‘Superman & Lois’ paints a timely, tarnished picture of the Man of Steel’s hometown

Superman and Lois“, the second season of which arrives on HBO Max today, is not your typical Superman story. On the one hand, it gives the Man of Steel and his Pulitzer-winning wife a pair of teenage sons. On the other hand, he has a decidedly modern approach – see also: post-recession – of Superman’s hometown, which he achieves thanks to his expert interaction between production design and photography. If you don’t watch the show, you might miss a timely portrayal of Superman’s House, which demands to be seen not just on its own terms, but as a thoughtful update to the version that exists in memory. cinematographic.

After Clark Kent (Tyler Hoechlin) and Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) lose their jobs at the Daily Planet through a corporate buyout, they relocate their family from the bustling metropolis to Smallville, Kansas, where their sons Jordan ( Alex Garfin) and Johnathan (Jordan Elsass) never lived. It’s certainly a fit for teenagers, but what also makes it a fit for audiences is the setting’s stark contrast to the Smallville we know on screen.

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The common rendering of the town, as well as its location in Kansas, dates back to Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman: The Movie.” This Smallville is painted in bright, sentimental hues; it’s a city of white picket fences, kind neighbors, 1950s prosperity and Norman Rockwell. It was the old world – an idyllic one, compared to the crime-ridden metropolis of New York that the wide-eyed Clark (Christopher Reeve) eventually moves to, bringing with him vivid red and blue (and red , white, and blue) simplicity when he put on his famous cape. By the time “Superman & Lois” debuted in 2021, this iteration of small-town America — which had long been America’s vision of itself — was already a shattered dream. While the show’s intro (a brief flashback montage of Superman’s childhood) hints at liveliness, some of the first images we see of Smallville these days are lockdown signs and empty streets.

“Superman: The Movie” – Credit: screenshot

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“Superman &  Laws

“Superman & Lois” – Credit: screenshot

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When Hoechlin’s Clark returns home, what he finds is an underdog and frustrated Smallville about to lean to the right – or lean towards any corporation or politician who can promise jobs to its citizens – and what her children find is a town full of boredom and nihilism blunted by alcohol and an apparent opioid crisis. The show is by no means a “dark and gritty” reboot (Superman himself maintains his garish optimism and brings the same to the people of Kansas), but compared to the bright CW shows from which the series emerged – the cheaper and more flimsy “Supergirl” and “The Flash” – “Superman & Lois” is a cut above, in its rigorous conception of time and place, struggling between the harsh reality of modern America and the Midwestern nostalgia.

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

Most of the scenes are dialogue exchanges, and the show is better for it, because the relationships between the characters not only with each other, but also with their environment, are at the heart of their stories. Series production designer Dan Hermansen also plays a major role in this – and not just because there always seems to be a handle or surface for Clark to lean on, as he silently ponders. his approach to parenthood. Hermansen’s design of the Kents’ family farmhouse, whose foundations are held firmly together but whose surface has begun to wither and rust, is a key reflection of the hardships the Kents faced after their move. Their inability to adapt manifests in aggressive (and passive aggressive) ways, which tend to fray their family dynamics, but ultimately resolving each story sees them leaning on each other to comfort.

“Superman &  Laws

“Superman & Lois” – Credit: screenshot

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Hermansen’s designs for the rest of Smallville serve a similar purpose, especially as non-superhero supporting characters grow in prominence, 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 corrupt mayor – but what makes it shine is the immediacy with which any scene can talking about Smallville and its people (or its increasing lack of extras can be seen on its streets as the show progresses and people move away). City designs, like its faded brown dining room upholstery, hint at a once bright place whose chandelier has been worn away. This especially works in tandem with color grading by final colorist Shane Harris, which infuses the decor with a dusty coat. Even the costumes that probably appeared on set often find themselves muted onscreen, as if they needed to find a way back to their original hues.

The American core of Clark’s memories exists as in cultural consciousness; you could, if you wish, argue that the Smallville of “Superman: The Movie” is what this Smallville eventually became. His landscapes are always striking, although slightly toned down. Its people are always polite and friendly, despite being mired in economic hardship. It’s still a conception of the American Dream, but an American Dream that must be fought, and returned to, through the actions of its people – which the camera captures not as just a TV subplot, but as its own extension of the cinematic myth, transformed by reality.

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Kimberly B. Nguyen