How Clark Kent’s never-ending teen years became Smallville’s kryptonite

Hallo spaceboy: Smallville was the teen-focused spin on Superman that launched in 2001 and somehow managed to eke out an origin story for more than 200 episodes. For a decade, fresh-faced Tom Welling embodied young Clark Kent – the alien who crash-landed in Kansas as a baby – without the distinctive costume to go with his super-strength. Withholding the super-suit was a deliberate ploy on the part of Smallville’s creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who had imposed a rigorous “no tights, no flights” rule to force them to find a new angle on one of the world’s most familiar pop-culture icons. Instead of the usual urban bustle of Metropolis, the show zeroed in on Clark’s free-range, corn-fed formative years in the titular farming town.

The early seasons saw Clark sheepishly navigate high-school life while keeping his powers secret, only occasionally whizzing in as a CGI-assisted blur to save the day. His cosmic arrival had scattered mutational meteor rock throughout Smallville, a canny plot device that created a Krypton factory line of freaks and empowered geeks for him to contend with. This X-Files flavour enhanced the angsty teen melodrama, which mostly involved Clark mooning over local beauty Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk). Clark’s loving foster parents the Kents were the heart of the show, instilling values into their alien adoptee. But Clark’s most intense relationship was with Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), a billionaire heir whose conniving patter was as smooth as his bald bonce. Their meet-cute involved Clark retrieving a drowning Lex and giving him mouth-to-mouth. That moment of lifesaving intimacy seemed to hang over the next several seasons, as the amoral corporate raider and the sturdy farmboy repeatedly clashed. It was this tempestuous bromance that gave Smallville its compelling heat-vision crackle and launched a million exploratory fan-fictions.

The show conspired to keep Clark in high school for four fun years but eventually he had to find his place in the wider world. As more elements of the Superman mythos were folded into the story – from big bad General Zod to Clark’s chilly Fortress of Solitude – it began to feel increasingly weird that the lead character was locked in a state of arrested development.

After an admittedly momentous 100th episode, in which Jonathan Kent died of a heart attack trying to protect his beloved son, Smallville began to feel increasingly shapeless. Rosenbaum and Kreuk bailed out but Welling stuck with it, carrying the show for 10 long seasons. His belated reward? A finale that threw in a wedding to Lois Lane, a reunion with his ghost dad, the brief return of Lex and – after 217 episodes – a symbolic handing over of the Superman suit. Welling belatedly returns to his signature role in December, just one of many TV superheroes roped into an ambitious Arrow/The Flash/Supergirl crossover. Where Clark was once the perpetual ingenue, now he will be the seasoned, wise veteran. His ghost dad would surely approve.