Jan 6, 2020
Supergirl brings joy back to the Superman family
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CBS’s new Supergirl series comes from writer-producer Greg Berlanti, who also developed Arrow and The Flash for the CW. Some of you may recall I previously wrote about this pilot when it first leaked back in May. Since my plan is to recap this show every week going forward, I figured it was a good time to return to my original recap and update it based on what changed between the leaked pilot and what actually aired (though I must admit, unlike the vast differences between Fox’s leaked Minority Report pilot and the final aired version, the changes here are slight, lending more credence to the rumor that it was a fully completed episode leaked for the sole purpose of drumming up interest in the show).
This episode aired on Monday night, and it’s… well, it’s fine. As I said back in May, it’s about as good as can be expected, given the target audience and the network it’s airing on. But I’m still rooting for Supergirl to succeed. A female-led superhero series would of course be a welcome change of pace, and it’d be nice to finally see the character redeemed after that 1984 atrocity of a feature film starring Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway. I’m sure Smallville did a respectable enough job with Laura Vandervoot as Supergirl (full disclosure: I’ve never seen Smallville, or even Arrow or The Flash, for that matter; I don’t think I could tell you which channel airs the CW in my market if my life depended on it), but having Kara Zor-El as the central character in a successful series on America’s most watched network would be a whole different ballgame.
Most of all, though, it’d be great to see at least some aspects of the Superman mythos onscreen not weighted down by angst or failed attempts at achieving Christopher Nolan and/or Frank Miller levels of grimness. Because that approach simply doesn’t fit the character.
In the comics, Supergirl has never quite had the same baggage as Superman. Unlike Kal-El, who’s often tortured over the fact that his home planet was destroyed when he was a baby, his cousin Kara mostly takes it all in stride, generally displaying a bubbly, infectious personality. It seems counterintuitive that a character who actually grew up surrounded by Kryptonian culture would be much less traumatized over seeing it all wiped out, but that’s how Supergirl was generally written, and for the most part, it worked. (I’m talking of course about pre-Crisis Supergirl. Post-Crisis, the character of Supergirl has been a constantly revised and retconned mess.)
Thankfully, a more Silver Age-inspired Supergirl seems to be what we’re getting in this CBS show. The pilot is a light, upbeat tale about a young woman who, shock of shocks, actually wants to be a superhero. No, it’s not earth-shattering entertainment, but again, it’s not airing on a network known for its edgy, groundbreaking dramas. Supergirl is obviously a show aimed at those who may be only vaguely familiar with the concept of Supergirl, with plenty of exposition and well-worn clichés on display in its pilot episode. But not every show on TV can be True Detective, and I’m fine with that.
We kick things off with a flashback set on Krypton, narrated by Supergirl herself, as she describes her origins. Krypton is about to explode, and Kal-El’s “pod” is launched, and in this version, Kara Zor-El is to be launched just a few minutes behind him. We see baby Kal-El (played by a toddler with a spitcurl to make it clear he’s Superbaby) in his pod, and as he rockets down a long tunnel, Kara’s voice explains that she’s also being sent to Earth to “protect him”. Which is already all kinds of confusing.
In the Superman origin story most of us are familiar with, Kal-El wasn’t actually sent to Earth to be a superhero; he was sent there because Krypton was doomed and he was the only one with any chance of survival. Yes, Jor-El knew he would likely become a hero and made plans for that eventuality (apparently by sitting around for years on end making holographic recordings), but that was never the endgame.
But now we’re being told that Kara is going along with Kal-El to “protect” him, suggesting Kal-El is being sent to Earth for the express purpose of becoming a hero, and somehow the fact that Kara could just as easily become a hero on Earth is completely overlooked. It’s all very perplexing. I can understand this show not wanting to get into the whole convoluted thing about Argo City surviving the destruction of Krypton in an air bubble and floating in space until it was doomed by a meteor shower, but this rushed interpretation just raises more questions than it answers.
Tweener Kara says a tender farewell to her mother Alura (Laura Bernanti, seen mostly recently on Nashville), with both of them wearing clothes that bear a subtle version of the familiar S-logo. Oddly, Kara’s father Zor-El is mostly relegated to the background here (probably because, unlike Alura, we never see him after this), but you’d think he’d at least like to say goodbye to his daughter before getting blown up, too.
After Alura gives Kara a necklace that never becomes important, Kara’s pod is launched. As she rockets away, Krypton almost immediately goes boom. Kara VOs that the explosion caused a “shockwave” which knocked her pod off course and “into the Phantom Zone”, which in this version seems to be a wormhole that you can accidentally drift into. She says, “I slept there for 24 years, until somehow, I got here!”
“Here” apparently means Earth, and by the time she “somehow” arrived, she was still a 13-year-old girl, but her cousin Kal-El was now a grown man and already operating as… “Superman! The most powerful man in the universe!” As you’d expect, we don’t see Superman’s face in these flashbacks, instead only getting shots of him in silhouette or from far away (I assume we won’t be seeing his face on this show at all, ever).
Unlike in the comics, where Superman immediately dumped Kara off at an orphanage, here he personally entrusts her to a couple named the Danvers, who are “scientists who once helped him understand his own super-abilities!” And then the show pulls a total Smallville stunt cameo move here, because the Danvers are played by former Supergirl Helen Slater, and former Superman Dean Cain. Mrs. Danvers says a few lines as she welcomes Kara to the family, but alas, Mr. Danvers remains silent.
Mrs. Danvers promises to take good care of Kara, and then we learn they already have a daughter named Alex. Kara VOs that since Superman was already an established hero, she “didn’t have a mission anymore”. And so, she decided to just “fit in”, because “Earth didn’t need another hero!” Yeah, I mean, really, what use would humanity have for another being with godlike powers? She’d only get in the way.
Cut to present day, as adult Kara (Melissa Benoist, a regular on the later seasons of Glee) walks the busy city streets while carrying a latte and talking on her cell phone and scheduling appointments for her boss. And she’s obviously aping Christopher Reeve’s take on the Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy with glasses and a nerdy demeanor.
Her VO explains that she now works for “CatCo World Media”, which is owned by Cat Grant, who in this telling is not a gossip columnist for the Daily Planet/WGBS, but rather “the most powerful woman in National City!” And National City is a new locale for the DC Universe, though I’m not sure why they didn’t just say Los Angeles, since that’s obviously where most of this is filmed.
Kara gets to the office, where she’s greeted by her coworker who works in IT, who’s named “Winn Schott”. In the comics, Winslow Schott is the secret identity of Superman villain Toyman, and there’s word that (spoilers!) we’ll eventually find out Toyman is this guy’s dad. Winn invites her to dinner, but she already has plans, because she’s trying out online dating. She goes into a dorky spiel about how it can improve a person’s chances of finding love, but Winn tells her that you can’t find love, it just has to hit you, like “puh-pow!”
Kara’s super-hearing then detects Cat Grant coming up in the elevator, and she’s played by Calista Flockhart. After expressing horror that someone else used her “private elevator”, Cat takes a sip of the latte Kara brought her and immediately tosses it in the trash.
So clearly, she and Kara have a Devil Wears Prada-type relationship where Cat makes Kara’s life a living hell. And you do have to wonder why “assistant to bitchy exec” is always the go-to occupation for young women in movies and TV. Why couldn’t Kara be a reporter, or a photographer? Why couldn’t she work in IT alongside Winn?
Also in this scene, we learn Kara is going by the name “Kara Danvers”. Not Linda Lee, or Linda Danvers like in the comics. Did they think viewers would be confused by a character with more than two names?
Cat wants Kara to send out termination letters to a list of employees at the National City Tribune. Kara protests this, noting that the Daily Planet doesn’t need to “downsize”. An irritated Cat points out that the Daily Planet is successful because they have a “superlative man” they can put on the front page every day. She foreshadowingly says, “Go find me a hero, Kara!”
But first, Kara has to pick up the “layouts” from the art director, and Kara gets all weak in the knees when she sees the new tall, handsome art director. Among his belongings, she spots a framed photo of Superman that she recognizes as having won the Pulitzer Prize. Eventually, it comes out that he’s the photographer who took the photo, and Kara figures out he’s Jimmy Olsen.
“James, actually,” he replies, telling her “Jimmy” is now reserved for Superman and his mom. So I guess that much like the ’84 movie, they’ve tossed in Jimmy Olsen to provide a tenuous link back to Superman. And yes, they cast a black actor, but I’m more impressed that they’re giving us grownup, mature James Olsen instead of making him the usual overeager, awkward oaf. And it may seem like an unlikely coincidence that Olsen just happens to have ended up working for the same company as Kara, but that’s explained later.
James gets Kara all flustered and nervous, and as she’s leaving, she whispers to herself, “Puh-pow!” Hinting at a potential future romance between the two, it would seem. Let me guess: this show will eventually throw in Lucy Lane to set up the obligatory love triangle? I suppose they could give Kara a horse named Comet to set up a real love triangle, but I don’t think primetime TV is ready for that kind of love yet.
At home, Kara is trying to pick out a dress for her online date when she gets a visit from her older adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh, from Grey’s Anatomy), who’s about to catch a flight to Geneva. Kara complains about her menial job, and thinks she should be doing more, since she has all the same powers as Superman. Alex tells her that her life isn’t so bad, and leaves after helping her pick out a dress: “When in doubt, go with blue, it is your color!” Thud.
Next, we see Kara out on her online date, where the guy asks her exactly one question about where she’s from, then bails on the date and hits on the hostess on his way out. So, a lot of men are jerks, you say? This show has really opened my eyes.
Just then, Kara sees a news report about a flight to Geneva that’s currently circling the city due to “engine failure”. And yes, it’s Alex’s flight, because of course it is. Kara runs out into the street, where everyone is staring up at the flaming jet in the sky, and Kara uses her telescopic vision to confirm that this is indeed Alex’s flight.
She whips off her glasses and runs down an alley attempting to fly. It takes her a moment to get the hang of it, but before you know it, the CGI version of her is chasing down the plane. Another one of its engines explodes, and I like how the people on the sidewalk continue to nonchalantly stand around while flames and debris are surely raining down upon them.
Eventually, Kara grabs a wing, and she’s immediately spotted by Alex from her seat. With some effort, Kara stabilizes the plane, only to realize they’re heading directly for a suspension bridge. She has to tilt the entire plane sideways to fit it through a couple of support towers, and she’s screaming the whole way, and sparks fly as the tip of the wing scrapes the road.
She gets the plane through the bridge and then just… dumps it in the water? Isn’t that where it would have ended up anyway?
Everyone on the plane cheers and claps instead of immediately getting out of their sinking metal coffin. Kara then decides to come up and stand on the wing for a while, just to make sure a whole bunch of people get pictures. Alex looks worried and finally Kara flies away, but again, I’d say all of these passengers are still in serious danger. Shouldn’t she be pulling them off the plane and flying them to safety?
Regardless, the allusions here to Superman’s superheroing debuts in various incarnations should be obvious. If not, see: Superman: The Movie, Superman Returns, the pilot of Superman: The Animated Series, the series finale of Smallville, and so on, and so on.
…And then come back to the Agony Booth next week for my recap of episode two. And it’s worth noting that the pilot of Supergirl was the most-watched premiere of any new series this fall, so I feel pretty confident in saying that unlike my aborted look at Minority Report, I’ll actually be able to stick with this show for a full season.