Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, or, in this case, an A.V. Club theme week. This week: In honor of Comics Week, we look at comics-to-TV adaptations from beyond the current surplus of superhero shows.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, “A Bolt From The Blue” (season two, episode eight; originally aired 11/20/1994)
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman isn’t the best Superman revival in recent decades, but it was instrumental in how we view superheroes today—as flawed and imperfect as mere mortals. By making Clark Kent/Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane the central focus—and with it, all the complications of having a secret identity—the creators of Lois & Clark turned a classic superhero story into one about what it means to be human. This was in 1993, long before the current surfeit of superheroes on screens big and small, and it was a bold choice to make a character-driven Clark/Supes/Lois love triangle the center of a story that had traditionally been about saving people tied up on train tracks and deflecting meteors hurtling toward Earth.
But part of being a superhero masquerading as a mild-mannered reporter is balancing human responsibilities with superpowers. In the second-season episode “A Bolt From The Blue,” some of Superman’s powers transfer—with the help of a lightning bolt in a stormy cemetery, natch—to a very different mild-mannered man, William Wallace Webster Waldecker (a hilariously prolix Leslie Jordan, putting his natural Tennessee accent to charming use). Waldecker, about to commit suicide in front of his mother’s grave, is distraught over losing the family fortune, leaving him unable to care for his sister, Wandamae, who believes she is Mary Todd Lincoln. Lois & Clark often fell prey to its comic beginnings by veering uncomfortably toward camp; at its best, it’s Clark Kent whistling the Lois & Clark theme song during the episode. At its worst, it’s Wandamae being played for pure comic relief, and a mad-scientist doctor, played to the hilt by Denise Crosby, being portrayed as a cackling, finger-tenting proxy for Lex Luthor (whose body she has frozen and kept in a crypt).
But underneath the unintentional camp, this episode explored just how difficult it was to be Superman. As Clark Kent, Daily Planet reporter, he sacrifices a story on how Waldecker ended up with superpowers to protect his alter ego. As Superman, he lies to Lois, disappointing the woman of his dreams. Still, he’s a moralizing figure in this episode, positioned as a scold and a nag against the far more complex Waldecker (who eventually assumes the mantle Resplendent Man), who on the surface is a simple soul who just wants to take care of his sister—and maybe also use his super-vision to peep ladies’ locker rooms. And yet, despite Resplendent Man’s mostly good intentions, he still forces Superman into a violent brawl in the middle of Metropolis, still endangers people’s lives, and still can’t fully shake his humanity. Being a superhero isn’t just about the powers or even just about having a heart of gold. It’s a life of constant difficult choices, like lying to those closest to you and jeopardizing your other job to protect yourself. Not entirely unlike being human.
Availability: “A Bolt From The Blue,” along with the rest of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, is available on DVD.