Friday, November 11, 2011

'Smallville' and the Legacy of John Williams

Over the past ten years, Smallville (CW, 2001-2011) has shown the weekly adventures of Clark Kent before he takes on the mantle of Superman. From the beginning, it has tied itself to the Christopher Reeve Superman films (Warner Bros., 1978, 1980, 1983, 1987) through a number of intertextual connections, including the casting of Terence Stamp (General Zod in Superman II) as the voice of Jor-El, the crystalline form of the Fortress of Solitude, and repeated musical references to the John Williams Superman March which so dramatically and distinctively introduced Superman: The Movie. This theme was used a number of times throughout Smallville, typically to indicate Clark Kent taking another step towards becoming Superman, but its most extensive reprise came at the end of the final episode, where Clark finally put on the blue bodysuit and red cape (primarily through the power of CGI, as the series used the Brandon Routh suit from Superman Returns (Warner Bros., 2006) as a prop rather than make a new suit for Welling). But why make these connections, and particularly why make this musical connection, one which is also retained in Superman Returns, rather than use an original theme by series composers Mark Snow (seasons 1-6) or Louis Febre (seasons 7-10)?

The opening credits for each episode of Smallville are backed by the rock track 'Save Me' by Remy Zero, a track which would be expected to connect more with the teen / young adult audience that is the primary target audience for the CW than an instrumental score. Indeed, the producers of the show used commercial music tracks by various popular artists throughout the programme to underscore particular scenes, a practice found throughout programming aimed at this age group throughout the '90s and onwards, as in Dawson's Creek (Warner Bros., 1998-2003) or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (20th Century Fox / Warner Bros., 1997-2003). However, the use of the John Williams themes allowed a nostalgic connection back to the Reeve movies, acknowledging, as did the repeated use of other elements and cast members from the films, that there was a pre-existing audience for the character that extended beyond the core CW audience, one that was familiar with the Reeve films. This acts in a similar way to the appearances and mentions of other characters from the wider DC universe within the show (see our post on the trailer for The Avengers and subcultural capital), but reaching a potentially broader audience rather than seeking to connect with comics fans specifically.

In addition to its intertextual importance, the theme also has its own musical significance, well-tailored to the character of Superman in its balance of powerful martial drums and brass with sweeping, romantic strings and playful woodwind. For a character known to balance enormous power with a conscience, a sense of right, a smile and a wave for onlookers, and a romance with Lois Lane, this combination works to sum up the character as much as it works at the start of Superman: The Movie to suggest the movements of the coming film. Thus, its appearance throughout the run of Smallville in small segments, in call-backs to the melody (for example, the distinctive first five notes of the theme on a lonely trumpet to indicate the initial revelation of the ship which brought baby Kal-El to Earth) serves to suggest that the elements of the Superman character are there and are gradually coming together. This all culminates in the extended use of the full theme at the end of the last episode, following Clark Kent's most extensive and impressive displays of power yet, in full costume, finally flying under his own full control and volition, Superman at last.

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