Hands up if, as a kid, you crushed hard on Helen Slater when she starred in 1984’s turgid Supergirl movie? puts up hand
Hands up if you’re sick and tired of melancholy, angsty, monotone crybaby superhero depictions of your favorite DC Comics superheroes? puts up hand
Hands up if you can’t understand what the hell it is that DC has been doing to most of their characters in peddling that abortion they call the “New 52” line – now DC You? puts up hand
Okay, then you’ll really enjoy Supergirl, the latest television incarnation of a DC hero to hit the airwaves. Accompanying Arrow, The Flash, and the soon-to-air Legends Of Tomorrow, DC’s Supergirl series brings with it a weight of expectation from multiple parties – fans of the character, feminists looking to have a serious female contender among the throng of spandex-wearing men on our screens, and, of course, casual viewers.
As a long time comic reader, the origins of Supergirl are as varied as the contents of Batman’s utility belt. One of the more prominent origins for Supergirl is that she’s Kal El’s cousin, who crash-lands her ship on Earth and, with the spurring of her relative, becomes Supergirl. The post-John Byrne reboot of the DC comics line had her as some kind of protoplasmic goop forged from Superman’s DNA (or something), while Peter David’s mid-2000’s reboot (again) turned her into some sort of winged angel; it’s at that point I kinda gave up on the character. And I love Peter David’s writing, normally. Ahem.
This version of Supergirl returns the character to being Superman’s cousin – a shadow I don’t think she escaped from in this opening episode of the season, but that’s okay – and establishes her as a one-time protector of Kal El, only to cast that aside thanks to some wibbly-wobbly, Phantom Zone time paradox gobbledygook, leaving Kara Zor El on Earth without a ‘mission’ of her own. I’m just thankful she wasn’t born a puddle of goop.
Supergirl’s opening episode is a breathless, expository foundation for what I imagine will become the template moving forward. Kara’s arrival on Earth and her relationship to Kal El, plus her adpoted parents, the Danvers (portrayed by movie-Supergirl Helen Slater and one-time Superman, Dean Cain), as well as her Daily Planet-like career at the National City’s major news organisation, CatCo, are all provided before the opening credits, as frantic an opening to a major series as I’ve seen yet. Hell, even Berlanti’s other new series, The Flash, took a few episodes to lay the groundwork; here, we’re into our villain-of-the-week within the first half hour.
Supergirl taps into the Superman mythology by having a Kryptonian supermax prison also crash-land on Earth, allowing the inhabitants to escape (which will no doubt provide us with a rotating roster of new and interesting super-villains) as well as hinting at the arrival of “The General”, somebody related to Kara – kinda makes Superman’s “Last Surviving Kryptonian” angst redundant if a bunch of his relatives all show up – and the opening episode’s combative villain, known in the comics as The Lumberjack (although the name is never mentioned on screen here) is a worthy first foe for Kara to fight.
The supporting cast, from Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant, to Mehcad Brooks as James “Don’t call me Jimmy” Olsen, to Chyler Leigh’s Alex Danvers and Jeremy Jordan as Winslow Schott, get brief screetime to solidify their characters; to the episode’s benefit, we’re not bogged down in multitudinous backstories, one of the assets of an ongoing series being that as each episode airs, an opportunity to find out more about this group of characters is going to present itself. Of them all, it’s Chyler Leigh who feels most…redundant.
As Kara’s sister, Alex has been hiding a secret from her all these years – she’s actually working for a government agency set up to handle extraterrestrial threats in the wake of Superman’s arrival some two decades earlier. The revelation throws Kara for a loop, and the writing of her sense of betrayal is particularly sweet, even though she kinda “gets over it” a little too quickly for my liking. Still, this agency, the Department of Extra-normal Operations, is headed by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), someone fans of the comics will recognise as a character destined to become the Superman-wannabe, the Cyborg. So, not only does Kara have friends at CatCo who know of her secret (James and Winn both become aware of it as the episode progresses) but she has a grudging ally in Hendshaw’s anti-alien agency.
I’ve watched this episode twice now, and there’s a lot to love about what Berlanti and his team have accomplished. In a single episode, they’ve made superheroes fun again, something even The Flash and Arrow (and most of DC’s films) have often struggled to do. The Flash is a terrific show but even it goes to some dark places of introspection; in Supergirl, Kara has about five minutes of self-doubt about her role to play in the context of her abilities and that’s it – she’s up, up and away. Those who watched Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel and thought it was too dark for a Superman movie will find Supergirl to be an almighty shift against the current flow, and it’s really down to Melissa Benoist’s charming, winning performance.
Benoist makes a superb Supergirl. She’s gorgeous, she’s fumbling and insecure as Kara the Human, and in finding her joy at being able to fly and express her powers, Benoist instantly makes her Supergirl accessible. The bright colors of the show’s visuals and the dexterity with which Benoist handles the burgeoning complexity of Kara’s emotional journey make this episode an uplifting one, a surge of wonder and excitement only great fantasy can provide.
It’s not without problems, though. The breakneck pacing of the opening episode will possibly baffle some casual fans, and will probably confound casual, non-comicy viewers. The three minute Krypton-explodes-Kara-crashes-on-Earth origin may very well make some people’s eyes spin in their heads. It’s fast – perhaps “rushed”? – and had I not been aware of the character’s history I too may very well have been left scratching my head. There’s so much exposition and story pieces thrown about in this 45 minute episode it really does feel too fast paced at times.
The visual effects – look, there will come a time when network television will have to admit that if they’re gonna take on a show with flying people who can punch out a wall, shoot lasers from their eyes and generally behave in utterly non-human ways, they will need to spend some big money otherwise they’re just shortchanging the audience. Supergirl’s visual effects aren’t bad; the plane-crash sequence in which Kara reveals herself to the planet is nicely done, while her battle against the Lumberjack at the episode’s climax is largely excellent (both scenes occur at night, so “hiding” wonky effects is easier than it is during daylight scenes) but you get the sense that the budget for convincing effects was stretched to breaking point.
One thing I’ve noticed about The Flash, by way of comparison, is that that show appears to have found the sweet balance between story requirement and effects cpability, and the way the show writes itself around limited money at no point really mitigates what the writers are trying to accomplish – hell, The Flash had a giant CGI Gorilla Grodd in an episode last season, so it’s possible to accomplish cinematic-style effects on a television budget, if you do it right. Supergirl obviously has similar teething issues, but the fact that producer Greg Berlanti is in charge of both shows indicates that at some stage, the creaky effects will start to bed down a little.
If I had a single major gripe, it would be Kara’s “heat vision”. I’m not sure what color heat vision is supposed to be, but sure as hell it’s not blue, right? Superman’s heat vision is typically red, orange or at worst yellow, but it’s not some weird freeze-heat beam that looks like Queen Elsa suddenly stepped onto the set. That annoyed me – but it’s a small niggle in an otherwise commendably solid opening episode.
The thing about Supergirl is that the show, and the character herself, is fun. This isn’t a character playing second fiddle to Iron Man (see: Black Widow) or stuck looking like some weird Calvin Klein-esque androgynous catwalk model (see: Batman Vs Superman’s Wonder Woman); this is Supergirl, a bona fide heroine everyone can look up to, including young girls looking for a role model who isn’t a Kardashian. We don’t have enough strong female superhero characters leading their own series (hell, other than Supergirl we don’t have any!) so the energy and zest embodied in this opening episode bodes extremely well for the future of the series.