… and aside from the 1978 Superman movie, probably the best 45 minutes of Superman there is across television or film.
The pilot episode, just named, “Pilot,” premiered on Oct. 16, 2001 with the tagline, “Every story has a beginning.” Indeed, we’ve seen Superman’s origins put to film before, as mentioned with Reeve’s Superman, but everything about this 45-minute episode is perfection and action-packed.
The episode begins with Jonathan and Martha Kent in the idyllic Smallville when one of the coolest meteor shower scenes occurs, bringing with it Superman/Clark Kent on a spaceship. In that same meteor shower, Lana Lang’s parents were killed, and Lex Luthor lost all of his hair.
Pilots, in my opinion, are generally not that great. They are table-setters for the series, but the series hasn’t found its footing with the first episode yet. It hasn’t hit that groove. But this pilot hits the ground running with explosive action and great characterization that sets the table and then some.
For example, one of the central themes of the Superman ethos and expressed in this pilot is the sense of loneliness and confusion Superman has early on when discovering his powers and realizing he’s not normal.
Showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar had the stated goal of bringing Superman back to his basics. They achieve that with the small town setting, which is gorgeous, the perfect cast (Tom Welling as Superman, Kristin Kreuik as Lang, and Michael Rosenbaum as Lex, along with Allison Mack as Chloe Sullivan, and of course Annette O’Toole as Martha Kent and John Schneider as Jonathan Kent), the multiple action set pieces that cram into one episode (the meteor shower, the accident with Lex in his car, the showdown with that episode’s villain), but also the quiet characterization moments, like Clark and Lana at the cemetery. Or earlier with Clark falling down when he gets near Lana.
Then of course, we get an iconic shot when Clark is “pranked” by the high school football team by being tied to a scarecrow pole and stripped to his underwear with a red “S” painted on his chest. The “S” I think in this case stands for Smallville, not Superman, but the wink and a nod are obvious and enjoyable.
And obviously, as many people have pointed out, it’s not just the “S” symbol, but the imagery of Superman as a “secular Jesus Christ.” I’ve talked about that before, but the comparisons to the Jesus story make a lot of sense. Only, in this case, the show centers around Clark accepting his role as the world’s savior.
Off the top of my head, there are some other great pilot episodes, like The West Wing, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, The Leftovers, and others, but I think this stands up as my favorite. Boy do I feel old, though. It’s nearly 20 years old as this point!
I’m currently re-watching the series for the second time. I’ve previously re-watched it when I bought the entire series on DVD, but thanks to the power of streaming, I’m now making my way through it via Hulu. Getting to watch the pilot again for the first time in at least six years or so, was a real treat. I was in full geek mode.
I love Superman.