Monday, April 18, 2016

SUPERGIRL soared this season to become the strongest "Super" show yet

I'm pretty sure I remember the first Supergirl comic I bought. I was nine and it was an "80-page giant" back issue of ACTION COMICS (Issue 334 to be exact) from 1966, that compiled seven Supergirl stories from the past into one volume. I, of course, was aware of the character through Superman volumes like THE GREATEST SUPERMAN STORIES EVER TOLD and FROM THE 30s to the 80s, but the then-current continuity I was reading had yet to reintroduce Supergirl. She had been killed off some four years earlier in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #7 and for some reason, that made her all the more fascinating to me.

I've talked at length in other posts about how Superman was my favorite comic character. I have a complete collection of all of Superman continuity from 1986 to 2011, and most of that was bought "new" off the shelf starting with the EXILE story in 1989. I like to think I have a pretty complete understanding of the character, and it always bugged me when my peers would scoff at him as being "too perfect" or "boring" or "too unrealistic." (As I've joked before, this was especially hilarious when they'd then exalt the relatibility of a billionaire orphan trained by ninjas who's also the World's Greatest Detective and never encounters a situation he doesn't have six backup plans for.)

Which is not to say it's wrong to prefer Batman, or Daredevil, or Punisher (even though that's one character that *I* find to be a complete snooze), but I feel like there's a certain amount of ignorance behind the usual criticisms of more straight-up good guys like Superman. When you're the age of people who superhero comics were aimed at, it's not cool to be the good guy. Badass action and angst speaks more to the developing teenage mind. The teen years are where you discover cynicism, and unironic good seems sinister, too good to be true.

The darker, more cynical interpretations of characters certainly can lead to great stories. I love the grounded take of the Christopher Nolan Batman films as much as the less-gritty Richard Donner Superman films. The only problem I have with the so-called "grim-dark" approach is when it becomes the only way people think superhero stories can be told. That's true in comics, film and television.

To me, a grim, moody Supergirl would be completely missing the point of the character. It's true that a lot of her squeaky-clean disposition owes a lot to the fact that she was the product of the Silver Age of comics, but it's an approach that really befits a younger character trying to find her place in the world. Marvel is full of tortured, angsty teens, so it's nice to see a super-powered teenager who has fun with her powers. If you were a beautiful blonde who could fly and lift up entire buildings, wouldn't YOU enjoy the heck out of it?

Superman has always been a big-brother type of character, maybe an even more fatherly persona. He has responsibilities to consider, and obligations to the world. But generally, he knows who he is and he takes his job seriously. But like Batman, we can't really relate to him emotionally. Bruce Wayne grew up the instant his parents were murdered. Clark Kent has the weight of the entire world on him. But Kara Zor-El? She's the kid who sees what her destiny is and still feels like she has to try hard to be worthy of it.

In my fantasies of writing the comics, I always thought it would be fun to write for Supergirl (and later, Superboy - the clone version, not "Superman as a boy") because it presents the opportunity to play with a character who's less fully-matured and has more of an open field with which to develop. For similar reasons, I always found the Tim Drake Robin far more compelling than Batman because was more of a normal kid who found his way into Batman's crazy world. The younger characters have much more of the journey ahead of them and that's very appealing from a writer's standpoint.

After Kara's comic book death in CRISIS #7, there were a couple attempts over the years to revive the Supergirl character under other identities. Eventually, a new Kara was reintroduced by Jeph Loeb in 2004, and if I'm being honest, it doesn't feel like much thought was put into Kara's personality itself. A new Supergirl was on the table, but Loeb didn't give much depth to the character, aside from a few unnecessary layers of angst about her "dark side" and the fact she might have been sent by her father to kill Kal-El. Loeb's run didn't last long, and subsequent writers compounded the problem, seeming to think the solution was to give her personality even more of an edge rather than soften her. It took writer Sterling Gates to bring back a pureheart, unselfish Kara, and give her a civilian identity so she had a connection to the world around her.

It's that version of Kara that forms the basis for CBS's SUPERGIRL. Created by Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg, SUPERGIRL is quite possibly, the best "Super" series we've seen on TV yet. It understands its lead better than SMALLVILLE ever did, it can be fun without sliding too far into silliness, as LOIS & CLARK sometimes did, and the stories are more ambitious than anything found on SUPERBOY or THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.

Some elements of the show work better than others, but most weeks it transcends any flaws simply by having one of the best examples of superhero casting since Christopher Reeve. This role fits Melissa Benoist like a glove. Her alter egos aren't as clearly delineated as Reeve's depiction of Clark and Superman were, but I like how her awkward, gawky side seem to be the "real" Kara and not a put-on, while she takes on a more assured, confidant demeanor when assuming the Supergirl uniform.

When writing about female superheroes, inevitably one ends up touching on the theme of empowerment. One of the slyer points the show seems to make is that even as Supergirl is an empowering role model to young women, getting to BE Supergirl is empowering for Kara. She no longer has to hide her abilities and embracing her potential imbues her with a confidence she still has yet to find in her civilian life.

Wearing a superhero costume is more of an acting challenge than one might assume. Christopher Reeve was known to say that he didn't try to oversell the character's presence, remarking "I just let the costume do the work." Reeve wore the costume as comfortably as if it were a suit and tie at the office. The ease he brought to that sold the idea that Superman could exist. In contrast, Dean Cain often seemed self-conscious in his super-suit. He'd often assume defensive, arms-crossed postures and he really gave off the sense he was in a regrettable Halloween costume. (His Clark Kent was quite good, though.)

Benoist lands on the Reeve end of the spectrum. I've seen behind-the-scenes shots and footage and it's amazing how even when she's just walking around like any other actor between takes, you still look at her and go "Wow! That's Supergirl!" The next episode you see, study the scenes where she's in costume, but not flying or using any of her powers. She gives off a presence that's almost regal. I've quite enjoyed her predecessors in this role - Helen Slater and Laura Vandervoort - but after just one season, Benoist's interpretation is definitive.

Part of this Supergirl's appeal is her innocence. She has a bright, sunny demeanor that can't help but make you smile. She genuinely enjoys not only using her powers, but in doing good with them. A recent story had her fall under the influence of Red Kryptonite, gradually turning more evil. When she was cured, her first question was a horrified, "Did I hurt anybody?" It's a small point, but it underlines where her heart is.

This is the Kara I first met in that back issue. This is the Kara who I knew from Silver Age archives. This is the brave young woman who dove into battle to save Superman, aware it the cost could be her life and then bravely faced her death. (In fact, her death in CRISIS remains one of the few such incidents that remains genuinely moving even after multiple reads.) I missed this Kara during much of my time buying comics and I was elated to recognize her here.

I'm aware other reviewers have mixed feelings about other aspects of the show. I still think most of the CatCo aspect is pretty solid. Calista Flockhart has gotten opportunities to make Cat Grant more than just a boss from hell, and she tends to get the best one-liners. The show seems to be gradually filling in new shades to her personality without losing the sting that made her a standout from the start. I'm looking forward to seeing where they take her in Season Two. (The show hasn't been officially renewed... yet.)

James Olsen is a charming presence, though I haven't quite felt the romantic chemistry between him and Kara that the show obviously wants us to feel. Part of that might be the sense that the show rushed to create a love triangle with him, Kara and Winn. (Or a love rectangle if you add Lucy Lane to that mix). I'm not rooting against a James/Kara pairing, but I'm not quite aching for it yet either.

I was more ambivalent about Winn from the start and with a full season behind us, I feel like Winn tends to be better served as a character when he's the focus of an ep. The Toyman story worked because it gave him more to play beyond being supportive of Kara and mooning over her. It was a smart decision to have him act on his feelings for Kara and to play with the awkwardness that comes with that. In season two I feel like he needs to get the same sort of growth that SMALLVILLE gave to Chloe over time.

In my review earlier this season, I noted I was not sure about the DEO aspect of the show. It felt plain wrong to me to give Supergirl a boss and make her just part of a team. I also didn't much care for Hank Henshaw as a character. This is where patience was rewarded, as before long, Henshaw got a lot more interesting when he was revealed as Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz and Supergirl was left taking orders from the DEO a lot less than I feared at first. In short order, this aspect of the show went from my least favorite to a source of some of the stronger relationships in the series - particularly Kara's relationship with her adopted sister Alex. The core relationship of the show is not Kara and whoever her romantic interest is, but rather Kara and the girl she was raised with. The Danvers sisters give the show its heart and already this season, it's been used to good effect when Alex was forced to kill Kara's aunt to save J'onn's life.

Interestingly the one character we haven't really seen yet is Superman himself. He's been a largely off-screen presence and there are a number of reasons why that makes sense. Since SUPERGIRL isn't a direct continuation of any previous adaptation, there's no "stunt casting" to be done with this Superman. There's no way they were going to use Brandon Routh or Henry Cavill, for instance. That means that the production would be tasked with casting someone appropriately iconic for a role that pops up only briefly. I can see why the creators would want to give SUPERGIRL a season to find its legs before actively using the granddaddy of all superheroes.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if we do see a Superman next season and that his on-screen introduction is part of a larger arc. That's the kind of event where writers want to make sure they're telling a story worthy of that character. It's also likely that with a longer arc, it would be easier to snag an actor who'd be a "get" for the show.

I'm aware some people aren't fans of the way the show name-drops Superman at all. I've seen the argument that doing so somehow undermines Kara as a character. The line of thought is that it's her show, so everyone shouldn't be asking "Where's Poochie?" - I mean, "Where's Superman?" - all the time. I disagree with that pretty aggressively. The Superman name-dropping isn't done to prop up Kara. If we're dealing with a world where Superman exists, the new kid on the block would inevitably be compared to him.

From a character standpoint, it makes sense that Supergirl would be in Superman's shadow and I like that as an obstacle for her to overcome. It's like being the younger sibling when the eldest child is almost perfect in every way. The need for Kara to step out of that shadow and live up to that immense legacy is one element that makes her an interesting character. It's also a great way to present an emotional challenge to a character who's physically impervious. Consider this - by showing that people in-universe compare her to her cousin, the writing team has managed to make Kara an underdog of sorts. How do you not like that?

I love that we have a very positive, uplifting superhero on TV, regardless of gender. That this also means that young girls now have a hero to look up to is even better. It's my hope that there are also a lot of young boys watching this and realizing that female superheroes can be interesting too. If you put a gun to my head, I'd probably be forced to cite THE FLASH as the superior show, but SUPERGIRL is right on its heels and is even more all-ages appropriate. In an era where there's an R-rated cut of a film staring Batman and Superman, I feel that's important.

I really don't want to make this about directly comparing SUPERGIRL with the Zack Snyder films, but I feel in a lot of ways, Kara is more representative of the Superman I grew up reading than Henry Cavill is - and I say this as someone who really liked MAN OF STEEL. People complain about how WB/DC has separate continuities for their film and TV properties, but I don't want the darkness of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN to invade Supergirl's world. I'm grateful that keeping the properties separate has given Berlanti Productions the freedom to carve out their version of this world. At this point, I'm more eager for season 2 of SUPERGIRL than I am for JUSTICE LEAGUE.

The only problem is that as of today, only one of those projects is a certainty. Hopefully, CBS will make season 2 official soon.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with almost everything said here, except I did not like Man of Steel