Tony is only human. That sucks.
Inversion is a classic theme in comic-books. Whereas most superhero arcs teach that with great power comes great responsibility in some form or other, the idea of what happens when one grows accustomed to great power, and then suddenly doesn’t have it any more is at least equally powerful, because it raises a fascinating question – whether responsibility only comes with great power, or whether, powerless as we might be, we still have an obligation to do the best we can with what we have.
It’s a strange and subtle religio-political allegory, the inversion story – plenty of people, taking comfort from a belief in a god, or a party, or an individual, resign their potential responsibility to take action to their locus of belief. “It’s in God’s hands, not mine,” or “We elected them, now it’s up to them to get things done,” they say. Generally, the inversion story in superhero narratives is a reminder that things really aren’t that simple, that while we may not have the power we need to get everything done at once, we have a full measure of the power given to every human being – the power to think, the power to speak, and the power to make a difference in the world.
Episode 7 of Supergirl, Series 1, sees the Girl of Steel drained of her superpowers after her rage-athon encounter with the Red Tornado android the previous week, and in Kara’s case, it’s a journey of humility, of pain and powerlessness, this journey into ordinariness, into humanity. And as is frequently the case, from the fall into humility and helplessness comes the moment when our hero, our avatar, stands up to say that yes, maybe she’s powerless compared to what she used to be, but she’s still only as powerless as that guy, or that girl, that fragile soul in need of help, this person resorting to a desperation just to get by.
In Supergirl’s case, she loses her powers just in time for a natural disaster to shake National City. People are dying, people are injured, people are scared – and where is Supergirl, the one who takes care of them, the one they cry to and who hears them? She’s nowhere to be seen. Again, the religio-political connotations are clear, but Kara is having her own hard time with the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to – cutting her finger on broken glass, coming down with a cold, breaking an arm, and then finally recognising her ultimate helplessness when a man dies right in front of her, where Supergirl could scoop him up and get him to the hospital in time to save his life. Kara takes that journey into self-despair while Maxwell Lord, billionaire douchebag extraordinaire, is calling her out on TV, and is (whether he knows it or not), with her in her hour of greatest darkness.
As is becoming a strong theme in the show, Cat Grant leads the way to Kara’s turnaround, her fresh approach to her problems – while Maxwell Lord spreads a message of fear, Cat, with help from Wyn, spreads perhaps the clearest and most on-the-nose message of hope she can. Supergirl may not be around right now, but we all have the power to be heroic, if not superheroic. It’s a message echoed in Kara’s own behaviour, as she sees her adopted town going to hell in a handcart, falling to fear and desperation, and, even with a broken arm and without her normal turn of speed (now there’s a scene that’s missing – how you get your super-costume on with a broken arm and nobody witnessing), gets into her Supergirl gear and faces down a robber, not so much with her actual superpowers as with the power we all have access to, the power of empathy.
The fall and rise of Supergirl has more to it that this simple motif though – there’s the rise of hope in helplessness, with Kara, perhaps unwittingly, getting closer to James as she leans on him in her time of crisis, and Wyn feeling either jealous, or disappointed in her, or both. It’s an interesting comment on the temptation that comes with the release from responsibility that there’s nothing to stop Kara
from being ‘the other woman’ once Supergirl is gone, no Super-standard to uphold. But there is the standard of Kara herself (and, albeit in a whingy way from Wyn, the standard of those who like Kara for who she herself is).
Quite apart from any of which, there’s adventure to be had, with Alex trapped in the DEO headquarters with a psycho-controlling alien on the loose, and only Hank Henshaw surviving an attempt to track him down and put him back behind bars. Alex, in the nocturne to the main message, is absolutely not afraid to use all the power at her disposal to find out the truth about Henshaw, since it’s all the power she’s ever had, and it belongs to her. We finally get to learn the truth about Henshaw and Jeremiah Danvers, and the DEO boss’s glowing red eyes, as Alex users her own powers – brain, kickassery, refusal to be treated like a fool – to manipulate the situation with the psycho-alien and the lockdown to her own eventual advantage.
There’s a degree of predictability in the way Kara gets her powers back – a jolt of ‘super-Kryptonian adrenaline’ which kicks in when James is doing the hero thing (again, using only the powers he has as a human being, and the decency inherent in him to compel him to use them) to crawl up an elevator shaft and rescue some people from a burning building – annnd then falls to his imminent doom, making Kara’s system go into overdrive and allowing her to fly down and save him (apparently having the time and the forethought to change into her Supergirl costume again before she makes her move), and the episode ends with Cat and Supergirl forming a kind of mutual admiration society for the way they have each handled themselves, bringing hope to a people who needed it and them. When it comes to inversion stories, Melissa Benoist plays this one as humanly as possible, each new lack of ability seeming to hit her like a personal indignity, as though she feels the helplessness of humanity like the loss of a limb or a sense. So when she finally stands up and does the thing that Kara’s standards demand, the standards of the Danvers family and gosh-darn-it, all the good people of America, reaching out to help her fellow man in times of fear and crisis, it feels believable as a journey undertaken, and it feels like an acceptance of herself as a human being. However inevitable we know the return of her powers might be, it’s to the show’s credit that it’s never treated as a certainty once her powerlessness goes beyond the time it should have. Everyone within the show’s universe seems to genuinely believe that Supergirl may be gone for good. It’s in Kara’s journey to an acceptance of that, and of the responsibility she still has as a human being to her peers, that Human For A Day wins its audience to its side.
Just as Episode 6 ended with a cliff-hanger that portended Episode 7, as Kara cut herself on a broken glass, so Episode 7 begets Episode 8, with the re-appearance of Kara’s Aunt Astra, and a question posed about what the Girl of Steel thinks she knows of her own history, her own family. Buckle up, folks, it’s about to get emotionally bumpy all over again in the world of Supergirl.
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