Look on the screen. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s something more rare: A superhero series that isn’t about a super-man. Supergirl, premiering Monday on CBS, does us no favors by contributing to the glut of caped crusaders crowding the airwaves. But the pilot is solid entertainment marked by an appealing tone and a strong star turn by Melissa Benoist (Glee) that begins a necessary reform. “Can you believe it? A female hero,” says a working mom marveling at Superman’s caped cousin producing awesome spectacle. “Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to.” The line rings self-congratulatory, yet it’s part and parcel of a project that knowingly engages gender issues, including about the representation of women in pop culture. Whether it engages those issues well is open to debate – although the show seems to know that, too.
Supergirl was born from a dubious mechanism for producing gender diversity: The feminized brand extension. The writer who co-created the character in 1959, Otto Binder, was a specialist in making super-powered Eves from the bones of ubermensch Adams: In 1942, the legendary scribe fashioned Mary Marvel, little sister to Captain Marvel, a popular Superman copycat. Supergirl arrived late in the boomlet of comic book super-heroines that emerged after Wonder Woman in 1941, as Golden Age publishers chased new readers to keep the dimes flowing or serviced retrograde agendas. Through the ’60s, Supergirl was a supporting player in the Superman family of titles; she didn’t get her first dedicated series until 1972. She’s seen a couple successful reboots this century alone, amid another push by publishers to diversify. Did you know there’s now a female Thor? A female Hawkeye? Spider-Gwen?
Despite 55 years of stories, Supergirl remains remarkably undistinguished. The brand extension strategy – as opposed to creating wholly original characters (always a risky play, regardless of gender) — gets an instant audience and allows storytellers to comment on gender stereotypes and superhero tropes in general. You can produce interesting effects simply by giving Supergirl a version Superman’s origin story. (More on this in a minute.) But it takes great imagination to purge these properties of contrivance and tokenism and make them unique characters. It’s not impossible. See: Marvel’s Ms. Marvel, a Muslim, and DC’s Batwoman, recently rebooted as a lesbian. This is to name just a few. If fans believe Supergirl belong on the list, then it would have to be because of recent comics I haven’t read. Besides the notorious movie flop starring Helen Slater in 1984, Supergirl’s biggest cultural moment before now came in 1985, when she came to Superman’s rescue and died during Crisis On Infinite Earths, a massive housecleaning event designed to streamline the incoherent DC Comics universe and eliminate scores of redundant characters. (For those suffering from superhero pop fatigue, you might consider a “crisis” a good idea right now.)
Supergirl, the new TV series, comes from the usually dependable Greg Berlanti Superhero Factory (The Flash, Arrow). The pilot is an origin story, the most pleasurable of superhero narratives. We get all the goosebumpy beats. Answering a call to adventure. Thrilling to activated power. Discovering and donning the costume, and making fun of it, too — a relatively new wrinkle in superhero storytelling. Self-deprecation: The implicit wink that sells the spandex. Here, though, it’s also used to take some gentle shots at the silly, sexualized nature of female superhero fashion and form.
Kara Danvers, our closeted Supergirl, is a mild mannered assistant toiling for a tough mannered media mogul, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) and rom-com cliché working online dating services hoping to find Mr. Right. But then, in a spectacular sequence, she rescues a crashing plane carrying her foster sister Alex (Chyler Leigh), and Supergirl is set loose. Soon, she’s collaborating with a confidant/coworker (Jeremy Jordan) — whose transparent crush she can’t see (so much for X-ray vision!) – on drafts of a costume that includes cape, skirt and a big red S on her chest. Mentoring comes courtesy of Superman’s pal, James “Jimmy” Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), newly transplanted from Metropolis to work for Cat as chief designer of the company’s flagship paper.
Kara initially does good to feel good, chasing danger to feel her strength, but before hour’s end, she’s subordinated herself to a grave, structured cause: She moonlights for a secret government agency, run by a hard-ass military man (David Harewood) that secretly polices a secret population of extra-terrestrial ex-cons living among us — including a scattered cell of bitter men connected by wireless media seething with homicidal resentment toward Kara’s powerful Kryptonian mom, Alura (Laura Benanti). Kara’s arc of history brought these angry outsiders to our world. Not her fault, but she feels called to address the mess. So many secrets! So many jerk bosses! So much social responsibility and timely resonance!
The pilot is chockablock with clever ideas. The opening sequence blows up the ‘Superman’s helpmate’ conception of the character. We’re introduced to Kara Zor-El at age 13, on Krypton, minutes before Ka-Boom! She, too, is sent to Earth in a rocket ship Moses basket, just minutes after Kal-El’s departure. Her mission: To watch over cousin Kal and make sure that he fulfills his messianic destiny. World-improving? That’s man’s work. Babysitting? Now there’s a job for Supergirl.
But Kara would have no role in Clark Kent’s coming of age. Her shuttle got sidetracked and landed in The Phantom Zone, a limbo that does not know time. There, she spent 24 years in a cryogenic snooze, until Superman — who became Superman just fine without her helicopter protecting — found her and roused the sleeping teen to waking life. He set her up with a foster family, the Danvers (played by Slater and a former TV Superman, Dean Cain), and leaves her alone to build an identity for herself that has nothing to do with him and freed of the expectation of being anything like him. His choice comes off a bit absentee parentish, and a bit of a logic bust. Kal and Kara are family, orphans, and the last of their kind — and they have no relationship? I was hoping that Supergirl would use Superman to represent patriarchy or blinding male privilege; maybe it thinks it is. I don’t see it. And regardless, Supergirl can’t openly slag its billion-dollar paterfamilias like that. And so we’re supposed to be impressed by the man of steel’s hand’s-off, seemingly enlightened approach policy, and we’re supposed to roll with an unspoken understanding: While Superman exists in Supergirl, we’ll hardly if ever see him, because it doesn’t serve the current interests of the DC Entertainment to do otherwise.
So begin my quibbles with Supergirl. It works cleverly within a borrowed premise and restrictive parameters to create allegory, but the premise and parameters also work against the allegory, too. When we meet the adult Kara Danvers, she has all the powers and abilities of Superman, but she hides most of them, and let others go fallow. (She hasn’t attempted to fly in years, we’re told.) Liberated from her mission to be Kal’s bodyguard/mentor, Kara hasn’t yet worked out what she should be doing with her life or how she should be using her talents. The influence of her jealous foster sister Alex hasn’t helped: When they were kids, Alex was all too eager to encourage her alienated, extraterrestrial sibling’s understandable if flawed desire for a “normal” life. Like many women, she’s been conditioned to underachieve and feel insecure about her strength for the sake of fitting in. Consequently, Kara is meek to a fault — her version of Superman’s Clark Kent always-apologizing-for-himself bumbler persona is more genuine than performance – and she worries that she’s not living up to her potential. She should be doing great things and be greatly fulfilled. But how? (In this way, Kara also represents the frustrated optimism – and entitlement – of her millennial generation.)
You need to know all of this to understand how Supergirl deals with a dilemma created by its set-up. In most versions of Supergirl, teenage Kara immediately begins super-heroing after arriving on Earth. Hence the name: Supergirl. But Supergirl wants to tell its story with an adult Kara, and it also wants to launch with a classic superhero origin story. These choices complicate the “why now?” of the story. Or rather: Why not sooner? Kara’s busted mission and family influence are given as reasons, and it has led her to this conclusion: “The earth didn’t need another hero.” She’s wrong, of course. In fact, taken literally, it’s shocking anyone could believe such a thing. She works for a major news agency. The suffering of the planet pays her salary! In what cultural bubble was this person raised? The bottle city of Kandor? She should know better. The world needs more heroes!
Obviously, she overcomes this stinkin’ thinking in the pilot, which creates scenarios that give her permission to be all that she can be. To be fair, the pilot leaves many blanks about Kara’s upbringing. It’s very possible that there’s more to learn about how this interstellar space traveler — a product of a sophisticated society light years beyond our own — spiraled into mediocrity. I would be shocked if there wasn’t. A central idea in Superman’s origin is that Superman is super not because of his powers, but because of the character cultivated by Ma and Pa Kent. The Supergirl pilot introduces the Danvers — scientists, apparently — with a fleeting shot of receiving Kara from Superman with warm smiles. But it doesn’t dramatize anything from her upbringing — a curious, even suspicious omission. My conspiracy theory senses are tingling.
The pilot’s buzziest, most meta scene comes when Cat Grant coins the name “Supergirl” and defends it to Kara, who tries to argue that perhaps “Super-Woman” would be a more appropriate, respectful name. “I’m a girl,” says Cat, “and your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot, and smart. So if you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?” The argument she makes is debatable but worth having. The scene casts Cat in a morally ambiguous light. Here’s a female culture maker, shaping the image of an overnight feminist icon — and doing it poorly. In my opinion. (Interesting that in Supergirl’s pilot, the biggest threat to Kara’s self-actualization and self-determination are other women, specifically Alex and Cat.) And because I’m old, I can appreciate the knowing irony of hearing this speech from the actress who played Ally McBeal, the polarizing nineties icon who was once put on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Is Feminism Dead?”
But what irked me about this scene is the rigged-game hollowness of the discussion, which really isn’t a discussion. Cat rolls right over Kara, because the larger point of the scene is that Kara needs to adds some steel to her character and stand up for herself, but also because the franchise needs Cat to win this fight. The show’s called Supergirl. It probably shouldn’t be, but it is. It’s a long-lived, lucrative brand name. The series wouldn’t exist without it. Of course the show was going to defend it to the hilt and allows it rationalizations to win out.
I’m glad Supergirl exists and I want it to succeed. If it never becomes anything more than a solid superhero genre show with a female lead, that’s more than fine, especially since that lead is fantastic: The best counter to all my complaints is that Benoist makes it all work. The redeeming magic of perfect casting. Her performance embraces, internalizes, and sells the character’s contradictions and paradoxes. She makes Kara feel real, she wears the costume proudly and easily, she’s joy and complexity at once. Supergirl begins to fill a shameful void that needs to be followed with cleaner, more artful wins. It will most likely come from original creations — the next Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the next Veronica Mars — or adaptations of edgier, more contemporary properties that can allow for more creative daring, like The CW’s excellent iZombie or (hopefully) the upcoming Netflix series, Marvel’s Jessica Jones. The frustrations of Supergirl remind us that super-powered super-people often make for problematic vehicles for exploring issues of Otherness, diversity, race and gender – especially intrinsically flawed comic book brands beholden to the values of another era and bound by franchise restrictions. “Can you believe it? A female hero. Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to.” Yes, that is nice. Now, we need better.