Appellate Judge Mac McEntire is almost as studly as Mr. Mxyzptlk.
A college education can be a real adventure!
It was the late '80s. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind still held the license to the Superman character, even though the last two movies in the series, Supergirl and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, were both super-flops at the box office. To keep interest in the franchise going, they needed something different, but still familiar. The answer was syndicated television, and Superboy.
Facts of the Case
Clark Kent (John Haymes Newton, Desperate Housewives), his childhood friend Lana Lang (Stacy Haiduk, SeaQuest DSV ), and their pal T.J. White (James Calvert, House) are students at Shuster University, where they spend their free hours writing for the school paper, the Shuster Herald.
But whenever a crisis breaks out, whether in the form of a natural disaster, gangland thugs, or an extraterrestrial menace, Clark secretly dons the red cape and blue tights of his mega-powerful alter ego, Superboy, and saves the day.
A strange, glowing meteor fell from the sky last night, and this episode list was inside it:
• "The Jewel of Techacal"
• "A Kind of Princess"
• "Back to Oblivion"
• "The Russian Exchange Student"
• "Countdown to Nowhere"
• "Bringing Down the House"
• "The Beast and the Beauty"
• "The Fixer"
• "The Alien Solution"
• "Troubled Waters"
• "The Invisible People"
• "Kryptonite Kills"
• "Revenge of the Alien," parts one and two
• "Stand Up and Get Knocked Down"
• "Meet Mr. Mxyzptlk"
• "Birdwoman of the Swamps"
• "Terror from the Blue"
• "War of the Species"
• "Little Hercules"
• "The Phantom of the Third Division"
• "The Black Flamingo"
• "Luthor Unleashed"
This first season of Superboy is less like watching a TV series and more like watching the evolution of a TV series. The debut episode, "The Jewel of Techacal," isn't just bad; it's really, really bad. The acting is wooden at best, the plot doesn't make a lot of sense, and the sets look like they're barely standing. The blue-screen flying effects are little too obviously blue screen, John Haymes Newton seems uncomfortable in the Superboy suit, and the other actors are still getting a handle on their characters. The worst offender is Scott Wells as Lex Luthor, who…says…all…his…lines…like…this. A piece of wet cardboard could have made a better Luthor.
But, as episodes progress, Superboy does indeed evolve, improving ever so slightly. Newton starts to show a lot more confidence in the role, and some chemistry starts to develop among the main cast. Wells even wakes up from his funk, realizes he's supposed to be the villain, and hams it up appropriately. The show also begins to embrace its campy nature, with the introduction of costumed supervillains and implausible sci-fi plotlines. When Lana is possessed by the alien in "The Alien Solution," you can almost see the relief in Stacy Haiduk's eyes, as if she's thinking, "Finally, I get to act on this show." Car chases, which are plentiful, eventually get faster and flashier. Explosions, which are equally plentiful, get less hokey and more, well, explosive. One early episode has Superboy saving the day by volunteering to referee a basketball game. Compare this to the ending of a later episode, in which Superboy has a fist fight with a seven-foot-tall robot and then has to escape from an antimatter trap set by the robot's creator. Sure, both situations are ridiculous, but which one sounds more exciting to you?
So, do these improvements make Superboy a good series? Well, not especially. But you must remember that the tone here is not one of high drama, or of adrenaline-pumping action. While Superboy never comes close to the majesty seen in the better parts of Richard Donner's first Superman film, the series is closer in tone to the Superman comics of the late '50s and early '60s, which were similarly cheesy and over the top but had not completely lost their high-adventure feel.
Any actor who dons the red boots has to deal with the whole glasses thing, and Newton is no exception. When a pair of glasses is the only disguise, how does an actor make it convincing that no one knows that Supes and Clark are the same person? Newton does a pretty good job, actually, helped by the fact that Clark's glasses are huge! They cover half his face! But beyond that, Newton adopts a different set of mannerisms for both characters, without resorting to anything silly like changing his voice, so you almost believe his character's two halves could be two people. It's also worth noting that he wears the costume well. After the first few episodes, he looks confident and heroic every time he shows up in the costume, instead of just "who's that guy in the unflattering tights?"
And, hey, how about that Mr. Mxyzptlk? Written by comic book legend Dennis "Denny" O'Neill, this is the one episode that will delight comic book fans everywhere. It's an old-school Superman tale, with Mxyzptlk causing all sorts of devilish chaos with his reality-bending powers. Played here with maximum quirkiness by Michael J. Pollard (Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland), Mxyzptlk is one of the strangest yet most beloved of Superman's rogues' gallery, and this rare live-action depiction, bolstered by Pollard's goofball performance, makes it the standout episode of the set. It's also one of the few episodes of the season that plays up the Clark/Lana/Superboy love triangle, with Newton and Haiduk giving each other their best puppy-dog-eyes looks. Finally, Superboy dispatches Mxyzptlk in a manner taken straight from the classic comics. Any self-respecting comic book geek will want to check this one out.
Although syndicated TV series from the '80s are not known for their eye-popping visuals, the picture quality on these DVDs is excellent. This is a bright and colorful series, and the colors really pop to life on this four-disc set. The audio is less impressive. I had to turn the volume up unnecessarily high just to make out what the actors were saying.
Newton and producer Ilya Salkind reunite for commentaries on two episodes. Newton constantly makes with the jokes, pointing out continuity errors and background details that date the show. Salkind, however, wants to take the show more seriously, and it seems he can't quite tell when Newton is kidding. Perhaps these two should have recorded commentaries separately. Far better is the "Getting off the Ground" featurette, which covers the creation of the series, the casting of the main characters, and a few production anecdotes. It's good, but it leaves the viewer wanting more. Newton's screen test is included, which shows him auditioning as both Superboy and Clark. Finally, the "excerpt" from the upcoming documentary Look, Up in the Sky! is a thinly disguised advertisement for Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. I certainly hope the actual documentary has more substance than what's shown here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although the series does improve as it goes along, it remains cheesy and low-budget throughout. Many viewers will have trouble looking past the '80s hair mishaps and fashion nightmares. Although Superboy's landings and takeoffs look great, the blue-screen flying effects are never quite as polished as they could be. Although I love that the series introduces some costumed supervillains, their costumes are usually clunky and awkward. Those who are expecting the character to be treated with absolute seriousness and respect might want to look elsewhere.
The first season is the only one with this cast. After this one, Gerard Christopher took over as Superboy, and Sherman Howard (Bub from Dawn of the Dead) became the new Lex. Stories vary about the circumstances of the change. As far as the first season goes, it might have started out on a bad note, but the series finds its voice as it progresses—and Newton proves himself worthy of the cape.
The trick to watching Superboy is not to take it seriously. The show's creators made it enjoyable by embracing its campy nature, and viewers at home should do the same. It's hardly the definitive take on the character, but it is a lot of silly fun.
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• "Superboy: Getting Off the Ground" Making-of Featurette
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