Friday, July 19, 2024

Supergirl: 1.1 Pilot Review

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Oh, Supergirl.

You’re a little campy and a lot of fun and that’s why I love you already.

I wasn’t sure about Supergirl at first, to be honest. It reminded me so much of the maligned Saturday Night Live Black Widow sketch. The trailers put out for Supergirl at first focused so much on the “girly” aspects of the show that it seemed as if Kara Zor-El’s superheroics were going to take a backseat to her personal life.

Now, to be completely honest, I’ve never read a comic featuring Supergirl in my life. I’ve seen her here and there in Young Justice, but I’ve never managed to really get a good read on the character or on the tone of the series she leads. Perhaps my reservations were unwarranted–after all, part of what made the thought of a Black Widow piece in the style of SNL’s skit so frustrating was that Widow is a spy. She’s dark, she has a troubled past, she’s all about the espionage and manipulation.

Supergirl as a character is a lot more straightforward.

And that’s mirrored even in the show’s intro. Kara introduces herself much like Barry Allen and Oliver Queen in The Flash and Arrow, accompanied with scenes of her home planet Krypton exploding. She tells the audience she was sent to Earth to keep an eye on Superman someone-we-can’t-name-because-rights-I-guess?, but instead ended up knocked into an intergalactic jail called the Phantom Zone. Years went by, and That Really Super Man established himself as a hero on Earth, so when Kara’s escape pod finally lands, she’s adopted by an ordinary family (actors Dean Cain and Helen Slater, former Superman and Supergirl respectively) and raised with a sister as an ordinary girl, albeit one with superpowers she has to hide.

It’s a lot of exposition, and honestly it made me really worried that the producers were going to completely change the tone of the show based off initial reaction to the first trailers.

I’m glad I was wrong. Supergirl isn’t dark, but it plays with moments of gravitas. It isn’t super lighthearted, but it has its Devil Wears Prada moments.

It’s a good thing Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) is up to facing both facets of her life. She does it well. We see Benoist portray Kara as Kara Danvers, the dorky assistant to media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), accompanied by tech expert Winn (Jeremy Jordan), who has a huge crush on Kara.

Benoist channels her Felicity Smoak from Arrow in these segments, coming off as capable but in over her head, talkative yet awkward while still being charming. Unlike Smoak, though, Kara has superpowers and embraces them, using them to alert her coworkers to Grant’s impending arrival. It’s a nice change from the darkness of Arrow or even The Flash and other superhero media as of late. The drama of Supergirl doesn’t come from manufactured self-hatred or keeping secrets from loved ones; instead the show embraces the inherent camp in superhero stories with whimsy, with positivity, and yet isn’t afraid to tackle the scarier scenes.

You know who is scary?

Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant. I know lots of media outlets are comparing the mundane parts of Supergirl to The Devil Wears Prada, but Cat Grant’s confidence and mean streak rivals that of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. She belittles Kara, sees her as expendable, and insults her for daring to question her judgment on downsizing the Tribune, Grant’s first acquisition in her media conglomerate.

This banter, though, does wonders for characterization in just a few lines. Kara’s worried about the workers at the Tribune, lecturing Grant that they have families to feed and take care of. In short, she’s heroic. When Grant fires back saying that the Daily Planet has stories of A Man In A Cape saving Metropolis, you can see the cogs in Kara’s mind begin to spin.

And as they’re spinning, she goes on assignment to find a new art director: James Olsen, newly transferred to National City.

Yes, that James Olsen. (Not Jimmy. Only his parents and The Big Guy can call him that.)

He’s not the dorky redhead of the comics, though; instead, James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) is a hunk with a winning smile that turns Kara into a puddle of awkward upon first look. Points, too, to CBS, because in a superhero landscape of primarily white men, it’s nice to get a person of color in the cast.

Kara and James talk about That Man That Does Things, and Kara can’t help but beg Jimmy to tell her about him, about who he’s become. And in a way, James becomes her line to her charge-turned-mentor; where she never got to know him, James did. James has a personal relationship with The Dude, and that only serves to fluster Kara more. It’s a meet-cute if I ever did see one, but it’s not too in-your-face. Supergirl definitely has a focus on relationships, but it balances it well by introducing us to Kara’s ordinary world instead of making it all about romance.

And so, we get to meet Kara’s sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh). They talk about how Kara wants to make a difference but feels stifled by Grant being commandeering and ridiculing, how she seems normal now despite her rarely-used powers. It’s not a conversation solely about clothes or boy problems, but serves as a plot device to get Alex onto an ill-fated plane.

It comes into play almost immediately after: while Kara’s on a terrible date with a man picking up other women right in front of her, she sees a breaking-news update: Alex’s plane to Geneva is losing altitude, and without missing a beat she rushes out of the bar, flying to her rescue, even quipping with frustration a few times.

Alex worries about Kara being exposed to the world, and encourages her to keep her powers a secret…

But Kara’s caught on tape, and the cat’s out of the bag.

Now Cat Grant gets her Super Person to plaster the papers with, and Kara finally gets to make a difference in the world. She only has one issue:


Confronting Grant about the monicker, Kara demands to know why she’s belittled and called a girl rather than Superwoman.

And therein lies my biggest problem with the pilot. It’s not the in-your-face feminism or camp; it’s not the choppiness and exposition inherent to a superhero pilot; it’s Cat Grant’s speech about girls.

It’s not a bad speech, honestly. She talks about how she’s powerful, she’s influential, she’s built her media empire from the ground up and has people terrified of her… and she’s a girl. To Cat Grant–perhaps even the writers–being irritated with the “girl” part of the name is an insult to women around the world who are living their lives with success.

Sure, in part it’s an issue of rights. Kara Zor-El is Supergirl. To change it could potentially mess with whatever rights held by those who created Superman.

But “girl” is often used to infantilize women. As a man, I don’t get it used against me, and perhaps there are women out there watching the pilot and are fine with the speech; hell, even my colleagues here at The Rainbow Hub might think it’s great. The problem is, though, that women’s opinions, their anger, sadness, indignation are all easily wiped away in our society with that single world: girl. “Don’t worry, little girl,” the sexist line is, “let the men take care of you.”

Perhaps it’s a way to reclaim “girl” for the show. Perhaps it’s a way to explain rights issues. But the whole speech rubs me the wrong way, and Kara doesn’t bring up the idea that “girl” is used to brush things off.

To me, it’s one glaring part in an otherwise-fun episode. Kara’s almost fired by Grant for speaking up, but James Olsen saves her, and later reveals he knows exactly who she is. Winn, after first thinking Kara’s a lesbian for not being interested in him (because of course that’s the only reason she wouldn’t be!), finds out about her powers and helps her figure out an outfit for her superheroics.

It burns up when she fights an alien that’s escaped from the Phantom Zone, or as I think of it, the Monster-of-the-Week Generator. James gives her a cape from That One Dude In Red And Blue, and Kara’s legacy is established: she may not have fulfilled her original purpose, but now she’s following in her cousin’s footsteps, and is the superhero of National City, protecting them from the aliens that want revenge for being banished to the Phantom Zone.

There’s a great montage of Kara fighting robbers and saving citizens when she’s trying on her outfits, highlighting the action yet keeping it light and refreshing compared to the other superhero shows on television right now. Kara dons the “S”— not for “super”, but her Kryptonian family’s coat of arms– and her cape, and takes off to fight.

She’s captured soon after by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), a prime agent in the Department of Extra-Normal Operations.

She’s captured by Agent Danvers.

Alex Danvers.

Her sister’s job is in an organization dedicated to keeping an eye on aliens, triggered by Kara and Her Cousin’s arrivals on Earth.

And this is where Supergirl proves it can play with the drama just as well as the fun. Benoist can play the dorky Kara, but the betrayal on her face, when she realizes who Alex is, is heartbreaking. Alex was worried about Kara’s fate, about the DEO seeing her as a threat, and so she encouraged her to keep her powers a secret.

When Kara manages to apprehend a criminal from the Phantom Zone’s Fort Rozz, Hank agrees to let her work for the DEO to contain the threats, and there we have the conceit for the action in the series. Alex, too, finally comes around, and gives Kara a message from her birth mother through an old Kryptonian device found with her ship.

The episode ends with the criminal’s superior, setting up the Big Bad of the season: the twin sister of Kara’s mother, called Astra (Laura Benanti). She’s bent on killing Supergirl and ruling over Earth. I hope we’ll get more motivations for her.

Supergirl is a nice reprieve from the roaring monotony that much superhero media has become. Don’t get me wrong, I follow Arrow, The Flash, Agents of SHIELD, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones. I like seeing the varied take on superhero realism, just like I enjoy eating a variety of foods. 

I hesitate to compare Supergirl to sweets, because it has substance. It’s not all fluff, we see that from the family dynamics between Kara and Alex as well as the fight scenes. 

But Supergirl is happy. It’s fun. It has a protagonist that doesn’t angst over her powers or brood over needing to be alone. It has action scenes and high stakes, but also quippy characters with snappy comebacks. 

It’s not afraid to be itself. 

And that’s exactly what Kara’s mother, Alura, tells her:

“Be wise. Be strong. And always be true to yourself.”

Image courtesy of CBS

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