Have you noticed all the debate about the Supergirl trailer? It’s the no. 1 most digitally discussed new TV show of the Fall season, and the 6-minute trailer was viewed 10 million times on YouTube in its first week. Even CBS’s scheduling executive Kelly Kahl admitted this is new territory for them, telling KCRW, “[Supergirl] may not work, but it already feels like it was worth the effort.” Now the full pilot has leaked, following in the tradition of Constantine and The Flash, causing some to wonder if WB-TV has taken to intentionally leaking pilots as part of a new marketing strategy to generate buzz. I usually resist the urge with high profile leaks, like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones, but curiosity got the better of me this time. So, I’ve now watched the Supergirl pilot, and I can tell you that there is very little in it which is not already spoiled in the 6-minute trailer.
Similar to The Flash last year, the trailer pretty much gives away the basic plot, introduces all of the characters, highlights the big action set pieces and clearly communicates tone. That leaves the actual pilot to merely fill in a bit more information about the villain-of-the-week (a formidable foe whose identity I will not spoil) and use the final scene as a surprise to set up future storylines (Arrow AND Flash did the exact same thing). It does [mild spoiler] also introduce its equivalent of Smallville’s meteor shower/The Flash’s particle accelerator explosion, i.e., that thing which explains where all of the show’s villains of the week come from. Ultimately, though, the main thing I took from it is that this debate which has been happening in response to the trailer is not going to really change once the pilot officially debuts on CBS in November.
Why have people been so divided? Well…
It alters Supergirl’s origin story from the comics
In the traditional telling, “Kara Zor-El was a teenager when her cousin, Kal, was sent to Earth by his Kryptonian parents. Kara managed to escape as well, but for one reason or another, arrived on Earth years behind, finding Kal a full-grown man (and superhero).” That’s all there in Supergirl, but they aged her down so that she arrives on Earth at the age of 12, greeted upon her arrival by a full-grown Superman (never shown up close). He instantly delivers her to foster parents, who raise her along with their own biological daughter, making sure Kara always keeps her powers hidden from the world. This is all communicated through voice-over and montage before the show jumps to Kara as a 24-year-old, instantly coming off as your standard TV version of a cute but awkward girl. She works as an assistant for a CEO of a media conglomerate played by Calista Flockhart, who is quite broadly (and somewhat poorly) channeling Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada. The show uses Kara’s eventual choice to finally embrace her powers as a metaphor for finally finding a purpose in life, turning this into an old-fashioned coming of age story, and although Superman is the one who directed her to hide her powers in the first place she harbors little visible bitterness towards him, quite the opposite.
That’s not the version of Kara you’d know from the comics unless maybe you go back to when she first popped up back in 1959 and spent the first three years of her comic book life living in an orphanage under the name Linda Lee, acting the dutiful daughter to Superman’s Father-Knows-Best, not letting anyone know that the Man of Steel had a cousin. However, even way back then she arrived on Earth as a grown teenager meaning that unlike Superman she did not grow up among humans. Over the years, that became a far larger part of her identity, making her more of an outsider struggling to understand and/or relate to Superman’s deep love to inhumanity. He’d gone native, but she was still an immigrant, given to fits of anger and searching for a place to belong, her relationship with Superman rather frayed because he never knew what to do with her.
She was not a Felicity Smoak from Arrow type, but that’s what the TV show has made her, although unlike Felicity she doesn’t even get to crack any jokes. She’s also similar to Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen on The Flash, i.e., equally awkward around her boss and hopeless in love, but he was someone with the heart of a hero and a central mission to discover who killed his mother and framed his father. Kara is more of a generic shy girl whose dreams have been deferred and whose tragic backstory has left her more aimless than emotionally scarred.
Her powers are treated with a “Let’s see if this works out” (e.g., Will bullets bounce off of you like they do with Superman?) flair, and the most purely fun moments are spoiled in the trailer (e.g., using super-hearing to anticipate her boss’ imminent arrival, taking flight for the first time to prevent a plane from crashing, stopping an on-coming semi-truck by merely standing in front of it). Her Supergirl costume transformation is almost wholly contained in the trailer, but it leaves out a deeply unfortunate moment [mild spoiler] straight out of a teen comedy where the nerd girl becomes remarkably more attractive in the eyes of the guy the moment she loses her glasses. Her heroic resolve is repeatedly tested, but instead of a mentor figure like Harrison Wells from Flash in her ear saying, “Run, Kara. Run! You can do this!” she has her sister (we have no idea where her foster parents are). She looks pretty much like a character in a pilot which is giving us the broad strokes and will try a little harder to provide more shading in future episodes.
Benoist plays all of it surprisingly big, in a performance which will likely register well with young viewers, particularly those who will pick up on the Elsa/Anna Frozen influences, Kara as the repressed, powerful sister and Chyler Leigh’s Alex as her loving normal sister (neither are exact replicas of Elsa and Anna, but the comparisons hold true throughout). At one point, the two practically break out into “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”
They’ve also made Jimmy Olsen, DC’s lovable nerd photographer for The Daily Planet, into a dashing leading man who prefers to be called James Olsen. He’s played by Mehcad Brooks, who nicely fills out a muscle shirt, has a remarkably smooth way with words and exudes confidence without tipping over into arrogance. Either in appearance (beyond the obvious race change) or behavior, he in no way resembles the Jimmy I know from the various Superman films or TV shows. There is a very slight implication that Superman’s influence made this version of Jimmy into a more confident person, as if he’s a Ghost of Christmas Future for what Kara might someday become.
David Harewood is also around as the head of a SHIELD-like military unit monitoring the on-going alien threat to Earth, and I really hope someday in the future we’ll look back at the pilot and laugh about how much we love his character now and had forgotten how his one note in the pilot was clearly “Be an asshole.” Jeremy Jordan, who’s laughably bad performance as a cliched “tortured artist” in Smash caused everyone to wonder if the former Newsies star was better off sticking to Broadway musicals, is also around as a version of the character who becomes the villainous Toyman in the comics. The entirety of his screen time is nearly already contained in the trailer, minus his teen movie “You look so pretty without your glasses” moment.
And that’s all okay. They can do whatever they want, and this show is absolutely aimed at a very large audience, particularly young women. They wanted to simplify Kara and shove her into a superhero coming of age story, and they also wanted to add diversity. However, anytime you fundamentally change the way characters have been presented in their original form (e.g., this is not the Supergirl of the comics, race-switching Jimmy Olsen is totally fine, but personality-switching him is a bit harder to take) you are going to get some pushback and leave comic book fans feeling very conflicted.
It reminds everyone of the Black Widow SNL Sketch
It’s remarkably odd timing that the Supergirl trailer would come out within a month of the already infamous Black Widow SNL Sketch, and many have noted the similarities.
However, The Mary Sue, a feminist-leaning pop culture outlet, finds comparisons between the two understandable but annoying:
It’s true, much of the body of what the [Supergirl trailer and SNL Black Widow video] contain is similar; the emphasis on the lead character’s femininity, the use of romance to scale their possible relationship arc with surrounding characters, and a general ambiance of pink to drive home the effeminate persuasion. It’s a fair comparison at first glance, or at least it seems to be.
Kara Zor-El gets flustered when she meets people she reveres, doesn’t quite know how to deal with a mean boss and isn’t sure if she’s where she wants to be in her professional life. She also needs fashion tips from her big sister, works for a fashion magazine [That’s not actually true; she works for a newspaper] and has to deal with her best friend having a crush on her. None of that is in anyway bad, because that’s the stuff regular 24-year-olds deal with. Natasha Romanoff and Kara are not the same person, because there are different types of women.
That’s true, but I wonder how they’ll feel when they see the full pilot and its She’s All That moment or justify why Kara at one point compares the rush of using her powers to that feeling you get when you’re about to kiss a boy for the first time. Do male superheroes need to have their powers framed in a romantic context? Or is using that analogy okay for Supergirl because it somehow uniquely speaks to the female experience?
In general, we don’t want the Supergirl TV show to be a repeat of the Supergirl movie (or Catwoman or Elektra). We don’t want it to fail and turn into an example of why a certain kind of thing won’t get made in the future. It’s finally a female-fronted superhero show, and as I explained elsewhere on the site I absolutely love the idea of Supergirl giving little girls a positive female role model. The parents of the world can happily show Supergirl to their daughters (or the daughters can find it on their own), delighting in a very basic message of a girl who felt weak but became strong, initially because of her inherent ability but eventually because she believed in herself and leaned on family when she lost her way.
As ScreenRant argued, “It’s a relatable story for viewers from all backgrounds, regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity – we don’t choose the cards we’ve been dealt, but we can choose how to face them.” It is the show co-creator/Executive Producer Greg Berlanti’s nieces had been nagging him to make, sick of their uncle having so much fun with all the boys on Arrow and The Flash but giving them no central female superhero to look up to (I know, I know…Arrow does have Black Canary). When he finally pitched it to CBS’s Entertainment President Nina Tassler she was reportedly moved to tears.
However, the pilot they made is not a particularly nuanced feat of storytelling (although beyond Kara’s relationship with her sister I don’t think nuance was ever one of their goals), and all those things which make Superman a bitch to adapt – the goofy “glasses hide his face” secret identity, he has godlike powers, he has few really good villains – all apply to Supergirl as well. That will be a challenge, and Supergirl shies away from all of that in its first hour. If you like what the comics have done with Supergirl in recent years then you are several decades ahead of this show, which is far more of a throwback, recalling Silver Age comics, Superboy and Smallville on TV and especially the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie. And if you are kind of on the fence after having watched the 6 minute trailer it probably won’t be the pilot but instead the show’s second episode which you’ll need to see to start making up your mind.