I’ve been wrestling with a way to review the 20 episodes of the new series, Supergirl. I could talk about how she represents the newest phase of feminism – which I know precisely dick (pun intended) about. I could talk about how not like a Zack Snyder superhero movie the show is – and it is not. I could talk about how a show like this offers hope that not all comic book properties adapted for movies or television take themselves a tad more seriously than absolutely necessary.
So what can a guy do when he wants to talk about a show like this?
Easy. Talk about all of the above, and also tell you what this show is, in the context of superhero television shows that have come before.
So, first things first:
The issue of feminism does come up a lot in this show, in some ways more subtle than others. When the main character of a show is a female who is the epitome of an empowered woman – literally – it gets some mentions here and there. This show is full of strong, female characters, both good and evil. Nobody needs rescuing unless they’re thrown off a building. This is a show for audiences of all sexes, but should resonate strongest with women, because women are the characters most focused on. There are male characters in the show, but they are not the weak male equivalent of damsels in distress. They are also strong and vital characters. But for the most part, even though the show doesn’t beat you over the head with a Fortress of Solitude Key of feminism, it’s very much part of the undercurrent of the show.
I haven’t seen Batman v Superman. I don’t plan to, unless I don’t have to pay for it. I might or might not actually download a pirate copy, because I really have no desire to reward Zack Snyder and David Goyer with money for mutilating two of the best-known superheroes in the world. If you’ve seen it, you know how dark and gloomy and “full of human feelings and angst” it is. Plus I hear the violence is pretty graphic – and that Snyder is planning on releasing an R-rated version for home video to showcase MORE of the violence… I’d never thought I’d live to see the day when Superman would be in an R-rated movie. But I digress…. It’s a terrible shame, because if you know me at all, you know that Superman is my favorite comic book character of all time. I have loved this character since I’ve been old enough to have my mother tie a towel around my neck so I could run around the house “flying” like him. I have all sorts of related paraphernalia. Until a robbery several years ago, I had an extensive collection of comics starring the character. So I feel very qualified in stating that a superhero who is almost always characterized as a beacon of hope and light , should never be in such a dark farce of a film.
Now, having said that, I can safely say that everything that BvS is, Supergirl isn’t. The show is in glorious, saturated color. Sets are bright, light and airy. Characters are not weighted down by their glorious purposes, or filled with the heavy burden of their heroic nature. In some ways, characters are almost standard boilerplate archetypes for adventure-series television. But at least no one in a bright costume whose name appears on the cover of a comic is trying to kill people in the furtherance of “justice”.
Now, as you may or may not be aware, series executive producer Greg Berlanti cowrote and produced the colossal misfire Green Lantern movie. Since that film came out, until recently, I blamed him for how much potential it completely missed when exploring the GL mythos. I don’t know how much of it he was responsible for (there are always, ALWAYS rewrites), but essentially the movie suffered from bad, terribly misguided production design by someone who apparently never cracked open even one issue of a comic GL appeared in, as well as almost universally miscast roles. There were moments, good moments, but on the whole, more bad decisions than good ones were made, and it looked like a second-rate Marvel movie wannabe.
However, Berlanti has since redeemed his reputation, first with Arrow, then again with The Flash, and a third time with DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. These may not be DC’s equivalent of Daredevil or Jessica Jones, or even Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter, but they are, by all accounts, enjoyable in their own ways.
And that brings us to the latest in series in the DC/Berlanti-verse: Supergirl.
Several months ago, someone leaked the entire first episode of the show to the internet. As with all superhero shows, it was the origin story. The show was alive and vibrant, with a one-in-a-million casting coup with the main character, putting Glee actress Melissa Benoist – a relatively unknown second-banana television actress – in the lead role. It was everything, as I mentioned before, that the DC cinematic universe was not. And because of this, not only was it as refreshing as a glass of Southern ice tea, it got tons of positive buzz before it was removed from circulation.
Several months later, I was tasked with watching and reviewing the entire 20-episode first season. So, after that lengthy preamble, now you’re caught up, and here we go…
Melissa Benoist has so well embodied the character of Kara Zor-el / Kara Danvers that she easily eclipses original Supergirl Helen Slater. She is vivacious, sweet, determined and has a strong sense of justice, right and wrong. Her character, in one major change from the comics, was originally sent to Earth to watch over and protect that other refugee from Krypton. However, her ship got diverted into the time-static Phantom Zone for 24 years, causing the 13-year-old Kara not to age, while her cousin went on to Earth, grew up, and established his identity as Superman. So when Kara finally makes it to Earth, Kal is there to watch after her, and brings her to live with some foster parents whom he trusts, the Danvers (played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Lois and Clark’s Dean Cain and the aforementioned Helen Slater). They’re shown as cameos in the first episode, but they reappear throughout the season in more substantial feature roles, and more is revealed regarding how their parentage of Kara helped shape the premise of the series.
But Benoist has the duty of playing a young woman whose mission has been turned on its head. The little boy she was sent to Earth to protect is now grown up and needs no protection from her. Her mission is over before it began. So Kara Danvers grows up as a more-or-less normal American girl, with no intentions of following in her famous cousin’s footsteps.
Kara, as I said, is adopted by the Danvers family. She has a step-sister named Alex, who has been her mentor in the ways of humans, and big-sister protector growing up. Now, as an adult, she is (as played by Chyler Leigh) an operative in a Secret Government Organization called the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO), which is chartered to protect the Earth from alien menaces. Kara believes that Alex is just a doctor/scientist until she learns the truth.
Also at the DEO is director Hank Henshaw, as played by British actor David Harewood. He presents a tough exterior toward both Kara and Alex, but it’s later revealed that he made a promise to their father to watch over and protect them. His method in doing so is to bring them into the DEO to keep them close to him. Also, he has a very big secret that I won’t reveal here, which adds an unexpected and very welcome layer to his character. I’ll only say that it’s one of the more delightful surprises of the series.
Mehcad Brooks plays James (“only my mother and the Big Guy call me Jimmy”) Olsen. He has transplanted from Metropolis and the Daily Planet to National City and CatCo International, for a change of scene and to become more than just Superman’s Pal (although he still has the signal watch). One thing to mention is that they’ve cast a man of color to play James. This actually has precedent – Sam Jones III was cast as Clark’s best friend Pete Ross in Smallville, and that worked out fine. And in this case, the tall, laconic Brooks actually brings a more masculine quality to James Olsen than has been previously portrayed. He takes the part and makes it his own.
Jeremy Jordan plays Winslow “Winn” Schott, Jr. Longtime Superman fans may recognize that name as the civilian identity of the villain Toyman. Winn is his son (and yes, Toyman makes an appearance in the series, to rather eerie effect). Winn is a computer genius who can, even though he works as an office drone at CatCo, apparently hack into anything, including both government and Kryptonian databases. One could argue that he gets his talent from his father. But I’ve mentioned above the boilerplate principle, and it’s in effect here. Seems every show of this type needs a computer genius. To the credit of the producers and actor Jordan, they don’t overplay this. He also has an unrequited crush on her.
Rounding out the main cast is Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant, majority stockholder and CEO of CatCo international. She worked her way up from the ranks at the Daily Planet, finally reporting to Perry White himself before striking out on her own and building an eponymous media empire. Think of her as a television analogue of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. She does the “I don’t have time to waste” act a little more than is strictly necessary, and name-drops about as frequently as a TMZ article, but, of course, she has a heart of gold when it counts.
Other recurring cast characters are Peter Facinelli as the rich, powerful, genius, and somewhat irritating Maxwell Lord (think Iron Man, without Robert Downey Jr. or the armor); Jenna Dewan Tatum as Lucy Lane, Lois’ younger sister and love interest for James; Laura Benanti as both Alura Zor-el, Kara’s Kryptonian mother, and her evil twin Astra; and Chris Vance as Non, Astra’s lieutenant.
The series starts with the concept, mentioned earlier, that since Kara’s duty to protect Kal-el as he grows up is no longer necessary, she does her best to fit in as an Earthling. She works at CatCo as the executive assistant to Cat Grant, a job she got by using her powers to cheat slightly during her job interview, after Cat mistakenly called her out as a lazy, entitled Millennial. Her life is rather unfulfilled and ordinary, compared to her sister, whom she believes is doing wonderful and exciting things in the world of science to help people. Kara’s sole desire in life is to also help people. But she has sworn to keep her powers a secret, since there is already a Superman. However, when a passenger jet – coincidentally carrying her sister on board – blows its engines and threatens to crash into the heart of National City, killing hundreds, Kara decides to act. (It’s always jet planes with these people!) She saves the plane, wearing her regular clothes, but is far away enough from anyone not to be immediately recognized. However, Alex later buzzkills Kara’s exuberance by chastising her for revealing herself to the world. In order for Kara to fulfill what she sees as her destiny of finally using her powers to help people and save the world, she and Winn (in a cute and funny montage sequence) brainstorm and come up with a costume for her to wear so she can maintain both her “ordinary” identity as Kara and her new one as… well, she doesn’t know yet. She wears the “S” crest on her costume, but on Krypton, it means “stronger together” (as opposed to “hope” in the movies). It’s not until Cat Grant starts a media blitz and essentially names Kara’s new identity “Supergirl” (with the idea of bringing added attention to her media empire by being the one who gave Kara her “brand”) that she takes on that name.
So now the stage is set… sort of. There’s still a wrinkle left, which is, in the first episode, rather awkwardly shoehorned into the plot.
As mentioned above, there’s the obligatory Secret Government Organization that seems to be yet another staple trope for superhero television. And these organizations are always created as a plot device so that the Powers That Be can keep our main characters in check. The DEO – the department that Alex and Henshaw work for – is the organization for this show. Kara, in the midst of performing her heroic duty, is subdued, brought in, and basically told she will now be moonlighting as an agent of this department, to help them reel in dangerous alien criminals as payment of a debt she didn’t realize she owed.
It seems that most, if not all, of these criminals came from a Kryptonian prison called Fort Rozz, which was situated in the Phantom Zone at the same time as when Kara was trapped there. When Kara’s pod was able to escape the Zone, she unknowingly pulled Fort Rozz, by this time taken over by the prisoners, out of the Zone as well, to eventually crash-land on Earth and release all of its prisoners. So Henshaw tells her that she, in a way, is responsible for the apprehension and imprisonment of these dangerous characters.
In the first episode, all of this is rather shoehorned clumsily together, but as the series continues and finds its rhythm, the balance between Kara’s superheroics, her “normal” life as Kara Danvers and her second job as an agent of the DEO, all begin to blend, if not seamlessly, then at least well enough so that the viewer isn’t thrown too much for a loop when things go from scene to scene. And toward the end of the season, these three separate aspects of the show begin to overlap in interesting ways.
The series starts, much like its precursor Smallville, with a villain-of-the-week format. This is done to familiarize viewers with the main, good-guy characters, without having to give a lot of thought, at first, to the recurring bad guys. This is also a staple of both superhero and science fiction television. X Files did it as well, before building on its weird, confusing, convoluted mythology. Smallville did it until the relationships between all the main characters were firmly established in the viewer’s mind. And it’s also done here, although much more quickly and efficiently. There are only a handful of villain-of-the-week episodes before the continuity, atmosphere and flow of the show establishes itself. There are a few later, as well, but they become more of a story point in the growth of Kara than the plot of an episode.
There are also several characters from the comics that make appearances that you would not expect for this show: the aforementioned Toyman, with a darker take on the character, but not nearly as gloomy and depressing as a Zach Snyder characterization. Also, Kryptonian Fort Rozz escapees Astra, Non, and Indigo, who is reimagined as a construct of the Coluans, a precursor to the actual Brainiac (well played with much relish by Laura Vandervoort). A couple of Superman villains slum it in National City as well: Silver Banshee and Livewire. Siobhan Smythe starts out as a rival assistant for Cat Grant, undermining and sabotaging Kara’s efforts to do her job and at one point writing a scathing email to Cat from Kara’s address. Cat sees through this and fires her, causing her to blame Kara for her bad fortune – another standard supervillain trope, which works well enough here that you don’t really mind. And when she discovers her powers, she teams up with Livewire, a woman who is basically living electricity with a bad attitude, who also has a grudge, but against Cat Grant. These two women actually work as an effective supervillain team against Supergirl and special guest star… oops, that would be telling. But I hope to see more of them, individually or together, if there is a second season. There’s even a fun Bizarro Supergirl!
Red Tornado makes a rather unimpressive appearance in an overdesigned suit. The less said about that, the better. Jemm, Son of Saturn appears, but as a villain (and more on that later).
There are a lot of familiar tropes and clichéd elements to the show, but if one is willing to overlook them, and especially concentrate on Benoist’s earnest and, frankly, fun portrayal as the Girl of Steel, as well as a quickly meshing cast, there’s a lot to like about this series. I especially like little touches such as including Superman as a sort-of recurring character in clever ways, either partially or fully offscreen, such as showing him in backlit silhouette, having him text Kara to tell her how proud he is of her, or showing one of his famous red boots in a scene where he’s lying unconscious on a gurney. He’s very much part of the mythos of this show, because he’s the original carrier of the family crest, but his presence doesn’t overwhelm the title character, and the writers and producers are very careful to acknowledge him, but keep him in the background. Part of the overall story arc revolves around Kara both trying to live up to his example and being unfairly compared to him, so ignoring him would have been a mistake, which the writers easily and entertainingly avoid.
David Harewood as Henshaw and Calista Flockhart as Cat both grated on me at first, but over time, as we learned more about their characters, I grew to like them. Harewood projects an authoritative earnestness about a man with a strange and secret past (nup, no spoilers from me!), and Flockhart is obviously having a ball playing Cat. Her line about refusing a date with Harrison Ford – because he’s married (…to Calista Flockhart) – was an inspired bit of dialogue. It’s touches like this that have kept me coming back.
Also, for the most part, the special effects and fight scenes are well-done and effective for series television. There are some clunky bits of business here and there, and many seem to take place in the proverbial abandoned warehouses (which, cheekily enough, a character makes a comment about in a rather meta moment). But the wire flying effects have benefited greatly from what has been developed for movies, looking more realistic and natural, and the CGI and practical effects are, mostly, very good for a weekly show.
Now for gripes…
Lucy Lane showed up as James’ ex-fiancee, trying to introduce a rather undercooked love triangle between her, James and Kara. She also left Metropolis to get out from under her big sister’s shadow, and gets hired by Cat to be the company’s general counsel. However, in a neck-snapping twist a few episodes along, it’s revealed that she is a major in the Army, which is used as a flimsy excuse to keep her around as a recurring character, since the whole romantic-thing-with-James plot doesn’t seem to be working out.
But if I had a major gripe about this show, it’s that several heroic characters from the comics appear as villains here. I wouldn’t mind if their fights with Supergirl were of the misunderstanding-so-we-must-fight trope, but Red Tornado, Jemm and even Vartox are portrayed as out and out villains, which rubbed me the wrong way. While an excuse could be made that in the episode he appeared in, RT was only acting as a robot controlled by his creator, T.O. Morrow, the other two have long been established heroes in the comics. I know that there is really no Rogue’s Gallery of supervillains particular to Supergirl, and during the course of the series, the writers have heavily borrowed from Superman’s list of foes, but recasting superheroes as villains just doesn’t sit well with me.
The strange dynamic that takes place at CatCo, where Kara – who is, as Cat Grant’s executive assistant, always on call for the most minor of her boss’ needs – continually disappears for sometimes hours during a regular workday, without explanation or excuse. If I were Cat, I would have fired her long ago. But again, we’re dealing with adventure-series television, not reality. I suppose some leeway has to be given for furtherance of the plot.
Also, apparently they sell Kryptonite by the bushel at Wal-Mart, or Cat-Mart, because there appears to be so much of it that now it can easily be synthesized and also used in room lights to weaken Kryptonians.
My biggest gripe, though, is that there are maybe one or two main characters who don’t know that Kara is also Supergirl. Of course the Danvers family know, and Henshaw and pretty much everyone in the DEO know (and we don’t know how many people that department employs, so it could be in the tens or even the hundreds); Winn knows, because Kara told him; James knows because, for some reason Clark revealed his identity to him before he left Metropolis, and he quickly figured out Kara’s secret; even Lucy knows, because Kara was pressured to tell her, to ease tensions between her, James and Lucy. Cat suspected as much, but Kara and Henshaw hatched a plot to “disprove” her suspicions, because for some reason, Cat can’t be let in on the secret that about half of National City already knows.
But these are all nitpicks. And if you aren’t as picky as I am – and you shouldn’t be, you’ll find a lot to enjoy about this show, not the least of which is, again, the effervescent, potentially star-making performance of Melissa Benoist as Kara/Supergirl. It was as if she was born for the part, much like another famous actor who made himself an icon by donning the blue and red.
At this writing, this show is still on the bubble for a second season pickup. I’m rooting for it to happen. Because we – and series television – could do worse for shows. And we – and comic book movies and shows – could do worse for heroes.