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Can Superman & Lois Rescue the Flagging CWverse?

Clark Kent's latest adventure returns both the hero and The CW to their Smallville roots.
  • Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch star in Superman & Lois (The CW).
    Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch star in Superman & Lois (The CW).

    Like most network TV programming, the CW's slate of superhero shows have had a rough year. Hoping to right the ship, or at least stabilize it, the network has enlisted DC Comics' most iconic hero to headline a brand-new showcase series. It's a bold move, but also a gamble. Will Superman & Lois carry the franchise and soar, or might the show diminish one of DC's greatest assets?

    Greatly disrupted by pandemic-related production slowdowns and stoppages in 2020, The Flash, Supergirl, and Batwoman all had to cut their seasons short, leaving important storylines unresolved. This was particularly problematic in the case of Batwoman, which also suffered behind-the-scenes turmoil when star Ruby Rose walked away from the show without filming a proper exit, forcing the producers to rewrite and recast for the following season.

    All of that came right on the heels of the franchise ending its flagship and former namesake series, Arrow, after an eight-year run. Of the remaining shows, The Flash and Supergirl have grown long in the tooth and were in the middle of decidedly weak seasons when they ended prematurely last year. While The Flash will continue on through at least two more seasons, the CW has grounded Supergirl; the show's upcoming sixth season will be her last. Also soon to turn out the lights is Black Lightning, currently airing its fourth and final season. Meanwhile, the network passed on the proposed Green Arrow & the Canaries spinoff that was set up in a backdoor pilot just before the Arrow series finale. Another potential new show, called Wonder Girl, was canned during development.

    Enter Superman & Lois

    With so much of the franchise on shaky ground, clearly the CWverse could use a pair of strong shoulders to carry it forward through the next phase of its evolution. Who could be better suited to that than the Man of Steel himself? First introduced in Season 2 of Supergirl, Clark Kent/Superman (Tyler Hoechlin) has periodically stopped by that show to help his cousin, and has participated in some of the franchise-wide crossover events, including last year's Crisis on Infinite Earths.

    The premise of Superman & Lois finds Clark and long-time love Lois Lane (played by Elizabeth Tulloch, formerly of NBC's Grimm) forsaking big city life in Metropolis and moving back to the Kent family farm in Smallville. In this way, the show represents a homecoming not just for the character, but for the CW network itself, which launched back in 2006 by picking up predecessor The WB's long-running Superman prequel drama Smallville and continuing on with it for another five years. Comparisons between that show and this one are unavoidable, and may even be welcomed. (Smallville star Tom Welling reprised his role for a cameo in Infinite Earths last year.) In many ways, the decision to bring in Superman now and put him back in Smallville must have felt like a no-brainer for the network. Yet the plan also has its risks.

    First is the choice of Superman himself. Although still a marquee character for DC Comics, the Man of Steel's luster has waned in recent decades as audiences have struggled to connect with him. The last couple of solo live-action movies (starring Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill, respectively) underwhelmed, and his crossovers with Batman and the Justice League were viewed as bitter disappointments. While not all of that is the character's fault, his cachet is not what it used to be. And although Hoechlin's portrayal of him worked well enough in the limited screen time he's had to date, it remains to be seen whether modern audiences still care enough about Superman to justify a TV show about him today.

    Having said that, Superman remains a major pop culture icon. In fact, as part of DC's holy trinity of Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman, he may actually be too big a presence for the CWverse, which has made it a point of pride to elevate B- and C-List comic book characters to headline stature. When Arrow premiered in 2012, the idea of basing a whole TV show around a low-level superhero like Green Arrow was initially greeted with skepticism. Likewise, Supergirl, Batwoman, Stargirl, Black Lightning, and the Legends of Tomorrow were all basically minor-leaguers in the DC canon. Only The Flash had much name recognition value prior to getting his own series, but he's still several steps down in the hierarchy below Superman. Bringing Superman into the CWverse almost feels like an open admission that his feature film career isn't working out these days.

    The other potential problem with Superman & Lois is the setting. Although basing an entire series in Smallville worked for the prequel that took place before Clark Kent got all his powers, it makes less sense for the character as an adult. The show's narrative justification for this is that Lois and Clark's decision was driven by their sudden parenthood of two teenage sons, whose existence was sprung on them as fallout from the multiverse collapse in Infinite Earths. However, that doesn't change the fact that Superman is already an established presence in this world. His sudden absence from Metropolis and repeat appearances in a Kansas podunk should be more than a little conspicuous to everyone. How can Clark possibly still hide his identity?

    What's he supposed to do there, anyway? Is the plan for Clark to retire from superheroics and leave the protection of the world in the hands of his cousin and her friends? That's obviously not going to last more than the first half hour of the pilot episode, or this wouldn't be a terribly exciting TV series. The network trailers make it abundantly clear that danger will follow Clark to Smallville. But, again, it just seems very problematic from a story perspective to have supervillains descend on a small town nowheresville week after week.

    And what about Lois? She shares title billing. One can hope she has something more to do than being sidelined every episode, left at home while Clark goes out adventuring. Yes, raising kids is hard and important work, but we're not watching a domestic drama here. This is a superhero show. Viewers have a right to expect lots of punching and explosions. It's not clear yet where Lois fits into that.

    Perhaps Superman & Lois has good answers for these questions and solid plans to deal with all of these potential stumbling blocks. We'll find out when the show premieres tonight.

    Superman & Lois premieres on The CW February 23rd at 8:00 PM ET.

    Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.

    TOPICS: Superman & Lois, The CW, Supergirl, Elizabeth Tulloch, Tyler Hoechlin, Superman