The Pilot Episode of “Supergirl” : A Retro Review

supergirlNow that the television series Supergirl has moved to the CW from CBS, giving it a second chance at life and a second season, I thought I’d dust off my review of the series pilot, which I wrote last year for another blog.

I hadn’t originally intended on watching the pilot episode of Supergirl starring Melissa Benoist in the title role, but it was online, it was free, so I figured, what the heck. I didn’t expect to like it all that much, but I was curious how CBS was going to adapt decades of Superman and Supergirl canon. My reaction is mixed.

I’ve read a few of the other reviews of the pilot, both before and after I saw the episode, and they range from “good but not perfect” to “triumph for everyone wanting a strong female hero for a change”. You can see examples at Yahoo News, IGN, The Mary Sue, and The Los Angeles Times.

The episode started out with a summary of how Kara Zor-El came to Earth. Launched from a doomed Krypton just minutes after her infant cousin Kal-El, 12-year old Kara was charged by her parents with taking care of the baby after they both arrived on Earth. Granted, no one would have had a clue where Kal-El was going to land on the alien planet and under what conditions, and sending a mere 12-year-old on such a mission was a long shot at best. Still, the writers had to inject her into the canonical story of how Superman got to our planet somehow.

Then, her space pod is caught in the shock wave caused by Krypton’s explosion and is sent hurdling off course and into the Phantom Zone where time doesn’t pass.

Some years later (at least as time passes outside the Zone), her ship is mysteriously freed and somehow finds its way to its original destination…Earth. When it lands, the pod opens and Kara is greeted by her cousin, grown to an adult, and already sporting the blue and red.

At this point, I figured out that this show isn’t leveraging the film Man of Steel (2013) starring Henry Cavill and instead represents a separate canon.

You only see Superman in silhouette and he’s never called “Superman,” but it would be impossible to tell key portions of Kara’s story without acknowledgement to her more famous cousin.

Kal-El places the orphaned Kara (really, the kid must be freaking out — her entire race and home world are long gone, her parents dead, her only relative (an infant cousin who is now 12 years older than she is) and fellow Kryptonian is the most powerful hero on her new alien home planet, and he places her with Jeremiah (Dean Cain) and Eliza (Helen Slater) Danvers (I liked the nice, continuity piece of choosing these two actors, both with ties to the television and film appearances of Superman and Supergirl respectively).

I wonder how Kal-El managed the legal niceties of getting Kara adopted or was able to explain to the authorities (since adoption requires the involvement of the civil court system) who Kara is, where she came from, how her parents died, and why she doesn’t have any relatives or home community to take her in…a person with absolutely no recorded history before age 12?

This was glossed over (ignored) and we next meet Kara Danvers (no need to adopt the name from the comic books of Linda Lee Danvers apparently) working as a 24-year-old “gofer” uh, assistant, to Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), owner of her own media company Cat Co.

In spite of the fact that she has decided to play a low profile in terms of her powers (the world doesn’t need another superhero) and to “fit in,” she’s wearing glasses, which she doesn’t need, as if she’s maintaining a secret identity. It’s true that when she finally decides to adopt the Supergirl persona (although the “girl” part was first coined by Grant), she’d need to separate Kara from the young woman in the red cape, why did she decide to wear glasses in the first place?

Benoist imbues Kara with a wholesome, naive charm and she’s instantly likable. Although she’s attractive, I kept relating to her more like my best friend’s sister than as any sort of “hottie”. I was almost taken off guard when she went out on a blind date (with someone who quickly gave her the brush off). I was also slightly surprised when she reacted to Jimmy, uh…James (Mehcad Brooks) Olsen (who admittedly is a solid hunk) with attraction (although she clearly wasn’t sure what to do about it). Benoist convincingly portrays Kara as “the girl next door,” the friendly, kind, helpful girl, the one you’d never think to ask out.

Kara grew up with an older (adoptive) sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) who has a big secret. She’s an agent for a government agency created after the first appearance of the alien Superman in order to investigate other alien appearances on our planet.

Kara doesn’t know this, of course…well, not at first. She doesn’t even want to be super. Not until she has to rescue her sister’s overseas flight from crashing, which she barely manages (hey, even if you’re super, you still have to deal with things like mass, momentum, and inertia).

It was cute when her date asked Kara where she’s from originally. It was cute when we saw Kara with wide-eyed wonder, shoveling down pizza while watching herself on the news rescuing the airliner. In fact, I was beginning to be overwhelmed with cute. Is this show only written for young teens?

supergirl pilotWith the help of her friend Winn (Jeremy Jordan) Schott (isn’t that the last name of the Toyman?), the IT guru where she works, Kara slowly transforms into Supergirl. Kara took a big chance telling (and showing) Winn who she really is. She couldn’t have predicted how he’d react. Their boss would no doubt pay a lot of money to anyone who could deliver the exclusive story of who Supergirl is and where she could be found (right under your nose, Cat).

But Winn plays the loyal if nerdy friend and helps design her costume. Well, the first one was without a midriff and our modest Kara wouldn’t wear it to the beach, let alone to rescue people.

That’s actually one of the things I like about the way the show characterizes Supergirl. It’s not about an overwhelmingly sexy, or even cute nymphet Supergirl doing daring do. Kara, if anything, is a bit conservative, both in how she dresses and how she acts and reacts. She’s like a lot of people her age, still trying to figure herself out and walking into walls (not literally) half the time. Now she’s got to figure out how to be both Kara and Supergirl.

But things get muddy fast. Turns out on one of her first missions, she’s all too easily captured by Alex and her boss Hank (David Harewood) Henshaw, the director of the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO) using Kryptonite darts and holding her in Kryptonite bindings. Henshaw doesn’t like aliens (even though the DEO has her spaceship) and demands that Kara stop being Supergirl. Alex backs Henshaw up, at least this time, but circumstances pull the “Maid of Steel” back into the fight.

When Kara’s ship left the Phantom Zone, it didn’t leave alone. Somehow (a lot of somehows), it brought along Fort Rozz, formerly Krypton’s high security prison facility, crammed full of the biggest, baddest, aliens (apparently not all are Kryptonian) in the galaxy…and now they’re on Earth conspiring to do what…take over the planet?

That part is left vague, but they’re also plotting to bring someone called “the General” to our world, and they sabotaged Alex’s flight in an attempt to kill her.

An alien prisoner named Vartox (Owain Yeoman) who wields a mean, super-heated ax, calls Kara on a special high frequency only she can hear (I think I saw this done in one of the old Christopher Reeve Superman movies) to come out and fight. Turns out these aliens not only know Kara but her Kryptonian mother, who was a judge back in the day, and who had sentenced all of these interstellar tough guys to Fort Rozz. Now they want revenge against the daughter of their jailer (also a theme from the second Chris Reeve Superman movie).

Long story short, Supergirl almost gets her head handed to her (literally) but her sister arrives just in time with some serious artillery to save her. Although Henshaw again warns Kara to hang up her cape, this time Alex encourages her to be the hero she’s destined to be.

In the final battle between Supergirl and Vartox, with the DEO having her back, as Kara is about to lose, Alex delivers a stirring “I believe in you” speech which turns the battle around and Supergirl saves the day (it was pretty cliché and internally, I gagged a little).

Vartox commits suicide rather than be captured, but issues the dire announcement that he’s only the beginning, forecasting that future episodes will feature the alien baddie of the week with the mystery of who the General is and what she (so it’s not Zod) wants.

As if I didn’t dump enough spoilers on you already, the General is none other than Kara’s aunt, leader of the band of interstellar miscreants, who would like nothing better than to see her niece dead.

So like Team Arrow and Team Flash, Supergirl now has a team, or more accurately, she’s now a covert super agent for the United States Government. That’s truly terrifying.

It’s also concerning that Henshaw, in the 1990s comic books, became the villainous Cyborg Superman. Shades of a future story arc?

Impressions: The show tries to be a little too cute (didn’t I say that enough?). I get that we’re supposed to like and even feel protective of Kara, but it’s hard to imagine this sweet little millennial getting the chops to play in her cousin’s league. I know a hero like Wonder Woman would probably embody more of the feminist ideal, an already strong, developed, self-assured figure, so it’s difficult to understand why Supergirl would be appealing as the leading female-driven superhero show on television. I suppose emerging power laced with vulnerability makes her more relatable to young girls and women than a commanding personality like Diana Prince.

From the look and feel of the show, it’s seems the main demographic must be between the ages of 12 and 20. Sorry, but a lot of what I watched seemed very juvenile. Maybe I’m jaded by the darkness of most of the other superhero TV shows and films. But the Flash is light-hearted and “young,” and yet you get the impression that adults are also supposed to relate to the main characters. By comparison, the pilot episode of Supergirl seemed a little more “cartoonish”.

flash supergirlI didn’t outright dislike the show, but I wasn’t immediately hooked either, the way I was by Arrow and The Flash. Also, the show promises to be “formulaistic” as I already mentioned, with a built-in conspiracy delivering the super villain of the week for Kara to sharpen her teeth on (not literally, of course..if you want teeth, watch The Vampire Diaries).

I do believe that the world needs more female oriented superhero shows and films, but I can also acknowledge that all of the source material for each and every one of them today is at least fifty years old. Half a century ago, comic books were overwhelmingly male driven, with just a few token females on various teams (Wonder Woman being one of the notable exceptions) to break up all that “maleness”. If entertainment producers want female characters more easily adapted to modern audiences, they need to read more recently created comic books. The 1960s weren’t particularly progressive compared to 2015.

All that said, I wish the show success and hope the writers manage to develop the character and her supporting cast and environment into something slightly more mature people can connect with. The show isn’t bad, and I know most pilots have a lot of rough edges, but the Supergirl television show has left itself a great deal of room in which it needs to grow.

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