Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Supergirl makes a solid debut that shows a lot of potential.

Longtime readers of this blog will be aware that I am a massive Superman fan, so there's pretty much no power on Earth that was going to keep me from the premiere of Supergirl. The funny thing about TV adaptations related to the Man of Steel is that while I've often watched them regularly, I often found them difficult to like.

The syndicated Superboy series in the late 80s and early 90s was a living testament to how low budgets and often-unimpressive writing produced the mediocre results one used to expect in a superhero show. Lois & Clark started strong, but by season three was almost embarassing to watch as a Superman fan and an intelligent viewer in general. That show's greatest strength was the writing of the Lois/Clark dynamic the first two years, and while Dean Cain will never be my favorite Superman, his Clark was a lot of fun to watch.

Smallville has the distinction of being a Superman show where Clark himself was often my second least-favorite character. There were a lot of talented actors there and some decent episodes, but I rarely recognized "my" Clark in there. I eventually took to watching the show as a sort of alternate timeline where everything had gone wrong. Through that lens, it became incredibly entertaining, though surely not in the light its creators intended.

The most important thing about Supergirl is that I recognized "my" Kara in there. Supergirl should be a fun character. I've always preferred her as a light-hearted, bubbly, well-meaning contrast to Superman's more paternal tone. Some recent incarnations of Supergirl have piled on the angst and made her a moodier character. I suppose that's as valid an interpretation as any other, but I've always had a soft spot for the sweeter, innocent personality. The 1984 movie staring Helen Slater was kind of a debacle, but they absolutely got the characterization of Supergirl correct, and it's good to see this show casts her in a similar vein.

Melissa Benoist is a worthy successor to Helen Slater and Laura Vandervoort. I like that the insecure, slightly nerdy Kara is the "real" her when we meet her. When we meet Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, the ultra nerdy act is clearly a put-on, a performance that Superman gives. When we first come across Kara as Cat Grant's assistant, she has no need for such an act. She hasn't yet created her superheroic alter ego, so there's no need for a geeky deception to "throw people off the scent."

Instead, the script - teleplay by Ali Adler, story by Adler, Greg Berlanti & Andrew Kreisberg - crafts events so that the Supergirl guise is empowering for Kara. It's the incentive to make her grow out of her shell. One of my favorite running gags in the pilot is the sheer joy and amazement on Kara's face when she demonstrates a power for the first time. Look at her reaction when bullets bounce from her chest while stopping a bank robbery. There's a brief "Wow! This is so cool!" reaction that reminded me of the moment in THE INCREDIBLES when Dash looks down and realizes he's running on top of the water.

I suspect that a LOT of young girls will be rushing to find Supergirl Halloween costumes this week. The show gets the look right and Benoist looks as good in her outfit as any other superhero has on film. The show is wise to simply embrace the superhero look and not try to make it appear "realistic" or "functional" with leather suits, black colors, and any of the other tricks we become used to from shows and films wary of putting their heroes in spandex. You look at a picture of Benoist in costume and you think "That IS Supergirl." I almost want to give special credit to the cape, which looks even more majestic than Brandon Routh's and Henry Cavill's did.

As for the rest of the show, I'm intrigued by their take on Jimmy, sorry... JAMES Olsen, who we're meeting at a much later point in his career. He's probably my favorite member of the supporting cast so far. I'm iffy on Wynn. He's not given enough time to be set up as much more than "the platonic friend." Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant is off to a good start. It'll be interesting to see if Kara's blossoming confidence carries over into her work life too. I'll be interested in seeing how the workplace setting develops in subsequent weeks when it's gets a little more screentime.

That does speak to one of the pilot's flaws in that it has a LOT of ground to cover. There's a part of me that wishes this either could have been a two-hour premiere or perhaps paced a few of it's developments across the first few episodes. Moments definitely feel rushed, particularly after a montage of Kara's public heroics. That was a point where I kind of wanted a few moments to savor the public's reaction to the new hero and get a some of those soul-searching character moments that the Berlanti shows are so fantastic at. I have no doubt we'll get those in subsequent weeks, though.

The aspect of the show I'm most wary of is the DEO, the government agency that Supergirl is first captured by, then working alongside. Part of my concern is that if the pilot wasn't tasked with laying so much pipe on them, it would have given everything more room to breathe. Their early capture of Supergirl felt FAR too easy and I'm wary of making Kryptonite this obtainable so early in the series. The rushed pace also meant that Supergirl's foster sister Alex isn't much established before she's shown to be working with the DEO. I wish the Alex/Kara dynamic had a little more time devoted to it before these secrets got blown. There's also the fact that the DEO delivers a LOT of convenient exposition about Fort Razz, a Kryptonian prison that arrived on Earth when Kara did. Right now, I trust these guys about as much as I trusted The Initiative on Buffy.

(Also, how sloppy was Superman? He not only left behind Kara's ship without going back for it, he apparently also never noticed an entire prison followed her. I wonder if there's more to the story that we haven't gotten yet.)

Supergirl working regularly with the DEO is also a concept I'm going to have to be sold further on. I get that Arrow and The Flash have cemented the idea that today's heroes have entire support teams around them, but Supergirl doesn't need that. The moment where she's practically answering to Hank Henshaw felt wrong to me. Why does she even care what this guy thinks of her? Why does she have to ask him for a chance to bring in the bad guy? She's Supergirl, she should just go and do it! It would be logical for future eps to mine this dynamic for conflict.

My non-geek wife is a great control group for these sorts of shows. She loves The Flash and it's fun seeing how a show so dense in the comics mythos plays to someone who has zero connection to all the continuity and Easter Eggs that creative team throws in. Her biggest reaction after Supergirl was, "It's weird that Superman didn't show up at all in this. I thought he'd at least be there to pass the baton." That's definitely a fair point. I had assumed that Superman would be out of action or missing as part of the storyline. That doesn't appear to be the case, as all references to him indicate he's active. I'll be curious to see how long the show can keep him off-camera without it seeming weird that he and Kara don't socialize.

Last year, two DC superhero shows launched - The Flash and Gotham. I still think The Flash is probably the best superhero pilot yet, while Gotham's debut left me with mixed feelings. I abandoned that show ten episodes in because nothing in that incarnation of the mythos appealed to me. Supergirl doesn't manage to dethrone The Flash, but it's certainly a worthy companion and has a lot of aspects I already enjoy quite a bit. I feel optimistic about the show after this pilot, and I'm very eager to see what a "normal" episode feels like now that all the groundwork has been laid.

The show gets the most important aspect right - Supergirl herself. This is a Kara Zor-El I want to see each week and I don't think they could have found a better successor to the cape than Melissa Benoist. Supergirl - along with The Flash - seems poised to make superhero TV fun again, without being juvenile. In an era of "grim 'n gritty," it's good to have an antidote in the form of a girl from Krypton with a beaming smile.

(Also, if you're looking to catch up on Supergirl comics, comiXology is running a Supergirl Sale this week, with a lot of single issues for $.99 and trades for $4.99. The run by my friend Sterling Gates has a lot of elements similar to the pilot, and it stretches from Issue 34 to 59 of this series. This run is also reproduced in the trade volumes 6, 7, 8 and 9.)

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