Flying solo: Supergirl has more to prove than her predecessor

“Can you believe it? A female hero. Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to.” – waitress in a diner watching Supergirl on the news, in CBS’s pilot episode of Supergirl.

Every superhero has a weakness. But in the new CBS show Supergirl, Kara Zor-El has a different one. She’s a girl. It’s a fact the show’s writers seem intent at pointing out she will need to overcome at every turn.

Also quick to label their superhero’s gender a strength, Supergirl creators Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti, and Andrew Kreisberg set out to show that Kara is more than what she seems. The premise is enough to make me tune in again next week.

A fan of Superman lore since I was in single digits, I started on the old black and white Adventures of Superman before graduating to Lois and ClarkSmallville, and several Superman films.

So now, with whole franchises of Marvel and DC comics sweeping the globe, and all starring men, it’s exciting to have a television series starring a female superhero with real potential at sharing success with the likes of Superman, Batman or Iron Man.

In recent years, the best success stories of female crime fighters have come from those who share the limelight with the men: Black Widow, of The Avengers; the Invisible Woman, of The Fantastic Four; and Black Canary, of the Justice League. Smallville took it farther, deputizing its non-powered citizens with action hero qualities and challenging its female cast members to step up their roles and become heroes alongside Clark Kent and his growing legion of mostly male vigilantes. But, they were still only human and usually required unearthly contact with Kryptonian meteor rock before becoming worthy of a superhero name.

Punctuating exhaustive recent discussions of whether or not a female superhero has enough of a following to justify her own franchise are examples of past attempts (Catwoman and Electra) gone wrong. (Never mind that men can front some pretty bad superhero movies too – Green Lantern and The Hulk, anyone?)

So, yeah, I had doubts that Supergirl would actually fly.

But after Monday’s pilot, I think it has potential. Melissa Benoist shines as Kara Zor-El, Clark Kent’s older cousin from the ill-fated planet Krypton. She’s cute but strong, and, despite her alien DNA, she immediately adopts an underdog persona in a world already mystified by the following Superman has garnered in Metropolis. In keeping with Smallville‘s Supergirl story arc, Kara is waylaid on her journey to Earth – and in her mission of caring for her baby cousin Kal-El – never aging during the 24 years she spends in The Phantom Zone and arriving on Earth long after Kal has already grown into the superman he was destined to become. Like Kal, Kara is adopted by Earthlings, and she determines against being super. Instead, she plans on fitting in.

But when danger strikes National City, where Kara works for media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), she answers that nagging feeling she’s ignored for so long: that her potential transcends bussing lattes and spinach wraps to her tough-as-diamonds boss.

There’s a lot to like about Supergirl, including the support system Kara develops in a protective adoptive older sister, a colleague whose romantic advances Kara perpetually rejects but who (so far) earns her trust in keeping her secret, and (spoiler!) photographer James Olsen – an older, more established, Pulitzer Prize-winning Jimmy, who leaves The Daily Planet to work alongside Kara at The Tribune.

But support system or not, taking up her cape in her cousin’s wake is no breeze. It turns out Superman’s arrival on Earth has spurred the forming of an anti-alien pseudo-government agency to save the human race from invasion, and when Supergirl arrives on the scene, the task force is quick to close in on her.

Like any other new superhero would, Kara doubts if this is the life she wants. But ultimately, as we knew she would, she decides the benefits outweigh the risks of taking a stand against evil and protecting humanity as only she (and her cousin in Metropolis) can do. Supergirl projects a message that is true of any of us. We all have greater potential than we use, and none of us should feel we need to hide who we are or limit ourselves because others won’t understand.

However, Supergirl still gives me reason to doubt. The name alone provokes turbulence in otherwise smooth skies, and it seems the show’s creators think so too – enough that they crafted a scene in which Kara confronts Calista Flockhart about her fears of naming their new hero Supergirl.

“I don’t want to minimize the importance of this: a female superhero. Shouldn’t she be called Superwoman?” – Kara Zor-El

Maybe out of a desire to appease fans of the comics, the writers chose to stick with tradition, voicing their reasons through Calista Flockhart’s ridiculous assertion that she, too, is a girl and a formidable one at that, and she’s also Kara’s boss, who can easily fire young, mouthy office assistants for disagreeing with her. So, Kara and the rest of us will have to accept that Supergirl is what this show (and this hero) will be called, regardless of whatever arguments anyone has on the subject.

Lois Lane gave Superman his name, and it seems Supergirl’s writers are perfectly fine branding a superhero against her will and forcing her into a role that having such a name will thrust upon her – a role in which she must transcend the belief that she is “just a girl.”

This idea neatly sets up the final battle of Monday night’s premier, when Kara uses that projection of weakness to her benefit. She wins her battle because, while others underestimate her, she believes in herself.

And Superman thought he had it bad as an alien merely proving his worthiness to protect the people of Earth?

While it sucks that Supergirl’s writers seem to think they need such weaknesses as tropes for amplifying Kara’s strength and legitimizing her triumphs over superpowered adversaries, Kara’s trials are really a reflection of the trials all women share. Many of us face the same realities, leading households or companies or nations while also battling the injustice that comes with being “just a girl.”

So fight on Supergirl. Fight for a world in which all of us can be all that we can be.

Your thoughts?
Did you watch the premiere of Supergirl?
Did it meet your expectations?
Were you excited to see Lois and Clark‘s Dean Cain show up as Kara’s adoptive father (and Smallville‘s Lara as her adoptive mother)?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Flying solo: Supergirl has more to prove than her predecessor

  1. What about the batgirl show in the 60 and wonder woman in the 80

  2. I am hoping that as Supergirl go on they will bring bird of prey on

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