***Okay, so on Wednesday I realized that what was supposed to be the prologue to this post had careened out of control and become an entire post unto itself. So you can go back and read that for background or you can just jump in here and watch me school Karissa Laurel.***
"Supergirl" is pretty good. (I never thought I'd become old enough to watch a show on CBS, but I guess all things must pass.) The TV show really captures all my favorite elements of the comic book, and, for that matter, the greater source material.
First of all, Melissa Benoist is a delight. I only got as far into "Glee" as about midway through the season when she first appeared before my wife and I finally gave up. (The first season of "Glee" was pretty good and then it just disappeared up its own asshole, and by the time they tried to bring in a new crop of kids - before surreptitiously dumping them all - we were done.) I think the producers of "Glee" must have seen in her a JV show lead and tried to see if a show with her at the center would fly (ha!), and then just said, "Fuck it."
Luckily a few years later the producers of "Supergirl" gave her a second chance and either she's grown into her acting skills or finally been given a proper platform to display them. Here's one thing I particularly like: when in costume she spends a lot of time with either her arms folded or her fists on her hips. It's never commented upon, but these are the iconic poses of Superman and while in costume she seems to do them subconsciously.
One thing I was wondering about was how the pilot would unpack the backstory, and I have to say I think it did it perfectly. One of the exhausting problems of superhero reboots of the last few years is endlessly retelling origin stories that everybody already knows. I no longer get any sort of emotional connection with seeing Bruce Wayne's parents be shot or Spider-Man get bitten by a radioactive spider. The 2012 Superman reboot "Man of Steel" spent what felt like an interminable amount of time on Krypton, and it all added practically nothing to the movie. You almost forget that the first forty minutes was about Jor-El zooming around, bickering with Brainiac, etc. because it's otherwise so inconsequential to the plot.
Here's the thing. Yeah, maybe I don't know offhand how Ant-Man or Apache Chief got their powers. But there has been a major Superman reboot for every generation alive today. There was the comic book in the '30s, the TV show in the '50s, the first movie series in the '70s, the cartoon series in the '90s, and, oh, hey, look, another reboot in the '10s. That means I could ask anyone from a kid today to someone who was a kid during the Great Depression, and they would pretty much know that Superman came from Krypton when it blew up. There's no need to belabor the point.
And where "Man of Steel" belabored and belabored it, "Supergirl" pretty much breezily blew past it. I think the entire origin story was about 2-5 minutes of screen time which boiled down to, "Look, you know my cousin's deal, my deal is basically the same but I grew up on Krypton and I'm younger than him because, you know, time dilation."
And this steady clip didn't let up for the whole pilot. There was no dragging out the whole "refusing the call to greatness." Again, within the first ten minutes Kara had seen her foster sister in trouble, which added an emotional element to the proceedings, saved her plane, basically outed herself to the world, and decided she'd have to be a superhero after all. No angst. No brooding. No Hamlet-style indecision.
A couple of breezy costume jokes and by the halfway point of the first episode we're off to the races. Compare that to another show I was really excited about this year, "The Bastard Executioner," which squandered an hour and a half of pilot before finally, finally explaining its premise in the last thirty seconds. It's about pacing, and "Supergirl" (at least so far) has great pacing.
One thing I'm a little leery about, but I'm also pretty stoked about, is that "Supergirl" chooses to address all of its criticisms head-on. It's very meta. I think the producers must have been expecting a huge amount of lashback, and were probably pleasantly surprised to see that so far fan reception has been pretty good. But baked into the DNA of the show is a lot of meta self-justification.
So for instance, in the first episode, they address the use of the name "Supergirl." Two characters just straight up have a conversation about it.
"Isn't it a little corny, isn't it a little sexist, isn't it a little stuck in the '70s? Why not update it to Superwoman or something?" says Supergirl herself in her alter ego.
"There's nothing inherently wrong with being a girl. You can consider it diminutive or you can consider it empowering to be a girl. And Supergirl is iconic - it's not like we can just change the name now," replies her boss.
It's a clunky conversation and not really one you'd have in real life, but it shows that the producers were anticipating these concerns, and that they are trying to address them. In another episode shock jock turned supervillain Livewire complains that Supergirl is trying too hard to be "adorkable." And I didn't even consciously realize until they brought it up themselves that this concern was legitimate. I remember when Fox was trying to foist Zoey Deschanel on us as the "New Girl" how everything was about how "adorkable" (read: Manic Pixie Dream Girl) she was. And thank God that turned out to be not the case for that show.
And thank God the "Supergirl" people are aware of it and are trying to avoid it, too. And, to my thinking, doing pretty well. Kara lacks confidence but she's never goofy and wacky. She's (dare I say it) a bit nuanced. Hell, even Supergirl lacks confidence, but she realizes she can address that by asking her friends and mentors for help. It's a very (forgive me for generalizing here) feminine attitude, and one I wouldn't expect to see addressed in a superhero show starring a male. It's very much a thing that Buffy would do, to build a team to help cover all her weaknesses, despite the fact that she's technically the one with super-powers.
One point where I think the "Supergirl" producers overdo predicting the backlash is with the heavy shadow that Superman himself and "Superman" the franchise casts over the proceedings. Perhaps they thought that "Man of Steel" was still fresh in everyone's minds. But it's been three years since that movie and I don't know if Henry Cavill has become the de facto Superman for anybody yet. Supergirl spends a lot of time in the show lamenting living in her cousin's shadow. And the producers devote a lot of time, both in the first episode and in almost an entire other episode on the subject, to pointing out how different Supergirl and Superman are.
I don't think they need to try so hard. I think Supergirl has a different feel to Superman, and always has. Yes, part of it is about living with sexism in general and living in a great man's shadow specifically. But that should just inform the show, not be an obsession. Kara doesn't need to constantly be saying, "I'm not Clark!" We know you're not Clark. You're already doing a good job of it. Now get confident about it, damn it.
All right, I think I've waxed on enough about this show and other people have already said basically what I have to say better than I ever could already. It's nice to have a female superhero on TV. It's nice to have one who's so well characterized. It's nice to have one who doesn't need to be dark and moody or some kind of assassin with a dark past. It's nice to see someone excited about having superpowers, and not getting all grimdark about it which has seemed to be a requirement in the post-Watchmen era. "Supergirl" is almost so retro it seems like it's covering new ground. And all things considered, for Christ's sake, it's just a TV show. Melissa Benoist doesn't need to be the next Susan B. Anthony. She just has to put on entertaining show, and she does that quite well.
(QED, Karissa. Why don't you stuff that in your pipe and smoke it?)
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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