“My name is Kara Zor-El. 24 years ago, my planet, Krypton, was in serious peril. My cousin, Kal-El, was sent to a planet called Earth for his own safety and protection. You may know his story. The story you don’t know is that I was sent to protect him.”
From the creators of the popular CW superhero shows The Flash and Arrow comes a superheroines that will never stop reminding you that it is a superheroine show about a superheroine for superheroines. Supergirl premiered on CBS and stars Melissa Benoist, Mehcad Brooks, Chyler Leigh, Jeremy Jordan, David Harewood, and Calista Flockhart. For its second season, the show was moved to the CW network.
Because we’re reviewing the entire season, there will be SPOILERS below. Lots of ’em.
Supergirl follows the early adventures of its eponymous character, Kara Zor-EL, who was also sent by her parents to Earth from a pre-explodey Krypton in order to protect and watch over her baby cousin, Kal-El. There’s some issue about her ship accidentally entering the phantom zone, whereby she arrives on Earth several years later than Kal-El, who has already grown up as Clark Kent to become Superman.
Supes, being the nice guy that he is, ensures his cousin Kara finds a good home with a new adoptive family, the Danvers. By the way, Dean Cain of Lois & Clark plays Mr. Danvers, Kara’s Earthly father. I see what you did there, tv show.
Kara grows up alongside her new sister, Alex Danvers, and eventually moves to National City where she gets a job as the assistant to Cat Grant at CatCo, media conglomerate. Kara tries to lead a normal civilian life but ends up showing herself to the world when she saves a falling plane because of her savior-instincts.
Sister Alex, now grown up as well and an agent of a secretive government group, wants to protect Kara and essentially tells her she made a mistake revealing her powers, then flip-flops back so she can demonstrate some 2016 “acceptance” of who her sister is.
But Kara’s boss Cat brands the mystery woman and names her “Supergirl”, triggering new excitement in Kara that eventually leads to her crafting a supersuit with best friend and coworker Winn, and leaping into the fore as National City’s new guardian. Jimmy “James” Olsen is sent by Clark to keep an eye on his cousin, Kara eventually joins the D.E.O. (Department of Extra-normal Operations), befriends the D.E.O. director Hank Henshaw who is secretly J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, and fights off a few nasty members of the DC rogues gallery and , whilst discovering the extent of her powers, the nature of her planet’s destruction, and her place in the world, a man’s world by the way. Let’s not forget about that.
Supergirl, unsurprisingly, is all about female empowerment. Nothing wrong with that. Women should have heroes to look up to and feel inspired to reach their full potential. Yet does Supergirl actually demonstrate that? It’s anthem for feminism simultaneously shouts from the rooftops and shoots itself in the foot.
Look at this exchange:
Kara Danvers: [on discovering that Cat dubbed her “Supergirl”] “Supergirl”? We can’t name her that!
Cat Grant: We didn’t.
Kara Danvers: Right, I’m sorry. It’s just, uh… A female superhero. Shouldn’t she be called Super… woman?
Cat Grant: I’m sorry, darling, I just can’t hear you over the loud color of your cheap pants.
Kara Danvers: If we call her “Supergirl”, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of, of being anti-feminist? Didn’t you say she’s the hero?
Cat Grant: I’m the hero. I stuck a label on the side of the girl. I branded her. She will forever be linked to CatCo, to the Tribune, to me. And what do you think is so bad about “Girl?” Huh? I’m a girl. And your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot and smart. So if you perceive “Supergirl” as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?
Is there a problem with anyone at all?
If they wanted to portray women as empowered then why have so many unlikable or underdeveloped female characters? Siobhan Smythe and Brainiac 8 (girl Brainiac), and Mrs. Danvers is a terrible actress (reacting to her husband possibly still being alive after being presumed dead for so long, she pulls an expressionless “O rly?”). I came close to empathizing a few times with Alex, but I couldn’t.
Kara’s sister kept jumping between so many viewpoints so often, not to mention jeopardizing classified material and the security of the D.E.O. for being so emotional. The Department was practically a strip mall with people popping in and out for a quick chat, usually thanks to Alex.
Cat Grant takes the cake though. She remains purely unlikable for the entire season. There are many moments that try to humanize her and show why she’s so mean, but she ends up just being mean anyway. Late in the season, Kara confesses to her that she believes beneath it all Cat has a big heart. I don’t buy it. I didn’t feel a shred of anything for her. Does a woman have to act like a… well, you know what… in order to be strong and independent? Nope. Missed opportunity.
I think the sum of Supergirl’s portrayal of feminism as pettiness came in a moment between Kara and Jimmy. They’re about to blow off some steam with punching bags (Supergirl using a car as a substitute) when Jimmy remarks “You know, I never really noticed Clark having to get his rage out.” Without a second’s hesitation, Kara responds: “Cuz he’s a man. Girl’s are taught to smile and keep it on the inside.” Jimmy laments: “Well it’s not like black men are encouraged to be angry in public.” What a pity party.
Really, that’s very small of Kara to say. Clark has done nothing but support her emotionally through this season and even save her until she made it clear she doesn’t want to be saved by him. Superman is one of the good-est fictional characters in literature. He’s pure and noble and kind. And she throws him under the bus because he’s a man.
Even then, it’s totally unwarranted to say that “privileged” Clark doesn’t have to keep his anger in check. He’s meek, but anyone familiar with Superman required reading knows that Clark has a lot of personal issues of dealing with loneliness, isolation, depression, sadness, overwhelming responsibility, and yes, trying not to kill someone in an instant of anger. See Injustice: Gods Among Us. But nooo… let’s just bag on him because he’s a man. Does that mean that I have to feel guilty for being born a man? Or that I should be ashamed of my masculinity, that I can’t enjoy the character of Supergirl because these things are mutually exclusive?
Worse, Kara herself is constantly pining all about standing on her own and being her own person, not hiding in her cousins shadow, that she comes off as more concerned to be a person by contrast and comparison rather than simply her own person.
Had she never heard Mister Rogers’ plaintive cry: “Be yourself”?
Furthermore, they decided to give Kara a similar work site to Clark’s, glasses as a disguise like Clark’s, characters from Clark’s life like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane’s sister, virtually the same epithet “The Girl of Steel”, and villains to fight who come from Clark’s rogues gallery: Livewire, Toyman, Hellgrammite, Non, General Lane, as well as Reactron (who is explicitly stated to have a history with Supes). Kara even has her own personal Lex Luthor in the form of Maxwell Lord, who at times sounds so much like Lex with his superiority, messiah-complex and xenophobia that you’ll swear Peter Facinelli is wearing a toupée.
I get that several of these elements come from the comic mythos but I way more get the gist from the graphic novels and issues that Kara is her own person, compared to here where she is over-concerned with being her own person while the writers feed the viewer everything to tell you she isn’t.
If they wanted to make Supergirl this powerful, independent woman icon who don’t need no Superman then why take so much from Supes and just tweak it to fit her? The character has been around for decades. Surely there is some uniquely Supergirl material to adapt to the small screen! The way it stands, Supergirl just seems like a gender-bender fanfic version of Superman himself. After watching the entire first season, I wondered how the two heroes are even that different? Even as persons, individuals. They should be, considering that’s what the show seemed to be trying to say.
The gender-bending and race swapping doesn’t end there. Obviously the point isn’t that it’s somehow wrong to switch a characters race because there’s something wrong with race. The point is: why do it at all? For ratings? For reaching minorities? Why not just let characters be characters? What point was there in making Jimmy Olsen black? I mean, I know Mehcad Brooks is a pec-touting lady-killer but it seems like an afterthought that they cast him as Olsen.
I’ll always remember a conversation in a comic shop I frequent: two African Americans discussing the race-swap of Johnny Storm in Fan4stic. They made a valid point that swapping the race takes away from the character unless the writers replace what’s been taken away, because a black man is going to have different experiences and memories that change who he is compared to a white man. That’s just a fact.
As a Hawaiian Portuguese man, I don’t feel like I need to be represented in these things with superheroes. I don’t even remotely understand this present mindset. I mean I’m glad that Jason Momoa is Hawaiian and was born in the same city as me, but he doesn’t represent my ethnicity. Or should I be somehow suckered into the upcoming Justice League film because we share the same ethnicity? As Michael Shannon once said: I am “so profoundly, utterly unconcerned.”
Pandering, ladies and gentlemen. Pandering.
But this is a tv show… after all. I’m sorry if these grips are off-putting but they went a long way in making me unable to enjoy the show.
The 8-bit Review
Ubiquitous soft lighting and a plethora of cardigans aside, the looks of Supergirl aren’t too awful. That’s until we get to the action. It’s pretty awful. The shaky, slow flying looks like the characters are hoisted on cords. You’ll be automatically looking for the wires during all of the 1-second editing cuts between slow punches and jabs. Several times it looked merely as if two characters fighting were just giving each other chest bumps…
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom with this show (I swear!). There are some really neat effects like some of the flight, a lot of Martian Manhunter stuff, some of the villain stuff, bits of a slightly uninspired Krypton, and miniature flairs borrowed from Zack Snyder’s cinematography. Lens flares. Snyder’s washed-out, colorless mantra also takes root here, though. But Bizarro looked really great. In fact, a lot of the comic bookey things looked great. Too bad they were cheaply lit with soap opera lighting.
And don’t even get me started on some of the character design choices…
In a lot of ways this sounds like Han Zimmer’s work on Man of Steel, until you remember that this is Supergirl: a show that wants to be about knock-offs, I guess. The real disappointment of the soundtrack is nothing is memorable. I can’t really recall the central Supergirl theme until I listened to the isolated track. Compare that to music that I can remember from The Flash… or DuckTales 25 years ago.
In Supergirl, the music is there to be talked over by the characters, just like the characters’ dialogue is there to be talked over by the audience. Oh and that’s not including some of the bizarre choices of cover songs that play here and there, reminding you that “this is a young, hip show for the kids today”. Like “One Call Away”, especially with its line: “Superman got nothin’ on me”. Don’t forget this is about Supergirl. Not Superman. We hate him.
The overarching plot of season 1 has to do with Kara coming to grips with her Kryptonian past and the misguided scheming of Phantom Zone Escapees, like her Aunt Astra, who plan to save the planet Earth like they couldn’t save Krypton by mind-controlling everybody, or when that fails just murdering everyone instead.
Along the way there’s the typical monster-of-the-week, with highlights being episodes centered around J’onn and Kara’s past, as well as the funnest episode: the crossover appearance of Grant Gustin’s Flash.
Melissa Benoist is a decent actress putting up with poor writing who seems to be channeling her own inner Grant Gustin with some of her mannerisms. She manages to strike an imposing figure in the somewhat silly, skirted Supergirl suit. Other characters I liked were Mehcad Brook’s Olsen, who seemed to bring a sense of safety whenever he was around, and Jeremy Jordan’s charmingly-awkward Winn Schott (until he’s tainted by Siobhan!!!).
I really enjoyed seeing Martian Manhunter do his thing, though they really had to nerf the poor guy. I mean, founding member of the Justice League of America! J’onn could solo this whole season!
The parallel issues, though. Like it gets silly when Kara consistently figures out how to resolve a problem as a superhero because of something she experiences as a civilian, or vice versa. It gets real obvious. You know what I mean if you’ve seen it.
Family Friendliness: 6/10
The death of innocence. Gone are the days when DC heroes reminded kids to not run with scissors and to wear helmets when riding their bicycles. Is Kara a good role-model for children? Plenty of boozing it up in this show, plus junk food. I get that Supergirl can maintain her figure (because Kryptonian genetics equals cheating) but how can anyone else? Like her sister, pigging out on Ben & Jerry’s every episode. Beyond that, there are many times when Kara does herself seem petty and lets her anger get out of control, or episodes when she shows little respect for authority figures, or others when she seems unable to act upon her feelings. She drags poor Winn (and Jimmy) through an emotional train wreck.
One could say that this show is fairly light on cursing and violence, and I’ve heard it spun as a family show. But a character talks about their dad being “serviced”, and dark content like that coupled with Kara’s lack of being a good role-model doesn’t exactly bode well for her being an exemplary female icon. I understand that this could be part of her character development, so it’s not entirely a fault.
Besides, I’m quite content that they didn’t decide to objectify Supergirl with a micro-skirt, something like she’s been portrayed as in some comics on occasion. Her suit is much more modest and muted. At least she never came across as one of those dress-like-a-slut my-eyes-are-up-here-though types.
Binge Worthiness: 7/10
So I started getting hooked toward the middle of the season. Seems like everyone I know is always saying “Oh you should totally watch this show on Netflix… it gets good once you get a few dozen episodes in”. It took a while to get into Supergirl but it was the bits that honored the comic book history which sold me, especially when we finally got to see the Manhunter in action. When the season ended, I did feel like I wanted to see more. That’s a success in my book!
I think I’ve said enough about the show’s misguided attempt at developing themes of female empowerment. It’s one thing to make a powerful female superhero, it’s another to base a show around one who keeps pining about being a powerful female superhero in a man’s world.
I think about Batman v Superman’s Wonder Woman. I didn’t get that vibe from her. And you know what? She was awesome. Chicks loved her. Dudes loved her. She was one of the best parts of the movie because she didn’t sink to any level of pettiness. She wasn’t about proving herself, or proving how much better she was than a man. She was there there to be frickin’ amazing.
Beyond all that, this show did manage to get into the themes that make Superman (and by extension, Supergirl) great. Hope becomes a large part of the narrative in the season finale, and the show makes no bones about the symbol of the House of El meaning Hope. Thank you, Mark Waid and Man of Steel. The fact that this symbol, known worldwide, inspires is one of the core elements of Superman that I find so… inspiring. There were moments watching Supergirl when I was like “THAT is who Superman is and what he means”.
Well. We’ve seen virtually all of this before. Supergirl is the tv show equivalent of Ms Pac-Man with her lipstick and the bow in her hair to tell you she’s a girl, but it’s essentially the same gameplay all the time. There isn’t an iota in Supergirl that doesn’t seem borrowed from the Superman mythos. Like she’s some kind of cheap archetype. Which is really sad. This character needed more from you, writers.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
I didn’t enjoy it as much as the misadventures of a certain Scarlet Speedster. Burdened down by cheesy and predictable, on-the-nose dialogue, and the weight of trying to uphold a feminism it’s constantly contradicting, Supergirl is kept afloat by a few fun characters and an underbelly of charm, plus the notable appearances of comic book things were just the best. It felt a lot as if the scriptwriters were searching and playing with the cast, getting them to fall in and out of love, forming up a massive love-hexagram, and then dropping it to pieces. When Alex and Maxwell Lord held hands when humanity was about to die, I threw my hands up into the air.
Supergirl was fun enough to watch but it’s light and airy fare without individual substance. I’m sure you’ve got better shows to watch. I’m hoping season 2 is a paradigm shift. Although the guy they cast for Superman looks like a waif. Like I could beat him up.
Aggregated Score: 5.5