Tony takes Superbaby-steps.
By the end of Episode 3, Supergirl will have neatly divided those who popped in to see what the update looked like into – well, pretty much geeks and the merely geek-curious. If the use and re-use of bits of particular flying sequences breaks your illusions of being part of the Supergirl world, if effects that are determinedly ropey throw you out of the watching experience, if you don’t believe people can actually speak in increasingly trite homilies (even, in the case of Cat Grant, homilies of ultra-tough hardassery) and Teach Us Lessons through their weekly exploits, you’re probably not in the Supergirl geek camp.
All those things are present here – the homilies, the seventh or eighth re-use of a piece of ‘You’ll believe a girl can fly’ footage, the dodgy effects, as when Kara sticks a hand into a puddle of molten lead, and the homilies, oh the homilies that pretty much speak not only to Kara’s own learning curve but also the audience, saying ‘Yeah, we know, but stick with us, we’re going somewhere.’ If they’re going to annoy you beyond the pale (as such things appear to have gained the capacity to do to some geeks since geekery went mainstream and fans began to think they could dictate terms to producers), you may want to grab your cape and leave now, because clearly these elements aren’t going anywhere for a while.
What’s also here though is Supergirl as metaphor for not only the human journey, but also the journey of a modern network TV show. There’s an arc of self-discovery, of working out who Supergirl is and how she’s going to operate. There are miss-steps along the way, but the idea seems to be that there’s enough fundamental goodwill for the character, and enough enthusiasm in the team of actors, writers and producers involved, to overcome those setbacks and restrictions and ultimately grow something Super-special.
In Episode 3, there are two, two and a half plotlines – Kara’s boss, Cat Grant, gets her brief interview with Supergirl, and scoops the world on the news that the two caped Kryptonians are cousins. Hoorah, how’s that whole ‘keeping things secret’ deal working out? – as Kara’s sister, Alex, is quick to ask her. A particular enemy of the Man of Steel, the horribly-named Reactro (this would be why Jimmy Olsen points a camera and lets Clark and Lois do the words), realizing he has a new way to put pressure on Superman, comes a-kickin’, and Supergirl breaks the ‘Iron Man’s Evil Twin’ suit he’s built himself, meaning he seeks out the – perversely enough – ‘Tony Stark’s Evil Twin’ millionaire scientist philanthropist Maxwell Lord (who’s pretty much lining himself up to be Supergirl’s Lex Luthor in our minds) to repair it. Supergirl to the rescue! Or, alternatively, Supergirl to the horrible, horrible ambush! Only to be saved in the nick of time by Superman, doing what he does best, but also completely stealing her Super-thunder, and making her look like ‘the girl who needs rescuing’ as much as the rest of us do. When it turns out Supes only turned up because Jimmy (by the way, when did Jimmy Olden get hot?) panicked and called him, there’s sturm! Drang! Angst! Trust Issues! “I’m not just Superman’s cousin, I was sent here to protect him” – and so on. It’s all a tiny bit ghastly and contrived, but needless to say, there’s another chance for Supergirl to defeat Reactro (seriously DC, is this a lame version of Spidey’s sparky nemesis, Electro?), and having (thankfully) failed to prove her mettle by talking to him (it would be perhaps one girly-cliché too far if she had), Supergirl’s DEO pals hand her an advantage that even the Man of Steel never had, and she saves the day, very pointedly going one better than her cousin could do. A tiny bit of David Harewood’s soul rots away when he delivers the line “I guess we’ll be on hand to help Supergirl again” as a result, though there’s also a startling moment with his character (Head of the DEO Hank Henshaw) that makes us perk up and take additional interest in him. But it all has a nicely white bread DC sweetness to it – Supergirl gets to prove her mettle on her own terms, and, as Alex Danvers says in this episode, “Your story’s just beginning.” It’s been beginning for three episodes now, and there’s a worrying tone of Villain of the Week developing, with just the right villain popping up to teach Kara what she needs to learn this week, and plenty of downtime for chatting over the deep and meaningfuls of it all. So if you approach Supergirl with a properly sharpened tongue and a critical eye, there’s plenty already to tear to shreds. But there’s also solid promise here – the writers are still feeling their way into the mythology they’re working with, but occasionally hit a zinger out of the park (Episode 2’s “I went from superhero to eco-terrorist in a single bound!” still resonates), and particularly in some of the cast, CBS has hit on some genuine gold – most of all Melissa Benoist, who even now is able to capture and transmit Kara’s duality of personality, the massively excitable but naïve young woman and the Kryptonian survivor with the heart of a hero and the deep respect for the ways of her people. Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers too has a duality to portray, and takes it deeper than Benoist, meaning Alex is a more complex character by virtue of having for the most part already figured out who she is. Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy (sorry, James) Olsen, the sidekick trying to find his own path and Jeremy Jordan as Win Schott do solid work as Kara’s super-friends and potential love rivals, while Calista Flockhart wrings a return to first-order fame out of the role of Cat Grant, who we hope exists for bigger reasons than to be the female Perry White or J Jonah Jameson – it would be fabulous in later seasons, should they exist, to bring Grant into Supergirl’s Scooby Gang.
And that’s the parallel. There’s plenty to criticize about Supergirl, three episodes in. The re-use of footage, the dodgy effects, the even more dodgy dialogue, the occasional homily and the Villain of the Weekness about the whole thing have a whiff of cheese about them. But the dynamic, the ‘doing things on my own terms’ vibe, the duality and the super-friends smack more of early Buffy than they do of, say, Arrow or The Flash – and that’s no bad thing. While Kara will never be Buffy, and the hip teenspeak of Joss Whedon wouldn’t really work with the overwhelming DC-ness of Supergirl (Don’t forget, this is the company who came up, straight-faced, with the concept of an alien fighting for ‘truth, justice and the American Way,’ it’s not traditionally much into hip, flip dialogue), there’s a path the character and the show are on that still appeals when sold by a cast this tuned-in to their characters’ dynamics. So yes, Episode 3 proves it’s a little hokey and currently a little cheap in terms of its effects commitment. If that bothers you, you’re probably more geek-curious than full-on geek. Supergirl has a lot of potential and a cast determined to realise it.
Clark Kent sends Kara a message in this episode, after saving her life. ‘Won’t happen again,’ he promises, recognizing her need to stand on her own two feet. That means a lot to her, and it means a lot to us too. Here’s to the rest of the season developing Kara’s unique approach to the problems and challenges she faces as she works out who Supergirl really is, relatively uncluttered by the pre-existing Superman mythos.
We’re on board for the ride.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk