It’s been a rough year for sports heroes. Barry Bonds was busted for lying about steroids. Tiger Woods was exposed as a philanderer. Kobe Bryant was caught on video using a hateful slur to disparage a referee. And then, of course, there was that certain one-time championship talent, celebrated for its ability to outlast, outwit, and outplay his competitors, who still can’t straighten himself out with the Internal Revenue Service. The flaws and foibles and offensive f-ups of our cultural idols offer us an invitation to reflect on our own moral integrity, capacity for forgiveness, philosophy of justice, and belief in forgiveness. Or gossip. Mostly gossip. Put another way, the phenomenon of the fallen hero is always good for revealing how we define heroism at any given moment of time. Last night’s episode of Smallville played like a parable for all these themes. On the surface, “Booster” – written by comic book superstar Geoff Johns and directed by Smallville star Tom Welling – was noteworthy for its DC Comics-imported fanboy fun (Booster Gold! Blue Beetle! Ted Kord! The Legion of Super-Heroes!) and totally cornball “just believe in yourself” homily. But “Booster” may have also been one of the more timely episodes of Smallville in quite a while, a comic book mirror to a moment of tarnished icons that reflected back some of the qualities we most need from our public role models.
I never gave the Booster Gold comics a try when the character was introduced in 1986. Everything about him was knowingly ridiculous, but all I saw was the ridiculous. In retrospect, I recognize Dan Jurgens’ creation as a commentary on increasingly commercialized pop culture and increasingly ironic super-heroes; Booster Gold allowed for stories that asked an audience coming of age in such a world if they could actually believe in something like selfless, sincere heroism. Smallville hewed to the basic facts and essential spirit of the character’s origin story. We met him saving a kid from getting creamed by a runaway SUV. The pedestrians applauded this latest colorfully clad do-gooder to hit the streets of Metropolis – and Booster Gold, smug and smarmy, drank in their adulation and begged for more, and specifically, a Daily Planet profile written by rising star reporter and media “hero-maker” Lois Lane. He declared himself an improvement upon “The Blur” that refused to show his face and make himself known: Booster Gold positioned himself as open source and Transparent. I took him to be reality pop incarnate, a gloating, limelight-loving showboat, more vain and craven than Heidi and Spencer combined. He was well-played by actor Eric Martsolf (Days of Our Lives), who had great fun blowing out Booster’s preening, puffed-up pompousness. The jaunty jerk wore strength-augmenting body armor tricked out with energy blasting thingamajiggers and accessorized with jet boots and festooned with the logos of his corporate sponsors – a patchy NASCAR driver’s jump suit on steroids. He also sported golden shades and a kept a blue tooth device that hooked him up to an A.I. named Skeetz with supreme knowledge of all criminal activity going down at given moment in Metropolis, which allowed Booster to always be at the right place at the right time.
Too good to be true? You bet. Turned out this self-styled “golden guardian” came from the 25th century and was building up his resume by trading off the historical record and inserting himself into crisis situations where Superman had saved the day. In doing so, though, Booster was gradually changing the very timeline he was exploiting. Eventually, Skeetz was rendered useless, the databank of inside intel worthless. But what the fraudulent do-gooder couldn’t erase was the crushing shame in his head that had driven him back in time in the first place: Quantum Leaping Booster had been a stud athlete who brought disgrace upon himself for gambling on and throwing his games. He wanted to run away to place (and time) that could give him a clean slate. He also wanted to feel like a star again, to feel “the rush of being the miracle people are looking for.” So he McFlyed it backward by 1000 years and made like Biff Tannen with his history-scamming conspiracy to steal Superman’s destiny. “It was easier to lose than to try to win,” Booster eventually explained to Clark. “I came here to make a fresh start and I made all the same mistakes.” Because he had acquitted himself well enough in the episode’s other storyline (more on that in a second), and more impressively because he demonstrated the ability to reflect, confess, and change, Clark granted the penitent poser forgiveness and encouraged him to stick around and earn the hero stripes he tried to swipe. BURNING QUESTION FOR SMALLVILLE FANS: Would you be game for a Booster Gold spin-off to fill Smallville’s place on The CW schedule next season?
“Booster” explored the theme of heroic character via a different but related angle with the sadsack plight of a bumbling, stumbling, everyone-picks-on-him teenager named Jaime (Jaren Brandt Bartlett), the young man who Booster saved from the aforementioned SUV. The vehicle – owned by a Tony Stark-ish munitions maker/private security mogul named Ted Kord – happened to be carrying a tube containing a cybernetic parasitical organism of extraterrestrial origin and beetle-like shape that could encase its host body with a mighty morphin’ power suit. It looked more stiff than that that “E.T.” get-up Katy Perry sported on American Idol last Thursday. “The Scarab” latched itself onto Jaime’s back and burrowed into his skin like a tick, establishing a potentially deadly symbiotic relationship. Nerd Boy was suddenly empowered, but it was power he could not control. The Scarab was built for war, and when this Venom-meets-Iron Man alien intelligence exerted its will, the bad-ass mecha wanted to scrap, and there was nothing its humble young host could do about it. Or could he? No less than Booster Gold saved the day by urging the boy take control of the battle ‘bot. In a moment of truth, Jaime dug deep and… believed in himself? Tapped the strength of his innate goodness? Something like that. Jaime tamed the savage beetle beast in his breast. And because all of this adhered to air-tight real-world logic, Kord let the clutzy, picked-on bully-magnet keep the sentient killing machine that wants to blow up stuff, because THAT WOULD HAPPEN. And why not? The Kick-Me Kid was the only one who made The Scarab work – functionally and morally. Jaime had hit the Revenge of the Nerds jackpot. See kids! It really does get better… as long as you get possessed by a Transformer and make it your friend. Okay, the real lesson: Clothes don’t make a hero, let alone a man. Character does. Groan. But true. Right?
Lightly threaded through the episode was another arc about Smallville’s true star, Clark Kent, that had the future Superman trying to settle on a viable alter-ego that would allow “The Blur” to go public – and undisguised – while not being confused for Clark Kent. After ogling gawky-clumsy Jaime on the street, Lois pitched her fiancé of steel on going full dork, accessorizing his newly adopted spectacles with some bumbling, stumbling quirks of his own. “Before that handsome hero face turns up on Jumbotron screens in all your red and blue glory, we have to make sure there is nothing handsome or heroic about Clark Kent,” Lois said. In previous recaps, I have bemoaned this approach to Clark Kent. Clark Kent himself wasn’t a big fan, either. “Lois, I was like that in Smallville,” Clark said after watching Jaime struggle to unfold a map. “The thought of going back to that…” He couldn’t finish, but I will: Clark had paid his adolescent dues. He was a man now, strong and secure, and he had earned the right to feel super every moment of his day, be it while doing good in his red and blue outfit or reporting in those slickly tailored suits that all journalists wear. Except me. And most every other journalist I know. (How much do they pay at The Daily Planet, anyway? And… are they hiring?) Lois came around to being sympathetic to Clark’s perspective as a result of getting to know Jaime, and being moved by his put-upon plight. Still, it didn’t seem like Clark moved any closer to making peace with the whole “mild mannered” thing, except to recognize that at the end of the day, he had nothing to prove – and that he got to come home every night to a woman he considered The Hottest Babe On The Planet. As far as ego boosters go, Lois was all he needed.
Loved the moment where Clark spied the phone booth on the street and used it as a superhero changing room, thought it got me thinking: Are there still phone booths in the world anymore?
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