Pilot Review: Supergirl Isn’t Super, but it is Good!

supergirl2CBS’ Supergirl is based on DC Comic’s 1959 Kara Zor-El, who was created to be a female counterpart to Superman as his cousin who shares his super powers and vulnerability to Kryptonite. However, this new show departs from the comic book in several ways: (1) Kara is from Krypton not Argo (2) Kara doesn’t have a close relationship with Clark/Superman. (3) Kara’s parents die. (4) Kara’s mother has a twin. These changes or inconsistencies are not surprising given the many versions of Supergirl. Interestingly, the show bears very little resemblance to Supergirl: The Movie (1984) and is more Superman the movie or TV show and Smallville.

The pilot opens with a familiar scene in the Superman story. Kara and her parents Jor-El’s brother Zor-El and Alura In-Ze, saying tearful goodbyes as they send her to earth to protect her cousin, Kal-El, Clark Kent. Due to Krypton’s destruction, her ship veers off course into the phantom zone where time does not pass. After twenty-three years, she arrives to earth as the same thirteen year old that left Krypton. A grown Clark does not need her protection, so he finds her adoptive parents who can give her the same loving life he had with the Kents. She meets her new parents, Jeremiah and Eliza Danvers. Casting Dean Cain and Helen Slater as Kara’s parents is a nice acknowledgement of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (TV Series) and Supergirl: The Movie.

About ten years after her arrival on earth, Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) is working at The Tribune in National City as the assistant to Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) who is going to downsize the paper even though it is her first acquisition. In a scene with deafening echoes of Devil in the Devil Wears Prada, Cara and Cat are introduced and we see Kara use her super hearing power for the first time to anticipate Cat’s arrival. We also meet Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan) her best-friend and co-worker who is clearly in love with her.

When Kara meets James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) she simply says, “Wow,” but she already has a date set-up and her sister helps her get ready. During the date, which is terrible, she hears the news that a flight to Geneva in going to crash. To save her sister, she flies for the first time in years and carries the plane on her back to safety. Back in her apartment she is ravenous, eating pizza and enjoying her adrenaline and confidence high as she watches the news. When her sister arrives furious that she revealed herself Kara said, “I have always felt the need to help people and tonight I finally got that chance. I didn’t travel 2,000 light years to be an assistant.” Kara is crestfallen that she doesn’t have her sister’s support!

Given her actions, she arrives nervous at The Tribune. When no one recognizes her as Supergirl she relaxes even though Win says Supergirl is lame, “a rookie super hero,” because she does not have a suit. Kara realizes that she needs support so she shares her secret identity with Win. He is flabbergasted, at first thinking her secret is that she is gay which explains why she doesn’t like him, but when she falls back off the roof and flies he is shocked and eventually thrilled.

Our first villain, Vartox (Owain Yeoman) is introduced in a diner as his waitress is busy listening to news of Supergirl’s rescue of a plane. He leaves to meet with The Commander (Faran Tahir) to explain why his efforts to take down the plane with the DEO (Department of Extranormal Operations) agents failed. When he shares that Supergirl is Alura Zor-El’s daughter, he is given permission to kill her and any humans necessary because they have been forced to hide too long, The General is coming and Alura had imprisoned them in the Kryptonian prison, Fort-Roz

With She’s A Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked) as their soundtrack, Kara and Win design Supergirl’s suit with her family’s Code of Arms, the house of El. As she is beginning to test the suit and herself, she is captured by DEO, Director Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) and Agent Danvers. Alex releases her from the kryptonite restraints because she knows that Kara isn’t dangerous.  Upset with Henshaw and Alex, Kara later works with them to take down Vartox after he almost kills her. They are able to track him using the sliver of metal from Vartox’s axe that pierced Kara’s arm and has her feeling pain. After she learns that her mother imprisoned Vartox and many like him, Alex brings her a Krypton device that projects a hologram message from her mother telling her that her destiny is her own. Hearing this and mending fences with Alex, she is prepared to battle Vartox. Using her heat vision she increases the heat of the ax blowing him-up. He tells her, “You think I am the threat? You have no idea what is coming.” He takes a piece of the metal and kills himself.

At the end of the episode, she is further strengthened by Clark’s believe in her; he sent her his baby blanket to use as a cape because it won’t shred. As she flies, the voiceover says, “I was sent here to protect my cousin, turns out he didn’t need my protection. But there is a whole planet full of people who do. Earth doesn’t have just one hero anymore, now it has me now it has super girl.”

This show is very clear on its direction and most of its pieces work in unison to achieve it.  The actors breathe realistic life into characters that could easily drift to flat or over animated renderings which would shifting the show’s delicate balance between cartoon/sci-fi and adult/children. The show has a tendency to tell rather than show and attempt too many plot points instead of thoroughly fleshing out fewer points, but this is expected early in a series as writers attempt to introduce characters in a new world. This approach is owed to the creator/showrunner Greg Berlanti who is responsible for The Tomorrow People, Arrow, The Flash and the much-anticipated Arrow spin-off Legends of Tomorrow.

Supergirl is a great addition to the CBS catalog; it works hard to avoid offending its viewers. This show will not be innovative in its storytelling, and it will appease CBS’ demographic. It is already a ratings success averaging roughly 12.9 million viewers during its premiere broadcast – making it the #1 ranked premiere of a new series this fall. It is light, literally and figuratively which is unlike the dark themes and palette of Fox’s Gotham or Berlanti’s other shows. Supergirl could be classified as Sci-fi light! Much of this is owed to Melissa Benoist’s effervescent performance as Kara Danvers. She is appropriately awkward and insecure as a new superhero; much of this season will be spent on cementing her as a superhero. Kara’s apartment and The Tribune offices where she spends much of her time, are beautifully designed with clean modern lines and light colors. However, the villains’ lairs, the DEO site and fighting locations are dark or backlit with dark colors. It will be interesting to see how this changes as the series matures.

The show is most controversial in its casting and its willingness, nay eagerness to the point of pandering, to address gender equality. While the cast is not what one would classify as diverse, it was daring of CBS to cast African-Americans as James Olsen, Director Hank Henshaw and The Commander. Even more gratifying is the casting of a woman as the owner and CEO of The Tribune, the equivalent of the gruff, penny-pinching Perry White of The Daily Planet in Metropolis. As Cat Grant, Calista Flockhart sheds every fiber of her iconic characters Ally McBeal and Kitty McCallister/Kitty Walker. While the performance is a bit over-the-top, it does bring some levity and the show’s message. Cat is shrew, self-assured and direct. She doesn’t clutter her mind or calendar with things outside of her goals. She doesn’t even know how to pronounce her assistant’s name, but she does give her poignant advice, “Kara if you can’t take credit when you do something well you are going to be at the bottom of the pile forever.”

She also has the best dialogue on the show!  She tells Kara, “Sorry darling I just can’t hear you over the loud color of your cheap pants.” She also tells her staff during a content meeting, “Besides fatty foods there is nothing people like more than a hero.” These one-liners are second only to her conversation with Kara over her naming the hero, Supergirl. Kara says, “I don’t want to minimize the importance of this a female super hero. Should she be called Superwoman? If we call her super something less than what she is doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminists?” Cat responds, “What do you think is so bad about girl? I am 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 problem you?” This is an interesting way to maintain the DC character, Supergirl, without offending women. The show proves that Cat’s speech isn’t a one-of. The entire episode confronts sexism and misogyny. From a waitress noting that a female hero will be nice for her daughter to have someone to look up to, to Vartox telling Kara that on his planet females bow before males and that he finds no honor in fighting her. Even Director Henshaw’s disdain for Kara is magnified, but it is unclear if this has anything to do with her gender; it is more likely related to her status as an ‘alien or immigrant’ from Krypton.

Supergirl is a fun fast paced show with familiar themes and villains. Kara has formidable enemies in the prisoners that have escaped from Fort-Roz and their leader General Astra, her aunt and her mother’s twin. However, any DC Comic reader will be sad that Lex Luther will not be Kara’s main foe. Expect to see familiar villains and regular flashbacks to Krypton and Metropolis. And we now know that Supergirl’s vulnerability is not only Kryptonite but also the metal that Vartox’s Axe was made of, so expect a plan to not only take-over earth, but destroy Supergirl and Superman.

Originally Posted Nov. 3, 2015

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