Mar 4, 2020
Supergirl: It's a (Super)man's world
CBS’s new Supergirl series comes from writer-producer Greg Berlanti, who also developed Arrow and The Flash for the CW. The first episode aired on Monday night, and it’s… well, it’s fine. It’s about as good as can be expected, given the target audience and the network it’s airing on.
Nevertheless, I’m 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 for good measure) 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 along with 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?
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.
Cut to Kara at home watching the news, ecstatic at reports about her daring heroics. Alex shows up at her door, but she’s not looking to celebrate. She turns into Pa Kent Costner and chastises her for exposing herself to the world. Kara thinks that maybe she was meant to be a hero, and “I didn’t travel two thousand light years to be an assistant!” Alex says if people find out who she is, she could be in great danger, but suspiciously refuses to elaborate. Eventually, a weepy Kara tells her to go.
The next day at work, all the TVs in the office are tuned to stories about the mystery heroine. There’s a funny moment where one guy is all, “Kara, you’re a lifesaver!” but it turns out he’s talking about something work-related.
Cat eventually gathers all her reporters in her office, along with Kara for some reason, and she orders them to find out more information about this woman. (Meanwhile, graphics on TV screens behind her reveal that the suspension bridge is named the “Otto Binder Bridge,” after one of Supergirl’s co-creators.) James suddenly teleports into the room, and I guess Cat wants to pick James’ brain for Superman-related info. As far as he knows, this girl isn’t connected to his super-pal, but he has a feeling she’s a hero anyway.
Cat declares that she’s going to “blow her up!” but in a good way, and she immediately sends everyone out with marching orders to get videos, photos, interviews, anything they can. Except for Kara, who she tells to go get her a “lettuce wrap.”
As they head out, James says to Kara, “Funny, that’s the same thing he did.” Get someone a lettuce wrap? “Save a plane, I mean.” Oh right. Yeah, that makes more sense.
Kara then decides she really needs someone to be happy for her, so she tells Winn to meet her up on the roof. Cut to one of those useless helipads that all L.A. skyscrapers were required to have, where Kara starts to tell Winn that she’s decided to come clean about who she really is. In one of the episode’s lamer moments, Winn briefly thinks she’s a lesbian. “That’s why you’re not into me!”
But she finally clarifies: “I’m her!” And to prove it, she falls backwards off a ledge and then the CGI version of her comes shooting back up. She lands on the helipad (with her glasses still on her face) and Winn is suitably stunned.
And now it’s time to meet this episode’s villain, a trucker sitting in a diner and digging his nails into the counter as he watches news reports about Kara. He then climbs inside the tanker of his truck, which contains nothing but a futuristic viewscreen. He also takes off his trucker hat, revealing Klingon-like skull ridges.
A man appears on the viewscreen, identified only as the “Commander.” He addresses the trucker as “Vartox,” and in the ensuing conversation, we find out the plane crash was an intentional act of sabotage meant to kill a “DEO agent.” Somehow, Vartox already knows that it’s “Alura’s daughter” who saved the plane. More exposition reveals that the two men belong to a group that’s been lying in wait for 12 years, but now “the General’s arrival is imminent” and they can’t allow anything to interfere. And no, the “General” is not going to be Zod, so just put that thought out of your mind right now.
Vartox is ordered to get rid of Kara, so he picks up a big high-tech axe and declares that Kara will “pay her mother’s debts, and so will her city!”
The character of Vartox comes from the comics, by the way, where he’s an alien hero described as a “Hyper-man” with “Hyper-powers.” And the most notable thing about Vartox is that when he debuted in 1974, he was clearly modeled after Sean Connery’s look in the notoriously awful film Zardoz, a fact which was played for laughs in Power Girl’s more recent titles, where he’s even shown riding around in a giant head, just like Connery did in that movie. In comparison, this show’s Vartox is sadly quite bland and unremarkable.
Over at Kara’s apartment, we get a “trying on clothes” montage, as Winn helps Kara put together a superhero costume. And true to most “trying on clothes” montages, it’s set to an upbeat pop song, in this case, Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked)” (no, that’s really the title of the song). She completely hates the first costume she tries on, which is made up of a headband and hot pants, which I’d like to think is a jab at some of the more dated outfits Supergirl wore in the comics.
Finally, she settles on the outfit already seen in all the promo pictures, only without the S shield, and also without a cape, because Winn thinks capes are lame. She takes off her glasses, and it’s only now that Winn notices that she’s pretty. Because a half-naked girl in skintight hot pants might as well be a dude if she’s wearing glasses.
Winn tells her he’s “hacked into the NCPD” and he’s able to track crimes in progress. And now this turns into a big “fighting crime” montage, as she first tries to stop a high-speed car chase. Instead, she ends up flying into the dirt on the side of the road, and in the next scene, Winn says maybe she does need a cape after all, to be more “aerodynamic.” Then she takes on bank robbers, who look a bit too much like skinny hipsters for my tastes, and this bit mostly serves to confirm that she is indeed bulletproof.
Cut to Winn throwing her bullet-riddled cape in the trash while she puts on a new one. He then notices she now has an S-shield on her chest, and he assumes it stands for “super,” just like her cousin.
“It’s not an S,” Kara replies, and I brace myself for a horrible line about hope. Instead, she simply looks in a mirror and says, “It’s my family’s coat of arms. The House of El!” Which is still pretty silly, but this whole thing where the S is actually a Kryptonian symbol has been accepted Superman lore for 35 years now, so who am I to argue?
Her next mission is to save people from a building on fire, but when she flies there, she suddenly finds herself getting hit with glowing green tranquilizer darts. She falls to the ground unconscious, and when she wakes up, she’s in an underground base, and a man is telling her she was hit with “low grade Kryptonite,” which “weakens you.”
He introduces himself as Hank Henshaw, better known as the Cyborg Superman in the comics. Hank then brings in “Agent Danvers,” who turns out to be Alex. Henshaw and Alex are both working for a secret government organization called the “DEO,” which stands for the “Department of Extranormal Operations.” With Alex’s help, they’ve been keeping track of Kara, and it turns out they even have the pod she came to Earth in.
Henshaw explains that when Kara escaped from the Phantom Zone, she brought “Fort Rozz” along with her. Fort Rozz, first seen in the comics, is a maximum security Kryptonian prison that’s accidentally transported into the Phantom Zone, though here there’s no explanation for why it’s in the Zone. In flashback, we see Kara’s ship leave the Zone, and somehow pull all of Fort Rozz with her. There’s a quick shot of Fort Rozz having landed on Earth, with prisoners pouring out of it, meaning that extremely dangerous Kryptonian convicts are now running around on the loose.
Supposedly, all those criminals have been laying low for the last 12 years, but now they’re planning something. They have images of some of the convicts up on a screen, and Kara briefly becomes psychic when she figures out the plane crash was no accident but an attempt to kill Alex.
Kara wants to help stop the criminals, but Henshaw points out that she couldn’t even stop the DEO from capturing her. He tells her to “go back to getting someone’s coffee,” and that’s the end of the conversation. So, they sedated a superhero and brought her here just to tell her that they don’t need her help to deal with a threat she didn’t even know existed until they told her about it? Makes perfect sense.
Kara then suggests that Alex was only recruited by the DEO because she grew up with a Kryptonian sister. Alex gets defensive, saying she was hired because she’s an expert in “alien physiology,” but then concedes, “It helps that I shared a bathroom with one!” Ugh. That’s the line they went with?
Kara storms out. Wasn’t she unconscious when she was brought here? How does she know the way out? I realize she can probably figure it out with her x-ray vision, but it’s still weird.
Back at the office, Kara learns that Cat has named the new hero “Supergirl,” complete with a hashtag.
Kara’s not a big fan of the name, it seems. “Shouldn’t she be called Super… woman?” She also thinks the name might make them seem “anti-feminist.” But Cat doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the word “girl” because Cat herself is a “girl” and also “powerful, and rich, and hot, and smart!”
There’s certainly an argument to be made that “girl” is somewhat demeaning in this context. If a 24-year-old man saved a plane, I doubt the press would dub him “Superboy.” On the other hand, if “girl” is anti-feminist, what to make of expressions like, say, “girl power”? But still, this whole spiel feels like a half-hearted attempt by the producers to head off any feminist criticism about the character’s name, in the hopes that they’ll never have to deal with the issue again.
Abruptly, Cat is on the verge of firing Kara for no particular reason, but then James pops in and pretends like Kara got a great scoop, scoring a high-res photo of Supergirl. We only see the picture for half a second, but wouldn’t a high-res photo immediately give away that Supergirl is Kara? But Cat is only impressed by this “clean image” and tells Kara, “You bought yourself another day!”
Kara heads out, and we get this show’s most blatant lift from Superman: The Movie yet: when Supergirl picks up a message from Vartox on a frequency that only she can hear, he calls her “Daughter of Alura” and tells her to come and fight him or he’ll kill innocent people. Though, this doesn’t seem like nearly as clever of a ploy when you realize Superman is probably able to hear this message, too.
Kara walks outside and rips open her shirt to reveal the S logo, and she’s instantly blasting through the clouds. She tracks Vartox’s signal to a random industrial area, where he suddenly leaps out of nowhere and starts smacking her around.
As they fight, he tells her that her mother Alura is the reason he was locked up in Fort Rozz, because she was “our judge and jailer!” Just like Jor-El in Superman II, imagine that. Finally, he pulls out his axe and slashes her arm, which draws blood. That’s when a DEO helicopter shows up and fires a grenade or something that drives Vartox away. Yeah, the girl who can lift a jumbo jet with her bare hands, I can handle, but a chopper? I’m outta here!
An agent rappels down from the helicopter, and naturally, it’s Alex. They bring Kara back to DEO HQ, where they remove a shard of metal from her arm and analyze it. Kara asks Alex if she knew about her mother being the one who locked up all those criminals. Alex admits she knew all along, and the reason she never wanted Kara to reveal herself was because she knew those criminals would come after her, as a way to have their revenge on Alura. So… wouldn’t it have made more sense to just explain all this to Kara in the first place? So she’d know better than to go public like she did when she saved the plane?
A thoroughly demoralized Kara wanders off, saying with tears in her eyes that “You’re right, the world doesn’t need me!”
And now we come to the final act, where Kara continues to sulk in her apartment. But Alex shows up to say that yes, the world does need her, and to prove it, she’s brought along a Kryptonian device from Kara’s pod that contains a Jor-El-esque holographic recording from Alura.
Alura’s holographic pep talk of course contains no actual specific advice and simply says that there’s “no correct path in life,” but Alura knows Kara will “find a way back” to being the brave girl “you always were.” Thankfully, these vague platitudes are all it takes for Kara to get her groove back.
She and Alex return to DEO HQ, where they tell Henshaw that Kara is the only one who can defeat Vartox. They’ve located him heading to National City, apparently to commit mass murder, and Kara pleads with Henshaw to let her stop him.
Cut to Vartox’s truck on a highway outside the city, and in an admittedly cool moment, Supergirl rams the truck with her body, causing it to explode and Vartox to come flying out (along with his axe, of course). And now it’s time for the rematch, with the DEO folks monitoring the fight this time. Henshaw doesn’t think she’s strong enough to beat Vartox, and Alex responds, “Why? Because she’s just a girl?” Yeah, Hank, what are you, anti-feminist?
Eventually, Kara reveals a new trick, which is using her heat vision on Vartox’s axe. It seems the DEO determined the axe has some sort of nuclear power source that can overheat, so Kara blasts it with her heat vision, and luckily, Vartox doesn’t just let go of the damn thing.
It explodes, leaving him defeated. But he won’t be taken prisoner. Vartox says, “You have no idea what’s coming!” He then stabs himself with a shard of the axe, committing suicide.
Back at DEO HQ, everyone celebrates. A guy just committed seppuku, break out the champagne! And now it’s time for Alex to address what’s really important: Was she in fact hired just because of her sister? Henshaw admits that yes, that is the reason they hired her, but presumably Alex’s skill and talent is “why you get to stay.” Gee, thanks, daddy.
Cut to Kara returning to work with a new spring in her step. Winn is already talking about internet reports of Supergirl battling a super-powered trucker in the desert. Kara then runs into James, who finally lets on that he knows she’s Supergirl.
They meet up on the roof, where James says it’s no coincidence that he’s come to work for CatCo. In fact, Superman sent him here to keep an eye on his cousin. Which in retrospect is like, duh. Jimmy Olsen is one of Superman’s closest friends; why wouldn’t he already know about Superman’s cousin?
According to James, Superman wanted Kara to decide for herself if she wanted to become a superhero. And now that she has, he presents a gift: a new, indestructible cape made from the blanket Kal-El was wrapped in when he was sent to Earth. James then tells her she has a city she should be protecting, so she better get going. “You know, up, up, and away?” Wait, didn’t she just get to work a few minutes ago?
And so, Supergirl goes soaring through the city, flying past Cat Grant’s window, while Kara’s VO declares that Earth now has another superhero. “Now, it has Supergirl!”
In the stinger, we see the Commander meet with the General, who’s only shot from behind, but who turns out to be female. The General is informed of the death of Vartox at the hands of Alura’s daughter, and she says, “My dear little niece!” The General’s ultimate goal is to become ruler of Earth, of course, but for that to happen, Kara must die. Finally, the camera comes around to reveal the General is also played by Laura Bernanti, meaning she must be Alura’s evil twin sister. The end.
So that’s a pretty underwhelming twist. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest another Superman-related story reuse the villains from Superman II yet again, but why couldn’t the General be Ursa? And then have some other actress play Alura, or even make the role of Alura some big name, one-time cameo (like Mia Farrow was in the movie) to drum up ratings?
Okay, so the main villain is a bit disappointing, and a few of the scenes are pretty clumsily written, but it’s still a promising start. Melissa Benoist is quite an appealing lead, and I’m not just saying that because she’s built (she’s stacked). And Supergirl has a clearly defined mission (working with the DEO to take down the escaped Kryptonian convicts) that’s strong enough to drive a whole season’s worth of stories, but open-ended enough to provide a wide variety of enemies for her to face, while still allowing other running subplots to unfold.
And hopefully, the show won’t bother jumping through a lot of hoops explaining why Superman never appears on the show. As long as they stick to the general concept that Superman wants Supergirl to learn how to be a superhero all on her own, that’s all the explanation we really need.
But for the first time in a long time, we have a character in blue tights and a red cape who saves people and is happy about it. This may take some getting used to.