In September 2021, I readied my house for sale by touching up some paint around the house’s 16 large windows. It was tedious work, so I put on the first episode of Superman and Lois (2021), hoping for loud action sequences to create background noise and quicken the time. Speeding bullet and all. Knocking through walls. This should distract, I thought.
I wept and dripped paint onto the wood within the first four minutes. As I scrubbed the floor clean, I watched the opening again. And again. When something moves me, I flood myself with it. Some people use music to pump them up, but for me, music and image are heat lamps, heat maps, that place me at the edge of becoming something else. I think a lot about James Wright’s beautiful ending lines to “A Blessing”:
“Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Superman and Lois’ opening scene broke me. Over and over again. And perhaps, for a moment, I was an orchid.
It surprised me that a superhero show opened with a quiet and meditative montage. Though there is something in the cadence of the music that pays brief tribute to John William’s original theme, this show’s theme is never sweeping but slow with a spatter of ethereal notes and ephemeral risings that swim into a quiet melody. The visuals, too, are hushed, almost stilled in their movement: Clark’s stalled, bright gaze when he first sees Lois; Clark gently rising in a field of wheat to reveal his identity to her; them lifting slowly into the sky together after he proposes.
The show immediately presents a narrative of precarity and fragility, starring two people who deeply grieve, love, work, and struggle to survive. It just so happens that one of them sometimes also saves the world. The scene after the montage tonally establishes Clark’s super life as part of the fabric of his overall life. It continues to trade the bombast of the original score for a gentler and understated crescendo, even as he breathes part of the ocean into a block of ice and carries it into a power plant to quell its fire. Instead of churning out a thumping theme, the music blossoms as he lowers the block of ice into the flame, and it melts down his body. This is not the charming hero catching Lois Lane in mid-air and raising her to safety or smiling with perfectly white teeth at passengers in an airplane as he replaces a broken engine with his body; this is something much more real. As real as lowering a block of ice into a pit of fire can get.
I played the opening montage to my writing classes as an example of a successful visual narrative since most were writing narrative essays for their final project. I had three class sections, and I cried during each viewing. Some of my students did too. We discussed the way the show subverted expectations. I told them about the paint. I did not have to tell them about the tears. But I did anyway.
Toward the end of the opening sequence, Clark narrates that his son, Jordan, experienced tantrums and night terrors and is diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. Jordan angrily throws items around a bedroom in one scene, whereas Lois physically comforts him in the next. My classes had previously discussed misrepresentations of disability in the media, and we deliberated on this show’s handling of Jordan and his diagnosis. One student seemed to capture it best: that while it has problems and risks stigmatizing Jordan by equating his anxiety with anger, it was also one of the most honest and upfront depictions of anxiety they’d ever seen.
The whole show seems to present a rather refreshing, though not wholly perfect, disability narrative. Instead of being shown as an invincible superhuman, Clark is constantly framed as managing his powers, which the show contextualizes as what Esmé Wang terms limitations. Like many of us, he is continually trying to calibrate his life so that he may live it as fully as possible with those he loves. As someone who struggles with multiple mental and physical health conditions, I was pleasantly surprised to find comfort in a character who used to seem too large and distant to connect with. Suddenly, being super meant to struggle, survive despite our limitations, and honestly believe that love is the answer. And for probably the first time, I was also super, as I cried and dripped paint all over the floor.
Erik Fuhrer is the author of 6 poetry collections, most recently, Eye Apocalypse (2021). They can be found at www.erik-fuhrer.com.