Super, Human Strength

  • In Michael Chabon's pulitzer prizewinning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Josef Kavalier flees fascism in Europe for America, where he creates the Escapist, a comic-book hero based on the Golem of Prague, the clay giant and protector of ancient Jewish legend. Mythic defenders, Chabon shows, have long been with us. But it took America to make them into superheroes: big, magical men (and sometimes women) who protect us and embody our national character.

    We have even drafted them into war, as when Captain America famously punched out Hitler. And as TV horned in on the comics audience, its superheroes reflected our moods in war and peace. The 1950s had its straight-arrow Superman; the 1960s, a campy Batman. After Vietnam, we saw comforting images of super-Americans (Wonder Woman, the Bionic Man and Woman); after the cold war, postmodern parodies (Space Ghost). Call it coincidence or prescience, but a new generation of prime-time superhero is arriving for a new decade and a new war. Smallville (the WB, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) and The Tick (Fox, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. E.T., debuts Nov. 8) were created long before Sept. 11, but their likable, workaday heroes still resonate.

    Smallville is the story of a teen Clark Kent (Tom Welling) before he becomes Superman. Twelve years ago (the story has been moved to the present, the better to work current music into the soundtrack), Clark's parents found him wandering naked amid the wreckage of a spaceship in a Kansas cornfield, a fact they have hidden from him. Clark knows he is unnaturally strong--his dad won't let him play football lest he hurt someone--but forced to hide his powers, he's considered a nerd at school. There is a lot of corn in Smallville, Kans., and some of it finds its way into the script. But the series rethinks familiar Superman motifs in fresh ways. Clark's secret love Lana (Kristin Kreuk) wears a kryptonite pendant that makes him literally weak in the knees when she comes near, and when Clark wears an S on his chest in the pilot, it is painted on him as a sadistic joke by jocks. Super but vulnerable, his is an alter ego you can warm to.

    Like Smallville, director Barry Sonnenfeld's parody The Tick bets that old-fashioned superhero tales will not, so to speak, fly today. The dim-bulb hero (Patrick Warburton, Seinfeld's Puddy) is a font of cockeyed metaphors ("I will spread my buttery justice over your every nook and cranny!"), and in the pilot he fights a Soviet robot built in 1979 to kill Jimmy Carter, as if to admit that the very idea of the infallible superhero is decades outdated. Based on Ben Edlund's cult comic, this is exactly the kind of highly ironic, hero-puncturing entertainment that is supposedly a no-no now. Except that it's also creative, appealing and spray-milk-out-your-nose funny. The Tick is a blustery, lovable naif, a rippled blue mountain of earnestness so innocent he has to have the concept of death explained to him. ("You make it sound like it could happen to anybody!" he protests.) Abetted by two motorized antennas more expressive than some actors' faces, Warburton is the first Seinfeld actor to find a truly original lead role.

    War or not, times have changed even for the most super among us. It's hard to imagine teen Clark or the Tick enlisting to fight against Osama bin Laden (though al-Qaeda actually fits the mold of the comics' stateless supervillains better than Hitler and Tojo did). But both series ring differently after Sept. 11 in ways that will test how the conflict has affected pop culture. Smallville's most interesting character is not Clark but Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), who will someday become Superman's enemy but here, for now, is a lonely if cynical rich kid who wants to be Clark's friend. One of the Tick's cronies is the randy, obnoxious Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey), a literally statuesque crime fighter who carries a torch and an attitude. We'll see if today's audience can handle a complex villain or a heroine who tweaks a star-spangled symbol.

    But in a time of ordinary heroes--fire fighters, airplane passengers--both series aptly focus on the ordinariness of heroism. Smallville's Clark does surreptitious good deeds in between teen heartbreaks; on The Tick, superheroism is just another job, full of headaches and rivalries. And in a way, their pre-Sept. 11 sensibilities are just as appropriate. As their viewers have been urged to do, these postmodern, pre-terror-war creations are living life as they would have lived it on Sept. 10. And these days that is the most superhuman feat of all.