Supergirl series premiere recap: Pilot
Supergirl, a.k.a. Kara Danvers, becomes the hero National City needs now.
Meet Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), she’s Supergirl and she’s here to save the world (but, she isn’t looking for someone to save her). Her story starts in the same place as her slightly more famous cousin with whom she’ll eventually share part of an alias. When she was 13, she escaped the doomed planet of Krypton in a spaceship right before the planet was destroyed. Her ship was right behind the one carrying her infant cousin Kal-El, who she was tasked with protecting once they arrived on Earth.
Unfortunately, Krypton’s destruction created a shockwave that knocked Kara’s ship into the Phantom Zone, a place where space is frozen and where she would remain stuck for 23 years before getting to her destination. By the time she makes it here, Kal-El has grown up and become Superman, while Kara is still 13 years old. Wanting her to have a normal upbringing, Superman places her in the care of the Danvers (Lois & Clark’s Dean Cain and Supergirl’s Helen Slater), scientists who helped him understand his powers and who also have another daughter, Alex.
“Even though I had the all same powers ‘he’ did, I decided the best thing I could do was fit in,” Kara explains in a voice-over. She reasoned that, “Earth didn’t need another hero.” (Supergirl will spend most of its series premiere fighting back against this idea and making a case that Kara’s story is just as interesting and worthwhile as that of Superman.)
The pilot of CBS’ Supergirl is fast-paced, charming, fun, and incredibly self-aware. It has the confidence and joy of The Flash, which isn’t a coincidence since both shows were developed by the same creative team. While the pilot might not be a great episode — it’s a bit clunky thanks to enormous amounts of exposition, a necessary evil — it is effective and makes me want to return next week and, hopefully, for many more weeks to come.
When we catch-up with Kara in the present, she’s working as an editorial assistant at the National City-based media conglomerate CatCo Worldwide Media, a job that mainly consists of fetching coffee. For Kara, fitting in means underachieving and becoming mild-mannered to a fault. She’s like a walking verse from Katy Perry’s “Firework,” except on purpose. At work, she’s friends with Winslow “Winn” Schott (Jeremy Jordan), a technology expert who also has a huge, unrequited crush on her.
Over on the opposite side of the personality spectrum we have Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), Kara’s boss who is the complete opposite of mild-mannered and is an obvious foil to Kara. Cat knows she’s the most powerful woman in National City (for now) — she has the wall covered in TVs that also doubles as metaphor for #PeakTV to prove it — and isn’t going to hide that fact.
After a meeting with Cat, Kara meets CatCo’s new art director, James “Jimmy” Olsen, who recently transferred from The Daily Planet in Metropolis, where he made a name for himself with a Pulitzer for snapping the first photo of Superman. As played by Necessary Roughness’ Mehcad Brooks, he’s probably the most un-Jimmy Olsen we’ve ever seen on screen. He’s tall, fit, mature, confident and clearly aspires to be more than just Superman’s (endearingly dorky) pal. Tiny sparks start to fly between Kara and James (only Superman and his mother call him Jimmy), and we can already see that the writers are planning to create a love triangle between Kara, James, and Winn. You can take the writers out of The CW, but you can’t take The CW out the show. (ASIDE: The CW passed on Supergirl before it landed at CBS, its corporate sibling.)
Tonight, Kara has a date with someone she met online, but can’t figure out what to wear on her date. So, she asks her sister Alex (Grey’s Anatomy’s Chyler Leigh) to help her pick something out. As Alex rummages through her closet, Kara worries aloud that she’s not living up to her potential because she chose to live a normal life even though she can do everything her Boy Scout cousin can. However, Alex doesn’t have time to talk this through because she has to catch a plane to Geneva for work.
Maybe, Lexie Grey should stop getting on planes, because her plane to Geneva starts having engine problems as soon as it takes off. Luckily, Kara sees a news report about the plane while on her date, which was going terribly, by the way, and springs into action. Without hesitating, Kara rushes into an alley, removes her glasses and takes flight… after several tries (hey, it’s been awhile since she’s flown). In an allusion to several Superman stories, she uses her super strength to save the plane and land it safely in the water. It’s a thrilling sequence and is hands down the best part of the pilot.
NEXT: A misogynist villain of the week
For Kara, saving all those people was an exhilarating experience because she is finally able to embrace who she really is. Unfortunately, Alex doesn’t share Kara’s enthusiasm and urges her to stay hidden because people could figure out her identity. Naturally, Kara is heartbroken that someone so close to her would ask that she continue to deny her destiny. Thankfully, there are others around her who are more excited, like Cat, who thinks this hero is just the thing she needs to save her paper. Winn’s also incredibly enthusiastic when Kara lets him in on her secret.
It’s clear from Supergirl that Berlanti and company have learned from the mistakes they made on Arrow and The Flash. In the first 20 minutes of the pilot, the show has already bypassed the tired secret identity trope. It’s a smart move that eliminates the need for frivolous drama.
One montage later, Kara and Winn have finalized her costume, which has her family crest emblazoned across her chest. She takes her new outfit out for a test drive, but is ambushed by the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (DEO) and is knocked out using kryptonite tranquilizers. Later, she wakes up in the DEO’s underground base and meets Hank Henshaw (Homeland’s David Harewood), the agency’s head, who explains that the DEO protects Earth from extraterrestrial presence and/or invasion. Oh, and Alex works for the DEO, which is news that leaves Kara feeling betrayed. This is a Berlanti show, so it’s no surprise that the Danvers’ family dynamic is complicated with secrets.
In an exposition heavy scene, Hank explains that Kara’s ship wasn’t the only thing that escaped the Phantom Zone a decade ago; Fort Rozz, Krypton’s maximum security prison, was also stuck there until it followed Kara’s ship out. Now, the prisoners are roaming the Earth and are finally starting to make their presence known. However, Hank isn’t interested in Kara’s help because he doesn’t believe she’s capable of fighting. There’s definitely more to it: Based on his concerns about Superman’s presence on Earth, it’s clear that he also doesn’t trust Kara because she’s an alien.
The next day, Kara returns to work and learns that Cat has christened her alter ego “Supergirl” in the press. “I don’t want to minimize the importance of this,” Kara says as she objects being called “girl” instead of “woman.” Becoming a voice for the producers, Cat defends the name. It’s a telling scene that reveals the show is definitely aware of how important it is for the genre as it’s one of the first female-led vehicles in the most recent wave of superhero franchises. In moments like this, you get the sense that the writers probably spent a lot of time praying they weren’t doing a big thing badly.
Cat and Kara’s argument is about to end with Cat firing Kara, but James interrupts with an exclusive, clean photo of Supergirl and gives Kara all the credit for acquiring it. Impressed, Cat tells Kara that she needs to start speaking up for herself and taking credit when she does something good or else she’ll never get anywhere.
As she leaves her meeting with Cat, Kara’s super-hearing picks up on a message from Vartox (Owain Yeoman), an escaped Fort Rozz prisoner who was responsible for sabotaging the plane, challenging Kara to a fight. During the confrontation, Vartox reveals that Alura Zor-El was the judge responsible for imprisoning everyone in Fort Rozz. Obviously, their fight doesn’t go well and Vartox, a proud misogynist, almost kills her. Thankfully, Alex and the rest of the DEO show up and save her.
NEXT: A message from home
Her defeat leaves her feeling discouraged and convinced that the world doesn’t need a Supergirl (but it does!). Alex stops by her apartment and admits to being jealous of Kara when they were growing up and being happy when Kara decided to “fit in.” Alex gives Kara a holographic message from her mother Alura El (Laura Benanti) that tells Kara that her destiny isn’t tied to her cousin’s and that she needs to find her own path in life. It’s the call to action that Kara needs to make something more than just brand extension for Superman!
With renewed confidence, Kara and Alex return to the DEO and insist that Hank let her help take down Vartox. He eventually gives in, and using some faux-science, they are able to track Vartox. Supergirl flies off to fight him again. Vartox continues to underestimate her, which Kara uses to her advantage. Eventually, she uses her heat vision to destroy his ax and defeat him.
When Kara shows up at work the next day, James asks her to meet him on the roof where he admits that he’s known who she is from the beginning and that her cousin sent him there to keep an eye out for her. Apparently, Superman always wanted her to become a hero, but he thought she needed to choose it on her own.
In the episode ending stinger, Vartox’s boss meets with The General, who is revealed to be Alura’s twin sister. The reveal isn’t that surprising because you don’t bring Laura Benanti (Go On, The Good Wife) onto a show like this and only have her show up as a hologram. Like most villains, the General wants to take over Earth and is willing to kill her niece, Kara, to do so.
Overall, this was a decent start to the show’s first season. By the end of the episode, it’s clear that Supergirl will be borrowing from Smallville and The Flash and pursuing a prisoner of the week format — which we’ll abbreviate to POTW to make it cool. Vartox was a very bland villain, so let’s hope that the show steps up its game in this department. Benoist’s infectious joy carried the episode and will be the show’s saving grace as it finds its feet in these first few episodes.
Wall of Weird:
- Welcome to EW’s recaps of Supergirl. I’ll be the Virgil to your Dante for the show’s inaugural season. Typically, every recap will end with a “Wall of Weird” section, which will cover extra notes from the episode and touch on connections to the comics. A “SPOILER ALERT” warning with precede any discussion of the source material down here.
- There’s reason to worry CBS might flatten Supergirl into a typical CBS procedural; however, it’s also likely that it will follow the examples set by The Good Wife and Person of Interest and gradually become more serialized over time.
- “It’s not that I don’t see your frown. It’s just that I don’t care why it’s there.” Calista Flockhart is slaying as Cat Grant.
- Does anyone else not buy that Superman would just leave Kara with another family and not develop any kind of relationship with her? Throughout the episode, it’s clear he’s basically a stranger to her, which is ridiculous given that up until the present-day events in this episode, they thought they were the only Kryptonians on the planet.
- The visual effects in the plane sequence were great right until the plane hit the water.
- If you’re interested in diving into more Supergirl stuff, check out Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, which feature one of the best adaptations of the character.