Who Needs Supergirl?

So, those you who’ve been paying attention will have noticed I’ve not posted a review for Season 1 of Supergirl. And I’m not going to – or at least, I’m not going to in the same format as the rest of Berlanti Productions’ superhero output from this year. However, if you must have a review, here it is: Supergirl’s entertaining from start to finish with fun action and loads of heart. If you’re missing the Superman of the Christopher Reeve era, you should be watching this one.

But am I done talking about Supergirl? Not a chance.

You see, Supergirl took me by surprise. I added it to the viewing pile with low expectations. Kara Zor-El’s never been handled particularly well (and nor have the other characters who’ve born the Supergirl name), either in the comics I’ve read, or in other media. Why? Well, Supergirl’s a Silver Age character and, like most female characters from the Silver Age, starts off as a stereotype of what middle-aged men in the 50s thought women should be like, and was then updated to a stereotype of what middle-aged men in the 90s/00s thought women should be like (yes, I know there are exceptions). Add to that, most of the reviews I happened across were middling, everything I’d seen suggested the show was pitched at women (rather than general audiences), and I knew parent company CBS had palmed Supergirl off onto the CW at season’s end…

Well, how good could it be?

And so, I went into Supergirl expecting some sort of Sex in the City with Superheroes, and prepared to grin and bear it. However, after watching the whole thing front to back, I reckon it’s Berlanti’s best output yet. Yes, better than Season 1 of The Flash. Better than Season 2 of Arrow. But like I said, this isn’t a review. Instead, I want to talk about why Supergirl works.

Up, Up and Away

Supergirl‘s biggest strength lies with the title character. In a lot of ways, Kara Zor-El could be her more famous cousin. Honestly, you could take this show, switch a few genders around, and it’d be a Superman production. See, that sounds awful, so let me explain what I mean.

One of the biggest challenges facing any writer, even now, is understanding that men and women are largely interchangeable in most narrative roles. Sure, the details differ, but in this day and age, there’s no excuse for gender stereotyping. This doesn’t mean audiences are comfortable with it – a good deal (but not all) of the pre-backlash concerning Ghostbusters proves as much. But that’s not the point. Supergirl can literally do anything Superman can. This show embraces that.

Too often, female counterparts to male heroes are treated as weaker, less experienced, less confident. They struggle to balance their family ties with their superheroic calling. (Want this unwritten rule boiling down further: male heroes face struggles to maintain romantic relationships, but their families are either dead or estranged, so as not to get in the way. Don’t believe me? Go back again and look at The Flash and Arrow. If DC were owned by Disney, not Warner Brothers, Oliver Queen would be a Disney Princess).

All of these things are fine and fair, except for the fact they inevitably manifest because that’s the expectation for how women behave, not how men behave. Even what should be a liberating power-fantasy of being Supergirl too often gets held back by what society expects.

Is Kara weaker than Superman? Maybe. The comparison never comes up. But we do see her lift planes, space stations, hold up crumbling buildings… The show doesn’t shy away from having her get into superpowered brawls (and I mean brawls, up to and including head butts – in a visual medium still haunted by the ghost of the Joss Whedon ninja-chick, it’s a fantastic sight to see). Supergirl even goes out of its way to let us know that Kara doesn’t need her cousin to come save her – even that she’s actually a bit tougher than he is, in some circumstances. Hell, Kara actually gets to deliver the odd bit of wise advice to her supporting cast. This never happens in The Flash or Arrow, where the backup are there to offer the lead a reason to go on fighting every other week.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth

The one difference between the El cousins is that as a ‘civilian’, Kara Danvers is awkward, nervous, uncertain of her place in the world and with people. When Kal/Clark does this, it’s an act, to fit in. That he does so makes him different to us; an ‘other’. I think it’s one of the reasons people find it so hard to empathise with ol’ Supes – even when he’s not Superman, he’s better than us, playing down to our level. Kara isn’t. She’s… Well, she’s normal, with our goals and aspirations.

What’s wonderful is that as soon as Kara’s in costume as Supergirl, all that falls away. She’s confident, assured – certain of who she is and what she’s about (a transition Melissa Benoist pulls off flawlessly). As messages about not hiding who you are inside go – about being true to your innermost nature – it’s at least on par with the much-vaunted one in Frozen, and you get to see this one every single episode.

Oh, and did I mention there are a lot of women in this show? Successful women who’ve followed their dreams? Cat Grant, media mogul. Alex Danvers, deputy director of a secret government agency. Eliza Danvers, pioneering scientist. Lucy Lane, high-flying lawyer. Alura Zor-El, Kryptonian judge. As Cat’s assistant, Kara holds the only dogsbody job. The show never draws attention to it (well, apart from the odd diatribe from Cat), but in terms of showing girls that they can do whatever they want in life? It’s pretty damn good.

Stronger Together

And yes, there’s a lot about family in Supergirl, but it’s the good kind. You know, the sort with believable relationships? About messages about how family isn’t just blood? About being stronger together? (This last is pretty much the underlying theme of the show). Supergirl’s family isn’t holding her back. They’re (rarely) hostages of the week. They’re what grounds her, what gives her the strength to be who she is. You know, like good families should (and do).

Yes, there’s relationship drama here, but at no point did I feel like anyone got tossed the Idiot Ball. Every year in The Flash or Arrow, status as love interest comes with a lobotomy. Not so here, although some of that’s because the show’s more interested in Supergirl the hero and the person, and less in her as one half of a romantic pairing. Not what you’d expect, is it?

Taken together, this makes Supergirl a genuinely uplifting watch. It understands that drama is a wave, with triumph and tragedy, highs and lows. While consequences last longer than is traditional (i.e. span several episodes) the payoff’s always worth it. Characters overcome tragedy. They heal and move on. When the characters mislead each other for the right reasons, it’s seen as such when the revelation occurs (which is usually the next episode, avoiding the horrible, drawn-out ‘liar revealed’ nonsense that blights so much episodic TV these days). Perhaps it’s ‘message television’, but delivered like this? I’m all for it.

And you know what? Hope, truth and courage invariably win the day as much as punching crime in the face. I know that’s a dirty sentiment in schedules covered in shows like Game of Thrones, but this is Supergirl – that’s exactly what should happen. There’s room in this world for both.

It’s my hope that this show continues to fly over on the CW. It’s family-friendly, well-written, and full of satisfying super-heroics. But more than that, Supergirl has a refreshing, non-invasive take on gender equality that’s long overdue in the genre. Kara Danvers/Zor-El is every bit as strong a role model as her cousin, and that’s something to celebrate.

It should also answer the question ‘Who needs Supergirl?’

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