Superman & Lois. The CW Tuesday, February 23, 9 p.m.
I have a damning confession to make. Though I’m a TV critic in an entertainment world rife with superheroes, I haven’t laid eyes on Superman—not in a TV show, a movie, a video game, or comic book—in more than 40 years. (And then only because a journalist friend advised me that the movie Superman, with Christopher Reeve, included Daily Planet editor Perry White’s explanation of what made Clark Kent such a great reporter: He was “the fastest typist I’ve ever seen.”)
Otherwise, my knowledge of the character is pretty much limited to the old 1950s TV series, which my elementary-schoolkid pals and I watched endlessly in syndication, laughing ourselves into tears as Superman busted such threats to the American way of life as a rogue ventriloquist’s dummy, some Haitian voodoo priests and even—egad! —a crooked professional wrestler. We lost interest when we realized Superman was never going to use his X-ray vision to look under Lois Lane’s clothes. (We continued to hold out hope for those X-Ray Spex we saw in ads in the back of comic books.)
In the years since, I’ve missed about 200 Superman movies and TV shows, and that’s only counting those that have the word “Superman” in the title—when you start adding Superboys and Supergirls and Superdogs (seriously), the numbers turn googolesque. I am, generally speaking, unrepentant about this, though I’ll confess to an occasional twinge of longing to see Superman and the Mole Men, in which a grungy race of underground creatures wield a death-ray thingy which looked alarmingly like my mom’s Electrolux vacuum.
So I wasn’t expecting much out of The CW’s Superman & Lois, the big guy’s latest iteration. Instead, you can color me amazed. The ageless Man of Steel has leapt not over tall buildings at a single bound, but an entire generation. At the cusp of middle age, he’s got money problems, sullen teenagers, carping in-laws and a restless wife. For the first time ever, he’s getting a taste of the inevitability facing a substantial number of his fans: Getting old is not for wimps.
Not that Superman & Lois isn’t planted squarely with The CW’s Arrowverse, the shared universe of DC Comics superheroes that the network began building a decade ago with Arrow and now numbers six series. It even features familiar faces in its title roles; Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch have been playing Clark Kent and Lois Lane as recurring characters on CW shows like Supergirl and The Flash for several years.
But in Superman & Lois, they’re well past the incognito-superhero-and-suspicious-ingenue-reporter stage. They’re married, with twin sons on the verge of starting high school and already fully immersed in the mom-and-dad-bashing ethos of teenage life. “You may have been sent here to be some kind of hero,” declares one of the boys to his dad, “but you sure as hell weren’t sent here to be a father.”
Less brutally, perhaps, but just as pointedly, Lois shares the kids’ conviction that Clark is away from home too much, working double-time as a reporter by day and then donning the superhero tights at night. Even his sweet old human mother back in little Smallville joins in the chorus of carping about his late hours. “I do have a responsibility to the world, Mom,” wearily replies Clark, just back from stopping the meltdown of a nuclear power plant.
He doesn’t mention the latest round of newsroom layoffs at his paper, the Daily Planet, which even with its endless stream of Superman scoops (written by Lois in splendidly blithe disregard for any known code of journalism ethics), faces declining circulation and increasing pressure to produce clickbait crap. Or maybe fake news: “People quit reading that paper because you reporters can’t keep your politics to yourselves,” snipes one of Clark’s friends.
And his worse-for-wear mom says nothing of the troubles in Smallville, an economic moonscape where trailer-park meth labs are the only growth industry and a predatory zillionaire is gobbling up all the foreclosed farms. Like a lot of Americans taking their first steps onto the downhill side of middle age, Clark and Lois feel the melancholia and menace of a world closing in. “When we were dreaming about having a family,” murmurs a forlorn Lois in an unguarded moment, “it didn’t look like this, did it?”
To be sure, Superman & Lois is not some do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-Kryptonite wallow in gerontologic despair. It has plenty of conventional superhero plots, all imaginative and well-crafted. (That nuclear power plant mess was no one-off, but the work of a serial melt-downer who appears to have a grudge against Superman.) It’s not above having a little straight-faced fun with itself—I loved a scene where Clark super-slaps around a vending machine that refused to turn loose a bag of potato chips. And the acting never turns hacky or camp. In particular, Jordan Elsass (Little Fires Everywhere) and stage actor Alex Garfin as Clark and Lois’ kids manage to seem troubled without turning into martyred teenage drama queens.
Overall, the show—or at least its pilot episode, the only one The CW made available—manages the extraordinary feat of appealing to young genre fans as well striking a chord with their parents, even those still wondering if modern technology can’t produce a pair of X-Ray Spex that really work. As an embroidered sampler on the Kent family home in Smallville observes, “IT ALL WENT BY SO FAST.”