February 18, 2016

The Optimism of CBS's Supergirl

Something kept going through my mind as I watched yet another episode of the excellent Jessica Jones series that was released on Netflix a few months back: this show is really bleak. Don't misunderstand that: that's by no means a criticism of the show itself, in fact I'd argue that Jones does the whole bleak thing better than most shows or films that aim to do that with a female protagonist in the lead; we get films like The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and shows like The 100 that try ever-so-much to be gritty and just come off as boring, forced, and frankly obnoxious; even Agent Carter, an excellent show no doubt, still situates itself in a realistic and narcissistic world. Even with the quality of Jones' and Carter's writing, we are still stuck in the mindset that in order to be taken seriously, female leads and the shows that they inhabit must be bleak as all hell or at least downplay the fun factor.

Not so with Supergirl, a show that practically revels in its adorkable nature and overt feminist messages.

The premise of the show is that Supergirl's homeworld of Krypton exploded. Kara was sent to Earth to protect her cousin Kal El (Superman), but her pod got knocked off course and by the time she arrived, Kal El had grown up and become the legend himself. But now, Kara's decided to take on the mantle of Supergirl and work with a government agency and her sister to stop terrestrial and extra-terrestrial threats. Even with all its flaws, you can mark me down as a fan! This show is an excellent adaptation of the Kara Zor El character, and seeing her on screen just warms my heart.

Supergirl is one of my favorite superheroes, probably because she brings in a suite of human flaws that work in tandem with her powers to make her a more interesting and dynamic character next to Superman. Not that Superman is boring (when written correctly), but Kara must not only deal with being a civilian but also, as Supergirl, must distinguish herself from her cousin. This makes her into a wonderful representation of women’s struggle for recognition and equity, and on a more character-specific note, places this burden on Kara’s shoulders to simultaneously be her own person, but also not let people down both as herself and as a second representation of superheroics alongside Superman. It’s just a great dynamic that the comics have handled well off-and-on, one that the Superman and Justice League Unlimited cartoon series’ played with subtly but effectively, and one that dominates the 2015 show in a great, if at times heavy-handed, way. The show also remembers to constantly have fun and not get bogged down into dread and broodiness with these themes. They're there, but they are explored through a lens that remembers to keep things vibrant and enjoyable.

In a post-Dark Knight world, where the Marvel Cinematic Universe tone seems to be running rampant, Supergirl follows suit and leans on the fun, light-hearted factor; the broad beats of humor, quirky dialogue, and comic-book-ness bend in the general direction of heartwarming rather than heavy-handed darkness, but unlike the Marvel material, this feels even more genuine. The show is more of a clever nod to old ‘90s television with 21st century budget and storytelling than anything else, drawing on the fun of early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: the Warrior Princess, and especially the old Superman The Animated Series cartoon, and I like that a lot! I’m also loving how colorful everything is in Supergirl! Gone are the days when superheroes and their environments had to be gritty; that has its place but is not "required" of these types of shows anymore. Things here are bright and sharp and fun to look at, adding much-needed depth and openness to a world that can, at times, feel confined.

The world being large makes Kara's social interactions and small character quirks feel all the more genuine. Kara has a good sense of social strength, being friendly and open and chatty, and I am so glad Kara’s sibling relationship with Alex Danvers feels believable! The small talk and sister-rivalry banter is great, and I like that Kara’s emotions are rooted in her love for people. Her line in one episode that Kara “care[s] about everyone” not only harkens back to the older Superman film, but also places that Superman staple, that he cares about everyone but can’t save everyone, firmly on Supergirl’s shoulders. I also love that there is a clear understanding of where Kara’s strength comes from: from her friends. Kara’s interpretation on Krypton’s “blood bonds us all” motto is taken to mean blood bonds all life, and that’s a very important distinction that she makes, as it defines her sense of heroism by using what could ostensibly be a dogmatic phrase for good.

With the light does come the dark, and the show is not afraid to venture there at times. In fact, for all the light-heartedness Supergirl presents, the premise has the potential to be extremely narcissistic and bleak, but because the show is more fun, it makes the points where the characters have to make hard choices or realize their inner demons that much more effective. Kara’s anger, for example, is born of loneliness: she lost everything and is seeking to build it back up again, and her idealism regarding her mother is being challenged by her aunt. She’s forced to keep herself in check with regards to her anger in order to save face in public. I like this theme a lot, as it’s a relevant one for Supergirl especially; women are put under more scrutiny than men when it comes to showing anger, and while the episode looking at this is a bit preach-y about it, the idea is one worth exploring. That breakdown she had when talking to the AI version of her mom at the DEO agency headquarters in the episode “Blood Bonds" was just heartbreaking, and really cemented for me how much of herself Kara has really lost with her planet exploding, feeling as though her mother abandoned her and let everyone she cared about and loved die. This is even more impactful for Kara than it likely is for Clark Kent, as Clark was a baby so didn't have any memories of his homeworld. But Kara was a teenager when she left, so she'd had memories and a life back home, and now she's had that ripped away from her.

From this, there is a strong sense that the creators and writers of this show really understand the character, and to show Kara as emotionally vulnerable yet also having that not subsume her, drive her character, or make her a weak character in or out of universe is a refreshing move especially nowadays. Moreover, Kara’s civilian guise is so adorkable and fun! Melissa Benoist really knows how to act, shifting between happy (and thankfully not annoying) slightly naive civilian to determined go-getter superhero seamlessly, and she imbues both sides of the character with life enough to not turn either into caricatures of themselves. Indeed, Kara Danvers, her civilian guise, and that life is perhaps more engaging than the heroic antics she gets up to; her boss Cat Grant, played by the awesome steely Calista Flockhart, is proving to be the breakout character of the show, and adds her own feminism and worldview to the mix in a great way.

Finally, Supergirl takes a cue from sensibility and decency and does not make its costumed superhero sexualized, at least not overtly. I’m sure one could find teasing shots of her, and the uniform could be seen as objectifying her body, but really this is super tame compared to other superhero costumes, certainly even the ones Supergirl herself has worn. Her skirt is really the only “sexualized” aspect of the costume, and even then everything is shot and framed respectfully and classily. Moreover, Kara herself is not put on display in the show, either in or out of the suit, instead having the show bank on her character to draw audiences in, and while this does have aid simply from the fact that she is an established comic book icon, it’s still impressive to me that they didn’t take the “sexy” route, when they so easily could have (though yes, I do recognize that it was her male friend Winn who designed her costume).

The feminism that is on display is overt, and while I've written in the past about how mainstream feminism is lacking in diversity or subtlety, I find this flaw excusable here because the show's tone is such that it almost knows how blatant it is and just runs with it. There is also enough other material going on to not have that feminism subsume the show, so you have the option of just ignoring it or having fun with it. While I'll always prefer nuanced feminist storytelling, I am not above indulging in "simple" or "watered down" feminisms so long as they do not become the driving force behind the show. This is the case with Supergirl; it's there, but like its darker themes, it never lingers on these hot-button issues for too long before swinging back into heartfelt joy, a feminist message in and of itself that, unintentionally or no, the show presents with subtle skill.

Supergirl is a testament to television that is not afraid to have fun! In a world where we are neck-deep in superhero films and tv, it can be hard to stand out, but with the only other female-led superhero shows out there being Agent Carter and Jessica Jones and how the former is more nuanced and the latter's tone is at the opposing end of this spectrum, Supergirl does manage to carve out a delightful if small space for itself amongst these giant superhero entities. Its quirky charm and blatant feminist messages might rub some people the wrong way, and that's fine; indeed, for all my praise, it would be even more endearing had it a bit more nuance to its message. But it remains a refreshing show nonetheless next to so many dystopian worlds, male-driven superhero films, and the nitty-gritty mood that seems to seep into each. This takes the light-heartedness of the Marvel movies and punches up the quality of the heart with an engaging female lead living in a world that doesn't feel confined or defined by masculinity. It is a show that embraces the lighter side of humanity.

Further Reading

"CBS’s Supergirl Celebrates Girl Power and Girly Power"- The Mary Sue

"Review: ‘Supergirl’ Leaps Tall Buildings While Leaning In"- The New York Times

"Supergirl: The History of the Newest DC TV Star"- Den of Geek

"‘Supergirl’s’ creators lean into their show’s feminism"- The Washington Post

"Supergirl: What You're Missing Out Not Watching The CBS Show"- Moviepilot

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