When Smallville debuted in October 2001, no one could have anticipated that the superhero television show would last for 10 seasons and become recognised as one of the best Superman adaptations of all time. Its popularity was so high that fans even called for Tom Welling to suit up as the Man of Steel in 2006’s Superman Returns. Even though that never happened, Welling still holds a major advantage over all the other actors who portrayed Kal-El.
Smallville was ahead of its time
At the turn of the century, comic book properties weren’t as in vogue as they are now. Hollywood hadn’t quite forgiven Batman & Robin‘s spectacular failure at the box office in 1997, and there was major apprehension about investing too much into caped characters. Initially, Tollin/Robbins Productions wanted to do a television series based on a young Bruce Wayne; however, Warner Bros. wasn’t prepared to give the green light since it still toyed with the idea of another Batman movie.
Superman, though, was available since no one wanted to do a film without Christopher Reeve (though Tim Burton unsuccessfully tried with Nicolas Cage) and the character had proven to be a success on TV before: with 1988’s Superboy and 1993’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman being relatively well received. However, Smallville wanted to do something different. It didn’t just focus on Clark Kent’s part of the world, but his entire existence within the DC Universe, meaning that viewers saw other heroes like Aquaman, Cyborg, Flash, and the Green Arrow appear in the series. In many ways, it created the Arrowverse formula.
What Tom Welling’s Superman did right
Rather ironically, one of Smallville‘s mandates was to not focus on Superman. It might sound like a terrible idea on paper, since the Man of Steel is an iconic character in pop culture, so why wouldn’t a show try and maximise on the feel-good factor of the blue and red costume? But this show was about Clark.
Throughout 10 seasons, fans got to see Tom Welling’s Superman before he was Superman. While he didn’t sport the legendary costume or twirl in his hair, his personality was formed through his trials and tribulations both in high school and as a young adult. We watched as he fell in love, had his heart broken, tried to confide in people about his secret, and generally found his place in the world. It was the adaptation that focused on who Kal-El/Clark Kent really is as a person. Every other adaptation of the character has leaned heavily on the Superman aspect, since that’s the phase of his life we encounter him in. Smallville took it down to bare basics and who Clark really was at his core—and that’s exactly what Tom Welling achieved.