It’s hard not to read Supergirl in the context of our ongoing culture war over what kind of heroes we’re allowed to value. And no, I’m not referring to gender issues (although Supergirl has plenty to say about them too) but the all-important grimdark-vs-fun schism in hero narratives.

Spoilers ahead...

Supergirl leans pretty hard on the quirky tone and the dorkiness of its hero. At times, this pilot comes across almost like, “What if Felicity Smoak from Arrow was a superhuman alien?” In a lot of ways, it’s sort of the tone of the Richard Donner Superman films, but also kind of the tone of classic superhero comics, from before Frank Miller and The Killing Joke and Watchmen and stuff. But Supergirl, thus far, seems more successful at capturing this kind of lightness on superhero TV than a lot of previous efforts, like Lois and Clark.

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And part of what makes it work so well is that this show is willing to pack a pretty heavy punch—both in terms of actual violence and stakes, and in terms of emotion.

I’ve watched this pilot a few times over the past week, and have gotten more and more won over by its humor, its strong character development, and most of all its interesting spin on all the tropes about superheroes and the use of power. Most of all, this show has charmed the heck out of me—despite a few clunky touches that almost any TV pilot is likely to have.

In a nutshell, Supergirl follows Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, who was also saved from the destruction of the planet Krypton. She was 13, and her parents wanted her to come to Earth and protect baby Kal-El. But her rocketship got stuck in the Phantom Zone, where time doesn’t pass, and she arrived on Earth when Superman was already an adult. So she was put with a host family, the Danverses, played by former Superman Dean Cain and former Supergirl Helen Slater.

Since then, Kara has been trying to live a normal life and avoid using her powers—until her adoptive sister, Alex Danvers, is on a plane whose engines are blowing up. Kara—who’s already wondering if she’s been living up to her potential—is forced to use her powers, and reveals herself to the world. Supergirl starts being active as a superhero, and attracts the attention of two groups: 1) The DEO, humans who protect the world from extraterrestrial attacks (and who have Alex Danvers secretly working for them) and 2) Vartox, an escaped alien convict whom Supergirl’s mother condemned to alien prison—and he’s just the first of a gang of alien ex-cons with a beef for Supergirl.

The “reluctant hero” trope

At first glance, it looks like Supergirl is leaning pretty hard on the idea of the reluctant hero, who “just wants to live a normal life.” This is not my favorite heroic trope, although it was used to good effect in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and elsewhere. Early on, we’re told that once Kara realized that she didn’t need to protect Kal-El, she decided to hide herself away and just have a regular existence. Later, when she’s faced some setbacks, she tells her sister Alex that Alex is right: “The world doesn’t need me.”

But actually, Supergirl has a pretty unique spin on the “reluctant hero” thing. Basically, it’s all about the toxic, dysfunctional relationship between these two sisters. As Alex confesses towards the end of the episode, she was “the star” of her family, until Kara came to live with them. And then Alex couldn’t compete with an actual alien with amazing superpowers. So Alex was relieved when Kara decided to hide her specialness, because Kara making herself less made Alex “feel like more.”

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And all this time, Alex has been telling Kara to be “something other than what I am,” as Kara puts it at one point. She’s been trying to keep Kara down and subtly undermining her confidence, trying to convince her that it’s enough to be “cute” and have a shitty job, and obsess over not having anything to wear on a date with a dickish guy from the internet.

The scene where Kara is all excited about having saved a plane from crashing, and is freaking out with happiness—until Alex shows up and throws a wet blanket over her celebration—is actually pretty amazingly played. Melissa Benoist sometimes overplays Kara’s quirky mannerisms in this episode a wee bit, but the emotional turn from excitement to depression is pretty amazingly played. The bit where she’s like, “I’m tired. I just carried a plane on my back,” is pretty neat.

And meanwhile, Alex has been spying on Kara for the DEO and generally going behind her back with the alien-hunters.

And at last, Alex wins—she succeeds in crushing her sister’s spirits, after Kara has gotten her ass kicked by a supervillain. But then she has a crisis of conscience, and/or decides that her crew has no hope of defeating the alien menace, Vartox, without Supergirl’s help. So Alex brings Kara a Kryptonian recording of Kara’s mother, Alura, talking about her faith in Supergirl:

And then in the end, when Supergirl goes for a rematch against Vartox, Alex helps her to win because they’ve analyzed Vartox’s weapon (from a fragment left inside Supergirl’s arm.) And she knows how to defeat him: use Supergirl’s heat vision up close to overheat Vartox’s super-axe so it explodes.

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The “sibling rivalry” spin on this “hero who rejects heroism” idea is pretty original, and it’s paired with a huge sense of emotional vulnerability from Melissa Benoist. You get the sense that she’s so overjoyed at getting to help people and make a difference, and use her powers for good, that it’s actually kind of crushing to watch her get discouraged by Alex... and her probably evil boss, Hank Henshaw.

The result is a rise to heroism—and a relationship—that’s going to be pretty interesting to watch.

Hank Henshaw is a Dick

The dickery of Hank Henshaw is one of the things that’s actually kind of overplayed in this episode, and one hopes that it’ll be dialed back slightly in future installments. (Although given that Hank becomes the totally evil Cyborg Superman in the comics, I wouldn’t get your hopes up in the long term.)

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Here’s Hank telling Kara that she did a great job nearly letting an alien nearly cut her in half, so they could get a sample of his weapon:

She also tells Supergirl that she should just go back to getting coffee for someone. And that she’s just going to draw undue attention with her skirt. And he basically agrees with Alex’s insinuation that he underestimates Supergirl because she’s “just a girl.”

And he also tells Alex that she only got hired at the DEO because she was Supergirl’s foster-sister—but that Alex got to stay on her own merits. Aww.

The Supervillains

Here’s Vartox. He’s basically an evil trucker with a reptilian head:

Vartox is not exactly a multidimensional villain, but he does provide a decent challenge for Supergirl. And one thing about this episode is that with all the good-natured dorktastic silliness, the fight scenes are actually super brutal:

He escaped from Fort Rozz, the Kryptonian prison, which was knocked out of the Phantom Zone by the same mysterious incident that freed Kara from her imprisonment there. Fort Rozz crashed to Earth:

And a whole bunch of alien criminals are on the loose, hiding out for the past 12 years. They all blame Supergirl’s mother, Alura, for their imprisonment. Here’s a handy collage of all of them that was on the DEO screen. One of them looks a bit like Despero, a major Justice League villain.

At one point, Vartox goes to a secret lair inside his tanker truck, where he communicates with The Commander, played Faran Tahir (Captain Robau from Star Trek!)

The Commander mentions that “the General” is coming, and at the end of the episode, the General turns out to be a Kryptonian. Specifically, Kara’s Aunt Astra, who looks just like her mom. She says she was supposed to rule Krypton, and now she will rule Earth, so her niece has to die.

There’s a whole goofy supporting cast

Meanwhile, the show packs a whole supporting cast of (semi) lovable normal people, most of whom know Supergirl’s secret by now.

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There’s Winn Schott, who’s the office nerd, who has a terrible unrequited crush on Kara. And he writes for some kind of alien-conspiracy-theory website. He’s also kind of a superhero fan.

She tells Winn that she’s the girl who saved the plane, the one everybody is freaking out about, and at first he thinks she’s trying to tell him she’s a lesbian.

Winn tries to give Supergirl a makeover and puts her in a totally ridiculous outfit, because he doesn’t believe in capes:

Kara’s boss is Cat Grant, who runs CatCo, the company that publishes the Tribune newspaper. She’s kind of a stereotypical Devil Wears Prada superbitch, but Calista Flockheart gets every ounce of fun she can squeeze out of her icy-cold lines.

Cat Grant is the one who gives Supergirl her superhero name—leading to the show’s most overt grappling with gender politics apart from Hank Henshaw’s dickery. Kara rushes in to confront Cat about this and demand that they call the mystery hero “Superwoman” instead:

At which point, Cat delivers a whole speech (that’s already become famous from the trailers months ago) about the meaning of being a “girl”—Cat is a girl, but she’s still a boss, and powerful, and in control, etc. etc. And then to prove that girls can still be totally evil, Cat decides to fire Kara for questioning her.

Kara’s job is only saved by the intervention of the final member of our supporting cast, James “Jimmy” Olsen, the Daily Planet photographer who took pictures of Superman in Metropolis until recently. Now James has come to National City to take a new job—but actually, he knows all along that Kara is Superman’s cousin, and the Big Guy has asked James to keep an eye on Kara. (Who, meanwhile, has an insta-crush on James.) The wink that James gives Kara when he reveals he knows her secret is pretty amazing:

James’ role in this episode is to be the love interest, and to give encouragement to Kara—covertly at first, like when he says in her hearing that she’s a hero and that saving people is what she does, and then overtly later. But also, he’s here to be the voice of Superman, who can’t appear on the show because he’s busy starring in movies. At the end of the episode, James reveals that Superman wanted Supergirl to follow in his footsteps as a hero, but he couldn’t just tell her that himself. She had to choose heroism for herself, because “that’s what heroes do.” And now that she’s made that choice, James gives her the indestructible baby blanket from Superman’s rocket, which is the perfect cape.

The notion that choosing to be a hero is what makes you a hero is a pretty good one, and a pretty decent replacement to the idea that power=responsibility. Nobody ever suggests that Supergirl actually has a responsibility to use her powers to help people (or that the blood of untold thousands of people who’ve died in preventable accidents and crimes while she was fetching coffee is on her hands.) She can’t be a hero unless she chooses that for herself, fair enough. Especially since her choice to be a hero has attracted the attention of all those Fort Rozz escapees and innocents are going to get hurt in the crossfire, too.

The Superman thing

To some extent, this show’s premise depends on a certain amount of Superdickery. Superman just dumped Kara with this family and flew off without even looking back.

And because of the aforementioned “brand confusion” issues or whatever, I guess we’ll never get to meet Superman as an actual character on this show. He’ll just be constantly referenced, and seen from afar, and occasionally glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. Supergirl will live in Superman’s shadow (especially at first) but he can never actually show up and have to compete with her fairly. This could get kind of weird, but at least in this first episode the “oh you just missed him” thing kind of works, because it accentuates the sense that Superman is a legend that Supergirl is just struggling to live up to.

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Only time can tell whether Superman’s absence will feel like the constant Avengers references in Agents of SHIELD season one, or something more artful. Also, a lot depends on how well the show develops the themes laid out in this episode, about her insecurity as a newbie hero and her uncertainty about whether the world needs her. If she’s still taking this much shit from Hank Henshaw a month from now, I might start having suspension of disbelief issues.

For now, though, this show is off to a strong, thrilling start.


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.