Friday, July 19, 2024

Through the Source Wall: Adapting Supergirl

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Supergirl is a fantastic piece of television. From queer coding, normalizing said queerness, struggling with heteronormativity, survivor’s guilt, female empowerment and about a thousand other things, the CW has one hell of a gem on their hands.

In fact, you may be delighted to know that this incarnation of Supergirl is one of, if not the best interpretation over her entire 57 years of existence. And that’s not as subjective an opinion as it may seem. The current Supergirl comic, written by Steve Orlando, lifted the vast majority of the show for DC Rebirth since it “gets everything right, [they] just understand Supergirl.”

Behold, Supergirl Rebirth! It's just like the show, except she's in High School again and also other stuff!
Behold, Supergirl Rebirth! It’s just like the show, except she’s in High School again and also other stuff!

A Canon Immigrant scenario, when a character or narrative aspect created in a different medium is imported back to the source, is hardly unprecedented. Kryptonite, the Batcave, Superman’s ability to fly, Renee Montoya, X-23, Mr. Freeze’s origin story, the entire concept of Batman Beyond and even Harley Quinn were all originally created for adapted media.

But Supergirl isn’t like most adaptations.

No, Supergirl has the massive, built-in hurdle of, well, being about Supergirl and her supporting cast. Neither of which have ever been consistent for more than a year or so. And that’s what makes Supergirl all the more impressive for what it’s managed to do, a topic that was briefly touched upon in this week’s Fanwankers.

As Ian and Wendy so aptly pointed out, the problem with Supergirl, historically, has been that she’s not separated enough from her cousin to stand on her own. Even though she actually grew up on Krypton, which in theory should be more than enough to set her apart. Considering how this is an issue that everyone else seems to have solved long ago, it’s rather odd that it didn’t.

Here, have some examples!

  1. Batgirl (all of them, but especially Steph)
  2. Batwoman (Batman’s cousin on her father’s side; spooky, right?)
  3. Miss Martian
  4. Ms. Marvel
  5. Midnighter (gay Batman, in love with Apollo)
  6. Apollo (gay Superman, in love with Midnighter)
  7. Robin (all five of them; including Steph!)
  8. Hawkgirl
  9. Zatanna Zatara
  10. Superboy (all of them)
  11. Blue Beetle
  12. Miss America
  13. The Question
  14. Wolverine (X-23/Laura Kinney)
  15. Batman (there have been four)
  16. Superwoman (Lana Lang; go read it!)
  17. Wonder Girl (both?)
  18. Catman (no, really. He’s the world’s greatest tracker)
  19. Dr. Light (the second one)
  20. The Flash (all of them)
  21. Kid Flash (all of them, again)
  22. Impulse
  23. Jesse Quick
  24. Aqualad
  25. Captain America (the one who isn’t a Nazi)
  26. Thor
  27. Lena Luthor
  28. Red Arrow/Arsenal
  29. Green Lantern (all seven human members; Alan Scott technically counts)
  30. Black Canary

Okay I’ll stop, but you get the point. It is very much a solvable problem. Seriously, if every Robin managed to do it, what’s so different about Kara? Despite numerous long-running solo books, reinventions, and revivals, Supergirl, as a concept, has yet to really stick as something integral to the DCU. She’s around, but that’s about it.

So, the question is, how did the CW manage to do what over half a century of creators arguably couldn’t? What pieces did they move around to make all of this happen? Why, and how, does it all work together? And, most importantly, did they retain the essence of the mythology, even if they changed the specifics?

Short answer: Very Yes, and it all comes down to the characters. Also, the DEO.

Supergirl/Kara Zor-El/Kara Danvers

This is by far the most astounding feat. Because, oh, God. Oh my God.

Supergirl is an absolute mess. Oftentimes literally.

It's funny because she's 16 and in a dive bar.
It’s funny because she’s 16 and in a dive bar.

Look, there have been four Supergirls. And by four I mean five, because let’s not forget Power Girl. That’s her doppelganger from Earth-2/the Pre-Crisis era/Pre-Flashpoint Earth-2/Post-Flashpoint Earth-2/Post-Convergence Earth-2/Post-Cohesion Earth-2/Rebirth Earth-2. No, I’m not making this up, I swear.

Anyway, the origin story that Supergirl chose to go with was, thankfully, not the original 1959 version. Nor was it the Post-Crisis version, where DC Editorial wouldn’t let her be an actual kryptonian so they merged a college student with an interdimensional alien thing. Again, not making it up.

They also didn’t use the one after that, which was…never explained? I think? I know Darkseid was involved, and they made an animated movie about it. I think they just wanted the “real” Supergirl back, even though that caused some chronic pain/rage issues for Power Girl. Who was also around. Something about vibrational frequencies.

Simply put: everytime they touched, Power Girl would get this feeling to go all murder-y on Kara. Like an immune system attacking a disease. Or something.

So, from what I can gather, Supergirl is using a pretty heavily adapted version of the New 52 origin. Also known as the “wow this could have been so much worse” origin. Already a teenager when she left Krypton, but circled the Earth’s sun in stasis for like 30 years until she smashed into Siberia.

Basically they just kept the time dilation part, changed the reasoning and pulled the Phantom Zone along for the ride. The mentor/protector thing is, as far as I can tell, a wholly new idea for Kara and it’s one I very much like. Though it’s important to note that, as far as I’ve been able to find, Kara has never gone by Kara Danvers until this show.

You can credit the whiplash you're feeling to Kelly Sue DeConnick, Sterling Gates, Greg Rucka and Bryan Q. Miller.
You can credit the whiplash you’re feeling to Kelly Sue DeConnick, Sterling Gates, Greg Rucka and Bryan Q. Miller.

Her original secret identity, so that she could attend college, was Linda Danvers. Ironically, Linda Danvers was also the name of the third Supergirl. Except she wasn’t Kryptonian, but instead the result of being merged with some sort of fallen angel/parallel universe shapeshifting protoplasm thing named Matrix. Who was also the second Supergirl. Like I said before, DC Editorial was really pushing the Last Son of Krypton thing at the time.

Kara, as stated and showcased above, has a consistency problem. Sometimes she’s enthralled by Darkseid and takes out the entire Justice League. Occasionally she has amnesia. Other times, she’s a college student and a member of the Teen Titans. Or she’s an unstoppable rage monster who vomits acid blood.

Kara as a Red Lantern is an awesome concept, but the execution wasn't too great.
Kara as a Red Lantern is an awesome concept, but the execution wasn’t too great.

And sometimes she’s a member of the Legion of Superheroes because Superboy-Prime punched reality itself and knocked her into the 31st century. That last one is way more awesome than it sounds, but the fact of the matter here is that, for Kara, the writers had very little to go on. Or, more accurately, a lot to go on but very little of it…workable.

The idealistic, inspiring, earnest and genuine Kara Zor-El we have gracing our screens each week might appear to be the most obvious way to write her, but it wasn’t. Even the Justice League cartoon depicted her as someone with a big chip on her shoulder. It’s a little ironic that, in trying to help Kara Zor-El stand on her own merits, they made her mentality closer to that of her cousin’s.

It says quite a bit, then, that the closest thing that Supergirl had to her DCU counterpart was the Red Kryptonite episode. Yes, the one that has our title character acting like a massive jerk to everyone around her is typically how she’s depicted.

Isn’t it great that they didn’t do that?

Alex Danvers

Honestly, a case could be made that it’s the creation of Kara’s adoptive sister that makes Supergirl work more than anything else. As I’ve said, one of the biggest obstacles is finding a way to really cement Kara as someone who isn’t just a one-note Distaff Counterpart of her cousin. She’s had adoptive parents before named Danvers, but she’s never had a sister.

Well, aside from that time she lived with the Amazons, but that’s hardly the same.

Alex Danvers is nothing short of phenomenal. To be frank, she was the one who made me stick with this show before it truly found its groove. She’s great at what she does, and she genuinely finds fulfillment in it. Also she’s a badass secret agent who wears practical gear and clothing.

It’s like Boob Armor. Every time I don’t see it, I smile because nobody’s ribs are going to get shattered.

How can you not love this?
How can you not love this?

Not only is she her own character, and a great one at that, but her relationship with Kara is what sets her apart from Superman in a huge way. Superman has his own supporting cast, sure, but the closest thing he’s ever had to a sibling was—excluding his clone Kon-El aka Superboy—Kara herself. And she, simply put, isn’t. She’s his cousin.

That disconnect is what allows Alex to truly shine in Supergirl, as she grew up with Kara. They matured side-by-side, fostering a level of emotional intimacy and trust rarely seen in even the best of people. No matter how bad things get, and yes they have gotten pretty bad, like that time Alex killed Kara’s aunt, they’ll always be there for one another.

Even if one of them is going through a soul-crushing and validating existential crisis.

Yes, Alex and Kara have some friction between them at times, regarding the environment in which they were raised and how Kara’s secret pulled much of their parents’ attention to her, but they’re working on it.

Sisters don't judge one another. They judge others together.
Sisters don’t judge one another. They judge others together.

And why shouldn’t it be as simple as that? It’s a common and relatable problem that springs up between siblings. That conflict humanizes Kara far more effectively than anything else really could, and it elevates Alex to an entirely different level. She can keep up with Supergirl, because she needs to be able to keep up with her sister.

Plus, she snuck up on and killed a Kryptonian.

The race of people who can hear for thousands of miles in every direction, see through everything except lead, and possess reflexes almost as fast as the Flash. To sneak up on them is all but impossible.

There are maybe six people in the DCU who could pull that off: Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Lady Shiva, Cassandra Cain, Deathstroke, and the Spectre.

Guess we’ll have to add Alex Danvers to that now, huh?

Jimmy Olsen

Once I realized that I’d have to touch upon the madness that is Jimmy Olsen, I started to have second thoughts on this piece. Then third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and so on, alllll the way up to fifty-one.

I suppose you could say it was a…Countdown of sorts. One that lead to a Final Crisis of fortitude where I decided to write this anyway and ignore those other fifty-one thoughts.

Nope. No context. Countdown doesn't get to have its joke explained.
Nope. No context. Countdown doesn’t get to have its joke explained.

Jimmy Olsen, also known as Superman’s Pal since he had a long-running book of the same name, is a photojournalist for the Daily Planet. He’s a hard worker and a good reporter. He also has a signal watch that emits a frequency only Superman can hear. And that’s about it. He’s more or less the same guy there that he is on TV.

Except he’s black and has a way better job!

Good on you, Jimmy! Lord knows you deserve it for all the crap you've put up with.
Good on you, Jimmy! Lord knows you deserve it for all the crap you’ve put up with.

Jimmy’s initial purpose on Supergirl was to help root the show in with a pre-established Superman mythos that we weren’t shown. His transfer from Metropolis to National City grants the narrative a certain level of credibility that it otherwise wouldn’t have. At least, not initially. Think of him like a crossover character from another show that doesn’t technically exist.

Even the intro to every episode of Supergirl goes over how, yes, Superman’s around, but this isn’t that story. So, really, you get rid of Jimmy, you lose a pretty important part of this show’s foundation. I don’t think they’re going to do that, but y’know, something to keep in mind.

However, being Superman’s Pal isn’t really his claim to fame, as it were. Back in the Silver Age, he had a habit of acquiring random superpowers/transforming into strange creatures and then shortly reverting back to normal. I’m bringing this up because putting Jimmy in the role of Guardian is a far more natural fit than you might expect.

The Silver Age was weird.
The Silver Age was weird.

He’s been in and out of the Superhero game about as many times as we’ve seen the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Which is a lot. For him to actually stick with it for once, and not call himself Mister Action, is a pretty clever subversion.

Lead-lined armor? I thought they weren't going to have Gotham characters on this show.
Lead-lined armor? I thought they weren’t going to have Gotham characters on this show.

Jimmy’s debut as Guardian is probably the biggest boost in notoriety the mantle has ever received. Even his brief stint on Young Justice didn’t do all that much. Guardian just isn’t a very popular character, since he’s a non-powered street level vigilante operating in Metropolis. Which is pretty silly if you take a moment to think about it. The fact that the name is still around at all is probably because he was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in the Golden Age.

Respect for the those who came before, and all that.

Cat Grant

You know how some shows have a Breakout Character that effortlessly overshadows everyone at all times? Even when the title character is basically a demigod? Cat Grant is that character, but you already knew that. What you may not have known is that, well…she has never been this awesome.

The sass was always there, but the intelligence and justified sense of accomplishment weren’t. Only delusions. Until DC Rebirth, she didn’t have a media empire, and instead of demanding Supergirl do better she just insulted and blackmailed her. Constantly. Which, of course, made her into a bit of a sad punchline even when the jokes themselves weren’t very funny.

In an earlier issue, she tried to shove her new breasts into Clark’s face. Obviously. it didn’t work. And yet Kara is the one who notices them.

It probably goes without saying that she was really, really, really, really sexualized. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it becomes problematic when nobody does anything with it. She tried to use it to her advantage, but nobody took her seriously. Cat was a bully before she got implants, and even more of one afterward. She also acted as a massive propaganda pandering tool who exploited everyone around her for fame and notoriety. That’s it. No ulterior motive or justification that re-contextualizes everything, like she does on Supergirl. Just a bully who demands attention.

Yes, Cat. Be more aggressively sexist against a teenage girl. Everyone will love you!

And then there was, I dunno, some New 52 stuff in there with a website and quitting the Daily Planet with Clark Kent after some speech about journalistic integrity—look none of it made sense, okay?

All of this is, of course, in stark contrast to the Cat Grant we have on Supergirl. Instead of a washed up has-been, we got a damn Empress who possesses Dr.Cox-ian levels of sass, intellect, wit and inspiration. Or, at the very least course correction.

Just as Kara is meant to be a positive role model for young girls, Cat is designed to be Kara’s. The effect this had on the first season, as Kara tried over and over and over again to be a better hero, employee and overall person was palpable. She improved. She grew.

Kara became someone worthy of the title of Supergirl, one which Cat gave her in the first place, and most importantly she’s fully aware of that. It’s something she has successfully internalized because Cat Grant kept pushing her in every facet of her life.

Without Cat, there wouldn’t be a Supergirl.

It’s a shame that she’s in a limited role this season, but thankfully that air time has been filled with something rather curious.

Maggie Sawyer/Renee Montoya

This is, hands down, one of the most interesting cases of intellectual property law I’ve ever seen. If you’re not a massive DC comics nerd, this is something you probably wouldn’t pick up on. Even then, not a guarantee. Now, you may think it strange that I’m zeroing in on a character that’s only got three episodes under her belt, but can you really blame me for attributing some of Supergirl’s continued success to her?

I mean, good lord, she just oozes charm and stage presence. Floriana Lima jumps into the fray and locks herself in from minute one, and that’s just fantastic. Yes, her primary role here is to expand the mythos, bringing in a “normal” perspective to the DEO zany-ness and establishing all that fun stuff about aliens. And boy, oh boy, does she ever knock that one out of the park.

She’s gay, she’s Latina, she’s tough and she’s smart. She loves the job, loves the people and always goes the extra thirty miles—okay I can’t not.

Take a moment to consider that I haven’t even said her name in this section. Y’see, I wasn’t kidding about the IP rights, and that crossed out name isn’t entirely a joke.

There’s another reason the showrunners wanted a lesbian cop on their show, aside from the whole “Alex Danvers Almost 30 Coming Out” plotline. The folks who make Supergirl wanted somebody that would allow them to connect classical racism and homophobia to extraterrestrial otherness. And they clearly wanted to do that with a heaping bowl of charm and snark.

Maggie is neither of those things. She’s blunt, sincere and loyal to a fault but rarely charming and never snarky.

However, there are two other characters off the top of my head who could fit that bill, and Fox owns the broadcasting rights to both. Renee Montoya and Kate Kane, with Kate’s Judaism subbing in for Renee’s race as a point of prejudice. Obviously, Kate wouldn’t work for a lot of reasons—she’d have to show up as Batwoman, she wouldn’t be away from Gotham for long, and then Batman would need to cameo, just to name a few—so you default to Renee.

But, again, can’t use her. Gotham had her run around in its first season, and then dropped her entirely.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love 52? I'm sure I have, but there it is again. Just in case.
Have I ever mentioned how much I love 52? I’m sure I have, but there it is again. Just in case.

So, you’ve got this great plotline and this awesome social commentary that you want to explore. Except you can’t because you’re missing that final piece. You could always just make up a new character, but you’re adapting from an absurdly expansive source material so that’d be ridiculous. And then it hits you. The only thing you can’t use is her name. You can lift her entire character, her essence, and call her something else.

Warner Brothers actually did something similar for The Dark Knight. They wanted to use Renee but the plot demanded that she became one of the corrupt cops—out of desperation, not greed—under Joker’s control. As that’s something Renee quite literally destroyed her entire professional and personal life to not be, they renamed her Anna Ramirez and called it a day. Though, if they hadn’t, it’s ironic that she’s the only detective Two-Face didn’t kill in that movie.

Lucky for everyone, it just so happens that there’s another lesbian cop in the DCU who, despite being part of 16 years worth of stories in Gotham, was originally a Superman character.

Also that whole “coming out later in life” thing? Yeah, that’s Maggie’s origin story. She was married. Had a daughter.

Now, I would never in a thousand lifetimes say these two are interchangeable. They are not, nor will they ever be. I am, however, saying that this was a brilliant move from so many perspectives. Brand recognition for one, even if most people only know who Maggie is because DC wouldn’t let her marry Batwoman. Remember how psyched people got that an “out and proud” non-white lesbian cop was going to be a series regular on Supergirl? Remember how we’re all still psyched, because she’s beyond awesome?

Of course you do.

Supergirl needed—yes, needed—Renee Montoya to make this work, and they didn’t just give up once they realized they couldn’t win that legal battle. They pushed some pieces around, did their homework, scrubbed away the trauma that comes with growing up in Gotham and trusted that the audience would respond to this character regardless of her name. Since, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what they call her. What matters is if they stuck the landing on the narrative they’re trying to tell.

So far? Holy hell, yes.

The Department of Extra-Normal Operations

The Department of Extra-Normal Operations has a strange history. They’re DC’s attempt at an organization like SHIELD, with one important foundational difference. They’re designed from the ground up to sound just as boring as the FBI or the NSA. As if it were a typical “alphabet agency”. There are times when it does work, like during the Janus Directive crossover event from the late 80s. Or, during the aptly named yet short-lived solo series Chase starring Cameron Chase.

They even hire attorneys to handle meta-human cases, representing both heroes and villains. There was even a time when Wonder Woman was on trial for the murder of Maxwell Lord, which was broadcasted live worldwide.

The murder, not the trial.

Checkmate, you lying bastard.

Can you believe a jury acquitted her for that? I mean, the trial focused on the fact that Max was still a federal agent when she killed him, even though he went super-duper-ultra-rogue. But hey, it was the only way to stop him from mind-controlling Superman into killing everybody.

Also he’s a massive jerk who killed his best friend, so in the words of the at-the-time late Ted Kord: Rot in hell, Max.

Anyway, there are also instances when the DEO just comes off as blatantly evil. Like that time they blackmailed Batwoman by threatening to throw her father in prison if she didn’t act as an operative. Of course, when she does call their bluff, it turns out they’ve been holding her long-thought-dead-all-over-again twin sister hostage.

Yeah, so the DEO was run by a talking skeleton who sweat Cyanide. No, really. His name was Mister Bones, and he’s presumably still in a coma from getting shot in the face.

The DEO in Supergirl are actually the good guys, and it took me a few episodes to understand that. I kept expecting them to be evil, but that never really happened. They watch the skies and keep people safe from the things that defy explanation, so who better to serve right alongside them than Supergirl?

It’s an inspired choice for adaptation. Especially when you consider how government-backed superheroes are typically depicted in the DCU.

In short, rarely positive.

Superman from The Dark Knight Returns became nothing more than a puppet for President Totally-Not-Reagan. Captain Atom often has standing orders to take down Superman should he ever go rogue. The Force of July are a team of meta-humans sponsored by the government tasked with performing hyper-jingoistic clandestine operations. The Justice League of America, in some instances, are sanctioned by the United States government.

There’s also that whole thing with the Colony, an army of soldiers trained to operate like Batman but with military precision. And that’s not even touching Task Force X, aka the Suicide Squad. Contrary to popular belief, they did often have members who aren’t super-villains.

So, for Supergirl to be serving with the United States government in an official capacity, and in a manner that doesn’t make her a living weapon…it’s a pretty big deal. It’s the kind of thing her cousin would, and does, typically avoid like the plague. Kara found purpose and success working with the DEO, which only legitimizes Kara even more.

See, Superman is still a vigilante. Kara? She’s officially sanctioned.

When Supergirl punches something into the sun, she does so with authority. When she speaks about hope and unity, she’s addressing everyone in a way her cousin can’t. In this continuity, he doesn’t quite have as big a leg to stand on in that regard. There’s no JLA or JSA. He’s not part of a team because he doesn’t think there is one.

Kara, however, found and made one through her sister. Through the DEO and the Manhunter from Mars. If there is to be a Justice League on her Earth, it wouldn’t form around Superman.

It’d form around Supergirl.

After all, as everyone knows, you can’t have a Justice League without the Martian Manhunter.

Told you so.

In Case You Were Wondering, J’onn J’onzz Requires No Further Explanation

The show works. Against all odds, and over half a century of storytelling Supergirl works. From Kara’s recharacterization, Alex’s creation, Cat Grant’s reinvention, the DEO’s restructuring to Maggie Renee Maggie Renee Maggie Renee Maggie’s inclusion, it all just flows together. Sure, it can be campy, and sometimes it stumbles, but that’s just the nature of episodic storytelling.

Not every tale is solid gold, and not every message is perfect. Still, I, and I assume you as well, want to know what happens next. And that’s the biggest key. Same with comics. Would you keep watching if you didn’t care? Would you keep reading?

No, you wouldn’t. Good money’s on that you already do, and that you’re watching Supergirl. But if you’re not, I don’t think I can make a better argument than this.

Images courtesy of DC Comics and The CW

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