Supergirl Pilot Preview and Review

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
PREFACE: I had the good fortune to catch the pilot for Supergirl at Chicago Comic Con, and thought I'd share my thoughts. This is a review of a show that airs on October 26th, so a few things could change between this preview and the actual pilot. Additionally, obviously SPOILER WARNING (not that there's any huge revelations in this first episode) for both Supergirl and kinda Flash and Agent Carter. You have been warned. HINT: If you'd like a TL;DR version of this review, scroll down to the grade (about three quarters of the way through the article) and read on.



It's a great time to be a fan of nerdy media. We live in an age where a high fantasy cable series is must-see TV. An age with multiple zombie apocalypse shows running simultaneously. And most on topic for this review, an age where DC and Marvel are both developing multi-series shared universes on the big and small screen. 

Of course, a drawback to all this is that now any emerging show faces stiff competition. A decade ago, shows like Heroes and Smallville basically got a pass because if you wanted to see people with amazing powers duke it out every week (or whine and never use their powers, as in Heroes case more often than not) these shows were the only game in town. But now we have shows like The Flash wearing their silver age hearts on their sleeve while Daredevil re-imagines and refines what it means to be a "super hero show". It's impossible not to draw comparisons and think long and hard about whether a new show offers something unique and interesting enough to add it to one's growing list of shows. 

Supergirl doesn't. Not yet at least. The quickest comparison I drew as I watched an advance screening of the pilot was to CW's The Flash. Both shows embrace the cheesy one-liners and shaky sci-fi of the 70s, sometimes to their advantage but often to their detriment. Both shows are anchored by a quest to hunt down dangerous super-powered people. Most strikingly, both shows are buoyed by a likable, young, nerdy lead that suffuses their character with infectious joy and enthusiasm for being a super hero. In a genre where most people see heroics and powers as a burden or curse, it's still refreshing to see a character totally geek out after their first flight. Melissa Benoist isn't perfect yet (even a veteran actress would struggle with this shows exposition and clunky interpersonal dialogue) but she brings a light and charming attitude to the character and is clearly having a lot of fun. She's definitely the show's best asset and given time I could see her really growing in to the role. 

The other thing this show has in common with The Flash is that it is fast. Like seriously breakneck fast. Barry Allen would struggle to keep up. Maybe I'm spoiled by BBC shows like Orphan Black and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell that take their sweet time, but my chief criticism is that Supergirl needs to slow down. I saw this just two days ago and I'm sure I'll miss details in my recap because it's just too quick. The speed also means that everyone besides Kara receives the most paper thin of characterization. They're archetypes, shadows, not people, and it drains the momentum out of almost every bit of dialogue. Never in my life have I seen a pilot that more desperately wanted to be a two-hour special in order to give its characters time to grow and breathe a little. Sadly, we only have 42 minutes.

We open on exploding Krypton, as baby Kal-El is shipped off to earth. It's an iconic image, and Supergirl chimes in via voice over that we've probably already heard his story. What we don't know is hers: sent to Earth to protect her cousin, 13 year old Kara Zor-El's ship was trapped in the Phantom Zone, suspending her development for 20 years. She arrived on Earth, still a teen, to find her destiny already fulfilled. Baby Kal El was now an adult and a fully capable superhero, leaving Kara to try and fit in while finding a new destiny. 

I find the idea of this theme fascinating. Where  do you go and how do you move on when you are told you have one mission as your planet literally burns around you only to miss your shot? But the show breezes past it in favor of giving us a rapid mini-Super Hero movie in the remaining 39 minutes. We're treated to now grown-up Kara passing for normal as an assistant to newspaper mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart, who does a lot in the trailer and not much in this episode) at a crappy job, living in her sister's shadow, going on miserable blind dates. Meeting the handsome and totally cool new photographer James Olsen (played with an easy charisma by Mechad Brooks) is the only bright spot in her frustrating, bland life. Until of course a plane (with her government official sister on board!) has an engine fire and it's Kara's chance to take flight for the first time in a decade and save the day. 

Kara's celebration and enthusiasm is dampened by her sister Alex Danvers rebuke of her. It's the standard stuff: revealing your powers is a dangerous thing, you should have stayed normal, etc, and honestly it's a downer of a scene. It's the first of many that are too rushed to be effective. We get justification later but Kara's adoptive sister hasn't had a lot of screen time and rather than making me wonder why she was freaking out in a world that already has Superman, the whole conversation just comes off as petty and childish on her part at best and "drama for the sake of drama" writing at worst. Melissa Benoist and Chyler Leigh handle the exchange as best they can, but we haven't seen enough of their relationship for the argument to have any substance. 

Undeterred, Kara immediately outs herself to her hacker-coworker-admirer Winn Schott (played by Jeremy Jordan), who in my opinion doesn't get rebuked hard enough for his assumptions about Kara's sexuality (another recurring issue I'll get to shortly). They set about doing amateur heroics, with Winn fashioning Kara's super suit and helping her find crimes to prevent in a quick-fire montage of the standard super training minus the training, as Kara is also in full control of her powers here. 

So far, so good (if not very fast) but the show has some more world building to do. We receive a montage of a spiky warrior masquerading as a trucker, who speaks with a very bald and surprisngly bland Faran Tahir about some vaguely ominous and evil bad stuff.  Meanwhile, on her way to put out a fire, Supergirl is suddenly shot out of the sky by darts with glowing green tips that will immediately set off alarms for any Krypton fan. Supergirl wakes up in holding in a remote facility, where she is introduced to David Harewood as Director Hank Henshaw and her sister, who it turns out works for the DEO (Department of Extranormal Operations), a Men-in-Black style agency dedicated to tracking, studying, and when need be putting down aliens. They inform us that when Kara left the Phantom Zone twelve years ago, so did a prison ship full of the most dangerous alien criminals in the galaxy. These criminals have been laying low but now they are getting more active and they have a vendetta against Kara specifically, since her mom was some sort of cop, judge, and jury who locked them all up. This provides some good justification for why her sister wigged out but raises questions about the nature of their relationship that are left unaddressed here. 

Kara's obviously not having a super day at this point, so when she storms out of the military base and returns to work to find she's officially been branded "Supergirl" by her boss, she lets loose. I want to spend a moment with this scene because it's crucial, and a crucial letdown. 

There's a ton going on so far and we're not even at the 25 minute mark of the episode, but if Supergirl has a central thesis statement up to now it is this: "the world underestimates and ignores women and tells them to just stay quiet, hide their strength, and fit in, but it's time to put an end to that. It's time for a female hero that young girls everywhere can look up too."  And that's an awesome, noble goal! We absolutely need female superheroes, and more female leads, and more equality in work and all aspects of our society. When it comes to casting, Supergirl puts its money where it's mouth is too: of the six principle characters here, only one is a white male which is great to see from a diversity standpoint.

But in terms of actual content, the show just doesn't commit. It wants to provide an inspiring role model and empower women, but it lets Kara's tech buddy assume that she's a lesbian because she doesn't want to sleep with him without comment or rebuke. It lampshades how offensive her classic costume is ("I wouldn't even wear this to the beach") then puts her in thigh-high boots and a nonexistent mini-skirt. And now, it keeps the dismissive sounding label of "Supergirl" placing her as the kiddie version of the Superman. 

So the fact that Kara points all this out should be a powerful moment where the show acknowledges or explains the dichotomy. But the whole thing goes off with a whimper instead of a bang. Calista Flockhart counters Kara's argument with a smug statement that she's a girl, and she's powerful and rich and hot so maybe if you don't like the label it says more about you than it does the label. There's a few problems here. First, it boils down female success to beauty and money instead of anything substantive or real. Second, Cat as a character is awful: a stereotypical power-hungry, ruthless, mean corporate executive that shows all the worst traits commonly ascribed to women in power. We're also repeatedly told that she is awesome and influences events on a global scale as a media magnate, but never shown anything but a spoiled and needlessly nasty boss. 

It's possible the scene is supposed to be read as Cat being dead wrong, a broken pedestal moment for our heroine as she realizes there really are no positive influences for young women. But that's a very generous reading that isn't really supported here and seems contracted by upcoming events, and the show does zero work to offer any interpretation at all. The event is just rushed and there, as if the writers hope that talking about it while offering no opinion or answer or...anything, really will be enough. 

As another comparison, Supergirl isn't the only female comics show. Agent Carter offered a brilliant critique of misogyny and workplace gender discrimination while still delivering a fantastic and entertaining first season. And again it did this with pacing. The feminist bones of the show are there from episode 1, but Agent Carter wisely waits until it's penultimate episode to have Peggy deliver her blistering monologue against all her coworkers, the obvious misogynistic pigs but also the far more insidious "white knights" who assume women need to be saved, in one of the season's best sequences. If only Supergirl had taken this a lot slower. 

Speaking of white knights, Jimmy (I can't call him James, I just can't) swoops in to save Kara from an unceremonious firing (another strike). Before Kara can even really thank or chat with him we're off to our next plot point, with our spiky friend Vartox broadcasting a challenge that only aliens can hear for Kara to face him or watch her city die. The ensuing fight is well done but brief, and pulls no punches in kicking the snot out of our heroine. Kara loses her first big challenge as a hero and feels real pain for the first time, and very nearly loses her head to Vartox's super alien axe before the DEO show up to save her and chase Vartox away. 

That Kara would be rattled after actually getting hurt for the first time ever is pretty believable, but her decision to just give up and go home rings false to the small characterization we've seen even after Hank (who tells us repeatedly he doesn't like, trust, or work with aliens)  admits she did help by engaging Vartox and getting a hunk of metal in her arm, since now they can track him. Fortunately we are in a hurry so Alex shows up and admits that she also wanted Kara to be normal because she was jealous of her, and she's sorry, and she has a special hidden message from Kara's mom to play for her that affirms Kara's ability to choose her own destiny and be true to herself. It's a sweet scene and Melissa Benoist does her best to convey the joy but also grief at seeing her mother one more time, but again it's a scene that falls flat because we don't really know any of the characters that well. The fact that her sister kept such a personal thing hidden from Kara also does the character no favors and pulls me out of the moment, making what should be an emotional highlight of episode three feel really manipulative instead. 

Anyhow, duly inspired and reunited as sisters the two return and insist on solving this Vartox problem together with the DEO. Supergirl flies into action and appears to be getting beat on again, but it's all a ploy. She uses her "just a girl" appearence to beg him to stop long enough to heat-vision his axe into exploding. Disarmed and stunned, Vartox is defeated but of course gives us his vague ominous foreshadowing that this is only the beginning before killing himself with a shard of his busted axe. As yet another aside, can I say that this behavior is done way too casually for such a creepy action on TV? As another comparison, I felt like Daredevil gave this suicidal tendency due attention but here it feels rushed over and doesn't unnerve Kara in a way I would expect, which means it doesn't really unnerve me as a viewer. That thug impaling himself on a fence sticks with me even four months later, but I very nearly forgot Vartox killed himself at the end of this episode. 

Finally, Supergirl is awarded by Jimmy with Superman's blanket which will serve as her new, damage-resistant cape, and is informed that Olson is here to look out for her and help her become a hero. As we get our voiceover, we finish on a scene of The Commander informing The General of Vartox's utter failure. The General (Laura Benanti) reveals that she is Kara's aunt and she will conquer Earth if she can't have Krypton.

It's another moment that falls totally flat. First of all, maybe families mean something different on Krypton but "her evil aunt" just doesn't inspire drama or tragedy like a parent or even close friend might. Additionally, since we've spent zero time with The General and 10 seconds with Kara's mother, we don't know enough to react at all. Was Kara close to her aunt? Is this some grand betrayal? We haven't seen or even been told enough to have any indication. The "flashback" structure is almost as cliched as the voice over and comes with its own major limitations, but I can't help but feel like flashbacks to provide additional depth to any or all of Kara's relationships might have really helped I landing this episode's big moments. As my one last comparison, compared to the jaw-dropping mic-drop of Harrison Wells identity at the end of The Flash's pilot or even Skye's "I'm in" text from Agents of SHIELD's much slower and more frustrating pilot, this moment does nothing to make me want to tune in again. 

I know it probably sounds like I am really down on the show, but I really am rooting for it. I think it's heart is in the right place and Melissa Benoist has a lot of potential. And it is only a pilot: maybe many of the things I want to see are all in Episode 2, waiting. But as a first look this show has a lot of work to do to go up, up, and away in such a crowded field. 

Grade: C+

TL; DR:
The good:
- Melissa Benoist is very charming as the title character. 
- exciting, well-directed action sequences. 
- ambitious, diverse casting helps sell the show as concerned with empowerment. 

The bad:
- Way too fast; major pacing problems. 
- characterization  of everyone besides Kara is thin at best, offensive at worst. 
- villain is underwhelming
- writing isn't nearly as ambitious, diverse, or progressive as the casting. 
- blows past interesting plot points, leaving no sense of where we are going and why it matters. 

Random Thoughts:
- So many words and I haven't even mentioned the big blue elephant in the room! Narratively it is the right choice to keep Superman literally in the shadows lest he steal the spotlight from the lead, but practically speaking it is pretty awkward. He's faster than a speeding bullet and there's, you know, cell phones, but he has to send Jimmy to tell Kara how proud he is? The show could do interesting things with this by tackling head-on why Clark wouldn't have a relationship with blood family (never mind literally the last person in the universe from his home), and exploring why he takes such a distant approach. Or it could keep being awkward. Too soon to tell. 

- I haven't seen a ton of nerd rage over casting Mehcad Brooks as the traditionally white and nerdy Jimmy Olsen. I really liked the brief scenes with him. He has a natural chemistry with Kara that none of the other actors seemed too (although this may be those pacing problems again) and I like the idea of an older and wiser James Olsen acting as a mentor to heroes. I'm curious to see how the show uses him going forward. 

- the public existence of Superman firmly places this in a separate universe from Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow. Once again it's too soon to tell if this is a pro or a con: some of Flash's best episodes are the crossover ones ("You're going to come at me as fast as you can...and then I'm going to shoot you" still slays me) but a shared universe can sometimes creak under all the weight (see: Age of Ultron) or introduce more questions than answers and disrupt an episode (see: the tail-end of Flash and Arrow's last seasons). 

- People with a better knowledge of DC Lore than me will recognize Winn Schott as short for Winslow Scott, the villainous Toyman. Kara's decision to just play all her cards out is pretty dumb in-universe without knowing this, but it looks like it might cause serious issues for her now.

- My wife and I are some of the few Selfie fans out there I think, so I am happy to see David Harewood still working but weirded out to see him being the gruff military type after being so funny as the deadpan inappropriate boss. 

- the show follows Flash and Arrow's lead in terms of references and fan service, which is definitely a strength. A few things I caught...
  • Supergirl's adoptive father is played by a dialogue-less Richard Dean Anderson which got big cheers from the Convention audience. According to IMDB this is his only episode which is a shame. 
  • We do see a glimpse of the silver age Supergirl costume and Winn wants to call this new crime-fighting team "The Superfriends," though Kara shuts him down.
  • The reference to many people hating Superman makes me wonder when and if we'll be seeing Lexcorp in this universe. 
  • The screen full of alien convicts seems like it will be a treasure-trove of Easter Eggs and foreshadowing. I'm pretty sure I spotted Parasite's ugly purple hide but it was too quick (and my DC knowledge too poor) to recognize anyone else. 

10 comments :

  1. I really hated that Cat (the boss) was painted as the typical B**ch in Business. Women already face the stereotype that if we are going to succeed in the business world, we must be frigid and ruthless, whether or not those are traits that we actually embody. If this show was really going to be progressive, they would have painted Cat as a powerful woman without painting her as vapid, shallow, rude, and self-centered.

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