I’m not here to convince you that CBS’s Supergirl is necessary. It’s not. There are more than enough DC and Marvel properties on the big and small screen in any given month. And while a live action Wonder Woman movie has been hotly anticipated for years, no one that I know was clamoring for an updated version of the Helen Slater/Faye Dunaway flop. But even though a new iteration of Supergirl might not be needed, it’s a damn good time that we should feel grateful to have.
While Supergirl mirrors the tone (light, funny, whimsical) and premise (attractive young superhero from the planet Krypton conceals their identity while working for a major media company on Earth) of earlier shows like Adventures of Superman and Lois & Clark, it’s been thoroughly updated for a new era. Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) is a black guy who is far more mature than when he worked at The Daily Planet — he even wants to be called James now! Media empire CatCo is owned and operated by Ally MacBeal! Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) — née Zor-El — discovers her alter-ego’s corporate brand when she spots the hashtag #Supergirl on cable news! And in perhaps the biggest departure from the Kryptonian dramas of old, the majority of the principal cast knows of Kara’s true identity by the end of the pilot.
This is a refreshing move that opens up the possibilities of where the show might go next. Instead of the tension revolving around Kara concealing her history from those around her, it will instead focus on the development and strengthening of her powers as she battles Villains of the Week and the ultimate Big Bad — her mother’s twin sister, Astra (Laura Benanti).
This leads to the most engaging element of the show, one episode in — the dynamics between Kara and the other women of National City. James is an endearing mentor, while Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan) works as a compelling — if highly telegraphed — love interest, but the strongest supporting characters are Kara’s adoptive sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh); her boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart); and the good mother/evil aunt dichotomy, identical twins Alura and Astra. Kara’s relationships with these women are flawed and complex, giving the show a feminist foundation that is still difficult to find on the average network drama.
Alex and Kara were raised as sisters and are now the dearest of friends. The love that they feel for each other runs deep — Kara only reveals her heroic powers to the world because she is terrified that Alex will be killed in a plane crash. Alex, by contrast, is terrified that Kara will be placed in danger or abducted by the government if her alien identity comes to light. And she would know — she was recruited to the Department of Extranormal Operations for the purpose of monitoring her sister’s moves.
Meanwhile, Cat is National City’s Arianna Huffington, a tough media mogul committed to branding Supergirl for corporate gain. The most interesting scene of the pilot — one that was teased in the Observer’s interview with the show’s creative team — is the conversation that follows Kara spotting the #Supergirl tag for the first time. “I don’t want to minimize the importance of this female superhero,” Kara stutters, gearing up for her feminist workplace triumph. “Shouldn’t we call her Superwoman?”
“What do you think is so bad about ‘girl?’ I’m a girl,” Cat shoots back. “If you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”
The moment might read as little more than a defense of the show’s title to the most cynical viewers, but it’s more than that. It tells the audience that Supergirl’s ladies — and the feminisms they represent — are not monolithic. They are women, they are girls, they are superhuman, they are ordinary. The show is telling us that it is making a commitment to multiple ways of telling women’s stories, which is a groundbreaking declaration, even for 2015.
Alura and Astra have far less screen time than Kara, Alex, or Cat in this first episode, but the groundwork has been laid for their history and dynamic to be at the core of the season. Alura is the selfless mother who sent her daughter away to protect her cousin Kal-El, better known as Superman. Astra is the evil twin who will be leading the rebellion of Fort Rozz escapees in her quest to rule Earth and destroy Kara and her legacy. While the dynamic of warring siblings is hardly a fresh concept, in Supergirl’s case, it stabilizes the show by focusing the core conflict within a family. This is necessary for a show that will have fans wondering for weeks about the true nature of the DEO and the origin of the apparent tension between National City and Metropolis. Family conflicts — even intergalactic ones — are relatable, and this one gives Supergirl the grounding needed to explore its wackier plot developments organically.
Like any pilot, Supergirl’s first episode is so chock-full of set-up and exposition that it’s difficult to gauge exactly what the pacing and development of the show will be like as its first season progresses. But I’m excited to stick around and see where it goes. It almost doesn’t matter how obvious it is that Kara and Winn are going to have steamy makeouts later this season. Supergirl wants us to see that that’s coming, while also showing us that it’s hardly the point of Kara’s story.