Supergirl – Season 1 Episode 1
The producers of The Flash and Arrow bring us another superhero TV series with Supergirl. This one is on a different network and -for now- seems to be set in a different universe.
Supergirl is a good character to go after as she brings the vast tapestry that is associated with Superman with her without the expectations that come with this character. Also, at this point we have a lot of Superman adaptations to look to with Man of Steel and Smallville being the most recent examples but Supergirl is relatively untouched. There was a version of her in Smallville and the hint of her existence in Man of Steel but she lacks any live action media that focuses on her.
Like with any DC character she has such a wildly varied history that just about anything done with her on the TV show could be considered valid. With the same minds as Arrow and The Flash behind it there’s a lot of potential for that history to be played with in different ways that can surprise comic savvy viewers.
The pilot episode focuses on the set of circumstances that lead Kara Zor’El (or Danvers as she is known on Earth) to take up the mantle of Supergirl and become the protector of her city. As with most Superman adaptations Kara’s story begins with the destruction of Krypton and details the reason for her parents Alura (Laura Benanti) and Zor’El (Robert Gant) sending her to earth. Like in Smallville she is sent to protect her infant cousin Kal’El. There are complications when Kara’s ship is thrown into the Phantom Zone and her arrival is delayed.
When she gets there Kal’El isn’t an infant any more and has become Superman so no longer needs her protection. Superman is the one who finds her when she lands and takes her to live with Jeremiah) Dean Cain) & Eliza Danvers (Helen Slater). Fans will know that Dean Cain was Superman in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Helen Slater was Supergirl in the film of the same name. It’s always fun to have casting that winks at the audience like this.
The set-up is incredibly abrupt with the destruction of Krypton taking only a few minutes. I’m not suggesting that the entire episode should have been devoted to it or anything like that but considering the planet was being destroyed the scene lacked any sense of urgency. There was all the usual emotional stuff associated with sending your child away but it was all so rushed that it didn’t feel sincere.
The same problem exists with Kara being put under the care of the Danvers family. It was mentioned that Superman trusted them because they helped him understand his own powers. Having these characters as scientists is a good choice and giving them this link to Superman works really well in theory but they don’t even have any lines in the episode so there is no establishment of a relationship between them and Kara. I definitely think that the Krypton scenes and the establishing of Kara’s upbringing on Earth could have been left out of this episode as they are so rushed that they have no real weight to them anyway. The scene where Kara sees the hologram of her mother was more than enough to show the hints to her past and definitely had the necessary emotional weight.
In both Arrow and The Flash flashbacks are used to explore past events in a way that makes them meaningful so a similar formula could have been employed here to show the last days of Krypton as well as Kara’s upbringing. I have no way of knowing if the rest of the season will do this at all but either way these scenes didn’t really need to be there. I expect that Dean Cain and Helen Slater have been signed up for a lot more than a non speaking cameo in the pilot episode but we will see.
The present day set-up feels equally rushed. So much so that there’s no time for the audience to catch their breath. We see that Kara (Melissa Benoist) is a always in a hurry to cater to the whims of her domineering boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Kara is a very timid presence at first but not in an off-putting way. She comes across as a directionless 20-something who persists in a job that is unfulfilling to her but lacks the drive or determination to risk doing something more meaningful with her life. That is something that someone of any gender can relate to and it gives Kara a personal obstacle to overcome before she decides to realise her potential. It all feels very abrupt so that she is a superhero by the end of the episode but how quickly it all happens can’t really be ignored.
I don’t often use the word adorable but it’s the best way to describe Melissa Benoist in this role. I’ve probably lost a few “dude points” by using this term but she genuinely is. There’s something unmistakably likeable about her in this role. Kara is a dual character by nature as she has to have her normal “human” existence where she hides her identity as well as the superhero side to her that has to be different to that in a measurable way. Benoist does this perfectly by turning on layers of determination and confidence in the Supergirl persona that Kara Danvers doesn’t have. It’s only the pilot so she is still settling into her character but her first outing is a great performance that definitely carries the whole episode.
Her supporting cast is a really mixed bag but Cat is definitely the strongest of the characters introduced. She is a very intimidating presence who is feared by all of her employees due to her nature to casually fire people who don’t measure up. Flockhart performs this role very well with a lot said in her body language. She isn’t especially deep as a character but Calista Flockhart gives her plenty of personality. There’s enough of her here for the pilot episode. There are hints at depth such as the relationship with her mother and her tendency to reward accomplishments.
Kara’s adopted sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) serves a function in the pilot that leaves me to wonder what she will be used for in later episodes. Her more interesting scenes come when she is an obstacle to Kara’s development. She initially tries to stop her from using her powers publicly out of an apparent sisterly concern. Seeing the sisters in conflict over this issue works as a really effective emotional hook for both of the characters but once Alex comes round to the idea then is her purpose in the show only to state the obvious during the fight sequences or is there something else planned for her? It feels like an arc that should have been developed over the first season rather than resolved in the pilot.
Alex’ boss Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) is pretty 1 dimensional so far. He’s your standard secret government agent type with a chip on his shoulder. He blames Kara for all of the alien craziness in the world and doesn’t accept her efforts to do good. He’s one of the few people that rejects the notion of Superman as a hero which provides an interesting nugget that the series could mine. I like the idea of differing opinions on Superheroes in society and what that means for their reputation. I could see Hank becoming an interesting character if he is allowed to step outside his limited role in the show so far but for the pilot he’s pretty forgettable.
Jimmy -or James- Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) is a very different version of Jimmy than I am used to. I’m not talking about his race as that can be whatever but he’s not the weedy photographer type that appears in the comics. It’s a fairly significant change and from what I’ve seen so far it hasn’t really been earned. His entire function in the pilot is to be the mouthpiece for Superman in his absence. At first he offers veiled advice to Kara to encourage her to realise her potential and in one case he directly prevents her from getting fired. Most of his lines refer to his friend Superman in some way so there’s very little identity to him at this point. I am willing to give his Jimmy a fair go but the show needs to convince me why this change is worthwhile and making him speak for Superman isn’t the way to do it.
Winslow -or Winn as he is referred to- Schott (Jeremy Jordan) is Kara’s friend and coworker who specialises in IT. So far this character is irritating, unlikeable and more than a little offensive. He’s the character who clearly holds a torch for Kara that she is oblivious to -or more likely intentionally ignores- and has almost no defining characteristics. He works in IT which of course means that he is capable of designing a costume for her and for whatever reason he has her confidence in her secret pretty much from minute one. I’m sure it was intended as a joke but when he assumed that Kara was a lesbian simply because she wasn’t into him I found it to be a really offensive comment and I doubt we’d see the same for Clark Kent. It’s safe to say that the entire supporting cast need work.
Naturally there is a villain for Supergirl to come up against as her first challenge and it is Vartox (Owain Yeoman) that gets the job. He is about as well developed as your standard villain in The Flash – that is to say not very well. His motivation to bring down Supergirl is clear though. He blames her birth mother for his imprisonment so wants to take out his frustration on her last living relative. It’s enough to carry this particular villain and it’s clear that he’s a henchmen from his conversation with the character known only as The Commander (Faran Tahir) who talks of a mysterious General. There really is a large management structure for these alien villains!
As an adversary he is a really good match for Supergirl as he can equal her strength as well as challenge her with superior combat skills so it’s a significant challenge for a rookie superhero to be faced with. I like how committed he is to her destruction and how he enjoys inflicting pain on others. The final fight between Vartox and Supergirl was appropriately epic and exciting. Benoist’s Supergirl costume looks amazing as well though the montage of it being developed felt like a complete rush job and was awkwardly handled
In general the action is really well done with the stand out sequence being Kara’s rescue of a crashing plane with her sister on it. Her trouble taking off was a nice touch as it shows how much time it has been since she tried to fly and the visuals as she carried the plane on her back were excellent. Having a character with Super in their name save a plane as their first heroic act is a strangely common thing. It is even mentioned here that saving a plane was the first thing that Superman does.
It presents a potential problem with this show if everything that she does is going to be automatically compared to Superman. It will only highlight his conspicuous absence despite the fact that this is a problem that he should probably be on hand to deal with. An entire prison ship of alien criminals definitely seems like a job for Superman so I hope there’s a good reason why he won’t be around to help out. It can’t be a stupid thing like giving his cousin and “easy job” to cut her teeth on because it is clear that the threats will get progressively larger as time goes on. I fully support the idea of this show carving out an identity for Supergirl away from her famous cousin but so far that’s not what it’s doing.
The crashed prison ship does provide a suitable “villain factory” in the same way that the Particle Accelerator explosion does in The Flash. It also connects the alien threats to her origin in a really organic way and gives her a sense of responsibility to inform her desire to stop them. If she feels that it is her fault then it will give her a more urgent reason to deal with that particular threat. The reveal of the General being her as yet unnamed Aunt (also played by Laura Benanti) will further personalise this struggle for her.
Tonally this really works for me as it keeps things light and fun without coming across as ridiculous. People who enjoy the tone of The Flash will likely feel right at home here. When the first trailer hit it was often compared to The Devil Wears Prada with the emphasis on Kara’s employment situation but the episode itself creates a more balanced approach between that aspect of her life and the others. It all hangs together very well and none of the elements that make up her life feel superfluous. I fully expect the balance to be appropriate as the series continues.
A female led superhero show is something that fans have wanted for quite some time. The last attempt was with Wonder Woman but it never got past the pilot stage. Thankfully it didn’t as judging by the leaked pilot that show was going to be terrible. There’s a lot of pressure on this show to deliver something that has a strong female lead who doesn’t feel like a gender swap of another hero. If done well this show could be the next Buffy The Vampire Slayer by treating the lead with respect and having her identified by more than her gender.
The gender is of course important and the episode does put emphasis on the “girl” part of her name. She is unmistakably a “girl” and makes no apologies for that. I liked the discussion between Kara and Cat where Kara tried to discourage the use of the name “Supergirl” as it implies something young and naive which causes Cat to counter with there being nothing wrong with the name and the right marketing can reclaim the word “girl” as a badge of honour. I think this is a thinly veiled mission statement for the show itself and it’s a good one.
I like that the episode foregoes an obvious love interest to be carried through the season. Winn is clearly attracted to her and Kara is attracted to Jimmy but I get more of a mentor vibe from Jimmy and Winn feels more like a best friend. There are no signs of a love triangle yet which doesn’t mean that it won’t appear but I’m glad that it wasn’t thrown at the viewer right away.
As a pilot this episode does some things really well and other things less so. The lead character is well established but the supporting cast are far weaker by comparison. Tonally it all hangs together really well but there’s a lot going on for a pilot. I feel that the producers were told that an origin story pilot is needed for a show like this so they came up with one. It hurries along and lacks depth in a lot of places but it provides a set-up for more interesting character stories to be told in subsequent episodes. It’s a lot like the pilot for The Flash in that regard but I think in this instance this whole episode could have been dispensed with and the particulars of her origin dealt with later. There are some good ingredients for a compelling show so let’s see how the next few episodes develop. I really hope that they fold this show into the universe shared by The Flash, Arrow and the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow as she would fit right in with those characters and it’s more interesting to see them interact.