WARNING: This review contains some spoilers for the CBS Supergirl Pilot. If you have not seen it and care about spoilers, please go watch it and then read my review.
In many ways, CBS’s Supergirl is one of the best shows I have ever seen for making me feel like I’m watching a comic book. It is unabashedly a comic book show without being overly campy. I have no problem with camp, for the record, but it is refreshing to see a show that understands that there are more ways to do superheroes besides just grimdark and camp. The titular Supergirl a.k.a. Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) is the bubbly, dorky assistant to Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) and has refrained from using her superpowers publicly her whole life. That is, until a plane carrying her adopted sister threatens to crash. At which point she leaps into action, lifting the plane in mid-air and bringing it down safely in the water, whilst revealing herself to the public. The whole thing rings of Superman.
In fact, in a lot of ways, this show is, effectively, a Superman show. Kara’s dorkiness is reminiscent of Clark Kent, her strong ties to her earth family? Ditto, and her desire to use her powers to save people, because that’s the responsible thing to do is also in-line with Superman’s code of ethics. The show makes no secret of the resemblance, either. It even goes so far as to have James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) say of the plane-saving scene, “That’s the first thing he did… save a plane.” The show pulls a lot from what works for Superman when he’s at his best and uses it for Supergirl, which is a smart move on their part. Supergirl as a character has a convoluted history, which I will not get into here. If you want to know all about it, Bob “Moviebob” Chipman did a great three episode mini-series on the history of Supergirl over on The Big Picture here:
But, suffice it to say, DC struggled for a long time to find a way to make Supergirl work as a character. Both her origin story and her identity has changed more than once. So grounding her in aspects of Superman’s character is a smart decision by the showrunners.
Additionally, the shows just feels like a comic book. There is no fear of the comic palette like we see in Man of Steel. The colors are bright. In fact, the show is bright, both literally and metaphorically. It is well-lit, and also funny and charming. Kara’s enthusiasm for being a superhero is a refreshing change of pace in the sea or superheroes who are angsty about their roles in life, and it made me excited for her. Comic books exist as an escape. When I read comics as a kid, I wanted to be Spider-Man! I enjoy some complexity in my superheroes as much as anyone, but sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that being a superhero is FUN! I thoroughly enjoyed my time watching the show. It’s not the best superhero show on television by any means, but it is a great pilot for one. Maybe the best pilot of any of the comic book shows currently on television.
Now, it’s impossible to talk about this show without talking about whether or not it succeeds as being a progressive step forward for female superhero representation, partly because the show itself will not shut up about it. On three separate occasions, the characters in the show make sure the audience is aware that what they are doing is progressive and awesome. A waitress in a diner mentions that now her daughter will have someone to look up to, Cat Grant backs up her decision to name the hero “Supergirl,” rather than “Superwoman,” because there’s nothing wrong with being a girl, and Kara’s sister also makes a comment that underestimating Kara because she’s “just a girl” is precisely what they were counting on in the final battle of the episode. It all feels extremely heavy handed, especially since it’s not necessary. The show makes those arguments on its own, and we don’t need the characters working as a mouthpiece to tell us that. Does the show succeed at creating a progressive female superhero? Yes, but maybe not in the way most people are used to.
This show has been extremely divisive amongst feminist critics. Many of them have praised it, but some have commented that Kara is too bubbly and quirky and too concerned with men to be a “strong” character. I disagree. Kara is those things, but since when was that bad? She is a female superhero who is not only not sexualized, but actively resists being sexualized when Winslow Schott (Jeremy Jordan) tries to put her in what is, in essence, a red and blue swimsuit (a costume she actually wore in the comics, as a matter of fact). She has no problem standing up for her beliefs, even to her boss, and she is willing to tell off the misogynistic villain when he tries to taunt her because of her gender. She is strong both physically and in her attitude, and she decides to be a superhero on her own, voluntarily (sure she has some moments of doubt, but who doesn’t). These are the makings of a strong character of ANY gender.
I don’t see the fact that she does some things we would code as female as bad, because I don’t see those things as bad in general. She is interested in having a love-life? Great. She cares about her sister? Great. She is kind of giggly and dorky at times? There’s nothing wrong with that. Is she still flying around fighting crime in a mini-skirt? Yeah. And while that is problematic, I would endeavor, in this case, to not make perfect the enemy of good. There is a lot of good here, and the fact that the show has pulled 16-million viewer 3-day ratings and is the most watched fall premiere this year should send an important message to the studio executives who don’t believe that an audience will show up for a female-led superhero movie.
It does sound fun, I did like Superman Returns which seven if I was underwhelmed by Lex Luther in that film. I may end up catching some episodes with my friend Matt which is how I usually catch new comic shows.
I didn’t realize it was that divisive. Most of the feminist critics I’ve read have been reasonably happy with it. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t critics, I mean it’s a mainstream comics product it’s only going to do so much.
It may be heavy handed, but I do think they probably had to grapple with the “girl” thing as long as they’re sticking with that as her title. Not that there aren’t ways to soft touch it, but I’ll take lampshading over ignoring most days.
Yeah. I agree that overdoing is better than not doing it at all, and if I were to leave one of those scenes in, it would be the Cat Grant one, because “There’s nothing wrong with being a girl” seems to be the thematic thesis of the show. I’m really curious to see what they do as the show moves forward now that all those themes have been established.
If you enjoyed Superman Returns, you will probably enjoy this show. For all the critical backlash Superman Returns got, it was the last time that DC made a movie where they embraced the comic book aspect of their source material (it had the bright comic palette, for example). Let me know if/when you check it out!