I was a big Smallville fan, but for some reason the trailers for Supergirl hadn’t piqued my interest. Then last night I noticed how long the hashtag trended on Twitter and decided to go ahead and check it out. I have to say, I was impressed! I especially love the way the show owned the term Supergirl and made it a proud, feminist name. (More on that in a moment.) It is about time we had a strong female superhero. Maybe Marvel will take notice and start putting out Black Widow toys and include her on the Avengers products. But at least D.C. Comics has embraced putting their weight behind a female superhero, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how the show progresses.
Supergirl’s Backstory & Two Great Cameos
Kara Zor-El is Superman’s (Kal-El’s) cousin. In the mythology of this show, she was a 13-year-old girl when Kal-El was a baby, and her parents sent her to Earth to look after and protect her baby cousin. Both ships were launched from Krypton at the same time, but when Krypton exploded moments later Kara’s ship was knocked into the Phantom Zone – a prison world where time doesn’t pass. Twenty-four years later, something jarred her pod loose and it finally made its way to earth, but Kara hadn’t aged a day during that time. So Superman, now an adult, found his cousin where she landed and, wanting her to have a normal childhood like he did, arranged for her to be adopted by the Danvers family. The parents are both scientists who helped Kal-El figure out his own story and powers, and they have an older daughter Alex who becomes Kara’s adoptive sister.
They were also perfectly cast cameos. Dean Cain – who played Superman / Clark Kent on Lois and Clark - plays her dad, and Helen Slater – who played Supergirl in the 1984 movie Supergirl - plays her mom. Both actors also made appearances on the show Smallville, with Dean Cain playing a villain and Helen Slater playing Kal-El’s mother Lara-El. It was a nice nod to actors who have filled these iconic roles in the past.
When the show starts, Kara works as an assistant to Cat Grant, the most powerful woman in National City and owner/CEO of Catco Worldwide Media. She hoped she’d be able to make a difference working at a media company that shaped public opinion, but instead she fetches coffee and lettuce wraps for her demanding boss. Then Jimmy (now James) Olsen arrives at the newspaper, recently transferred from The Daily Planet in Metropolis. As he and Kara chat about what Superman is like (with Kara pretending not to know him), James tells her a piece of advice he followed that made him decide to branch out to the new job: “the biggest risk is never taking any.”
That advice makes a difference. When Kara sees her sister’s plane is about to crash, she decides to use her powers for the first time in years in order to save it. Unfortunately rather than feeling grateful, her sister is worried and doesn’t think Kara should use her powers again. Alex says it’s too big a risk, that someone will figure out who she is. Desperately wanting someone to feel as excited for her as she feels for herself, Kara decides to tell her coworker Winn the truth about who she is, leading to a fantastic collection of scenes of the two of them figuring out her costume (one with good aerodynamics that resists flames and bullets as well as she does) as Kara tries to figure out how to be a hero.
She’s intercepted in that learning process by the DEO or Department of Extranormal Operations, run by Hank Henshaw. She also learns her sister Alex is actually Agent Danvers with the DEO. Hank explains to Kara, “The DEO protects Earth from extraterrestrial presence and/or invasion. That means you.” He also shows her the ship that brought her here. “We keep it here as a reminder of the day you crashed on Earth. You’re the reason for all of this.” When Kara points out Superman was here two decades before her, Hank continues, “It was his arrival that triggered the need for the organization.” Kara brought with her bigger problems than her cousin, though. When her ship somehow got ejected from the Phantom Zone, it pulled Fort Rozz along with it. Fort Rozz was Krypton’s maximum security prison, housing the worst alien criminals in the galaxy. All of them escaped when the prison crashed. They’ve been laying low for the last decade but recently have started getting active.
Meanwhile, we meet the bad guys, who talk about how the General’s arrival is imminent, and that “If she is Alura Zor-El’s daughter then she will pay for her mother’s debts. And so will her city.” When Kara goes up against an alien bad guy for the first time she’s brutally beaten and the DEO has to rescue her. Alex explains that’s the reason she didn’t want Kara to use her powers, that she knew they’d all go after her for being Alura’s daughter, since Alura was the criminals’ judge and jailer. Kara decides maybe Alex was right and she isn’t cut out for this. But Alex comes around, going to see her sister and confessing that yes she felt some jealousy, which influenced her desire to see Kara act normal. “Before you came to live with us I was the star… How could I compete with someone who could touch the stars?”
Alex then shows Kara a device they found in her spaceship, which turns out to be a message from Kara’s mother bringing the second excellent piece of advice Kara receives in this episode: “Your destiny is not tied to [Kal-El's]. There is no correct path in life. You will lose your way many times. What’s important is that you find your way back to the brave girl you always were. Be wise. Be strong. And always be true to yourself.” Alex helps Kara with that, bringing her back to the DEO and standing up for her to Hank. She then talks Kara through her next fight against the bad guy, helping give Kara the confidence she needs to win.
Unfortunately, we learn that bad guy was just a minion, and the real threat is still to come – in the form of Kara’s aunt, her mother’s twin sister. She’s the General whose arrival the alien criminals are preparing for.
James Olsen then admits to Kara that he knows who she is and Superman himself asked James, if he planned to switch jobs, to take one in National City so he could keep an eye on her. Kara asks why Kal-El didn’t simply tell her himself that he wanted her to use her powers, and James replies, “He wanted you to choose it for yourself, same way he did. That’s what makes a hero… He’s really proud of you. Me too.” James then presents her with a gift from Kal-El: the baby blanket he was wrapped in when he arrived on Earth has been turned into a cape for her, one that bullets won’t shred.
Supergirl as Feminist Icon At Last
After Supergirl’s big reveal, a waitress makes the first comment about the new hero: “Can you believe it? A female hero. Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to.”
But the big scene that I loved addressed the name itself, specifically the “girl” part of it. A lot of women, myself included, have complained over the years that all of the female heroes seem to be “girls” instead of women, like Supergirl and Batgirl. When Cat Grant brands the new hero Supergirl, Kara goes to see her all upset. “I don’t want to minimize the importance of this. A female superhero. Shouldn’t she be called Superwomen? If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us anti-feminist?” Yet Cat retorts, “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? I’m a girl. And your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot, and smart. So if you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”
Can Supergirl Finally Take Off?
Supergirl herself might be able to fly, but the character herself has never struck a chord with readers/viewers in the same way as her more famous cousin. This show takes a turn from more recent superhero fare, however, in a way that might make it work. Instead of the dark, brooding, troubled hero we’ve gotten in spades since the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot, Kara is wide-eyed and innocent. She’s bouncing with excitement after rescuing the plane, thrilled with how good saving all those people felt. She loves flying and tries to describe the sensation to Alex. I don’t foresee Kara experiencing a lot of angst about using her powers. Maybe the fun and freshness of the character will help the show appeal to the key female demographic and finally make Supergirl a hit? After all, this season is filled with powerful women in other new shows like Blindspot and Quantico, not to mention all the strong well-written female heroes in my favorite continuing show Once Upon a Time. This could finally be a year for strong women and the right atmosphere for Supergirl to thrive.