Watch it here.
After being teased, leaked, and screened at every convention in existence, CBS’s Supergirl pilot has (officially) arrived. Right from the get-go, its quick-fire, broad-strokes prologue assumes we’re all familiar enough with the destruction of Krypton, and brings Kara Zor-El to Earth within a matter of minutes despite her journey lasting decades. Kara is Superman’s older cousin in the comics, and she still technically is here, but a trip through the Phantom Zone freezes her as a thirteen-year-old until her sudden arrival, setting the stage for a Supergirl that begins her journey in Superman’s shadow. That’s okay though - despite his position as the world’s premier superhero and her relative disadvantage, the Man of Tomorrow is more of a backdrop than an actual presence, appearing only in silhouette. This is Kara’s show through and through.
Superman introduces young Kara to her adoptive parents, a duo of scientists played by none other than Dean Cain and Helen Slater, Lois & Clark’s Superman and the Supergirl of the 1984 film. It’s a fun wink to the audience, and sort of characteristic of The Flash producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg by now. How great is it that superhero TV shows are at a point where we can have references like these to begin with? The Silver Age was responsible for making legacy heroes a mainstay of comics, and it’s also when readers got their first look at the original Supergirl, Linda Lee Danvers. Although known mostly for its wacky antics, it was also a period of die-hard sincerity, making it the perfect well for Berlanti and Kreisberg to draw from.
Back in 1959, after Supergirl was introduced in Action Comics #252, thousands of letters poured in to DC’s head offices, all or most of them positive. If we still used snail mail to react to things, I suspect this would’ve been the case with the pilot, or at least that’s what my Twitter feed leads me to believe. The timing for a show about a capable and enthusiastic girl with powers in a culture defined by male superheroes couldn’t be more perfect. There will, however, be plenty of detractors who feel it’s a little too cheery, and a little too on-the-nose with its ‘Girl-Power!’ messages and lack of brooding and neck-breaking. One of the first male reactions I saw after the trailer was, verbatim, “Females should rise up against this, or forever be oppressed!” so I think it’s fair to say this show isn’t meant for your average fanboy. It’s also quite fitting that the notion in that comment, no matter how well-meaning, is almost echoed by the pilot episode’s villain, Vartox, who refers to Kara and all other Kryptonian women as “females” who should bow down to males, as he swing his axe at her, spouting lines that are overtly misogynistic, though perhaps not all that far off from reality. I don’t have to deal with sexism on a daily basis, but I assume most women would gladly destroy Vartox’s strategically placed axe with their laser eye beams if they could.
That’s not the only way the show tackles sexism. In fact, the argument between Kara and her boss (Calista Flockhart, 24 years her senior) over the ‘girl’ in ‘Supergirl’ ends up being an interesting meditation on the line between empowerment and infantilization, especially as seen by women of different generations, and her rejection of Olsen coming to her rescue at work is a string I hope they pull on further. The pilot is as much about how people see Supergirl as it is about how she sees herself, and while the superhero side of her wants to, well, be a superhero, we’re also given a few glimpses into the private life of Kara Danvers. What she wants (both personally and professionally), how she fits in with other people (also personally and professionally), and perhaps most importantly, her relationship with her human sister Alex.
There’s A LOT packed into this one hour premiere, and while it never really stops to take a breath, it doesn’t seem to need to. Melissa Benoist’s charm is enough to make the episode soar. She’s the best parts of The Flash’s Barry Allen and Arrow’s Felicity Smoak, from their bubbliness to their insecurities, and she bounces off her male counterparts with panache: James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) and Winslow ‘Winn’ Schott (Jeremy Jordan), who are both part of ‘Team Supergirl’ by the time the episode ends. The show shares a lot of DNA with The Flash, but much of the typical superhero formula is turned sideways. It’s been so long since the first trailers that the reveals were actually surprising to me, like when I found out her sister works with one of the Government-type military organizations keeping an eye on her. Alex’s reluctance to let Kara fly and do her thing clicks into place, and for once we get to see the superhero deal with secret-identity-betrayal early on. We also get our first look at Hank Henshaw, a man who’s going to have an... interesting future.
The way the episode checks off the origin to-do list feels very by-the-numbers, yet somehow that doesn’t feel like a bad thing. The development of Kara’s costume, from a skimpy outfit she rejects, to a prototype to which she herself adds an iconic ‘S’ and cape, all happens very quickly and with Winn’s involvement. He helps her chase down her first criminals, and he opts to do so despite having his advances rejected. (Hey, there's positive messages in there for guys, too!) The character shares his name with the villain Toyman, though with his father taking on the role in the show at some point, I hope it’s a while before he goes bad. If he does, there’s always Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s confidant who’s had more than his fair-share of superhero adventures. We also get to see a lot of the firsts we’re expecting to see. Her first flight, her first fight, her first time stopping bullets. She knows full well what she’s capable of, but seeing her sort of rediscover all of that, with the right balance of eagerness and hesitation, like someone finally breaking through the glass ceiling and achieving their full potential, is an absolute joy to watch.
Olsen gifts Kara the blanket Clark was wrapped in as a child. In comics lore, that’s what he used to make his legendary cape, but here it’s what she uses to make hers. It’s a minor change, but one that speaks volumes about the show’s iconography. Superman and Supergirl have shared it for almost 60 years, and like all popular mythical heroes, male and female alike, they spring from the same origins and the same ideas. Comic book heroines have been around just as long as their male counterparts, and it appears it’s time for them to reclaim their history.
One of the most interesting reveals comes at the every end, when we see that Vartox and his commander (the menacing Faran Tahir) both answer to not only a woman, but Kara’s own flesh & blood: her mother Alura’s twin sister. Kara’s arrival on Earth brought with it a galactic prison, and villains from all corners of the cosmos who have only just started to rear their heads. There’s a lot more in store for Kara on the action side of things, and it’s going to be a tough battle even with the Department of Extra-Normal Operations sending her air support. But perhaps a question of equal importance: what’s in store for Kara behind the caped heroics? She’s only just arrived on the scene, both at her job as well as in this larger, male-hero dominated world, but she knows exactly what she wants to do in either case, despite all the boundaries in front of her.
I don’t particularly enjoy bringing up other people’s dumb complaints, and I likely won’t in the future, but it really is telling that most accusations of its supposedly heavy-handed messaging seem to be from guys. That’s not to say they make up that entire group, but it’s a point that feels relevant at this particular juncture. Supergirl’s big feat of strength comes in the form of her saving an airplane, which was the same first-feat her cousin performed, but all the focus is on her. It’s a spectacular moment, and she creates a huge buzz the minute she arrives (the media response to her is mostly positive, with the occasional detractors), but the most important response is one that comes from the sidelines, and it’s important precisely because of how heavy-handed it is. Supergirl isn’t anywhere near the scene, and the line is delivered by an extra. In fact, the only person close enough to hear it, but seemingly ignoring what’s being said, is the villain Vartox, who later tears women down. Watching Kara perform a miracle, a lady at the diner says:
“Can you believe it? A female hero! Nice to have someone like that for my daughter to look up to."
Sure, there are a thousand different ways they could’ve gone about it, each more subtle than the last. But Supergirl is also only the second female-led superhero show since Wonder Woman in 1979, so it’s a message that needs to be bellowed from the rooftops. Besides, who the hell needs subtlety when you’ve got a show that’s this good-natured, optimistic and downright fun?
Welcome back, Supergirl. This time, looks like it’s for good.