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.
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”
Lana’s father returns from his Mayan expedition with a rare artifact that may or may not have mystical properties. Snobby rich boy Lex Luthor (Scott Wells, The Taking of Beverly Hills) decides to steal the jewel for his own sinister purposes.
• “A Kind of Princess”
Clark’s new girlfriend is devoted to him. Unfortunately, her father is a mob boss, and one of Superboy’s enemies.
• “Back to Oblivion”
T.J. and Lana investigate a mysterious junkyard that, according to rumor, comes to life and devours any trespassers. Guest starring Abe Vigoda!
• “The Russian Exchange Student”
T.J.’s new girlfriend, the titular Russian babe, is framed for the destruction of a top secret energy-saving formula. Guest starring a guy who looks just like Napoleon Dynamite.
• “Countdown to Nowhere”
A deadly prototype laser is stolen by a bunch of crooks disguised as football players, leading to an explosive confrontation with Superboy at Cape Canaveral. This was intended to be the first episode, in which Superboy first introduces himself to the world.
• “Bringing Down the House”
A bomber targets a combined theme park and baseball stadium in the hopes of scaring its owner into selling. Meanwhile, Lana is enamored of a billionaire rock star: special guest star Leif Garrett!
• “The Beast and the Beauty”
Some thugs are pulling off crimes with a Superboy impostor. Now our hero has to convince the cops that he’s not the bad guy.
• “The Fixer”
Lex Luthor is back, and up to no good again, with a scheme to rig a championship basketball game.
• “The Alien Solution”
A cloudlike alien being interested in collecting the most powerful warriors in the universe comes to Earth in an armored metal body to duke it out with Superboy. The alien quickly learns, though, that Superboy’s true weakness is his friends, so it targets Lana next.
• “Troubled Waters”
Clark returns to his home town of Smallville, where Superboy faces off against a corrupt industrialist seeking to force the Kents off their farm.
• “The Invisible People”
A corrupt industrialist (a different one from the last episode) is ready for the final phase of his operation, but first he has to deal with the homeless, who have set up an encampment on an adjacent beach. Can Superboy help the diabolical developer see the error of his ways? And since when do the homeless sleep in teepees on the beach?
• “Kryptonite Kills”
A meteor is discovered containing some strange glowing green minerals that give off a powerful radiation, one that’s deadly to Superboy. Seeing an opportunity, Lex Luthor decides to steal the meteor for his own rotten-to-the-core reasons.
• “Revenge of the Alien,” parts one and two
The body-possessing alien from earlier makes a return appearance, first taking the form of a cop on a killing spree, and then inhabiting the body of someone close to Clark. This time, saving the day means Superboy will have to sacrifice himself.
• “Stand Up and Get Knocked Down”
T.J. and Clark go undercover at a comedy club that’s a front for drug trafficking. When T.J. gets in over his head, will Superboy be able to save him in time, or will the bad guys have the last laugh? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
• “Meet Mr. Mxyzptlk”
Mr. Mxyzptlk, an interdimensional mischief maker, shows up and stirs up trouble for everyone. When he casts a spell on Lana, Superboy is powerless to stop him. Is there any way to send this troublesome imp back to his home dimension? (And the name’s pronounced “Mix-iz-pit-ill-ick” in case you were wondering.)
• “Birdwoman of the Swamps”
When a construction site is sabotaged, everyone thinks militant environmentalists are to blame. After meeting a mysterious woman who appears to communicate with local wildlife, Superboy thinks there might be more to this conflict.
• “Terror from the Blue”
After witnessing a murder, Lana is on the run from a gaggle of corrupt cops. Can Superboy find her before the homicidal badge-wearers do?
• “War of the Species”
Superboy puts a stop to a malfunctioning experimental robot, only to learn that the robot’s creator has a surprising and sinister secret.
• “Little Hercules”
A young and blonde Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), credited here as “Leaf Phoenix,” plays a child genius who hacks into a nuclear submarine’s computer in order to impress a girl. Only it doesn’t go according to plan, and now he and Superboy have to keep the sub from accidentally nuking the entire east coast.
A gang of disfigured, spaceship-flying mutants kidnap a renowned scientist in the hopes of obtaining some plutonium. Once Superboy discovers where they’re really from and what they really want, will he stop them or help them?
• “The Phantom of the Third Division”
While Clark is paying another visit to the farm in Smallville, Clark’s mother gets some strange phone calls, and a man with an eye patch starts following Clark. It all has to do with Clark’s father’s past coming back to haunt him.
• “The Black Flamingo”
This one begins with a bang as Superboy prevents the assassination of a senator. The clues as to who’s behind it lead to an edgy nightclub, the Black Flamingo, where a secret plot is underfoot. Check out the mohawk and mascara-heavy look of the punks at the club.
A professor’s experiment sends Superboy back in time to 1930s Hollywood, where he rescues a starlet in trouble. The real problem facing our hero, though, is how to get back home.
B-movie queen Sybil Danning guest stars as a seductive romance novelist with frightening supernatural powers. And now she’s set her sights on both Clark and T.J.
• “Luthor Unleashed”
After Superboy saves Lex Luthor’s life, it looks as if Lex has turned over a new leaf. He’s now more interested in romancing Lana than in world domination. An unexpected disfigurement changes Lex’s mind, though, so he rounds up a group of hired killers to finish Superboy off once and for all.
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 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.
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 first season is the only one with this cast. After this one, Gerard Christopher took over as Superboy, and Sherman Howard (Bub from Day 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.