A Supergirl Fit for TV?
By Brantley Thompson Elkins
Nothing about being mistaken for a bird or a plane, but Supergirl has finally taken flight in the CBS TV series that debuted Oct. 26. It had been in the works for more than a year, and the subject of a huge buildup in the news media and among fans for months that culminated in a cover story for TV Guide. Now it’s here – she’s here, as personified by Melissa Benoist.
But the Supergirl premiere itself was here, there and everywhere. Too much was crammed into the pilot episode: not just the origin story, with Kal and Kara dispatched to Earth as Krypton is about to explode, but the business about the Phantom Zone and its denizens and the Department of Extra-Normal Operations. It is all clumsily done: Kara is sent only to “protect” her baby cousin, and her space capsule goes astray in the Phantom Zone, only to “somehow” reach our planet 24 years later – and be found by Superman. And in the premiere, she has hardly any trouble flying, or even bearing a crippled plane to a safe landing. Has she ever practiced that sort of thing? Only in the second episode does this come up – and one detail hasn’t been and probably never will be explained: why has she been wearing Clark Kent glasses all these years, when she wasn’t a superheroine trying to disguise herself?
It’s as if the whole mythology of The X-Files had been set forth in the very first episode, rather that being introduced gradually; and the writers (Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg) had to struggle to get it all in. It would have been enough for our superheroine to have “come out” by saving that plane from crashing because her adoptive sister Alex was on it – strong motivation there – and learned only in later episodes about Alex being part of the DEO and that her plane had been targeted by the super-villains. It would also have been more effective, a quiet sort of suspense, if Kara hadn’t learned until then why her sister didn’t seem grateful for having been rescued.
One would expect that, once having come out, Kara would be called on to deal with all manner of everyday challenges like garden-variety crimes and rescues – but in the premiere, there’s just that one robbery where she proves she’s bulletproof (So is her costume, somehow – but not her cape.). Yet she has to do battle with Vartox twice, and without knowing anything about him the first time. To make it even worse, it is Alex (Chyler Lee) and DEO Chief Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) who have her shot with kryptonite and brought to their headquarters for a tell-all – or maybe just for a cheap shot intended to make viewers think, for a moment, that Alex is on the Dark Side. Like, she couldn’t have just approached Kara in private and told her the score? And what is the score? The super-secret agency had been created 12 years ago to defend Earth against “aliens,” but the triggering event was the arrival of Superman. Which opens up a whole can of worms.
We know the Man of Steel won’t appear in Supergirl, except perhaps in a cameo. One thing that’s made clear in the actual pilot as opposed to the trailer, is that he’s still here on Earth, and revered as a superhero. And Jimmy (James) Olsen (Mechad Brooks) knew him (even if nobody else did) at the Daily Planet in Metropolis before moving to National City and taking a job at CatCo. He has even given James his Kryptonian baby blanket to pass on to Kara. So why can’t he pay her a visit? More crucial to the entire story line, why isn’t he involved with her in the war against the Fort Rozz escapees and their leader Astra (Laura Benanti), aunt to both of them? Why are they attacking only her and not him? For that matter, why don’t they gang up on her (or Superman), instead of attacking one at a time, which seems to be the plan? And, given that everybody knows who and what he is, how can there be any mystery about “what” Kara is? Even harder to swallow is that Fort Rozz, the prison to which the supervillains were consigned, has (conveniently to the plotting) crashed on Earth without anybody besides the DEO noticing.
It’s a shame, because the series had the potential, might still have the potential, of being a breakthrough for the treatment of women on TV. It’s the first time Supergirl has starred on television, although a teenage version of Kara Zor’El played a secondary role on Smallville in 2007-8. Her only appearance on the big screen, as played by Helen Slater in Supergirl (1984), was a bomb with both critics and viewers. Even Confessions of a Teenage Supergirl (2006), a fan film, didn’t do well enough to justify a sequel. Compare that to the number of TV and movie versions of Superman, or the blockbusters of other superheroes from Captain America to Spiderman, Batman and Iron Man – not to mention the ensemble adventures of the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Superheroines have rarely figured in them, and only in secondary roles when they have. Attempts at a big screen revival of Wonder Woman, a feminist icon, have thus far come to nothing.
GOP Presidential candidate Jeb Bush created a stir a few days before the premiere of Supergirl when he weighed in that she’s “really hot.” That isn’t exactly the image the network or its star are trying to promote. Benoist was cast as a girl-next-door type, in sharp contrast to jiggle queen Lynda Carter, star of the 1975-79 Wonder Woman series. In an interview for Entertainment Weekly July 2, Benoist made it clear that she takes her new role seriously, and wants to send the right message. She thought the costume was silly at first, but putting it on, “something changes internally. I feel like a different person almost. It really is an alter ego, where I feel inspired, hopeful and empowered.” She realizes that, given the paucity of superheroines on the screen, a lot is riding on her:
I do think there’s a lot of pressure. I want to do right. Of course this is a broad statement, but I want to do right by women. I want to portray someone they can relate to and look up to that’s not a trite or a shallow depiction. I want her to be complicated and flawed. I guess I just want all women to feel like they could be Kara and Superwoman (Sic! Her dig on the title?) as well. I don’t want it to be campy. I want it to be grounded and human. That goes for anybody. It doesn’t matter what sex. It doesn’t matter if it’s women or men I inspire, I just want to inspire people in general to realize their strengths and their potential, and that you can do the things that you feel like are impossible to accomplish.
On The Late Show after the actual broadcast, she reiterated her take on Supergirl as feminist. “I think it’s great,” she told Stephen Colbert. “And I think what’s feminist about it is that it’s for everyone. She has all the same powers [Superman] does.”
Although advance reviews of Supergirl were generally favorable, there was flak from some critics about it being anti-feminist. It can’t help that Karen Townsend at News Busters – a right-wing site – praised the show for being “anti-feminist, family friendly viewing,” even while approving Kara’s rejection of a “sexist” costume. Attacks from the left on popular culture as part of a War on Women have become routine in recent years –Gravity (2013) came under fire because the astronaut heroine is scared shitless when disaster strikes – like, who wouldn’t be? Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012, movie version 2014) was excoriated in some quarters as if her villainess were intended to represent all women rather than being a lone psychopath. Was Patricia Highsmith’s psychopath in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), which led to four sequels, supposed to represent all men?).
But in the case of Supergirl, there’s a more obvious complaint: calling the heroine Supergirl rather than Superwoman (as Benoist herself called her in EW) – an issue the writers had to deal with by having the name coined by her boss, media mogul Cat Grant (Callista Flockhart), after Kara comes out. The actual reason, of course, was that the producers were constrained to stick with the name of the comic book superheroine, even while taking liberties with the details of the mythology established by the comic book series – details which have been changed time and again over the decades.
Here is not the place to go into all the ups and downs of the Supergirl comic books, which have gone through seemingly countless reboots over the decades. Chances are that most of those watching Melissa Benoist on TV will know little or nothing about the DC Crisis of 1985 and the Post-Crisis versions of Supergirl, let alone such past and present enemies as the Black Flame and Reactron (set to appear in the third episode of the series). The greatest risk is for the show is not that it will demean Kara as a feminist icon but that it will turn into nothing but a supervillain-of-the-week exercise. The temptation may be irresistible, and even logical, because Supergirl can’t go up against real-world evils. It’s a safe bet that the series won’t even mention ISIS or Al Qaeda, or U.S. rivalries with Russia and China – let alone have Kara try to Do Something about them.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who created Superman in 1938, faced the same dilemma – even though their superhero as first conceived couldn’t actually fly, rather than simply leaping tall buildings; and wasn’t invulnerable to heavy artillery as opposed to ordinary guns. He might deal with small-time dictators in imaginary countries, but the Big Fish? The one exception was a scenario they concocted, not for the DC Comic, but for Look magazine (February 1940), in which Superman kidnaps Hitler and Stalin and hauls them before the League of Nations:
That was when Germany and the Soviet Union were still on good terms under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, having recently divided Poland between them. Hitler broke that pact with the invasion of Russia in 1941. But after Pearl Harbor brought American entry into World War II, the Man of Steel never really took part – with DC had to come up with a lame excuse that Clark Kent was called up by the draft but failed his eye exam and was thus declared 4F. As Wallace Harrington explains at a Superman website, the comic books featured patriotic covers, but didn’t involve the superhero in the actual fighting:
No wonder. There was no way to make it work. If Superman could have captured Hitler and Stalin in 1940, why couldn’t he have done the same to Hitler and Tojo and other enemy leaders in 1942? Why couldn’t he have sunk the Japanese navy, or wiped out the Wehrmacht? In one of the animated Superman shorts produced by Paramount, “The Japoteurs,” he did go up against Japanese spies trying to hijack an advanced U.S. bomber – but that was it.
Comics and their movie and TV adaptations alike since then have steered clear of war and politics, except for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), which bombed as badly as the 1984 Supergirl, and put an end to any Superman movies for nearly 20 years. Since then the old slogan, “Truth, Justice and the American Way” has been replaced by the politically correct “Peace, Justice and Humanity” – but it’s unlikely that we’ll see Superman going after the Tea Party or its counterparts in Europe, and threats from the rest of the world will remain off limits. It’s doubtful that we’ll have even the imaginary conspiracies that were a staple of 24; that isn’t the sort of thing most fans look for in adaptations of Superman or Supergirl.
In the Aurora Universe, of course, we have a convenient dodge: Earth is subject to the Prime Directive, and Velorians aren’t supposed to get involved in purely local matters as opposed to the war of shadows against the Arions/Aureans. Even so, there have been occasional exceptions like Shadar’s “Desert Wind,” set in Iraq – but that was a long time ago, and it was never finished because it was overtaken by events. More recently, Iraq has been the setting his for Tales of the Valkyries – only that’s unrelated to the AU.
Unlike that in Aurora Universe fiction, the action in Supergirl will be limited to Earth. A couple of years ago, there was speculation that a new Superman movie might have a seeded world settled by Kryptonians as part of its background – one seeded world. Another rumored option was that it would turn out Krypton itself had never exploded. Same thing, basically. Hardly a universe, and chances are that even superhero fans who are also fans of science fiction movies and TV series wouldn’t want to see the equivalent of Krypton and its supermen in a reboot of Star Trek or Klingons in the next Superman movie – and probably wouldn’t have any patience for stories involving the kind of seeded worlds and their cultures that literary sf fans know from the works of Ursula K. Le Guin or Catherine Asaro.
Where can Supergirl go from here? CBS could try telling good stories, instead of just looking for one-shot super menaces and super gimmicks (There was talk for a while of crossovers with The Flash and Arrow even though Superman is off limits.). There are hints of a romance in Kara’s future: perhaps with James, or maybe with her co-worker, confidant and costume designer Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan). If so, there should be some real passion (For TV, it’s a safe bet that the Woman of Steel, Man of Kleenex problem will never come up) and tenderness to it, not just fooling around. There should be more to her day job than suffering the slings and arrows of her boss Cat (a seeming stereotype of bitchy bosses, although plenty of male bosses act exactly the same way). There should be a real sense of family in her relations with Alex and the rest of the Danvers clan. Kara, like Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, should be a woman of principle as well as power.
But that may not matter to the powers-that-be at CBS. With 12.9 million people having tuned in for the premiere, the network isn’t likely to tamper with its formula – and even if ratings slide in later episodes, it may just double down on that formula. There has been cynicism before in the marketing of franchises on both the big and small screens – examples ranging from turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into a trilogy to reviving and dragging out the Red John mystery on The Mentalist after it had been believably resolved in a truly classic episode. So how do genre fans see Supergirl? Most seem to be overjoyed, but some have a few reservations. Even at Superwomenmania, where the series has gotten only raves, Sarge 395 – who is “totally in the bag for the new show,” has called attention to an obvious problem: how could Kara’s upbringing as a Danvers have possibly prepared her for what she must face as Supergirl?
…I ask myself “how does she get her combat confidence, her fighting skills, and her bravery?” She has remained hidden. She hasn’t had a Yoda figure or a martial arts background. She hasn’t been tested. In reality against her foes she is dead meat. I can say that the difference between seasoned troops and noobies is huge. Where did she get her bravery? Is it a kryptonian trait?
The same question seems to have belatedly occurred to the series writers. Only in the second episode does it occur to them that she needs training, with James and Winn (!) teaming up with the DEO to help – James even coaches her on supersonic flying and dodging missiles, yet the DEO people practically ignore her after she shows her stuff! Anyway, it's Astra and a poisonous bug she really needs to worry about. Meanwhile, Cat is frothing at the mouth because the Daily Planet has stolen a march on CatCo in its coverage of Supergirl, who has disappointed her in her latest exploits (one involving a fire she couldn't blow out) before and during her training program. She gets what seems to be meant as a comic comeuppance when Kara picks her up, car and all, for a rooftop interview – during which she doesn't recognize her employee without her glasses. Come on! But, hey, wouldn’t those Daily Planet stories have to mean that Superman… er, Clark Kent… has a pipeline to Kara? And if he’s going to bat for her in terms of publicity, why wouldn’t he be helping her with training? Or be ready come to her aid in fights like the one against Astra?
None of that computes. And yet for all the problems the series has, at least one big name in the science fiction community has gone to bat for it. David Gerrold, known to Star Trek fans for “The Trouble with Tribbles,” put in a plug for the show on Facebook after watching the first episode:
No, I’m not the target demographic for Supergirl, but I had a fun time with it anyway. It’s bright, fresh, energetic. And no, it’s not for fanboys. It’s for fangirls. It’s probably going to be a very big hit.
Gerrold was just guessing about the fangirls, but there’s an element of truth in the demographics. According to Nielsen, less than half of the viewers in the 18-49, 25-54 and teen 12-17 segments were women or… girls. But among the youngest adults, those 18-34, women – fanwomen, not fangirls – accounted for 58%. And Supergirl tied for first place among all premieres this season. And counting DVR, the total audience was actually 16 million, CBS revealed this week. Even if later ratings never match that again (Episode Two drew 8.9 million viewers, apparently excluding DVR), the show will be doing better than almost anything else on TV.
Maybe the series will fulfill its own mission in spite of itself. Maybe we have a cultural revolution here. Just maybe…