Who Made Superman ‘Super’?

    Since its earliest days, TV has been a mixed blessing at best. The old joke about five hundred channels and nothing to watch has some truth to it. When programs aren't appealing to our basest instincts, or boring us with banality, they are often nothing more than propaganda for a liberal, secular worldview. But there are exceptions. Some shows not only entertain, but also remind viewers of what families and fathers are supposed to do for their kids. The best example of this is Smallville, the latest take on the Superman saga. Smallville tells the story of the young Clark Kent, who is caught "between the boy he thought he was and the man he is destined to become." As his powers emerge, he is tempted to use them for personal gain, like being a football star or impressing the beautiful girl next door. Instead, he comes to understand that his "gifts" are tied to his true calling in life: to serve others through those gifts. Where does he learn this? From his father. As Alex Wainer, who teaches film at Georgia State University, tells us, Clark's father, Jonathan Kent, understands that "a superman unanchored by virtuous character" is something that should terrify us. So, Jonathan takes every opportunity -- when doing chores or while standing in the kitchen -- to teach his son the "principles he needs to steer through the treacherous shoals of adolescence." He teaches Clark to postpone gratification and to make sacrifices. His goal is that Clark becomes the kind of man who can worthily wield the power with which he has been entrusted. Viewers clearly understand that if Superman embodies "truth, justice, and the American way," it's because of his father. Similarly, in Smallville, the man who will become Superman's arch enemy, Lex Luthor, is also being shaped by a father. Only "his father's lovelessness and manipulations are poisoning his soul." As Wainer says, "the two fathers' stark contrast is evident in the characters of their sons." Smallville's emphasis on character, discipline, and listening to your parents stands in sharp contrast to other shows intended for the same audience, like Dawson's Creek. The contrast is apparently by design. Smallville's executive producer Al Gough told USA Today that, on most television shows, "the kids are smart, the parents are clueless, and they never talk to each other." He wanted Smallville to be the "antithesis" of these shows. And so, Clark Kent relies on his parents for guidance. His relationship with them, and the way it shapes his character, is meant to be the show's "emotional core." And viewers clearly approve. They've made Smallville The WB network's highest rated show and a "must-advertise" for those seeking to reach teenagers and young adults -- good. Unfortunately, shows like this one are still the exception. American television still remains a moral "wasteland," as it was once described. But shows like this are an occasional recognition that the ideas and worldviews that dominate so much of television don't work in the real world. They don't even work in the make-believe world. Deep down people want something better. As Smallville reminds us, the best way to produce a hero is to have him raised by someone who teaches him the meaning of word hero -- his dad. For further reading: Alex Wainer, "Superdad: Smallville and Fatherhood," BreakPoint Online, 24 October 2002. Gary Levin, "'Smallville' is super for WB," USA Today, 25 November 2002. Learn more about The WB's Smallville. Christina Hoff Sommers, The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (Simon & Schuster, 2000).


Chuck Colson


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