I wanted to dig deeper on one particular episode of Smallville’s sixth season “Justice”. Widely regarded as a high point of the show it’s an episode that still holds up today. But I think today’s audience and even us going back to watch it forget the context in which this episode aired. Let’s travel back in time, shall we?
“Justice” aired on The CW January 18, 2007. At this point The CW was a brand new network made up of the combined WB and UPN. The network had only started the previous fall. Previously Smallville had aired on The WB. In January of 2007 the first MCU movie was still being cast! We couldn’t even conceive of the Avengers Initiative tease at this point. Post credits scenes were still surprises. Spider-Man 3 was a few months from being released. X-Men 3 had crashed and burned seven months prior. Superman Returns was released in June of 2006, while a hit with this fan, didn’t light a fire under WB to make a sequel. Even Justice League Unlimited had finished. This was a dark time for superhero media outside of the comics. Interestingly enough Action Comics at the time was co-written by Richard Donner of Superman The Movie fame.
The idea of a “shared universe” of super heroes was something we had in comics and animation, but hadn’t made it’s way into live action. Smallville pulling these heroes, not only as guest stars or freak-of-the-weeks, but into one episode together was revolutionary. The X-Men characters have always worked together as a team, but pulling solo heroes together just wasn’t something we were seeing in live action at this point. The amount of hoops the team behind the show needed to jump through to make this happen for our benefit is staggering.
The first was the nature of the show. Being episodic television, Smallville rarely brought back guest stars. For every Alicia we’ve got a Lucas Luthor, never to be heard from again. Television of the time wasn’t designed for binge watching. They didn’t count on you watching every episode. Lost had begun to change that a few years earlier, but this didn’t catch on to shows on The CW for a while.
Warners put up obstacles Smallville needed to leap over in a single bound to make this happen. Kryptonsite.com reported that DC couldn’t call Bart The Flash “because of a DC note.” They couldn’t use Wonder Woman because of development on a Wonder Woman movie. Green Arrow was their Batman replacement. Legal issues prevented any use of the word “Superboy”. They were so limited in what characters they could use and what they could even call them.
The final hurdle we needed to get past? “No flights, no tights”. Smallville had avoided being a Superman show for five years. As we got further and further away from the high school years it leaned into the super heroics more and more. But the influence of the X-Men movies was still strong. The characters couldn’t wear tights, but could wear cool leather jackets. The thinking was leather jackets wouldn’t alienate a broader general audience. Fifteen years later this influence is still being felt, but Hollywood has learned the general audience’s taste for superheroes isn’t so fickle. Smallville dressed our heroes in their colors and some of them got cool sunglasses and hoods instead of masks.
Despite all these limitations we still got 43 minutes of television that was dynamic and exciting. There was a huge surge in viewers for the episode. This is what we wanted from Smallville! Even Neil Bailey (from my beloved Superman Homepage) who was really down on the show, gave the episode 4.5 out of 5! They pulled it off and it’s an episode we can now revisit over and over as one of the highest heights this show ever hit.