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CBS’ Supergirl shouldn’t have to be a feminist landmark, but it is.
In a cultural moment in which we’re so far past superhero saturation that a greasy layer of superhero residue seems to be building up on every medium, Marvel still gets gloaty that by tacking the words “and the Wasp” onto an Ant-Man sequel, it had its first Marvel Studios release named after its heroine.
On the small screen, Marvel is doing a bit better with Agent Carter getting her own titled listing and with Jessica Jones on the way to Netflix.
For DC Comics, machismo also dominates, at least on the surface. Constantine had so little interest in its women that it swapped female leads between the first two episodes and nobody really cared. Gotham has a few interesting female characters, but the closest thing it had to a lead went off a rooftop last season. Arrow and Flash are full of vivid female characters, but they have been stealthily Trojan-horsed into male-driven vehicles.
No less a heroine than Wonder Woman, she of a beloved TV series from an era past, needed to be smuggled into an overstuffed Zack Snyder movie with two dudes in the title while DC struggles — and continues to fail — to bring her to the screen solo.
So when a waitress in the Supergirl pilot reflects on the arrival of her town’s new savior, she surely speaks for some portion of the audience.
“Can you believe it?” she muses. “A female hero. Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to.”
Make no mistake, Supergirl is important, but taking some of the weight off of her Kryptonian shoulders, it’s also just plain fun.
Read More: ‘Supergirl‘ and 10 Other Badass Women on TV
Created by Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg, with Adler writing the pilot script, Supergirl aggressively frontloads its exposition, taking three minutes at the top of the show to explain how Kara Zor-El was sent to Earth as a protector for cousin Kal-El, but her space capsule got lost along the way. Years later, Kara arrives on Earth after Kal-El has already become Superman and she’s given to adoptive parents (Dean Cain and Helen Slater, in wink-and-nudge casting) and allowed to grow up like a normal girl.
Now 24, Kara (Melissa Benoist) is working as an assistant to National City Tribune media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) and mostly using her innate powers to anticipate when it’s time to get hot coffee for her boss. It’s a fair amount to explain, but within a swift 12 minutes, not only has Kara met photographer and Friend-of-Superman James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), but a threat to sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) has inspired her to throw off the trappings of normalcy and take flight.
A lot of the skepticism about Supergirl has stemmed from the awful promotional reel that CBS threw together for upfronts in May, a teaser that accentuated Kara as an exaggerated bumbler and utilized song choices that suggested a conventional rom-com approach to the material. To the second point, it needs to be emphasized that all of those soundtrack choices were for marketing purposes and not for the show itself. This is not She’s All That and a Cape, nor How To Lose a Guy and Fly in 10 Days, though I won’t deny a certain amount of brightly lit corniness. To the first point, it’s notable that Kara is play-acting at being mundane, she’s hiding her light under a bushel of bulky sweaters and nerd-trendy glasses and stuttering uncertainty because she’s been under the impression that this is the best way for her to live life without attracting attention. Here’s a little secret for you: Kara Zor-El, like her cousin, doesn’t need glasses. She sees wicked well already. But, like her cousin, she imagines glasses as the easiest path to being overlooked, which is probably symbolic in some really obvious way. This isn’t the story of a nerd who suddenly discovers she has power, but rather the story of a woman with powers who realizes that denying your excellence is the best way to deny yourself happiness. And guess what? That’s a lesson that applies equally to extraterrestrials with x-ray vision, girls who are timid about raising their hands in math class and boys who want to try out for choir. Yes, Supergirl is feminist, but it’s also rather universally exceptionalist, if you fear the “f”-word.
Supergirl doesn’t soft-pedal its message, but rather delivers it with an enthusiastic bluntness that harkens back to its comic roots. The much-discussed conversation between Kara and Anna Wintour-inspired Cat about the use of “girl” rather than “woman” when naming the new hero is a pretty smart delineation between the powers possessed by Supergirl versus Cat’s own media-driven powers of representation. When a villain taunts Supergirl with “On my planet, females bow before males” and she replies “This is not your planet,” it’s both a girl power call to arms, but also a fun bit of easily injected exposition.
With that, I’ve scared off a subset of viewers, which isn’t what CBS wants, since as important as Supergirl is to superhero diversity, it’s more important to a network that has been late in arriving at a trend that is more ubiquitous than it is broadly successful. For Supergirl to be a CBS-scaled hit, it would almost have to do twice the ratings turned in by The Flash, the biggest thing on The CW.
So let’s not make the people worry that Supergirl is more than nicely paced entertainment. Like I’ve already said, it’s only 12 minutes into the pilot that Kara is flying around and it’s only a few minutes after that that, with the help of conspiracy-blogging sidekick Winn (Jeremy Jordan), she’s trying on costumes and explaining the purpose behind fashion details you might have found silly or arbitrary. Directed by DC veteran (and MVP: Most Valuable Primate cinematographer) Glen Winter, Supergirl is bright and funny and more comparable to the bubble gum pop of Flash or, looking to Adler’s resume, Chuck or No Ordinary Family.
In Benoist, Supergirl has a perfect leading lady, having previously conveyed appealingly winsome decency on Glee and in the feature Whiplash. She looks like a Hollywood leading lady, but there’s just enough girl-next-door in her that she never comes across as disingenuous. She’s consistently watchable, but also frankly not dynamic enough that you think, “Well surely somebody would have noticed that this woman has her own gravitational field.” What Benoist does best is capture the joy of heroism that Kara feels, an attribute she shares with Flash star Grant Gustin. Stephan Amell goes for the crushing, smile-draining responsibility of saving his city, but Benoist and Gustin get to be aspirational.
Brooks, almost perpetually miscast through the years, turns out to actually be great as an unassuming-yet-confident version of Olsen, striking an immediate spark with Benoist. I wasn’t as convinced by Jordan, though that may be less performance-based and more on tin-eared character details like Winn thinking Kara’s secret is that she’s a lesbian because she doesn’t want to date him.
Boosting the show’s feminist bona fides are solid turns by Leigh and Flockhart, who both have characters defined by their desire to do their jobs well and escape the pilot without event a hint at their respective romantic situations.
Read More: ‘Supergirl’ Adds Toyman to Villain Roster
But lest I descend into Bechdel Test blither blather, Supergirl also sports special effects that I would describe as “completely acceptable.” Look, it doesn’t get better than that when you have characters soaring through the air and steering airplanes down on their backs. Supergirl doesn’t appear to be limited at all by what its effects can or cannot sustain, which already gives it a huge advantage over a Smallville or a Lois & Clark, to say nothing of that 1984 Helen Slater Supergirl.
Can Supergirl sustain this look? I admit to some reservations here. Supergirl has been on the same schedule as most of the other fall shows, but it premieres nearly five weeks later, and CBS left critics with only the pilot to watch before the October 26 premiere. Questionable? Yes. Damning? Not yet.
Still, come for the top notch production values and the budgetary polish that being on CBS allows. Come for Benoist, who brings a sort of heroic decency you might call Christopher Reeve-esque. Come for Flockhart chewing scenery. I’d say to stay for the uplifting and progressive message, but that’s up to you.
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