Tuesday, October 11, 2016

SUPERGIRL premiere reaches new heights with Superman

I've been away for a while working on other projects, but I couldn't let the opportunity go by to comment on the SUPERGIRL season premiere.

Back when SUPERGIRL was announced, I wondered how they'd handle the Superman issue. It's tricky doing a show about an offshoot character when the main franchise character is controlled by the movie division. I thought a cool way to get around this would be to start the show after some version of "The Death of Superman." It explains why Superman is off-screen and would have given Kara an interesting arc about her struggle to fill the shoes of a beloved hero. Then, at some point many seasons down the line, Superman could have always been resurrected and spun off into his own show.

Instead, the creators opted to just keep Superman an off-screen presence. While I know some people complained about the Super-cousins conversing only in IMs, I think that was the smart play. It implies communications between them, even while it kept Clark off-screen. Not bringing in Superman until Supergirl had time to establish herself and stand on her own legs.

Introducing Superman to this universe was bound to be a challenge. Even though Supergirl is the junior partner, it's still her show. She can't play second fiddle, but at the same time... it's SUPERMAN. He's supposed to be the greatest and purest hero. If Kara showed him up at every turn, it undermines Superman's reputation and the way he's been built up on the show. The challenge: how do you make Superman everything he's been hyped up to be and not turn Kara into a supporting character on her own show?

That's a tough needle to thread and they pulled it off. The first smart move was to put them up against a challenge that needed both of them to fight. Of course, the Venture crisis is the latest in a long line of aerial disasters throughout the Superman mythos. (Hey, when your main character flies, you want to structure an action sequence that takes advantage of that.) It gives Clark and Kara an easy win and a good opportunity for teamwork.

A lot of shows decide that when a new character comes in, they should have a strong conflict with one of the main characters. Sometimes it works, but just as often it can prompt a reaction of, "Who's this asshole who got here five minutes ago and is giving shit to the characters I love?" ER did this constantly, and in most cases, all it did was make the new guys harder to like. I'm glad the show fought the urge to play up the tension between Superman and Supergirl.

Melissa Benoist again proved she's the show's MVP when she was completely endearing as Supergirl gushed over how awesome it was to finally do a rescue with Superman. After so many years of grim heroes taking their job seriously, it's refreshing to have a hero who does good and is all "That was SO cool!" On top of that, she was so happy that Superman saw how competent she was, like a proud child showing off for her parents. It takes some skill to have a character as strong as her somehow be the everyman audience surrogate, but that moment underlined why the show works -despite her powers, Supergirl still feels very much like one of us.

Of course, Benoist also benefited from a strong scene partner in Tyler Hoechlin. In all my fancasting for the part, I don't think he ever would have been on my radar. Part of this is because within the show, Superman would probably have to be in his mid-thirties and Hoechlin is barely older than Benoist. (The premiere lampshaded this with a fun throwaway.) It would have been great if the stars aligned to give one-time Superman Brandon Routh a shot at the part, but I get that once he entered the Berlanti-verse as Ray Palmer, he was never gonna be Clark Kent again.

Hoechlin might be our best small-screen Superman yet. His introductory scene showed he had a good grip on a Clark that was earnest and nerdy without being an over-the-top geek and he radiated the same calm and confidence as Superman that Christopher Reeve did. Reeve is always going to be the gold standard, and right now I'm putting Hoechlin in the same class as Routh and Cavill, who are just below Reeve.

Hoechlin's other big moment to shine was against Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant. Despite a pretty significant age difference in real life, the two played off each other so well that Cat's crush felt kind of sweet and not at all like a "cougar" joke that other shows would have gone for. Flockhart has consistently been one of the stronger cast members and it's gonna hurt to lose her as a regular. Hopefully she'll make frequent visits because she and Benoist bring out the best in each other, and Cat's the sort of defined and dominating female character that we have too little of on TV these days.

The later part of the show also found the balance between the two Super-cousins. Two action scenes required them to split up, but in both instances, the writers were careful to let Kara "kill the bull." She's the one who saves Lena Luthor's helicopter and she's also the one to reinforce the building's collapsed foundation. Each time, Superman was given a challenge worthy of his powers while the big emotional wins were delegated to Kara. Superman wasn't undermined to build up Kara and the integrity of both characters was respected. It seems effortless on-screen, but I'll bet many hours, if not days of discussion went into servicing both heroes properly. It's nice work all around.

Shorter takes:

- I hope we eventually get to meet this universe's Lois Lane. For the Berlanti connection, I'd love to see former EVERWOOD co-star Emily VanCamp land the part, though I'm sure her Marvel contract prevents that. But after some thought, I think I landed on an even better possibility: Autumn Reeser.

- I was surprised they broke up James and Kara that fast, but I'm okay with them putting the breaks on things. James reads as so much older than her that it makes for an odd pairing. They're like a big brother/younger sister type of dynamic more than anything else. He and Lucy didn't seem like a great couple but they at least felt more on each other's level. A Kara/James match-up might work better in later years after she's matured a bit.

- Wynn working at the DEO is an abrupt move for the character and feels more like an effort to get Jeremy Jordan closer to the main action of the plots.  Back when SMALLVILLE decided that "the Lana problem" could be solved by tying her into the mythos more closely, we got that dreadful witch plot. Hopefully this works out better.

- With Wynn no longer at CatCo and Cat herself on the way out, does James have anyone to interact with at work? I guess he and Kara will be partnered there, but pulling Wynn out of that world takes away a pretty important scene partner for Olsen.

- I'm sure that eventually Lena Luthor is gonna end up on the dark side, but rather that try to outguess her agenda or when she'll show her hand, I think I'll just sit back and enjoy the ride.

- In a sad coincidence, the debut of a new Superman came on the 12th anniversary of Christopher Reeve's passing. I wrote a tribute to Reeve six years ago on this date.