[This is a guest post by Satchit Bhogle, an ex-fellow student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences.]
Supergirl is a show with a lot of potential. A solo female lead in a superhero story is not a bet that many TV or film productions have been willing to take. Supergirl comes at a time when that may be changing, with Marvel’s Jessica Jones a critical success on Netflix and DC’s Wonder Woman film in production.
As a comic book character, Supergirl originated as derivative of her male counterparts, like Batgirl, She-Hulk, Miss Martian, and countless others. In that sense, Supergirl will always be in Superman’s shadow, and the show initially tackles that head on: set in Zack Snyder’s universe, taking place shortly after the events of Man of Steel but not forming part of the DC Cinematic Universe, Supergirl seeks to tackle Kara Danvers/Kara Zor-El’s attempt to live up to the legacy of her cousin. Supergirl is potentially a more interesting character than Superman: sent from the dying Krypton at age 10 with a mission to protect Kal-El, her ship gets diverted into deep space and she crashes onto Earth, with Kal-El already an adult and her only three years older. This means that she is surer of her identity as a Kryptonian and her place in the world. And with Kara working as an assistant at Catco, a more sensational broadcast news network than The Daily Planet, it offers the opportunity to explore the way the media looks at women, and could look at a superwoman.
Except that it does none of those things. Quite opposite to what we would expect from a show about a superwoman with a strong sense of morality and purpose, we get a wilting would-be heroine who needs her hand held (mostly by men) every step of the way.
Supergirl is an idiot who never develops as a character, even by an iota, over 20 episodes. Her plan from the first episode to the last is to fly headlong at a problem, which is obviously not a strategy against a faster, smarter, or Kryptonite wielding enemy. Fortunately, she has a competent team to do nearly all her work for her: James “Jimmie” Olsen, investigative photojournalist moved from Metropolis for the sake of audience recall and to set up a romantic subplot, who does detective work better than the superhearing, x-ray visioned Kara; Winn, a Hollywood Hacker (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodHacking) who still inexplicably works a mundane IT job for a media company; and Kara’s adoptive sister, Alex, hired by the secret government agency, the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (DEO), as a geneticist or biologist of some sort, and who never does anything in either field but instead works as a kind of SWAT team leader. Kara’s simplistic moral compass is guided by her boss, Cat Grant, who is possibly the only character with any depth.
CBS and DC have pulled out all the stops in including popular characters from DC comics in the show. The show features the Martian Manhunter and includes a crossover episode with The Flash (and consistent with Grant Gustin’s exclusion in Dawn of Justice, it involves dimension jumping, and a nod and a wink to the DC Multiverse). Supergirl also has a respectable rogue’s gallery, with Kryptonians Astra and Non acting as the primary antagonists and Livewire, Silver Banshee, Toyman, Bizarro, Red Tornado, and Maxwell Lord appearing at different points as secondary antagonists. Even Superman makes a couple of appearances, though only ever blurred or through text messages exchanged with Kara.
With such help, Supergirl was ideally placed to build the DC Universe away from Zack Snyder’s desaturated look and dismal tone. Supergirl could have worked as a light hearted story of a girl having fun with her awesome powers to get through everyday life (think 2002’s Spiderman), and that would have served to meet the show’s objective of reaching out to an audience that had never read the comics. But Supergirl has shoddy and lazy writing. It’s just a Superman pageant recast; Kara’s adoptive mother is wholesome like Martha Kent, Maxwell Lord could shave his head and call himself Lex Luthor, and if you squint a little, you can even see James Olsen as Lois Lane. The characters are made to act like idiots to advance the plot. Supergirl’s superpowers are forgotten and remembered as required and, like the writers of Dawn of Justice, the show’s writers are never quite certain of the extent of Supergirl’s powers – how strong or fast she is, and how powerful her super hearing and x-ray vision are. They also seem to have little idea of how time and space work; crisis situations are forgotten to fit in lengthy dialogue, and characters in the background do nothing while events take place in the foreground.
The cast is decent, though limited by the script. Melissa Benoist is bubbly and ditzy and much better as Kara Danvers than as Supergirl. Her allies are decently played, and Laura Benanti, who plays both Kara’s mother Alura and her aunt Astra is able to bring some depth and conflict to her roles. Peter Facinelli could have been a great Maxwell Lord; he pulls off the douchey genius like Lex Luthor in Superman: The Animated Series and has the playfulness of Dawn of Justice’s Lex, and at times even starts to convince us of the character’s point of view. But the writing forces him to play the two dimensional villain.
Ultimately, I watched Supergirl for what it could have been. Many episodes leave you shaking your head at the poor writing but, like an ageing sports legend, it sometimes shows glimpses of more. CBS has hinted at renewing the show for a second season, and hopefully, the writing will improve.