"'Supergirl': Mindless Fun You Don't Mind."
Editor's Note: In winter 2015, I looked at CBS' new superhero show Supergirl, wondering what the future held for it. With the show now on the CW and renewed for a third season, I thought it might be fun to see what my initial thoughts were about it.
With the current trend of superheroes in television and film, it’s inevitable that some clunkers are going to be produced. The recent Fantastic Four debacle proves that people will not watch anything just because it’s based on a comic book. CBS’ rookie program Supergirl became the subject of much talk over the summer with people predicting it was going to be a major flop. Now that the show has made it to the mid-season mark, how does it hold up? Despite some flaws in the show, Supergirl is entertaining in a “check your brain at the door” kind of way, and shows potential to be a nice change of pace from the current crop of superhero shows.
The initial buzz around Supergirl was not good. I rarely give online critics much weight because there are so many websites that seem like nothing but shills for TV and film (although special credit goes to Ain’t It Cool News for its trailblazing in the field). Despite this caution, it’s difficult not to be skeptical when you hear more bad than good about a new show.
When I saw the extended trailer for Supergirl over the summer, I thought that the show could either be good or really, really bad. Studios have long perfected the trailer where anything can look good (I found this out the hard way when I was suckered by the trailer for Leonard Part VI but then again, as we now know, Bill Cosby has been suckering people in for a long time now). Despite all this, I decided to give Supergirl a try.
Episodic television is the best format for superhero shows. Who wants to wait two (or more) years to see the next adventure of your favorite superhero character when you can watch them every week. Serial storytelling is great for developing characters and exploring the rich mythos that most superheroes have. Case in point, Smallville, which did a wonderful job of showing teenage Clark Kent’s evolution into Superman. Although the show ran a bit long (ten years) in showing his formative years, it really developed the mythos of the Superman/Lex Luthor feud, the creation of the Justice League, the romance between Clark and Lois Lane, and the reason why there were so many super-powered people running around town.
Just as advances in special effects have opened the door for big screen adaptations of superhero films, the small screen can do an adequate job showing the genre’s superpowers. The days of stock footage of Superman flying in The Adventures of Superman or Spider-Man climbing a skyscraper with a rope on The Amazing Spider-Man are long gone. While CGI is often overused and still can look cheap, it’s light years ahead of the SFX of years gone by.
The biggest reason you don’t see superhero shows on TV is that the studios feel they can make a fortune on them at the theatre. It’s the same reason you didn’t see Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger together in the 80’s. The studios knew they could make more money with individual films with each star than they could with one film starring both of them. What incentive is there to make a weekly TV show of the Avengers when Marvel’s Avengers makes over a billion dollars in one film. The result is that you don’t see the big stars on TV. The last “name” superhero show (live action, not animated) I can recall is Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) from the 1990’s. From that point on, you never saw any of the top tier superheroes in costume on TV. Smallville featured Clark Kent before he was Superman (although he did superheroic things). The top tier heroes are now reserved for the silver screen. The closest you’ll see Batman on TV is Gotham which chronicles Bruce Wayne’s life before he put on the cape and cowl. If you want to see Batman that much, you’ll have to see Ben Affleck in 2016’s Dawn of Justice.
Although you won’t see Superman (for the most part), the show is clearly set in the Superman mythos. The show features many of Superman’s supporting characters and villains, both directly and indirectly. The show is chock full of the Easter Eggs that comic book fans love to see. However, the show is not afraid to change the characters to suit their storytelling (as we shall see).
What makes Supergirl such an interesting show is that the character is reminiscent of the classic Christopher Reeve Superman films where Superman is a white knight and Clark Kent is mild mannered. Both Supergirl and her alter ego Kara Danvers are awkward characters. Supergirl is just learning how to use her powers while Kara is struggling with working as the personal assistant of media mogul Catherine Grant and living in a big city (the generic “National City”) after an isolated adolescence.
Some people may have a problem with Supergirl and Kara’s characterization, but I think it’s bold because it differs from the norm. While strong characters like Buffy Summers showed that women could be more than sidekicks or damsels in distress, Supergirl shows that there can be heroines of all different types. Yes, Kara Danvers is definitely naïve and awkward at times, but it’s fascinating to see how someone with all of her power can have so many human foibles. It hearkens back to the early days of The Amazing Spider-Man comic where half of the book’s enjoyment was seeing Peter Parker’s personal struggles. As for Supergirl herself, she’s a rookie superhero and it shows. What she lacks in experience, she tries to make up for with guts and determination. If people are looking for so-called stronger female characters, there are plenty to be found here.
The story arcs are intriguing. There’s the recurring theme of Supergirl trying to escape from the shadow of her cousin, Kara’s romantic pursuits, and the ongoing storyline of Kara’s aunt coming to Earth to save it from itself (the ecological underpinnings are heavy handed but par for T.V.). There’s the obligatory romantic triangle between Kara, James Olsen, and Kara’s workmate Winn (who may or may not be the son of Superman villain the Toyman). Whether it's Smallville, Arrow, or this show, you can expect some romantic subplots (although the ones on Supergirl seem to be more PG than PG-13 like Arrow).
While the plots are sub-plots are well done, there’s no question that the show can use improvement in other areas of its writing. The stories aren’t particularly original, and the dialogue sometimes gets a little clichéd. It doesn’t happen all the time and it’s not intentional, but it does need to be dealt with. Network television’s propensity for dumbing down their shows for a broader audience is one of the major reasons their audiences continue to diminish.
While the writing could use some help, the cast does an excellent job with the material given them. Calista Flockhart stands out as Kat Grant, owner of CatCo, the media empire she built from the ground up. On the surface, she seems like a stock character of the cold and calculating businesswoman but Flockhart gives the character more depth and she is able to rescue scenes burdened with bad dialogue. Mehcad Brooks really shines as James (aka “Jimmy”) Olsen, a slighter older version of the cub reporter most fans remember. In an interesting twist, this James Olsen happens to be African American. Initially, I was skeptical of the change, but Brooks does a great job in his portrayal of Olsen that I enjoy the change just as I did with Smallville changing Clark Kent’s childhood friend Pete Ross (white in the comics) into an African-American character. The continuing trend of diversifying established characters such as the recent decision to make Johnny Storm African-American in the Fantastic Four film isn’t the same as whitewashing (casting white actors in roles as Asians or other races), but it’s a poor alternative to creating new characters who are interesting and dynamic. One can only hope that this diversification is at least done properly, and not gratuitously. Jeremy Jordan plays Winn Shott, an I.T. specialist for CatCo who in true TV form, also happens to have amazing hacking skills. Chyler Leigh plays Kara’s adoptive sister Alex, providing another type of female character to balance Kara’s often innocent outlook on life (she also teaches how to fight in case of situations where her superpowers aren’t enough). Rounding out the main cast is David Harewood who plays Alex’s mysterious boss, Hank Henshaw. Henshaw runs the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO), an agency designed to help deal with alien threats.
Supergirl is no Emmy winner but it is a lot of fun and it shows some potential. It certainly wouldn’t be the first TV show to have to find its way before developing into a classic. History shows that Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season was rubbish, and it wasn’t until the third season that the show really hit its stride. Compare this to Heroes, which had a fantastic first season, but which stumbled after the writer’s strike shortened season two and the show never really regained its stride. If Supergirl can survive the ratings wars and improve its writing, it could end up being a memorable show.