This review originally ran during our coverage of San Diego Comic-Con 2015.
Supergirl has a tough task ahead of her. It’s not just that she has to defeat a string of villains every bit as powerful as she is, or that she has to deal with her exceptional nature in a world already aware of the existence of her exemplary cousin, Superman. It’s that she has to do all that while holding her own in a television landscape dominated by male superhero characters and providing a role model for young women. I don’t know who has the more difficult task: Supergirl/Kara Danvers or the creative team behind the new CBS series.
Andrew Kreisberg and Greg Berlanti have done amazingly well with Arrow and The Flash, succeeding in bringing a consistent balance of soap opera drama and comic book action to each series. That’s no easy feat. The formula holds true for Supergirl even as the focus shifts from billionaire vigilante or mild-mannered scientist-turned-speedster to alien teenage girl learning to become comfortable with her superpowers and, more importantly, her own skin. Though she may be more durable (but not indestructible) on the outside, this coming-of-age action-drama pulls no punches when it comes to the emotional side of human/Kryptonian relationships.
To its credit, the Supergirl pilot gets its hero’s origin story out of the way within the first few minutes, using the opening sequence to establish everything you need to know. Kara (Melissa Benoist) is Kal-El/Superman’s cousin, sent with him to Earth in order to protect him, since he was but a helpless baby and she a capable teenager. Though they escaped their planet’s destruction, Kara’s spaceship was knocked off course into the Phantom Zone, a place out of time, which caused Kara not to have aged a day when her ship finally made it out of the zone, crash landing on Earth. (But she did not make it out of the Phantom Zone alone…) Adopted by the Danvers (Helen Slater who played Supergirl in the 1984 film, and Dean Cain who famously played Clark Kent/Superman in the 1993 TV series Lois & Clark), Kara grows up with her adopted sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) in a relatively normal family environment.
Cut to today where Kara does her best to tamp down her exceptional abilities by staying off the radar as an assistant at Catco, a national media conglomerate. Benoist has a charming innocence about her that makes Kara instantly likable, especially since we know her transition into Supergirl is going to be all the more rewarding because of it. However, her mild-mannered day job is dominated by Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) a media mogul who is channeling Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada and is more J. Jonah Jameson than Perry White. And despite the obvious affections of Kara’s co-worker Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan), she only has eyes for James “Jimmy” Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), whose confidence, career achievements, and connection with Superman provide a much more competent version of the oft bumbling sidekick character.
It doesn’t take long for Kara to show her powers off to the world, even if she had been doing her best to keep them hidden and let Superman steal the spotlight. When a terrorist plot attempts to take out a plane with Kara’s sister on board, she has no choice but to reveal herself and save the day. Though the near catastrophe is a familiar superhero trope (which is addressed in the dialogue between characters), it’s a great opportunity for Kara to react to finally giving into her innate abilities. This great scene from Benoist is quickly tempered by Alex’s concern for her sister and the advice that she keep the heroics under wraps.
Why does Alex care so much, you ask? Just sisterly concern? Well, not really. It turns out that a prison full of some of the most powerful criminals in the universe followed Kara out of the Phantom Zone and crash landed on Earth. These “villains of the week” were behind the failed attack on the plane and have the ultimate goal of exacting revenge on Kara’s Kryptonian mother for locking them all away, making Earth pay in the process. In response to this alien threat, an organization named the Department of Extranormal Operations (D.E.O. – see S.H.I.E.L.D. or A.R.G.U.S.) arose to address it. Alex, surprise surprise, is an agent in this covert organization, and she struggles with the decision to keep Kara safe from harm or to use her as a tool in the fight against the alien prisoners.
If Alex chose the former, there would be little action on Supergirl besides Kara fetching lattes and lettuce wraps for her boss. Thankfully, the action is on par with Arrow and The Flash, following Kara as she rescues a burning plane, performs heroic feats of daring in a crime-fighting montage, and battles against the ax-wielding alien prisoner Vartox (Owain Yeoman) who comes from a world of subservient women and chauvinist men, so you obviously have to hate this guy from the getgo. If it’s powers you’re looking for, Supergirl’s got em, from super strength, to flight, to super-sonic hearing, x-ray vision, and even heat vision; and that’s just in the pilot, though her freeze-breath has yet to make an appearance.
And yet the core message of the CBS show is that women can be every bit as powerful as men, perhaps even moreso because the latter seems to underestimate the former as the weaker sex, an oversight that leads to Vartox’s ultimate defeat. There are powerful women at play: the title character is quite capable even as she’s struggling to harness her powers for use against alien foes who are exponentially more dangerous than human criminals; Cat Grant is a media mogul with far-reaching influence and plenty of control at her fingertips; and then the final stinger, in which it’s revealed that the leader of the prisoners – the villainous General – is an alien woman who has a particularly interesting relationship with Kara herself.
Supergirl aims to be about more than just girl power. It’s going for “girl empowerment,” to the point that a full scene is dedicated to the merits and drawbacks to ascribing the name “Supergirl” to the new hero of National City. Kara at first finds it offensive and demeaning, but Cat spins her own interpretation of the word, giving it additional power. Supergirl can certainly hang with the boys of Arrow and The Flash and should the occasion arise, could provide a powerful ally in a potential network crossover. The real question is whether CBS’ statistically older-skewing demographic will tune in to watch the youth-oriented show, or if The CW audience will set aside some DVR space for Supergirl, airing Monday nights starting October 26th.
Rating: ★★★★ Very Good