We open on an extremely familiar scene. The planet Krypton is in the final throes of self-destruction and a tearful couple is placing their baby into a small spacecraft with promises of the child’s survival and prosperity on the distant world of Earth. The scene that comes directly after, however, is less familiar. A young girl is also being dispatched into the stars by her parents, with the explicit instructions to guard that baby in the new world. This is Kara Zor-El, the older cousin to this infant, whom our world will come to know as Superman. But Kara’s mission gets a two-decade layover right out of the gate when her pod gets trapped in the Phantom Zone. By the time Kara does make it to Earth, her cousin has already grown into his destiny and he’s the one who shepherds Kara into her new life, setting her up with an adoptive family of trusted scientists. Kara ultimately finds herself immersed in a thankless job as a gofer at Catco Worldwide Media in the bustling metropolis (though not Metropolis) of National City, getting coffee for her bratty harridan of a boss (Calista Flockhart) and doing everything she can to tamp down her own specialness.
This is the setup for CBS’ Supergirl, the latest network superhero series, and the third DC property navigated by Greg Berlanti, after the CW’s Arrow and The Flash. And while the pilot has a mild feminist agenda, its true mission statement is to establish that being a superhero can be fun, a mindset that far too many comic-book properties seem reluctant to embrace. In the current glut of superhero stories playing non-stop in our multiplexes and on our television sets, the constant message to extract seems to be that having superpowers is a real drag. They’re a burden, they get in the way of living a normal life and they eternally send trouble hurtling toward you like an errant comet. Thus, many of these adaptations carry with them a glum, solemn tone, heaping ceaseless doses of misery upon the poor extrahuman souls whose shoulders the world has deigned to deposit its weight. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, filled with a greater volume of piss and vinegar than most of its contemporaries, often neglects to allow its heroes to cut loose and revel in their gifts, so duty-bound must they forever remain. And among live-action superhero creative forces, none are more of a killjoy than DC. The Christopher Nolan Dark Knight series and Man of Steel have set into motion the conceit that being a larger-than-life hero is the biggest bummer possible.
To its considerable credit, Supergirl stands as a rebuke to the grim-faced tendencies of its colleagues. Kara, played with sprightly glee by Melissa Benoist, is positively drunk on the thrill of superheroics. Given the opportunity to take to the skies, to save the day, to be seen and celebrated for her uniqueness, Kara’s joy is palpably exuberant. Zipping through the air and saving lives isn’t a curse or an encumbrance, it’s the greatest thing that has ever happened to her. When she confesses her feats to her lovelorn colleague Winn (Jeremy Jordan), it’s not that she needs to unburden her tortured self, but that she’s bursting with excitement to share her secret with someone else. If it weren’t for the inexplicable need DC characters have to maintain secret identities, one gathers that Kara would shout her status to the world from the rooftops rather than bringing only Winn into the fold.
Kara’s unbridled enthusiasm takes Supergirl far, but doesn’t quite paper over how overstuffed and disjointed the pilot is. Kara’s coming-out-party to the world arrives when she saves a crashing plane containing her sister Alex (what are the odds??) from falling out of the sky. If that weren’t enough of a reach on its own, it turns out that Alex is not only angry with Kara for saving her and exposing herself to the public, but that she also works for an agency called the Department of Extranormal Operations, which monitors extraterrestrial activity on Earth (like MIB if everyone were Agent K). The unit’s head, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), no-nonsensically informs Kara that they’ve been aware of her existence all her life, and that upon her arrival on the planet, she brought along with her a whole prison full of supervillains that were previously detained in the Phantom Zone (but who have apparently opted to spend the past 24 years laying low). One of these bad boys, Zartox, quickly makes his presence known to Kara, wielding an axe with the capabilities to wound her. And though he is neutralized by the end of the episode, he claims to report to “The General,” which, we all know who that is, let’s not kid ourselves.
It’s hard not to wish that Supergirl could just cool its jets on all the info-dumping and be content to luxuriate in Kara’s superheroic blossoming. The pilot is so quick to start laying down brick in terms of mythology that the clunkiness of all the exposition threatens to strangle the life out of the carefree spirit the show exhibits in its lighter moments. Kara re-teaching herself to fly, picking out an outfit, blithely allowing bullets to bounce off of her and grousing about the media saddling her with the reductive name “Supergirl” is all so enjoyable that it’s deflating when the machinery of the plot starts grinding away laboriously. By the time that Jimmy (pardon me, James) Olson (Mehcad Brooks), Kara’s new co-worker, reveals that he was sent by Superman himself to assist her, Supergirl begins to feel like a five-pound bag straining to accept ten pounds of cargo.
Speaking of Superman, Supergirl dances around the big guy as much as it can while still constantly referencing him. The series does not take place in the same continuity as Man of Steel (though it does deploy the same textured rubber and color scheme as the costume in that film) or any of the previous Superman incarnations, and we are only allowed to see Supes in silhouette or as a blur. Most vexingly, none of the characters are ever once permitted to even say the name “Superman” aloud. I don’t know if this is due to a rights issue or simply the idea that too much of the character would detract from Kara’s story, but it’s truly strange to watch the show attempting to get in as many nods to Superman as it possibly can while still keeping the character at arm’s length. If you don’t want to incorporate the character, perhaps stop having everyone talk about him incessantly.
Of the cast, Flockhart shifts admirably out of her stock character type as Kara’s witchy diva of a boss. Yet no one else really makes that substantial of an impression except for Benoist, who stands as the lifeblood of the show. The writing may sort itself out over time, the plotting might well become smoother and more organic with subsequent episodes, but Benoist’s eager-beaver charm is front and center straight away. As her enthusiasm soars, so does Supergirl.
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