Watch it here.
Follow my reviews here.
Say what you will about his movie output, Kevin’s Smith’s work on DC TV shows is something to look forward to. Between The Flash’s “Killer Frost” and unquestionable series high-point “The Runaway Dinosaur” he’s managed to carve out a neat directorial niche within the television machine, a writer’s medium through & through. Per usual, the performances he elicits from the actors are stellar, and he excels at getting between the layers of the DC mythos to reveal fundamental truths about these pop-culture icons. “Supergirl Lives” does, after all, take its name from a cancelled Superman film he penned in the ‘90s. It's no exception to Smith’s recent small-screen oeuvre, and yet, it comes with a handful of thematic pitfalls that seem to stain an otherwise fantastic episode.
The series’ return from its winter hiatus presents a Supergirl who pays lip-service to idealism. As she should! Supergirl, like her cousin in his best form, inspires the best in people. Sometimes that’s through action, sometimes it’s through words of hope & comfort. For the most part, our Supergirl succeeds at both while being a quintessential badass, taking direct hits from a rocket launcher as she chases down jewel thieves. Why these jewel thieves have military grade weapons is somewhat irrelevant (call it a necessary escalation in a world of super powered aliens) but it raises the stakes for both the Girl of Steel, and for her new vigilante rival The Guardian, an armored James Olsen with the help of tech geek Winn Schott.
Supergirl’s recklessness in using her laser vision to topple the thieves’ van goes unaddressed; an admittedly minor note, but it sets the stage for things to come. The narrative avoids moral complications by having the hoodlums escape the fiery vehicle unscathed, allowing The Guardian to flex his superhero muscles and engage them in hand-to-shield combat (it might be weird to see Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen play a B-grade Captain America, but it’s a lot more fun than having him be a CIA Agent who gets shot in the head in the opening scene of a movie). The Guardian and Winn take center stage for the rest of the opening sequence, just a few alleyways from where Supergirl turned the thieves’ getaway car into a campfire. Winn almost gets shot before The Guardian comes to his rescue – this is as much Winn’s episode as it is Alex and Kara’s, which is always a good time – but why Supergirl doesn’t bother pursuing these armed criminals is left to the imagination. Granted, one can see this as just another tiny nitpick, but it’s still a questionable omission.
Thankfully, the episode’s next major slip-up isn’t for some time, and we’re treated to a fun ride in the interim, steeped in one hell of an interesting battle. Not just a battle between Supergirl/Mon-El and a band of intergalactic slave traders, but a battle between practicality and idealism. It’s the kind of debate implicitly at the center of many superhero stories (especially those involving Superman and Supergirl), and it’s part of the reason Smith is exactly the right person to tell DC stories that unearth these themes.
He gets it.
The battle between head and heart isn’t just limited to Supergirl, however. In fact, it’s not really a battle for Supergirl at all, nor should it be. She’s steadfast in her devotion to embodying idealism itself, be it as a superhero or as a reporter. The challenges from a practical standpoint come from the people around her, and she challenges their perspectives in return. But in a micro sense, it’s a theme that bleeds into the very fabric of the episode. The newly out-and-proud Alex is finally happy, giggling like a schoolgirl over the fact that she now has a girlfriend – an appropriate response, since she missed out on this feeling as a teenager. After Maggie sleeps over for the first time, Alex suggests these two senior law enforcement officials both call in sick. An irresponsible decision to be sure, but which of us can really say we haven’t been caught up in that moment? Eventually the head prevails (the head in this case being the far more experienced Maggie), but the heart wants what it wants.
A wrench gets tossed in Alex’s gears however, when Supergirl mysteriously goes missing. She panics, taking it as a sign from the universe and sending a concerned Maggie packing from the DEO – far from a rational decision, but once again, who here hasn’t self-sabotaged at some point because they felt like they didn’t deserve happiness? The neat thing about how this arc wraps up (after Alex has kicked alien ass off-world) is it depends on mutual understanding. Our expectation of the “traditional” character arc denotes motivated decision making, but in Alex’s case, it’s all about being reassured by Maggie that head and heart aren’t mutually exclusive. Her insecure freakout is realistic regardless of gender/sexuality, but it’s made all the more potent by the specific confusion of being a baby queer and needing to be convinced that after so many years of unhappiness (and self-conditioning to be unhappy) that it’s okay to rationalize the need and desire for simple joys. Oh, and I guess it helps that Maggie figures out Kara is Supergirl – not just by looking beyond the glasses gimmick, but by seeing how torn up Alex is over Supergirl’s disappearance. She knows and understands Alex, and the rest is up to Alex wanting to be understood, even when her heart makes her head go all crazy.
The head/heart battle is also embodied by Winn, forever the support staff to superheroes. A near-death experience while assisting James sends him spiraling into his own den of insecurities, and he believes himself to be dispensable. After the deathly serious (albeit brilliant) “Childish Things” last season – you know, the one about Winn’s dad being a serial killer – the writers have taken it upon themselves to make sure Winn is the comic relief, but while always respecting him as a person. Gone are the days of him pining over Kara and envying the good looks of his friend. Now that he’s moved past all that, his final boss is… well, himself. It sounds cliché, and perhaps it should in a world this melodramatic. It’s a world inhabited by superheroes, one where the two people Winn is closest to save people with ease and finesse, but he’s usually the one in need of saving. It’s not unreasonable for him to believe he belongs behind a desk, so he begins backing away from the whole vigilante thing until he’s called upon to go out in field and help Supergirl herself. Finally, he has a chance to do the saving.
Supergirl gets herself into a mess by being eager to help others. She’s presented as somewhat naïve in this, going in ill-prepared while others approach the situation with cynicism. A mother comes to CatCo for help with her missing daughter, but Snapper Carr (ever the pragmatist) dismisses it as yet another case of a runaway teen. Emotionally he’s in the wrong, and the narrative takes Kara’s side in wanting to help, but intellectually he may very well be in the right. Missing persons are a job for police, and journalistically, he has almost nothing to go by. He does eventually come around to Kara’s unique brand of go-getter reporting when it yields a good story, but he hides his smirk and continues to uphold his standards in front of her. He stays practical, but maybe, just maybe, he makes a little room in his heart for something more.
Snapper would arguably be 100% correct if we were just talking about journalism, but Kara is also a superhero. Her allegiance to truth is a completely different one – not to a different set of facts, but to a conceptual truth: the idealistic notion of doing “the right thing.” She jumps headfirst into investigating the girl’s disappearance (with Mon-El in tow, more or less by accident) and she stumbles upon an alien outfit under the guise of a blood bank. She and Mon-El have devastatingly good chemistry, and regardless of whether or not they get involved romantically, any scene with the two of them together is always a treat. She’s a caregiver, and he’s Superman by way of a lost puppy, only if that puppy were new to Earth and kind of a jerk sometimes. It’s fish-out-of-water done right, because Mon-El isn’t just trying to figure out where he is, but who he is in the first place.
Kara is in a similar boat, feeling like she’s in a rut protecting jewels and money as opposed to helping people (heroes can’t be choosers, but she has a point), so the opportunity to help a lost girl seems to align with how she wants to see herself. “Supergirl Lives” takes an interesting approach to this endeavor, because while everyone sees her as both stubborn and naïve for getting herself into trouble (on a scale she absolutely isn’t prepared for), her gusto is still ultimately posited as virtuous.
After taking out some aliens in disguise at the “blood bank,” Kara and Mon-El jump through a portal that takes them to another planet. Kara dives in head first to go save the missing teen. Mon-El follows out of concern for Kara, but the portal closes behind him. This new planet – a sinister intergalactic trading outpost – revolves around a Red Sun, robbing the Kryptonian and Daxamite of their superpowers. Without strength and agility to give them an edge, Supergirl and Mon-El are now vulnerable, but they’re also tested as individuals.
Upon sneaking into an alien fortress (which Mon-El calls “Murder Castle,” rating it zero out of ten because that’s now an Earth custom), the duo are immediately captured by lizard-like aliens and the human trafficker Roulette, who’s graduated from running alien fight clubs (“Survivors”) and has now expanded her operation to selling human slaves. Even without her powers, Supergirl stands up to the alien guards, forcing them to electrocute her. She can’t take it physically, but she refuses to be broken, and here’s where the episode cashes in its chips.
Supergirl’s idealistic and far-from-practical approach despite her lack of powers goes beyond merely a search of self-purpose. It inspires the human prisoners to fight back. Ultimately, that’s what superheroes like Supergirl are about in a metatextual sense. Saving people by giving them the strength to save themselves, and that often comes at the cost of practicality. (These characters are impractical to begin with!)
Soon after, when the DEO portal their way to the alien planet, Winn goes from Red-Shirt to Captain Kirk, beating the crap out of a lizard-person and proclaiming himself a badass! Mon-El is even inspired enough to put himself in harm’s way to save Supergirl and the prisoners, though this sets up an interesting future subplot of its own, as one of the Dominators (the aliens from the “Invasion!” crossover) bows down to him, and a couple of other alien beings show up to find him.
All these various threads come together as everyone finds the strength to stand up to the bad guy, but this is also where the episode seems to slip up again. Alex tosses a Yellow-Sun grenade to give Supergirl her powers so she can save Harley Quinn Smith from a lizard man (sentences like this are why I love writing about these shows), but as an alien ship approaches, Supergirl blasts it to bits with her heat vision.
Now, that’s a bit of a problem for several reasons. We don’t need to hash out the Man of Steel debate again, and one could very well assume that the ship was either empty, or the alien pilots survived, or any number of possibilities that make this scene less problematic, but given the context in which the scene is presented (I watched again to be sure), the only information we’re given is an alien ship approaching Supergirl and her blowing it up as a first resort. At least she tried to stop the jewel thieves before setting their van on fire (you can see where that slippery slope began), and it seems more like a major error by omission than anything else, but it’s a baffling one nonetheless.
Like I said, one could assume any number of things, but this wouldn’t even be the first time this season Supergirl has casually killed another alien. Where the season one episode “How Does She Do It?” saw her torn over not being able to save a suicide bomber, “Supergirl Lives” and the season 2 episode “Changing” see her casually blowing aliens to bits without being the least bit conflicted. This is an especially glaring problem in a season dedicated entirely to the idea that aliens are also worthy of life, and it gets even more unpleasant when you consider the aliens are used as a metaphor for immigrants and refugees, i.e. it becomes about only the agreeable (and relatively human/pleasant looking) aliens being given the right to a fair trial. It’s just one instance in an episode full of wonderful things, but it’s also pretty big deal breaker on a show like Supergirl, especially in an episode about her idealism! If killing the aliens is the most practical approach, that’s a pretty huge thematic disconnect.
After Supergirl saves the day things begin returning to normal. Winn and Alex have a renewed sense of faith in themselves (and in their respective partners in crime and romance), and Mon-El even decides to become a superhero! His final scene with Kara backs up the idea that Melissa Benoist and Chris Wood should be on screen together all the time, as they giggle and fist-bump their way through Mon-El finally letting himself be taken under her wing.
All of this is thanks to Kara standing up for people even when it was hard, and giving Mon-El the strength to do the same. That’s pure DC Superhero through and through, and it’s why Supergirl works as well as it does. Now if only the show could tighten up that one loose end about killing being approached so damn casually…
Anyway, until such a time as it does, here’s Supergirl standing up for people in real life: