Smallville 9.11/9.12: "Absolute Justice"

When this double-length episode was first announced, I was a bit concerned. The last time the producers brought in Geoff Johns to introduce a classic DC team to the “Smallville” universe, it was the utter mess that was “Legion”. That episode was the most potent example of the “DC Syndrome”: the tendency to introduce the classic DC characters with the assumption that proper backstory is unnecessary because the audience already knows the history and continuity. A great deal in “Legion” was glossed over, right down to the character names and abilities.

The writers have been doing a much better job of introducing classic DC characters this season, perhaps based on an honest assessment of the shortcomings of previous attempts. And perhaps Johns learned from his own mistakes as well. Whatever the reason, this episode was a far cry above past efforts.

I’ve said in other venues that I’ve always loved stories that call back to the secrets and parallels with previous generations. For example, one of the things I love about the Harry Potter story is how the truth about the previous generation and the First War against Voldemort is necessary to put Harry’s story in context. When it was far more consistent, the story of the Company and the Twelve on “Heroes” provided a similar narrative thrill.

“Smallville” introduced something similar with Veritas, but it was never quite as integrated as it could (or should) have been. The history of the Luthors and Kents earlier in the series did, of course, serve a similar purpose, when the parallels between Lionel, Jonathan, and Martha spoke to the relationship between Lex, Clark, and Lana. But the past couple seasons have been much more about Clark’s evolution as a hero, and along with Oliver Queen, his role in a much wider superheroic context.

Right from the beginning, the style and tone of the episode brought to mind some of the aspects of “Watchmen”, though clearly a more cohesive and network-friendly version. I was struck by the sense of depth given to the history of the Justice Society, and how well Johns managed to explain how something with such a rich history could have been unknown for so long. There were aspects of “legacy” that came across in elements of the score as well, all contributing to the sense of a long prelude to Clark’s world.

For example, Hawkman made a solid point about how Clark and Oliver have very little understanding of what has come before; they are focused on their own aims and personal histories, not that of the world around them. In fact, considering how many of the metahumans have been directly tied to the various meteor showers, starting with the one that brought Clark to Earth, there was very little reason for Clark or Oliver to even suspect that there had been societies of heroes in decades past.

As such, it was a nice touch that the writers incorporated elements of the DC character backstories, however truncated, to explain how some of the members of the JSA acquired their abilities. It doesn’t quite explain everything, but then, a lot of the dialogue suggested that many of the members were simply well-trained humans. In that respect, there was the other parallel to the Minutemen of “Watchmen”.

One of the recurring themes for the ninth season has been the tension between Clark, Oliver, and Chloe. For the purposes of the story, this was extended to include all the members of the nascent Justice League, many of which haven’t been seen in quite some time. Establishing that the team has been having issues with common purpose is a smart way to address the very practical limitations of the series; they simply can’t afford to have all those actors and actresses waiting in the wings.

Unfortunately, it also hinges on the notion that the audience simply assumes that Oliver’s team has been operating in the background through Chloe, even if it has hardly ever come up in conversation. Granted, it makes complete sense, because that’s the function of Watchtower in the first place. But it’s a stretch to say that the team is something that is particularly important in Clark’s life lately. It exists, but Clark is dissociated from it. That makes all the talk about how the team members, including John, are all Clark’s closest friends a bit disingenuous and forced.

It also means that the larger point about this story, that Clark and his friends need to start acting more like a family than a loose band of vigilantes, may never quite get the treatment it needs. There’s the final scene between Oliver, Chloe, and John, but that’s all we’re likely to see. Instead, it might mark a change in how Clark, Oliver, and Chloe interact going forward. It’s unfortunate, especially given the aims of Checkmate.

If there’s another aspect of this story that touches on the whole “Watchmen” vibe, it’s the role of Checkmate. I love this idea that Tess has been working behind the scenes to counter Zod (and perhaps others) by manipulating heroes past, present, and future to band together against a common foe. I especially like how they used Lois to get the story out there, garnering public trust in heroes again, all in preparation for a time when the masses will need a symbol of hope. That connects very well to Clark’s slow but steady development of the Blur as a public icon.

It also helps to demonstrate how well-rounded Tess has become as a character. Tess has ably replaced Lex as the character that does questionable things in the name of what she believes to be right for the world. The writers were never quite able to portray Lex as someone dedicated to saving humanity from alien threats, despite their best efforts, because they kept overshadowing his noble aims with his misdeeds. Tess, on the other hand, has been more consistently depicted as someone who believes that the ends justify the means, and as someone willing to bear the cost of her choices.

Hopefully, that is how the writers will portray Checkmate and its agents: not as a villain per se, but as an organization that operates in that grey area between outright moral heroism and clinical pragmatism. It would tie in well with Oliver and Chloe’s mindset, which in turn would challenge the audience to consider where the line between heroic vigilantism and villainy should be drawn. If the writers play their cards right, it would take “Smallville” to the next level.

So it’s possible that the writers could overcome the limitations of the series’ budget to incorporate some of the large-scale implications of this story. Unfortunately, long-term viability will do nothing to address the effect it had on this story. When push comes to shove, the writers were only able to gather a handful of the heroes from the JSA and proto-JLA, and that weakened the impact. Also, while Welling did about as good a job as one could hope with the final showdown, it just seemed too short a battle to pay off the excellent build-up. Then again, that’s been a major problem for “Smallville” for a while now, so it may be that the scale of the story only amplified the negative effects.

But did that ruin the story in any major capacity? Not at all. I can say, as a “Smallville” fan with very limited knowledge of the DC canon, that this was one of the best episodes of the series to date. I never felt like I was missing some crucial piece of information or continuity, and it really felt like everyone involved was putting forth their absolute best efforts. This is the sort of thing fans have been begging for, and for once, “Smallville” was able to deliver.


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