‘Lois & Clark’ and How to Avoid Jumping the Shark in Sixty-Seven Simple Steps

I’ve been rewatching Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on and off for the past few years. The first two seasons are a lot of fun. It’s a cheesy show, absolutely, but during those first two years, it was satisfying cheese that hit the spot and got the characters exactly right—certainly far better than any recent movies have.

Then, in the third season, the cheese spoiled.

I can only assume the writers were afraid the show might jump the shark if Lois and Clark got married too early, so they contrived all sorts of ways to delay the nuptials. It started with typical TV shenanigans—he wants to get married, but she doesn’t, and then she wants to get married, but he doesn’t, like they mistook themselves for Ross and Rachel.

Such antics, alas, did not buy enough time to let the shark pass un-jumped. The prospect of marriage loomed. Unable to conceive of a marriage with dramatic tension, the writers got creative.

Right before the wedding, Lois gets replaced by a frog-eating clone, and then, thanks to a bump on the head, she loses her memory and develops an alternate personality. Now, you might expect that the amnesia would be reversed by a second bump on the head, but you’d be mistaken, because, in a stunning subversion of the trope, a second bump on the head gives her more amnesia.

But the season’s not over yet! These were the Before Streaming days of 22 episodes a season, so even as Lois’s memory returned, the dreaded shark still swam within leaping distance, and the writing staff cowered in fear of this series-devouring predator. They had to dig deep, all the way down to the bottom of the barrel.

From there, they pulled out the Krypton card. Decades earlier, Superman writers discovered that if they were ever running low on ideas, they could simply un–blow up some part of Krypton and throw that at Superman. Thus, television viewers got a bunch of inexplicably telepathic Kryptonians and the revelation that Clark is a hereditary Kryptonian lord who’s needed to help the surviving Kryptonians avoid civil war.

If there was one thing that Lois & Clark was lacking, it was Kryptonian politics, so this did fill that void, in case anyone was looking to have it filled, and it pried our title characters apart long enough to carry them into the fourth season unwed.

Then, following a couple episodes of the obligatory evil Kryptonians trying to conquer the world, the writers finally gave in and allowed Lois and Clark to get married. Superman can’t be married by just any minister, of course. Perry White attempted two failed ceremonies, but even he didn’t suffice in the end.

No, in a stroke of whimsy, the series decided that Lois and Clark should be married by their guardian angel, an actual guardian angel who’s been watching over them their whole lives.

(We’re left to infer that guardian angels do not assist in matters of frog-eating clones. The More You Know.)

Post-wedding jitters immediately afflicted the writing staff. The fourth season was still young. There might still be too many episodes of marital bliss ahead. Fortunately, there remained one last milestone to delay: the honeymoon.So, as Lois and Clark are moments away from shattering the Cherry of Steel, someone knocks on their door.

I’ll give you three guesses who shows up.

Oh, who am I kidding? Like you need more than one.

Yeah, you guessed exactly right: H.G. Wells shows up to prevent Superman and Lois Lane from sleeping together. And yes, that’s the explicit, in-story motivation.

The author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, moonlighting as a time-traveling honeymoon crasher, warns Lois and Clark of a centuries-old curse, in the writing staff’s last-ditch effort to save the show from jumping the shark too soon.

But those first two seasons are a fun time.

What worked and what didn’t work in the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies

I recently rewatched Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time in a long time, and I concluded with a rewatch of the four TNG movies. Two of these movies hold up very well; two do not.

Star Trek: Generations has a solid theme about “the road not taken” and how that relates to time. The forward march of time devours the road we have taken, making it increasingly difficult to backtrack and course-correct as we get older, something both Kirk and Picard must come to terms with during the course of the movie.

Early on in the movie, Picard learns his brother and nephew died in a fire, and he’s now the last of his line. He struggles to keep his grief in check, and he questions his long-ago decision to not start a family. (As a nice contrast, this is at the same time Data is opening up a whole new world of emotions within himself, thanks to an emotion chip.)

The movie’s villain doesn’t accept any road not taken. He craves access to a Nexus where time is meaningless and all his desires will be granted. As the name implies, it’s all roads at once. In this place, both Kirk and Picard realize how it’s pointless to dwell on alternate paths. What matters is what they do now.

A lot of people don’t seem to like this one. It’s got only a 6.6 rating on IMDb at the moment. It’s not perfect (the Enterprise-B is a disgrace—heads must have rolled at Starfleet after that debacle), but I still like it a lot.

Star Trek: First Contact remains the best of the bunch, and it succeeds by balancing darkness and hope. Picard once again begins the movie in pain, as he’s still traumatized by his experience being assimilated by the Borg several years earlier. This wound has festered into a desire for vengeance, and he eventually must confront the fact that something so base and ugly lurks within him.

This is all juxtaposed with humanity’s advancement to the stars, as the crew time-travels back to just before the first warp-speed flight and first contact with aliens.

Just before that historic event, the world seems pretty bleak and perhaps headed deeper into a new Dark Age. Zefram Cochrane, the man whom history has recorded as ushering in a wondrous new era, is just a self-centered drunk who doesn’t nearly live up to his historical reputation. But once he sees the Earth from a vast distance for the first time, the seeds are planted for him to possibly become the great man future generations believe him to be.

Star Trek has always depicted a better future, but in First Contact, we’re shown what’s needed to maybe get there someday—how we have to wrestle with the worst aspects of ourselves and then aspire for something greater.

Star Trek: Insurrection is basically the cast and crew going, “Let’s just have fun with this one.” It is fun at times, but it all feels flat.

Picard does not start this movie in any pain. He’s actually in quite a good mood, and he continues to feel great throughout most of the movie. He even finds love and parts on amicable terms.

The main plot involves a Starfleet admiral teaming up with a group of aliens to forcibly relocate another group of aliens. They want to steal this planet’s regenerative properties for the supposedly greater good, but they’re so obviously in the wrong that it winds up just lowering the stakes.

If the Enterprise crew is going to defy Starfleet, it should feel brave and risky, with some uncertainty as to whether they’re really doing the right thing. But instead, it’s just, “Yeah, I would certainly hope they rebel against that.”

Generally, Star Trek—or any fiction—excels when it shows us how good, reasonable people can stumble down the wrong path. Deep Space Nine was especially great at this, such as when the Dominion War challenged the Federation’s values.

But there’s no complex morality in Insurrection. We don’t see a variety of sympathetic characters displaying multiple points of view and struggling to figure out what’s actually right.

In the TNG episode “The Drumhead,” for example, Worf fell for Space McCarthyism. It completely made sense for him to make that error, and it was all the more satisfying when he realized his error. “I, Borg” presented an interesting ethical conundrum when the crew brought a lone Borg drone on board and realized he still possessed some humanity, and characters changed their minds as the episode progressed. “Preemptive Strike” showed us Ensign Ro torn between her loyalty to Picard and her sympathy to the Maquis terrorists.

There’s no nuance in Insurrection, though. But it does have the best use of Gilbert & Sullivan in a Star Trek film, so that’s certainly a point in its favor.

Star Trek: Nemesis is basically the dumb action movie version of Star Trek. It starts to have an interesting idea about mirror-image versions of ourselves, with Picard confronting a younger clone of himself on an alien world, and Data discovering an android who’s an earlier prototype of himself. But neither Picard nor Data learns much of anything about themselves while confronting these doppelgängers.

There are some nice moments, but also so many missed opportunities, making the whole thing feel pointless.

Also, this is the second time Troi takes the helm, and the second time she crashes into something. But at least this time she crashes on purpose, so that’s progress.

Picard is in pretty good spirits for most of this movie, too, beginning the film as the proud best man at Riker and Troi’s wedding. He also gets to have some fun driving around an alien planet, plus additional fun piloting a shuttle through a ship during a daring escape. Except for at the end, he’s not especially troubled by much.

So, the formula seems to be:

Picard in pain = good Star Trek movie

Happy Picard = not a good Star Trek movie

Super Substitutes and Super Successors

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Captain America got me thinking about superhero legacies, how some superheroes can have multiple incarnations while others work primarily or only as their original incarnation.

And since this is the internet, let me get this out of the way: I am NOT the slightest bit outraged about Sam Wilson becoming Captain America. You will not find any inflamed hot takes here, just a sober look at the situation.

But we’ll get to the captains later. Let’s start with the kids. 

Kid Sidekicks

No offense to the youth, but sidekicks are the most replaceable category of superheroes. Naturally, they should grow up and move on at some point, like how the original Robin became Nightwing.

Sidekick roles are like apprenticeships—training, not a permanent identity. A kid can assist until he or she grows up into their own identity, and then a new kid comes along and becomes the new Robin or whoever.

Green Lantern(s)

Green Lantern is built for multiple incarnations. There’s an entire corps of Green Lanterns, after all, so numerous Green Lanterns already existed from the get-go.

It is weird that there’s now a disproportionate number of Green Lanterns from Earth, but there are harder pills to swallow in the realm of superhero comics. 

As far as popular culture is concerned, Hal Jordan has the advantage of being Earth’s first Green Lantern (of the intergalactic space cop variety, that is), but John Stewart is just as valid (especially thanks to the excellent Justice League cartoon), as are the newer ones like Jessica Cruz.

Spider-Man (-Men?)

Establishing a non-Peter Parker Spider-Man was something I didn’t think possible, but Marvel pulled it off with Miles Morales.

Part of why this works is because Miles never fully replaced Peter. As far as I can recall, at no point was Miles Morales the only available Spider-Man appearing in Marvel Comics. Readers could choose one or the other or both.

The difference between Peter Parker and Miles Morales is essentially the difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The latter keeps the spirit and core concept of the original but modernizes it for a new era with an all-new cast. Neither takes anything away from the other.

Flash: The Fastest Men Alive

When I read Flash comics in the ’90s, the Flash wasn’t Barry Allen; he was Wally West—the former Kid Flash all grown up and succeeding his deceased mentor.

That worked because Barry Allen at that point had always been a likable but fairly bland character, and Wally wound up receiving much greater development through more modern storytelling. 

Throughout the course of his series, while struggling to live up to the example of his uncle, Wally grew up from a self-centered 20-year-old to a respected hero in his own right and ultimately a responsible family man. He had such a great arc that it reached a solid conclusion and feels like a complete story told over twenty years of comics. Even with the success of the Flash TV show, I still tend to think of the Wally West version before any other.

Because he’s Batman

But compare that to Batman. Batman is such a distinct character that he can only be Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson is a valid substitute on occasion, but he’s never more than a substitute. 

During the Knightfall storyline from the ’90s, Bruce tapped the wrong substitute, Jean Paul Valley, also known as Azrael, which was essentially a way of showing how terrible it would be to have a darker, more violent Batman without the ethical restraints of Bruce Wayne. (The Punisher as Batman, essentially.) The replacement validated the original, reminding us how great he is.

It’s Superman!

Superman had a contingent of substitutes after he died in the early ’90s, and like with Batman, the point of the story was to show that only Superman (Clark Kent) can be Superman. 

Three of the four substitutes were outright horrible. One, derived from his Kryptonian heritage (a “Last Son of Krypton,” if you will), was very cold and alien and didn’t mind killing criminals. And seeing any type of Superman kill is highly unsettling.

Then there was a cyborg version of Superman (a “Man of Tomorrow”), who represented the excesses of early ’90s comics—all style, no soul. This Superman was never a hero, and he indeed wound up being a villain in disguise.

We also had a Superboy, but this kid wasn’t raised by the Kents and therefore was a selfish, arrogant brat (though he matured in later stories). 

The fourth fill-in Superman was most obviously not like the original Superman on the outside but most like him on the inside. John Henry Irons was a steelworker whose life Superman saved, so when Superman died, Irons felt an obligation to pay it forward. He built himself a suit of armor (becoming a “Man of Steel”) and sought to help people in Superman’s memory. Unlike the other three, this character was actually heroic. But he never claimed to be Superman. He was the only one who didn’t call himself Superman, and the only one who evoked the authentic spirit of Superman.

Captains America

And this brings us to Captain America. The character was created as a propaganda symbol in the ’40s, but after his revival in the ’60s, he became a character in his own right. And that character was man-out-of-time Steve Rogers.

John Walker, like in the recent TV show, was used to show us how Cap should not behave (again, just like Azrael-Batman and the ill-behaved substitute Supermen).

Bucky and Falcon are both valid substitutes—the only valid substitutes, I would say. They both had their stints as Captain America in the comics (fairly recent comics, all in this century). Bucky’s Cap story was part of his redemption arc, and it was part of a Death of Captain America story not all that different in spirit from the Death of Superman story, though it took a different route. 

The main reason Bucky ultimately agreed to step into the Captain America role was because he knew no one could live up to it, least of all himself, but out of respect for his best friend, he would give it his all. Pretty much everyone reading the storyline understood that the “real” Captain America would inevitably return within a few years or so.

I’m less familiar with Falcon’s Cap story, as it happened during a time when I was reading fewer comics. I read some Avengers comics where Sam Wilson operated in the Captain America role, and I had no problem with the concept. It reminded me of Dick Grayson filling in for Batman—it was interesting to see, and he was legit, but we all knew the original would return before long and the substitute needed to return to his own superhero identity, which he had spent years of hard work establishing.

Comic books, however, don’t have to worry about casting. Chris Evans has moved on from playing Captain America, and Anthony Mackie will likely carry the torch until the MCU runs its course. Therefore, out of necessity, cinematic Sam Wilson needs to be less “Dick Grayson as Batman” and more “Wally West as the Flash.”

Granted, it also would have been perfectly fine to simply retire MCU Captain America and launch a series of solo Falcon movies, giving Marvel Comics’ first African American superhero his time in the spotlight in his original role. But “Captain America” is the bigger brand, so naturally the producers would want to keep using the name for as long as possible. And Sam Wilson is indeed a fine choice to fill the role.

Superheroes and cynicism don’t mix

I watched the first three episodes of The Boys on Amazon Prime. While it looks like a high-quality TV show, I found it very off-putting. (That may be by design, to some extent.)

I’m not sure if I’ll watch any more, and I’m not reviewing it since I haven’t seen it all, but I think it’s worthwhile to examine why it repulsed me so quickly. If you enjoy the show, please keep enjoying it. In terms of writing, acting, directing, production values, etc., it seems to have all the ingredients of a compelling series. Its hard-R rating isn’t even the real dealbreaker.

The problem, for me, is more philosophical. The series’ pessimistic worldview is what ultimately prevents me from wanting to spend further time in this particular superhero universe, despite the numerous technical strengths of the show.

The Boys features a cynical take on superheroes. They’re all physically super, but (in what I watched) only one might actually be at all heroic. The vast majority are portrayed as self-serving, self-absorbed celebrities who are content to let a large corporation package them and tell them what to do.

They demonstrate no moral compass, no compassion, no altruism. This could work as part of a redemption arc, but it doesn’t look like the show is going in that direction. (I’d be happy to be wrong, though.)

I read, watch, and write superhero stories because they show people becoming something better.

This could be a character like Superman who always does the right thing because that’s how he was raised, or it could be a character like Spider-Man who has to work at it harder, and who screws up from time to time but usually figures out the right thing to do in the end. Even more violent characters like Wolverine can adhere to a strict code of honor.

The corporate-superhero aspect of The Boys reminds of an earlier corporate, for-profit superhero: Booster Gold. Booster had a short-lived DC Comics series in the late ’80s, and throughout it, he grew from a self-serving glory hound to a bona fide (but still very flawed) superhero.

That growth was key to my enjoyment of Booster Gold. Same goes for ’90s Marvel series The Thunderbolts. That book starred a group of supervillains pretending to be superheroes as part of a scheme, but some of these villains discovered that they actually liked being heroes, which created all sorts of drama and tension and gave the book its heart.

The Boys may indeed portray a “realistic” version of superheroes, but that’s precisely why I don’t want to watch any more of it. I want aspirational superheroes. I want to see how we can be better, not how we’d be worse.

But if I’m completely wrong about the show, please let me know!

Neither a bird nor a plane — it’s a great Superman novel

I read the novel It’s Superman! by Tom De Haven not long after it came out, probably 15 or so years ago now. It’s, in part, Superman as historical fiction, placing the character in his original 1930s setting. Though I liked it the first time around, I figured I’d appreciate it more now, having read several nonfiction books about the period since then.

And I did, and not just for the historical detail.

The parts in Smallville feel like a cross between a Superman story and a John Steinbeck novel, which gradually transitions into old-school sci-fi, with a lower-powered, more vulnerable Superman battling robots.

This Clark Kent is young and awkward, feeling like the alien he is as he tries to figure out his place in the world. The novel repeatedly makes the point that while Clark isn’t stupid by any means, he’s not especially intelligent either.

That seemed to diminish him at first, but it does enhance the awkwardness and uncertainty the author is going for. This Superman hasn’t developed his confidence yet, and giving him a normal mind allows the character to retain plenty of vulnerability.

One criticism I keep seeing about Superman is that he’s too powerful—if nothing can hurt him, then why should we care? This overlooks the fact that there are many ways to hurt a character, and not all of them are physical. Plus, the aspirational appeal of Superman is that you’ve got this guy who can do virtually whatever he wants with his life … and he still chooses to help people.

Lex Luthor, by contrast, is highly intelligent and supremely confident, and he uses his skills for his own personal gain. While Clark tries to find his place among humanity, Lex prefers to distinguish himself from all of humanity.

Compare this description of Clark: “Finding people who are like him, even in the smallest ways, is always a comfort. It’s stupid, he knows, but it’s always some comfort.”

And this line of dialogue from Lex: “ ‘I don’t discriminate, Carl. All human beings are the same to me.’ ”

There have been various takes on Superman over the past 80+ years. In some, he’s Superman first and foremost while Clark Kent is little more than a disguise. In others, he’s Clark Kent first and foremost while Superman is simply the way he chooses to use his gifts to serve the world. I prefer the latter approach, which is the approach It’s Superman! takes.

This novel would fit in well in DC’s Elseworlds line. It should not be seen as the definitive take on the character. But as a way of fleshing out the version that appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and giving that Superman a detailed backstory, it’s excellent.

Taking Superman to the next level — parenthood

I’m happy to see the new TV series Superman & Lois is taking a cue from my favorite recent run of Superman comics.

Launching under the DC Universe Rebirth banner, this series took Superman to the next level—not in terms of epic storylines, a bold new tone, or even overall quality. For Superman, the next logical level was parenthood.

The series followed Superman and Lois Lane as they raised a 10-year-old super-son, trying to impart on young Jon Kent the same values that Jonathan and Martha Kent had imparted on young Clark back in the day.

It fit what Superman is all about, and it put Lois and Clark in a new status quo that suited both of them. We saw that even after eight decades, you can still do something fresh with Superman without betraying the character’s core premise. Not every issue was a winner, but the run as a whole was a lot of fun.

Superman & Lois isn’t copying the comic—they’ve got two teenage sons in the TV show—but it is recapturing the family dynamic to differentiate this Superman from his previous TV and movie incarnations.

I also appreciate that, even though it’s on the CW, it’s not following the same formula as the previous CW superhero shows. I enjoyed the early seasons of Arrow, Flash, and Supergirl, but it is time for a fresh approach. Based on the first episode, Superman & Lois is on the right track, and its own track.

WandaVision: A perfectly strange marriage of superheroes and sitcoms

I’m enjoying WandaVision for a host of reasons, and I especially appreciate what it demonstrates about superhero storytelling.

Superheroes can work in any medium, and different mediums can open up new possibilities. It’s a versatile genre, and embracing that versatility is to its (and our) benefit.

WandaVision is not the first excellent superhero television series. Among others, Daredevil was at times amazing, and I’ve been loving Doom Patrol so far. But WandaVision might be the first that can only be a television series (or streaming series).

The sitcom gimmick isn’t just a gimmick, nor is it parody. It’s occasionally adjacent to parody while always being a distinct entity. The series is playing with different tropes than superhero comics or movies get to play with, and it’s employing those tropes to show what Wanda is going through.

And it doesn’t dispense with all comic book tropes in the process. The series remains part of a previously established shared universe, building on years of stories and pulling together various characters from various sources. The plot incorporates elements from older comic book stories, but it’s all structured in such an original way that it stands on its own as something new.

WandaVision is a strange, fascinating marriage of superhero tropes and sitcom tropes, uniting them in innovative ways to offer something fresh for comic book readers and television viewers alike.

Morning Writing vs. Evening Writing: A Duel

When is the perfect time to write?

Trick question. But while there’s no perfect time, different parts of the day do have different advantages. I’ve tried many, and I’ve gone back and forth on which one feels best for me overall.

Morning writing looks best on paper. Just get up and get to work, before the daily concerns of life can derail your creative process. Wake up with a shower, eat a decent breakfast, and sit down at the computer with a clear, fresh mind. Knock out several pages, then tend to the rest of the day secure in the knowledge that you’ve already accomplished some solid writing.

But it doesn’t always go that smoothly, at least not in my case. I have a day job, so in order to give myself sufficient writing time, I would have to wake up around 5:30 a.m. or so. I tried that for a while. Some mornings went well. Others got off to a sluggish start, and by the time I was starting to build some decent momentum, it was time to stop and shift to my other work day. Then, after work, I was often so tired that I’d crash by about 9-9:30.

On the plus side, I got some of the best sleep of my life. But I’m really not wired to be a morning person. It’s nice to know that I can get myself up super-early on occasion, if the need arises, but it wasn’t optimal use of my time or energy levels.

Evening writing is a riskier affair. The pessimistic view is that you’re putting writing at the mercy of how the day went. A rough day can wreck the night, and there’s increased temptation to drink too much caffeine too late in the day. I’m certainly guilty of letting myself get derailed for a variety of reasons, but it’s always ultimately my own fault. When I focus on the key advantage of night writing, the results are much better.

That key advantage: I’ve already done absolutely everything else I needed to do that day. All other commitments are cleared out, and the book becomes the only thing I need to focus on.

This usually gets me a longer stretch of writing time compared to trying to cram in some morning writing. I’ll finish my day job, take a dinner break, read for an hour or so, and then there’s still plenty of night left for writing.

I can sneak some additional work in other parts of the day. An unfocused morning can still yield some productive brainstorming, and afternoons (on my days off, at least) are sometimes good for editing. But those are simply nice bonuses. For me, in my subjective experience, nights are when the best work tends to happen.

Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever tried writing at 3 a.m. Maybe that’s the top-secret perfect writing time?

The Untouchable MC Hammer

I was thinking about MC Hammer the other day. Not voluntarily, of course. One does not call Hammer time; one simply answers the call.

In MC Hammer, we have a man grappling with the conundrum of his own existence. He fashions himself with a name that implies hard-hitting physical contact, then announces to the world that you cannot touch this. He poses the rhetorical question, “Why would I ever stop doing this?” And then he answers it, structuring an entire song around the insistence that he is “too legit to quit.”

The existential anguish is unmistakable. He cries out for his own legitimacy, employing repetitious lyrics to hammer (if you will) the intangible point.

Around the same time, in his animated series Hammerman, he even goes so far as to transform his likeness into a cartoon, stripping himself of an entire dimension of being to see what remains. It’s as if he implicitly understands he should not exist as he is, and yet exist he does.

Through everything, he overcomes the self-imposed adversity of his own baggy pants and he keeps dancing, becoming the ultimate paradox: a one-hit wonder with multiple hits.

MC Hammer at once makes no sense and perfect sense.

But does the rapper protest too much? How could he do otherwise?

I think there’s a little MC Hammer inside each and every one of us.

Muppets aren’t supposed to focus on ‘Now’

Muppets Now premiered on Disney+ July 31, and of course I had to check it out. Unfortunately, something about it felt off.

I appreciate the intent, and it certainly comes closer to the mark than the misconceived Muppet series on ABC a few years ago. But it’s just weird to watch the Muppets stringing together what’s essentially a collection of YouTube videos.

At first, it struck me as anachronistic. Perhaps the Muppets simply belong in the ’70s and ’80s.

But that’s not it. The Muppets are supposed to be theater folk, always just barely pulling together a show in a specific, solid place. A theater not only gives them a home, but it also makes them timeless.

A streaming-based show feels very current year. A theater-based show can be any and every year. The only thing dating a Muppet show should be the very special guest star. Kermit singing “Happy Feet” on the original Muppet Show entertained me in the ’80s, and I’ll never forget my oldest niece cracking up at the same sketch circa 2013.

Muppets are ageless, and in a way, they almost exist outside of time. Muppets Now has potential, but I’d rather they stick to the formula of the original series and aim for another timeless classic.

Speaking of The Muppet Show, why isn’t that on Disney+? And why didn’t the fourth and fifth seasons ever come out on DVD? The world needs classic Muppets.