Back when the Supergirl trailer first landed, it had the unfortunate timing of coming out right beside an SNL sketch that typified many of the issues surrounding how Black Widow has been characterized The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. This mightn’t sound like a problem, except that the Supergirl trailer played out like a sincere mirroring of the SNL sketch, seeming to completely justify its over-arching criticism of female superhero portrayals. At the time, I defended Supergirl staunchly on nothing more than my belief that the character context was very different and I was steadfastly optimistic about the show. I believed in what Greg Berlanti and co. were working on because, based on the differences between The Flash and Arrow, it looked like they had a really good handle on how to give different characters and settings their own distinct tone while still maintaining over-arching DNA that ties them together. Thankfully, my optimism has been rewarded.
Supergirl wastes very little time with setting itself up. Only five minutes are given to Kara’s entire backstory, with Melissa Benoist providing a voice-over to her being ejected from the planet Krypton at the same time as Superman, but landing on Earth years after Superman thanks to an accidental detour through the phantom zone. When she finally does make it to Earth, Supes finds her and leaves her with a loving pair of parents, the Danvers’, played by Dean Cain (Clark Kent in The New Adventures Of Superman) and Helen Slater (Supergirl in the 1984 film of the same name). The show then jumps to adult Kara hastily making her way to work at CatCo. The delivery is almost brash, but it works because of the ties and similarity to Superman’s origin – we don’t need to hear about Kara’s upbringing because we’ve heard it from Clark Kent’s perspective so many times. What matters now is Kara herself and her journey to becoming a superhero and that’s what the show wants to tell us.
Since she’s both already aware of her powers and Superman is already zipping around Metropolis saving people there, the question at the heart of her “origin” story is how she chooses to use her powers instead of avoiding them. When we meet Kara, we see that she’s been having a quarter-life crisis over this very question – as a personal assistant with superhuman abilities, it’s not hard to fathom her feeling like she could be doing more. But what’s really nice about how this decision is framed is that it’s used to both show her becoming a hero and her empowering herself as a young woman, something the show works to make sure we don’t forget.
The first time she decides to use her powers is practically made for her as she saves her sister’s plane from crashing, however in the aftermath it’s found out that this was a plan to trap Kara by a gang of space convicts. Somehow, her ship leaving the phantom zone to crash onto Earth brought with it a literal space prison filled with dangerous aliens. What’s worse is that Kara’s sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), has been monitoring these aliens while working for the government, hence dissuading Kara from using her powers as the same government officials want to contain her as well as the convicts. Though the initial use of her powers is driven by a want to save her sister, Kara chooses afterwards to continue being a hero, to finally answer her want to do more with the powers she has. The resulting montage is the episode’s high point as she creates her superhero identity in a way that makes her feel both powerful and comfortable, maximizing her ability to kick ass, at one point taking a bare-faced dig at skimpy heroine costumes.
Many of the weakest moments of the pilot are in Alex and Kara’s slightly strained relationship. With only just over 40 minutes, the episode has to zip through every plot-point to try get all the foundation story threads in place, sacrificing characterization for plot. The result is relationships and story ideas that don’t feel fully formed or cohesive yet. Though not the crippling move it could’ve been, characters that are obviously in the series for the long haul are left with a slightly underwhelming impression, only the most obvious parts of their proximity to Kara shown and given the most efficient form of elaboration. Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) and Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) are the only exceptions, but only because they serve a greater narrative purpose to Kara’s beginning to end growth to kick off the series. They weigh the mood down slightly by feeling a touch mechanic at times, something that will hopefully be fixed as the series moves on and more time is given to each plotline.
But even the hasty delivery can’t distract from just how joyful it is to watch Benoist‘s lead performance as Kara. From the timid beginning to confident, kickass end, Benoist embodies Kara so succinctly, very obviously in tune, and in love, with the subject matter and character. She not only holds her own alongside The Flash and Arrow for on-screen presence, but really does work to deliver a hero all her own, one that’s both a superhero and a woman and resolutely unwilling to sacrifice one for the other. Supergirl’s climactic battle in the episode really reflect this, with her first baddie taunting her for not being her cousin Superman and calling her weak before she gets the job done, no help required. It’s the exact right kind of fist-pump moment to end a first episode one and one that really resonates with what this show is trying to achieve.
Supergirl is a different kind of show to Arrow and The Flash and the inherent risks in that are very evident in this first episode. Much lighter, there’s not going to a total overlap with fans here, but that’s also a conscious decision. Supergirl is obviously trying to court a different demographic, aiming to actually be a superhero show for women, but not patronizingly so. Instead, it’s all about female empowerment, giving girls a role model and generally giving the standards of superhero adaptations a bit of a shake-up. Unless something drastic changes over the course of the season, Supergirl has the potential to be something quite special if this is anything to go by.
A flying start, if slightly hasty.