What to Expect from CBS’s Supergirl
Valerie Estelle Frankel
NOTE — this review contains spoilers as Ms. Frankel saw an advanced copy of the pilot.
What to Expect from the CBS’s Supergirl
After the popular ten-year run on Smallville, plus the current Arrow and Flash, a CBS-owned channel (CW is co-owned by the parent network) is finally embarking on a female superhero adventure. As many know, Supergirl is coming this fall.
Like Green Arrow himself, an early version of the character got a trial run on Smallville before taking a larger role. Supergirl in Smallville’s seventh season was vivacious and fun, insisting on taking the lead in Kryptonian matters rather than being her cousin’s junior sidekick. In fact, she demanded her own plot arc, friends, and enemies, while Lois and Chloe spent an awful lot of time building up the chief hero. Nonetheless, after the charming independence of the women of Birds of Prey and the excellent Wonder Woman-as-struggling-modern-woman pilot that never got picked up (Adrianne Palicki, 2011, NBC), both series seem like better choices for DC superheroine adventures than “Superman’s more inept cousin.”
And that’s the catch with Supergirl from the start. She has always been a problematic character — mainly because she’s a sidekick. How is she meant to operate in a world that already loves Superman, her (now) older cousin who leaves an indescribably large super shadow? The show is trying. Birds of Prey starred Batman’s ex-protégé and daughter and their teen protégé, but only after Batman has abandoned Gotham and vanished, leaving them Alfred and the city to protect. He isn’t even available to bail them out. Supergirl has her own city, but as Jimmy Olsen conveys messages that Superman is proud of her, he seems close enough to call in case of danger. Jimmy’s starry hero worship doesn’t improve matters as Superman is called only the reverent “him,” and Supergirl appears unable to contact her hero, though he sends over gifts and condescending encouragement.
More important than giving Supergirl her own city is giving her new characters. True, she borrows Jimmy, but her most important relationships seem to be with her boss and her sister. The boss, Cat Grant (admittedly a Superman character, but significantly altered), is a top journalist and editor reminiscent of the boss in The Devil Wears Prada. Her relationship with her assistant Kara is about as brutal. Kara meanwhile is committed to the “normal” life as thankless assistant and possibly someday journalist. Though comic book Kara had no particular career, this is a sad copy of Clark Kent, without any Superman to balance it. Kara appears to lack ambition to take to the skies, even with an impressive set of powers. “After all, earth didn’t need another hero,” she notes.
For the real central relationship of Kara’s life, her adoptive parents already have an older daughter, Alex. “Despite being born on different planets, we both shared one thing: we knew our lives would never be the same again,” Kara says. Alex isn’t an evil or Bizarro twin — the pair interact like real sisters — bossy at times but also accepting the responsibility to pick sweaters for a big date or text the other all about it. Having the messy sister relationship at the center (particularly with one having the power and the other not) echoes Frozen, but that’s not a bad thing — there are far too few shows about sister-sister relationships at all.
Kara first starts superheroism to rescue her sister from a crashing plane, only to get a lecture on how displaying her powers is dangerous. Alex tells her, “Everyone will know about you and you can’t take that back…It’s not safe for you to do anything like that ever again!”
As Kara discovers in the pilot, however, Alex is not as normal as she assumed. She has a secret life as Agent Danvers of the Department of Extranormal Operations, pledged to stop alien threats. She adds that her expertise on alien life comes with sharing a bathroom with one for years, something Kara seems to think gives her an unfair advantage. Nonetheless, Alex is a capable professional and scientist/action heroine. When she asks Director Henshaw if she was recruited only for being Kara’s sister, Henshaw replies, “She’s why you got in. You are why you got to stay.” When the department takes Kara down with kryptonite and drags her in, they inform her of the show’s central conflict — Kara’s pod dragged an entire prison of escaped super-criminals to earth and they all really have it in for her, since her birth mother handed out their sentences. “I can help you stop them,” Kara offers, but they tell her she’s the problem in the first place. Nonetheless, she dons her costume and makes all the papers saving her city.
After Cat Grant names the new heroine Supergirl, Kara gives her boss a show-slowing lecture on feminism. Cat Grant replies, “I’m a girl. 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?” While calling characters “girl” in the era when Ms. Marvel has become Captain Marvel seems wobbly, the issue of the name is rooted in the choice to star a well-known but originally wimpy fifties girl to be their show’s headliner. A lecture on feminism won’t fix that, though a show starring Huntress, Oracle, Starfire, Catwoman, Katana, or Vixen instead (rather than adjuncts Supergirl, Batgirl, Power Girl, Wonder Girl, or Hawkgirl) would have. (As a side note, the African-American Vixen is getting her own online cartoon show quite soon — we’ll see how it goes. Editorial note: It’s been said if the cartoon does well enough then the CW may take it to live action series.) Shining a light on the problem only emphasizes their awkward choice, though for many, a name with “girl” in it isn’t an instant problem.
The pilot plot features a nasty super criminal who handily beats Supergirl, giving her a crisis of faith. However, her sister bangs on her door and gives her an empowering speech, after changing her mind about Kara’s destiny. She also admits more than a touch of sibling rivalry: “Before you came to live with us, I was the star. And then, I mean, how can I compete with you, with someone who could touch the stars? Y’know, I was happy when you decided not to use your powers. Y’know, somehow, you feeling like less, somehow it made me feel like more. And now, the world needs you to fly, Kara.” Alex takes her to Extranormal Operations headquarters and vouches for her, helping her come up with a better plan.
Then Alex sends her back into combat. Kara wins her fight by feigning helplessness and cringing, claiming her “girl” identity (surely Superman, Wonder Woman, and Buffy would never do such a thing! [Editorial Note — Buffy actually does something similar in the cold open to “The Gift” (5.22) where she fakes not knowing anything about vampires to stake a fledgling]) to superheat his axe with her heat vision. She wins through this display and goes off to protect her city, with Alex and Extranormal Operations by her side, and Superman sending her a message of support. With this, however, comes the knowledge that he wanted to manipulate Kara into choosing superheroism rather than either mentoring her or staying out of it — another problematic moment for this girl already too far under the super-thumb.
All in all, a review of the new show must come down to the characters and where they’re heading: The show teeters on the edge of avoiding Superman-as-babysitter and that’ll have to keep going. It would be nice to see Superman show up to save Kara and she or her sister will tell him off for his half-handed job at raising and supporting her. If Supergirl falls for Jimmy Olsen, both the older man ahead of her in journalism and the wimpy sidekick of Superman, her own power metaphor suffers. But if she continues a positive relationship with her sister and earns the respect of her boss (a potentially valuable mentor), this show may have a nice journey to offer. And Kara’s going to need the support, because the Big Bad is coming…and it’s her evil Kryptonian aunt!
Last Editorial Note — Supergirl premieres on CBS on October 26, 2015. Legendary Women will be doing weekly recaps starting with the pilot and going through season one, already picked up for a full twenty-two episodes!
Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of 36 books on pop culture including How Game of Thrones Will End, Doctor Who — The What, Where, and How, and The Avengers Face their Dark Sides. Many of her books focus on women’s roles in fiction, from heroine’s journey guides From Girl to Goddess and Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey to books like Women in Game of Thrones and The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen. She’s lately been studying superheroes, publishing a book on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one on all the eras of Wonder Woman, and one on Joss Whedon’s comics this year — all in stores now. Coming up is Superheroines and the Heroine’s Journey. Learn more at her site or her Amazon page.
Images property of CBS, CW, “Smallville,” and “Supergirl,” respectively. Legendary Women, Inc. has no rights to them and does not profit.