and moral lessons, Martha takes on the responsibility of protecting her family from the shadows, a quality that Clark later adopts in Season 9.
In the second season, Martha takes a job with Lionel Luthor to support their family financially and, more importantly, to shield Clark’s secret, which was perilously close to being exposed by Lionel. Unlike Jonathan’s more direct approach to the Luthor threat, which tragically led to his demise, Martha adopts a more strategic approach. She uses her position to gather information about what Lionel knows concerning Clark and works to eliminate it. Later on, leveraging her political power, Martha assumes the guise of the Red Queen to infiltrate Checkmate and safeguard Clark’s identity from scrutiny by world leaders.
While Martha’s involvement in espionage was a unique creation for Smallville, her gentle demeanor and heartwarming character draw inspiration directly from the comics. In Season 6, when Clark unintentionally takes the life of an alien tyrant, he grapples with the realization of the mistake he made. Despite knowing it was the only choice at the time, he acknowledges that he was raised with better values. Martha steps in to comfort her son, emphasizing that these emotions and conflicts are integral to his humanity (or Kryptonian equivalent). She’s correct, and Clark’s perception of himself as one of us, as human, forms a crucial link to humanity. When he severs that connection, things tend to take a darker turn, and we’re not just referring to his Season 9 trench coat.
Smallville’ Triumphs Where ‘Man of Steel’ Falls Short, and ‘Superman & Lois’ Continues the Legacy
Smallville remains cherished over the years primarily because the show consistently upheld a strong moral stance. The unwavering moral compass of the Kents played a pivotal role in influencing Clark to cultivate his own sense of morality. Despite their imperfections, such as Jonathan’s struggles with anger and Martha’s inclination towards deception, these traits are inherited by Clark, compelling him to confront and overcome them on his journey. The Kents’ steadfast values serve as the foundation that propels Clark towards the path of becoming a hero. His transformation from being coincidentally present in the right place at the right time to actively seeking out individuals to rescue is a testament to the profound impact of his parents’ moral guidance, a trajectory that was beyond their imagination during his high school years.
In contrast, Zack Snyder’s divisive film, “Man of Steel,” portrays a Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) who harbors uncertainty about whether his son should intervene to save people. This hesitation leads to Jonathan’s arguably senseless demise, prompting Clark (Henry Cavill) to embark on a journey of self-discovery before publicly revealing his identity. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” advises Jonathan to his son, emphasizing the need for Clark to determine the kind of person he wants to become—a man of good or bad character. While this advice may seem reasonable on the surface, the deviation from Pa Kent’s traditional moral standpoint ultimately steers Clark in a different direction. Jonathan’s indecisiveness, evident when he contemplates whether he should have allowed a school bus full of kids to perish, contrasts sharply with the steadfast Jonathan Kent portrayed in Smallville.
Fortunately, the enduring legacy of Smallville persists in shows like “Superman & Lois,” where Tyler Hoechlin’s Man of Steel assumes both the Jonathan and Martha roles, safeguarding his twin sons and imparting valuable life lessons. While living up to his hero’s example is undoubtedly challenging, it reflects the profound influence of his upbringing by his parents. If there’s a singular element that makes Smallville a compelling watch, whether for an initial viewing or repeated re-watching, it is the show’s nuanced and impactful portrayal of Ma and Pa Kent.
The article discusses what sets “Smallville” apart in its portrayal of Superman compared to other adaptations. It highlights the show’s emphasis on the significance of Superman’s bond with his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. The article explores how “Smallville” delves into the Kents’ influence on Clark’s crime-fighting career and moral development, contrasting it with other adaptations that may deviate from this focus.
The piece delves into the role of the Kents in shaping Clark’s character and their enduring impact on his life, even after Jonathan’s passing. It discusses specific episodes, such as “Exodus” and “Crusade,” where Clark makes mistakes, but the unwavering support and guidance from his parents contribute to his growth as a hero.
Furthermore, the article addresses how “Smallville” handles the aftermath of Jonathan’s death and continues to depict his influence on Clark, even beyond the grave. It mentions poignant moments in episodes like “Void” and “Lazarus,” highlighting the enduring significance of Jonathan’s moral teachings.
The article also recognizes the unique portrayal of Martha Kent in “Smallville,” particularly in the later years after Jonathan’s death. It discusses her role in protecting Clark’s secret, her involvement in espionage, and her influence on Clark’s perception of his humanity.
Finally, the article contrasts “Smallville” with other adaptations, such as “Man of Steel,” pointing out the differences in the portrayal of Jonathan Kent and how it impacts Clark’s character development. It concludes by acknowledging the enduring legacy of “Smallville” in shows like “Superman & Lois,” where the nuanced and impactful portrayal of Ma and Pa Kent continues to play a central role.