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‘Superman & Lois’ Paints a Timely, Tarnished Picture of the Man of Steel’s Hometown

The show’s cinematography, color, and production design craft a modern approach to truth, justice, and the American way.

Superman & Lois -- "A Brief Reminiscence In-Between Cataclysmic Events" -- Image Number: SML111a_0251r.jpg -- Pictured (L-R):  Jordan Elsass as Jonathan Kent,  Alexander Garfin as Jordan Kent, Tyler Hoechlin as Superman and Bitsie Tulloch as Lois Lane -- Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW -- © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

“Superman & Lois”

Bettina Strauss

Superman & Lois,” whose second season arrives on HBO Max today, isn’t your typical Superman story. For one thing, it gives the Man of Steel and his Pulitzer-winning wife a pair of teenage sons. For another, it has a distinctly modern — see also: post-recession — approach to Superman’s hometown, which it achieves through its expert interplay between production design and photography. If you aren’t watching the show, you might be missing out on a timely depiction of Superman’s home, one that demands to be seen not only on its own terms, but as a thoughtful update to the version that exists within the cinematic memory.

After Clark Kent (Tyler Hoechlin) and Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) lose their jobs at the Daily Planet, courtesy of a corporate buyout, they move their family from the bustling Metropolis to Smallville, Kansas, where their sons Jordan (Alex Garfin) and Johnathan (Jordan Elsass) have never lived. It’s certainly an adjustment for the teens, but what makes it equally an adjustment for the audience is the setting’s stark contrast to the Smallville we’ve come to know on screen.

The common rendering of the town, as well as its location in Kansas, traces back to Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” from 1978. This Smallville is painted with bright and sentimental hues; it’s a town of white picket fences, kindly neighbors, 1950s prosperity, and Norman Rockwell. It was the old world — an idyllic world, compared to the crime-ridden, New York-esque Metropolis to which a wide-eyed Clark (Christopher Reeve) eventually moves, bringing with him a bright red and blue (and red, white, and blue) simplicity when he donned his famous cape. By the time “Superman & Lois” began in 2021, this iteration of small-town America — which had long been America’s vision of itself — was already a broken dream. While the show’s introduction (a brief flashback montage of Superman’s childhood) hints at a vivacity, some of the first images we see of Smallville in the present day are foreclosure signs and empty streets.

A still of the Kent family farm from Superman: The Movie

“Superman: The Movie”

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A home under foreclosure in "Superman & Lois"

“Superman & Lois”

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When Hoechlin’s Clark moves back home, what he finds is a downtrodden, frustrated Smallville on the verge of leaning right — or leaning toward whichever corporation or politician can promise its citizens jobs — and what his children find is a town full of boredom, and nihilism dulled by alcohol and a seeming opioid crisis. The show is by no means a “dark and gritty” reboot (Superman himself maintains his wide-eyed optimism, and brings the same to the people of Kansas), but compared to the bright CW shows out of which the series spun — the cheaper and flimsier “Supergirl” and “The Flash” — “Superman & Lois” is a cut above, in its exacting conception of time and place, wrestling between the dour reality of modern America and Midwestern nostalgia.

The show’s 2.20:1 widescreen aspect ratio (compared to the 16:9 of its aforementioned peers) already places it in a distinctly vintage cinematic space. This classical aesthetic is enhanced further by the use of anamorphic lenses (the Panavision B series, originally designed in the 1960s), which both capture the breadth of the landscape and subtly curve its corners, as if they were painted by brush-stroke. Director Lee Toland Krieger and cinematographer Gavin Struthers set the visual stage in the first two episodes, before handing the reins to cinematographers Stephen Maier and Gordon Verheul. There have been better hours of “Superman & Lois” (mostly in its first season) as well as occasional worse ones (mostly in itssecond season), but they’ve rarely strayed from the portraiture and careful compositions Krieger and Struthers first introduced.

Most scenes are dialogue exchanges, and the show is better for it, since the relationships between the characters to not only to each other, but to their surroundings, is central to their stories. Series production designer Dan Hermansen has a major hand in this as well — and not just because there always seems to be a handle or surface for Clark to rest on, as he silently reflects on his approach to parenting. Hermansen’s conception of the Kent family farm, whose foundations are held strongly together but whose surface has begun to wither and rust, is a key reflection of the trials faced by the Kents after their move . Their inability to adjust manifests in aggressive (and passive aggressive) ways, which has a tendency to fray their family dynamics, but ultimately, the resolution of each story sees them leaning on each other for comfort.

A desolate Smallville street in "Superman & Lois"

“Superman & Lois”

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Hermansen’s designs for the rest of Smallville serve a similar purpose, especially as supporting, non-superhero characters grow in importance, as does their involvement in local politics. The narrative approach is simple — Clark’s high-school sweetheart Lana (Emmanuelle Chriqui) hopes to supplant the town’s cartoonishly corrupt mayor — but what makes it shine is the immediacy with which any scene can tell you about Smallville and its people (or its increasing lack thereof; fewer extras can be seen walking its streets as the show goes on, and as people move away). The town’s designs, like its faded maroon diner upholstery, hint at a once-bright locale whose luster has been worn down. This especially works in tandem with the color grading by final colorist Shane Harris, who imbues the setting with a dusty layer. Even the costumes that likely popped on set often find themselves muted onscreen, as if they need to find a way to regain their original hues.

The American heartland of Clark’s memories exists as if within the cultural consciousness; you could, if you so choose, make the case that the Smallville of “Superman: The Movie” is what this Smallville eventually became. Its landscapes are still striking, if slightly subdued. Its people are still polite and neighborly, despite being bogged down by economic woes. It’s still a conception of the American dream, but an American dream that needs to be fought for, and returned to, through the actions of its people — which the camera captures not as mere television subplot, but as its own extension of cinematic myth, transformed by reality.

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