As pilots go, CBS’ Supergirl is about what you would expect: The 42-minute episode is basically an expanded version of the three-minute preview we saw months ago. At the time, io9 claimed that sequences of Kara Danvers running through National City in twee sweaters, quailing before her bitchy boss, and grinning dumbly at cute boys resembled the Black Widow chick lit parody that Saturday Night Live had released just weeks prior. But Supergirl is very aware of the preconceived notions stacked up against it, as evidenced by the meta conversation between Kara (Melissa Benoist) and the fearsome Cat Grant (Callista Flockhart) about the latter branding the former:
Kara: “If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us antifeminist?”
Cat: “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? I’m a girl, and your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot, and smart. So, if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem… you?”
It’s this kind of commentary on sexism that gives you a reason to stick around.
(Some spoilers for the pilot episode.)
In almost every scene, the Supergirl pilot is about a woman falling short of expectations, usually set by men. Consider one of the first shots: Jor-El and Lara lovingly place their baby Kal-El (complete with spit-curl) in a spaceship and send him far away from Krypton… then the camera pans to the second spaceship, where 13-year-old Kara Zor-El is tearfully saying goodbye to her mother and father before bravely stepping up as her cousin’s protector. It raises the question: Why not put them in the same spaceship? Because the minute or so that Kara’s parents dally changes the course of time for her: Her ship gets caught by shrapnel from the exploded Krypton, sending her into the Phantom Zone. By the time she makes it to Earth, an adult Superman wrenches open her pod and brings her to the Danvers family, scientists who have already cracked the mystery of his Kryptonian powers. They also have a daughter, Alex, who suddenly gets an alien sister her age. (If you want to know more about the comics’ origins of Supergirl for a comparison, check out a brief history of the last daughter of Krypton.)
I have to assume the Kryptonians’ reasoning for not putting Kara and Kal-El in the same pod was to double their chances of a child making it to Earth. But once Kara lands, she’s superfluous: Superman has already revealed himself to mostly positive reaction, so why throw a wrench into things again? So now, this girl who has psyched herself up for becoming a superhero decides to live out her adolescence as a normal kid—and, considering that she now lives in a solar system where the yellow sun enhances her every ability, she is purposely selling herself short.
Are we supposed to be surprised, then, that 24-year-old Kara is paying her dues working for media company CatCo? That she’s like Anne Hathaway in the beginning of The Devil Wears Prada—fumbling, unable to stand up for herself, unwilling to use her heat vision to make Cat Grant’s latte appropriately scathing hot? She’s willing to set aside her superpowered privilege to work her way up through the ranks like a normal person, yet all she gets is Cat saying things like, “If you can’t take credit for doing something well, you’ll be at the bottom of the pile forever.”
Kara is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. Thankfully, she decides to start doing, when her sister Alex’s (Chyler Leigh, formerly of Grey’s Anatomy) life is in danger thanks to a malfunctioning plane. And so crisis creates Supergirl! I will give the showrunners this, we see tons of action in the first episode: Kara threading a burning plane through a bridge with minimal damage; deflecting bullets (set coolly to “She’s a Bad Mama Jama”) at a bank robbery; and playing chicken with a giant oil tanker. Even mastering flight just took a single hop; her powers aren’t rusty at all. And her utter glee at finally fulfilling her potential is infectious. Here is a girl who has intentionally limited herself her entire life and has just taken off the restraints.
But, lest you forget that Kara is a girl, the Department of Extranormal Operations certainly hasn’t. Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) in particular sneers at this new superhero, thinking her inept—not because of the level of her powers, which are inarguably super, but because she’s a flighty girl who’s just going to cause more trouble than the levelheaded Superman. (Which begs the question of how much this series is actually tied to Man of Steel.) But with the introduction of the DEO comes a small and interesting twist: Alex Danvers is a secret agent! Alex is a new character created solely for the show, but already this reveal gets you thinking about nature versus nurture: She acknowledges that growing up with an alien sister certainly helped steer her career path, but that as a brilliant bio-engineer in her own right she earned her job. Yet later she privately asks Henshaw just how she got the job. His response is about as withering as his appraisal of Kara: “She’s why you got in. You are why you get to stay.” Backhanded compliment much?
In case you hadn’t had enough of men undermining women, we meet the season’s lineup of monsters-of-the-week: The escaped convicts of Fort Rozz, an ancient Kryptonian military base thrown into the Phantom Zone for all eternity. Too bad that when Kara’s ship finally escaped the Phantom Zone, she dragged Fort Rozz with her. Girls, am I right? So now, of course, they’ve scattered all around and are looking for someone to take revenge on. The latter half of the pilot is taken up with Kara fighting Vartox, a reptilian ex-con who snarls, “Just because you wear the symbol on your chest doesn’t mean you’re him. Fighting him would be an honor. Fighting you is an exercise.” It’s a great moment when Kara is able to use her heat vision to overpower him, though Vartox still offs himself so that he won’t be taken alive or betray the identity of the show’s big bad.
One of Supergirl‘s greatest triumphs is obliterating the Bechdel-Wallace test in nearly every scene. (Alex helps Kara pick an outfit for an online date, and even that scene ends with the cute reminder that “when in doubt, blue is totally your color.”) As brutal as Cat Grant is, her criticisms of Kara are projections of her own insecurity: CatCo and The Daily Tribune have always been second-best to Metropolis and The Daily Planet. And, returning to that earlier conversation, Cat asserts her own type of power by branding Supergirl with her name before anyone else can.
The interpersonal relationships between women on this show are an engaging push-and-pull between mentors and mentees, and competitors. Rather than stewing over it for a season, Alex reveals that her love for Kara has always been intertwined with a healthy jealousy: “I was the star, but then suddenly there was someone who could touch the stars.” Most of all, Kara wants to live up to the memory of her mother, Alura Zor-El. The problem is, she’s living out the sins of her mother, as Alura (a judge?) is the one who put away all of Fort Rozz’s convicts. Add that to the fact that the pilot’s final reveal is the season’s big supervillain… Alura’s twin sister Astra! (I knew that when they introduced Laura Benanti as Alura, she wasn’t going to just stay as a hologram giving nuggets of inspiration whenever Kara needs it. Now she gets to lift her up and bring her down!)
Yet despite that last-act reveal, I wish that more had happened. The best television pilots set up what you saw in the preview and then up the stakes even more. How I Met Your Mother spent 22 minutes fawning over Robin Scherbatsky, only to reveal that she was Aunt Robin. Everwood created the ultimate early-00s ‘ship of Ephram and Amy, only to introduce her comatose boyfriend Colin. Not only does The Flash transform Barry Allen into a meta-human, but while he’s exploring his new powers, we also discover that his mentor Dr. Wells is 1) not paralyzed and 2) has a newspaper from the future! Supergirl‘s executive producer Greg Berlanti should know better, as he served/serves as EP on the latter two series.
Something the show could do is sharpen the details of the here and now in which it’s set. There’s an amusing scene where Kara uses her super-hearing to catch on that her online date is trying to ditch her, but why don’t we know if she uses OkCupid or Tinder? And while we know that Supergirl goes viral (though the phrase is never explicitly used) after she saves the plane, the major evidence of her existence is presented in the bevy of TV screens (isn’t that a villain trope?) in Cat Grant’s office, as well as the first clear photo that Kara’s “source” gets of Supergirl stopping a heist—a print, not an Instagram post.
Speaking of photos, it’s
Jimmy James Olsen! I’ve spent so much time talking about women fighting the patriarchy that I should actually touch upon the male supporting characters. Kudos to the producers for not only making James Olsen black, but for giving him sex appeal. This might be my favorite role I’ve seen Mehcad Brooks (who came on the scene via True Blood) in. Less appealing is Winn (Smash‘s Jeremy Jordan), the cliché best friend/nice guy who would rather think that Kara is a lesbian (groan) than that she simply isn’t into him. By the end of the pilot, they both know her secret identity and react in different and telling ways: Winn is there for her costume montage and tries to convince her to stay in a midriff-baring/hot-pants ensemble, with teh kicker being “Whoa, you look really pretty without your glasses” (GROAN); James helps Kara keep her job by arranging the Supergirl photo shoot and not taking credit. And while I’m looking forward to James as a potential romantic interest (Kara’s first reaction to him is “wa-pow”), the show sets up the two as more of her bros than points on a love triangle.
Here’s a reason why you should stick with Supergirl: Whereas Clark Kent is Kal-El’s secret identity, Kara Danvers didn’t grow up with that same need to create another persona. With her, what you see is what you get. And I see a fledgling superhero whose appearance coincides with important discussion about taking girls—and women—more seriously. This is a good start:
Supergirl airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBS