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Even heroes feel helpless sometimes — and 'Superman & Lois' is stronger for it

Tyler Hoechlin as Superman and Elizabeth Tulloch as Lois Lane. The season finale of The CW's <em>Superman & Lois</em> airs on Tuesday.
The CW
Tyler Hoechlin as Superman and Elizabeth Tulloch as Lois Lane. The season finale of The CW's Superman & Lois airs on Tuesday.

Updated June 27, 2023 at 3:45 PM ET

When considering why I've fallen in love with The CW's series Superman & Lois, my thoughts turn to something I've started calling The Superman Paradox.

It's embodied in a passage I read many years ago from science fiction writer David Gerrold (Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles" episode), who once wrote — and I'm paraphrasing here: Watching a superhuman tackle problems isn't interesting, because, well, Superman always wins. But watching a regular guy tackle a superhuman problem — that's where really great stories are found.

I bring this up because Superman & Lois has offered one of the most compelling solutions to The Superman Paradox this year. And as the show airs its season finale Tuesday night, the series has given its superhero star a massive challenge — revealing the program's beating heart while turning him into an average guy with a battleship-size nemesis.

The Man of Steel made helpless

The show centers on Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane as parents. They have two teenage sons in high school, and before the current season, they were negotiating sibling rivalry (one inherited dad's powers and the other didn't), dating and absent father issues while juggling world-threatening supervillains. You know, typical stuff for The CW's superhero series.

But this season, Elizabeth Tulloch's no-nonsense Lois Lane was diagnosed with cancer. And suddenly, a man who never gets ill and rarely feels pain has to try helping the person he loves most survive a life-threatening illness.

Elizabeth Tulloch as Lois Lane.
Colin Bentley / The CW
The CW
Elizabeth Tulloch as Lois Lane.

In one episode, called "The Dress," Lois wants to throw out a treasured garment Tyler Hoechlin's Clark Kent bought for her to attend a special event. Eventually, she explains that the double mastectomy she will have to undergo has left her wondering if she'll ever be interested in sex again.

"Sex is a big part of our marriage," she says firmly to Clark, dropping a line I've never seen in a comic book. (He assures her they will figure it out, somehow.)

Another episode, "Of Sound Mind," finds Clark avoiding a therapy group with relatives of patients fighting cancer, because it is so difficult for him to admit that Lois might die. After rushing into a confrontation with a supervillain that nearly kills him and his superpowered son, Clark has to admit his inability to process his helplessness — which every relative of a person fighting serious disease feels intensely — is throwing him off.

"I realize I've been so obsessed with keeping [our son] safe, because for the first time I can't keep you safe," he tells Lois, tears filling his eyes. "I feel really powerless."

Which is kind of the point.

Reinventing the model comic book couple

Watching Hoechlin and Tulloch together reminds me of the romance between an earlier Clark/Lois duo I also loved: Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, who starred in the 1990s-era ABC series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher in <em>Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.</em>
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Back then, the show toggled between more cartoonish action sequences and grown-up emotional conflicts, with Hatcher's Lois figuring out Clark's secret identity before he could tell her, raising issues of trust among two characters who always served as the model comic book couple.

To their credit, producers on The CW's Superman & Lois leaned into an even more realistic and emotive approach in their cancer storyline, stretching the arc of Lois' illness across most of the 13-episode season.

I already loved the way this Clark and Lois parent; they're way more involved and authoritative than many TV parents who tolerate theatrical rebellion from bratty kids. This season, we also got to see how the couple's connection to each other could move metaphorical mountains.

Loving the human more than the superhuman

All this brought a surprising change in this 50-something comic-book-nerd-turned-critic — watching Superman & Lois, I'm often much more interested in the human moments between characters than anything that happens when Clark puts on the red cape and soars into the skies.

Tyler Hoechlin as Superman
Colin Bentley / The CW
The CW
Tyler Hoechlin as Superman

Beyond Lois' cancer fight, there's local firefighter Kyle Cushing, who blew up his marriage by cheating and now is trying to build a new life. Clark's friend Lana Lang — Cushing's cheated-on wife — gets divorced and wins election as mayor of Smallville. And Lois' father, Sam Lane, is a workaholic general trying to rebuild relationships with his daughter and grandkids that he was too busy to develop when they were younger.

Yeah, they've got a lot going on.

As the season ends, a new Big Bad for the show has emerged in Lex Luthor, played by character actor extraordinaire Michael Cudlitz (The Walking Dead, Southland). Of course, Luthor is Superman's classic nemesis, but he hasn't shown up in person on Superman & Lois until Cudlitz stepped onscreen, carrying himself like a cross between Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin character and one of Clint Eastwood's laconic Western tough guys.

But the biggest challenges facing the series may come offscreen. Nexstar Media Group, which owns nearly 200 TV stations across the nation, bought The CW last year and canceled many of its original series, while brutally slashing production budgets on others. Superman & Lois was renewed for a shortened, 10-episode season, and seven regular cast members got axed — including the performers who play Sam Lane and Lana Lang, and all the nonwhite characters on the series.

So this year's season finale may be the last time viewers can enjoy Superman & Lois at its full power, depicting a couple whose superheroic status doesn't come from any amazing powers or abilities. Instead, they're sustained by an enduring love that conquers all — even foes beyond the powers of the Man of Steel.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.