WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the pilot of Superman & Lois.
Superman & Lois‘ pilot episode packed in a significant number of shocks, but one of the most emotional departures saw the death of Martha Kent. The episode was a triumph of story spectacle from the final moments revealing the true identity of The Stranger to the confirmation that only one of Clark and Lois’ twins is super-powered. It’s a strong start for the new show and from the very outset, the agenda to tell a different side of Superman’s story was written large across every decision.
After debuting in Supergirl, Tyler Hoechling’s Superman is the latest big-name superhero addition to get their own Arrowverse show, with the Man of Steel’s brand likely to see him and his new family compete for top billing alongside The Flash. But rather than a huge Crisis-like event, Superman & Lois has put aside Metropolis to bring the former Smallville resident home and have him wrestle with the new dynamic of being a father alongside his role as a hero.
While the show may seem to set up a rural idyll for Clark and Lois, the journey to get to the end of Superman & Lois’ pilot was beset by tragedy, trauma and new strains on the relationships of the Kent family. With the pre-show death of Pa Kent confirmed prior to release, bringing Clark home and killing off his traditionally surviving parent seems particularly harsh, but it is a big part of the pilot’s set-up for the show. When Clark learns of her death and goes home to what remains of Smallville, his story shifts into a direction never fully explored in Superman live-action: what happens when the Son of Krypton goes home to Smallville to stay. Because killing off Martha is the key to making sure Clark stays at home, just as having him fired from the Daily Planet.
Martha’s death is a symbolic reflection of the death of Smallville. As soon as Clark returns, he sees the fallout of the economic downturn that has closed businesses down and left Smallville in trouble. As well as reflecting something of reality away from the Arrowverse, the issues with Clark’s home fit in with the challenge Lana Lang’s husband, Kyle Cushing, offers to Clark: that he is effectively just another small-town boy who grew up and left for the big city without ever coming back to improve his local community. The local fire chief – a self-appointed voice for the ghosts of Smallville’s potential – is the other key to the show’s grip on Clark. Accusing him of saving the world but ignoring his past and his family cuts into Clark as he wrestles with Lois’ concern that his boys need him and he needs to weigh up his priorities.
Crucially, Martha’s death is designed to knock Clark to his lowest point, parallelling the crisis in his life with the new threat to Superman from The Stranger. It’s a means to change everything in Superman’s life to lay out from the very start of the show that there will be unexpected twists. Given that this is a post-Crisis Arrowverse, that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, but the reinforcement of Superman & Lois as a wholly new prospect that robs Clark of his usual foundations – Metropolis, his mother, his job, his infallibility – works best by ripping out both Clark’s heart and the heart of Smallville and giving Superman something a little more personal to save. Martha’s death is a tragedy, but it might well be the best way to allow Clark to save his home, his heart, and his family.