By: Adam Basciano
“At 24, Kara Zor-El decides the time has come to embrace her superhuman abilities and fulfill her destiny as a hero in this drama based on the DC Comics character Supergirl.” (The CW)
The character of Supergirl has appeared in countless comic books, both alongside her cousin and on her own. In animation, both televised and film, she has appeared as part of Kal-El’s story. This is also true, when the character appeared on The CW’s Smallville for a full season, plus a handful of episodes after that. There, she was played by Laura Vandervoort, who never wore the iconic costume, due to that show’s stupid edict of “no flights, no tights.” There is a lack of female led superheroes, on film, something Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman helped to combat, in June of 2017. However, DC Comics released the first female led superhero movie, with 1984’s Supergirl. It was a spinoff of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, which starred Helen Slater in the title role and saw Marc McClure reprising his role as Jimmy Olsen. The movie is thought of as being bad but despite that perception, I enjoyed it to a degree. For me, it’s a better movie than Batman and Robin, as well as Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace at least.
In 2016, thanks to the success of Arrow and The Flash; Supergirl flew onto the small screen played by Melissa Benoist, in full costumed glory. There was a segment of fandom that was against this from its inception. They’d spit their usual rhetoric and whine that it’s “too girlie.” Even if the show was geared more towards a female audience, so what! Women have every right to enjoy superheroes as men do, and deserve to see their sensibilities depicted on screen. I’ll admit it had a bit of a Devil Wears Prada feel for the first couple episodes, especially when at CatCo Worldwide Media and when Cat Grant were on screen, but the comics adopt that flavor, when said character appears in the pages as well. However, the show gets better with each subsequent episode and to me is a solid adaptation of the source material. In terms of tone, it’s very upbeat, has a bit of that Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve vibe to it. The show also borrows some of the sci-fi aspects of the silver age and All-Star Superman. More on that in a bit. In terms of Supergirl’s story, the show keeps the idea that she was sent to earth, at the same time as Kal-El but her ships gets thrown off course, she gets stuck in suspended animation, and when she arrives on Earth, years have passed. Kal-El is Clark Kent/Superman and yet Kara is still 13. The circumstances of her suspended animation and arrival are a bit different. In the show, Krypton’s explosion knocked Kara’s ship off course and into the Phantom Zone. Her ship gets entangled with Fort Rozz, a prison ship full of alien criminals. When Kara’s ship lands, so too does Fort Rozz. These criminals were all convicted by Allura, Supergirl’s mother. These alterations work, because her delayed arrival seems more plausible in this iteration. Getting stuck in the Phantom Zone seems logical and ties it into the greater Superman lore.
I’m glad that we are introduced to adult Kara at 24 years old, as opposed to a teenager like in the comic books. She’s still trying to find her place in the world, and trying to forge a destiny independently from Superman, but thankfully the teenage angst that is over played in the comics, ever since Jeph Loeb reintroduced the character in 2003, is gone. There were some influences from previous iterations. Supergirl’s alias of Kara Danvers is clearly a play on the Peter David iteration of the Supergirl comic books. In terms of the characters secret identity, when working at CatCo Worldwide Media, it mirrors the nerdy glasses wearing Clark Kent façade. Her working with the D.E.O. mimics the set up on The Flash with Barry’s base of operations being at S.T.A.R. Labs. The characters of Hank Henshaw, Alex Danvers, and Winn Schott and Jimmy Olsen are essentially, this shows version of Harrison Wells, Caitlyn Snow and Cisco Ramon respectively.Quite frankly, this set up and these comparisons are expected, given the shows have some the same creative team onboard. I’ll be honest, this formula for the Arrowverse shows has gotten stale and redundant. She’s Supergirl! The idea that she has a core group around her, plus an entire government agency, helping her in her quest, is a little ridiculous. Core group of friends, great, a whole D.E.O though, that’s overkill.
This show also does what The Flash and even Smallville before it, where they cast previous actors, from in this case, Superman lore. We have Dean Cain as Jeremiah Danvers and Helen Slater as Eliza Danvers, Kara’s adoptive parents. Dean and Helen were my first Superman and Supergirl respectively, so I’m going to ignore the multiversal incestuousness their pairing does to my brain, and enjoy once again seeing them in this world. What I loved about this first season is that it embraces its comic book roots. Instead of using random freaks of the weeks, we get comic book villains who likely won’t get any play in the movies. Reaction, Vartox, Red Tornado and the Toyman, all get episodes to torment Supergirl. A newer villain from the comics, Indigo, a female version of Braniac, is present and stars former Supergirl and Smallville alumni, Laura Vandervoort. The producers of the show even look to the animated series to bring Livewire to life, for the first time ever. She doesn’t have the impact that Harley Quinn does, but seeing her in live action is really cool. I think the cast is for the most part really solid, and the Superman characters being in Supergirl’s domain makes sense and never feels forced. Let’s look at that shall we.
Melissa Benoist is a fantastic Kara Zor-El/Supergirl. She has such an innocence and kindness about her in this role. When confronting adversaries, Benoist gives her a strength and confidence. Yet, she is able to portray a woman who struggles to find her identity in the world. There’s a definite vulnerability about her, especially when it comes to James Olsen. There’s also an anger Benoist displays over the loss of Krypton and also being compared to her cousin. Melissa keeps it at bay but when her character lets loose, you get a true sense of the characters power. She gives a multilayered performance. Like Benoist, David Harewood has to play dual roles as the fake Hank Henshaw, when in reality he plays the Martian Manhunter. As Henshaw, the actor is more militant, given that he’s leading the D.E.O. Early episodes show him playing up Henshaw’s uneasiness about aliens. He’s particularly difficult and harder on Supergirl. As the Martian Manhunter, David Harewood exudes a sense of mystery. At times, he’s quite stoic, but still shows plenty of emotion. He is very protective of her, a father figure of sorts. Mehcad Brooks plays James “Jimmy” Olsen. Yes, the actor is black. Again….who cares? Skin color is not and should not be an issue. He’s certainly not the “golly, gee, whiz” version of Jimmy Olsen but that’s fine. I don’t think that would work in 2018. The character has matured with age, in this universe. His reasoning for moving to Metropolis was at the behest of Superman, to keep an eye on Kara, So he’s still acting as “Superman’s Pal” would in the books. He becomes a confidant, mentor and support system for Kara. That relationship gets romantic near the tail end of the season, Seeing Jimmy with Supergirl somewhat flirt wit the idea of a romantic relationship, is extremely weird for me., Not to mention, the “Bro Code” laws he’s breaking with Superman, by exploring this.
Chyler Leigh plays Alex Danvers, Kara’s adoptive sister. She works at the DEO, and is sort of a go between her sister and her superiors. She helps teach Kara proper fighting techniques, in between their missions. The familial relationship was honestly believable. Chyler plays Alex, as an overprotective sister who wants to protect Kara from the world. She certainly makes decisions, such as killing Supergirl’s Aunt Astra. She knows it will hurt Kara, but she does it because it is ultimately the best thing for Kara. I love that there was a moment between the two sisters, where they revealed a bit of jealousy for one another. Kara is jealous of Alex because she has her planet and her true family. Meanwhile, Alex is jealous of Kara because of her special abilities, and she feels the Danvers are more proud of Kara over her, once she goes public as Supergirl. Despite all the “super” stuff going on, these are real feelings siblings have. It added layers to their relationship. There was so much emotion when the two ladies shared the screen. Both Melissa and Chyler had great chemistry together.
Calista Flockhart brought Cat Grant to life and she did a great job. She was demanding, bossy, and thought she was the hottest thing since sliced bread, both in business and in her personal life. That’s Cat Grant in the comic books to perfection. She has also branched out on her own in the books, so her separation from the Daily Planet doesn’t feel out of place Even though Flockhart’s Cat was very annoying at times, which was the point, as the season went on, she softened up just a bit, and showed a fondness and became a somewhat mentor and confidant for Kara. I thought I would hate the character but I ultimately didn’t and that’s largely due to Calista Flockhart’s performance. I’ve got to be honest; Jeremy Jordan’s Winslow Schott Jr is a useless character in this season, nothing more than a romantic third wheel and an excuse to bring his father onto the show. Not to mention, being a Cisco Ramon knock off, with Jimmy Olsen’s old school comic book personality. Laura Benanti as both Allura Zor-El and Astra were underwhelming. I didn’t find enough differentiation in the performance to separate good from evil most of the time. Peter Facinelli’s Maxwell Lord was relatively solid, he was Sauvé yet sly, and skirted the line between good and evil well.
I want to make mention of some of my favourite episodes and moments from the first season of Supergirl. The Pilot, as with most pilots felt a little rushed. That is typical with superhero shows, as they try to cram the origin story of a character into 40 or so minutes. However, the plane rescue was one of the most fantastic looking sequences committed to Superman related television. For all time plane rescues, it’s second only to Superman Returns. The Livewire episode was great. They managed to work the character into the mythology of the show, without compromising the core essential elements of that character. “Red Faced and Human” for a Day were two episodes, but the story over lapped. Seeing Red Tornado in live action was something I never thought I’d see. He looked a little off but the battle with Supergirl was intense. As she used full forced heat vision, she created a solar flare, exhausting her powers for a day. This is a new power of Superman’s, from The New 52, that the show appropriated. The following episode, she was powerless, when she foiled a bank robbery, sans powers and with a heartfelt speech that appealed to the thief’s heart. Supergirl’s power extends beyond Super strength and this highlights that.
Supergirl has done something I thought was impossible, it made a Bizarro episode bearable. I thought the decision to cast a different actress as Bizarro was questionable but It worked. They gave her a distorted face too. The Supergirl vs. Bizarro Supergirl fight was awesome, and was a battle of finesse against brutality. I loved the episode “Solitude.” Firstly because seeing Indigo, a upgraded female version of Braniac, played by Laura Vandervoort and looking like Mystique from X-Men. I loved that she was almost unstoppable because she uses technology and the internet as her weapon. Secondly, I loved this episode because we got a glimpse Superman’s fortress. The fortress had a giant door and a giant key, which is reminiscent of the Silver age and All-Star Superman. Inside, we see a Legion of Superheroes ring, the robot Keelex and statues of Jor-El and Lara. These are geek deep cuts. “For the Girl who has Everything” is a classic adaptation of the Alan Moore storyline. Aside from not having Batman, Wonder Woman, or being about Superman, it was a spectacular adaptation. Seeing Kara live out her dream, being back on Krypton with her entire family, only to have it ripped away from her, was joyous yet heartbreaking. Also, we got to see more of Krypton and I love me some Krypton sequences. The episode, which featured The Flash, was pure comic book fun. It was titled “World’s Finest”, calling to mind the book that first teamed Batman and Superman. There was playful banter that made fun of the fact that these shows were on different networks, Finally, it featured the iconic race between the Kryptonian and the Scarlett Speedster. Definitely a must watch episode.
Supergirl Season 1 is a beautiful product of the world we live in, where superheroes are accepted and translatable on the big and small screen. Supergirl’s first season is a refreshing change of pace from the last Superman television adaptation. The main difference is that Supergirl, unlike Smallville embraces its comic book roots right from the get go, instead of beating around the bush for its initial year. Supergirl also features a lead performer who first and foremost can act and secondly appreciates the character she’s playing. I’m sorry, but that goes along way for me. This makes a difference because, I find myself actually wanting to watch Supergirl, out of more than obligation because it was a “Superman” show. Speaking of Superman, I’m glad the show refrained from actually legitimately having him on the show. This gave us a chance to invest in Kara’s story first and care about her as a character. I’m glad that the show moved from CBS to The CW for Season 2 and beyond. That’s always where it should have landed anyways. As strong as this season was, the show improved, in my opinion, when it moved to The CW.
I'm a long time fan of superheroes. I love DC and really like Marvel. Will be contributing comic book review columns, to Revenge of The Fans.