“Supergirl” Pilot Review — What Makes a Hero a Hero
The Paley Center for Media in New York City recently held their Fall TV preview screenings. I was excited to have the chance to see the Supergirl pilot early. As a long-time fan of the DC Universe, and now of Greg Berlanti’s DC TV shows, the debut of Supergirl is high on my anticipation list for the Fall TV season. The pilot lived up to my hopes and gave some food for thought about hero narratives. Read on for a spoiler-light review.
Under the guidance of Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg of Arrow, and Ali Adler of Chuck, Supergirl mixes the fantastical with the everyday—something Chuck emphasized more than Arrow does. Like The Flash, it’s several shades lighter in tone than Arrow, which is for the record is my favorite current DC show. However, there are drawbacks to lingering too much in the grimdark side and heroes who don’t live in the world they’re protecting. Supergirl, like The Flash or Chuck, utilizes humor along with its poignancy, and its bright surface is only the top layer for the themes and emotions it explores.
One of my favorite things about superhero stories, whether it’s the non-powered or super-powered ones, is the theme of identity and what makes a hero a hero. In the Berlanti set of TV shows in particular, it isn’t the mask, leather outfits, or superpowers that make someone the hero. It’s who they are as a person, their heart as well as their skill or brawn. (Chuck worked in a similar way). The story of Kara Zor-el lends itself particularly to this, and the mix of awkwardness and self-confidence, sweetness and warrior toughness Melissa Benoist brings to the role makes for a likable and grounded super-powered character.
When the first trailer for the series hit the internet, it took some knocks because of a superficial resemblance to a Saturday Night Live parody trailer for a Black Widow movie. However, there is nothing trivial about the lives of young women, or Kara’s juggling of her two selves, two lives, two cultures. It’s notable that The Flash didn’t suffer the same kind of critiques for giving Barry a domestic life in between his superheroics, but the two shows are cut from the same cloth. Make no mistake: for all its flickers of Mary Tyler Moore or That Girl archetypes, Supergirl is an action show with plenty of superheroics and on a grand scale. The contrast of the two parts of her life enhances the story rather than being a drawback.
Everyone has weights they carry while trying to live their daily lives, and Kara’s dance between her work/domestic life and her heritage as one of the last remaining survivors of her planet—and someone who has x-ray vision to boot—is engaging. The pilot picks up on the sense of wonder associated with super-powered characters, while there are hints, of course, of how complicated and dangerous things can become. The show touches on another of my favorite themes: heroes who live in the world they’re trying to save. It also has some marks of a fairy tale — one where the lost orphaned princess grows up to slay dragons.
The ensemble is all good, and I especially liked how the pilot establishes Kara’s relationship with her adoptive sister, Alex, the bond between them, and the turns the story takes there. Benoist’s Kara and Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen especially stand out. I really hope we see a lot more of Brooks’s Jimmy.
Like any pilot, there are a few weak points. One question I had in particular was how long they can keep up the conceit that Kal-el isn’t a part of Kara’s life beyond a symbol and very distant benefactor. Sure he has a whole planet to look after, but it’s not like he couldn’t drop by once in a while. The last (pretty much) survivors of a lost world, it seems like Kal-el and Kara might have spent more time together, even if it’s just mentioned as something that happened off-screen. It’s no doubt a by-product of usage restrictions on Superman, and it makes sense not to have him around much. This is Kara’s journey, and Superman being too near would overshadow and interfere with that. But I think Superman’s constant absence from his cousin’s life might’ve been explained better.
As a fan of superhero stories, both DC and Marvel, I’ve always leaned more towards the non-powered heroes who use skill, gadgets, their own fragile yet well-trained bodies, spit, or duct-tape to save others. The first time Kara flies in the pilot of Supergirl, though, I got goosebumps. Kara’s vulnerabilities are a crucial part of the weave of the character, as much as her ability to bounce bullets off her chest and lift a jet-plane. And it is really cool seeing Kara Zor-el bounce bullets off her chest and lift a jet-plane.
Author: Dot R
Dot has been bouncing around various fandoms for many years now writing essays, episode reviews, commentary, and reporting news and conducting interviews, among other things. Along with being a Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and Supernatural fangirl, she’s also a fan of fantasy and science fiction television shows, everything from Farscape to Killjoys to 12 Monkeys to X-Files to Wynonna Earp. Currently Fangirl at Large covering numerous geek culture related topics, convention news, casting spoilers, show news, and interviews.
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