“I feel like I'm not living up to my potential,” Kara admits to her sister Alex. “I have the same powers he does! I can lift a bus, stop a bullet. Alex, I can fly!”
The “he” is Superman, Kara's celebrated cousin. Like Kara – (slightly) better known as “Supergirl,” and now the star of her own TV series (it debuts Monday at 8:30 on CBS) – points out, they come from the same planet, and have the same powers, but he's an icon and she never seems to find her place.
That line about squandered potential could just as easily be applied to many of the writers responsible for crafting Kara's adventures over the years, going back to her comic book debut in 1959. Despite being Superman's equal, strength-wise, the “girl” in her name was treated as doubly diminutive. Superman was there to save the world, Supergirl was there to have boy trouble, including that one weird story where her beloved superhorse Comet turned into a man and dated her(*). If there was a definitive Supergirl story, it was either the terrible 1984 film with Helen Slater(**) or the 1985 issue of “Crisis On Infinite Earths” where she died. Every now and then, someone figures out how to properly use her (like the '90s animated version, even factoring in the belly shirt), but for the most part, the idea of Supergirl has far exceeded the reality of Supergirl.
(*) “We will not do bestiality for Supergirl,” promised one of the show's producers, in an interview that also covers whether the Superman referenced in the show is meant to be Henry Cavill's version or not, why it would be complicated to have her cross over with DC's other superhero TV shows, and more.
(**) In a nod to the history of both super-powered cousins, Slater and “Lois & Clark” star Dean Cain play Kara's adoptive human parents.
This new version, developed by Ali Adler and also executive produced by “Arrow” and “Flash” veterans Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Sarah Schechter, nimbly tackles that problem head-on. In the pilot episode, at least (CBS declined to make additional episodes available until after the premiere), it's a fun riff on the many things these two survivors of the planet Krypton have in common, and the challenge she has of living in his shadow.
The series even tweaks the origin of Kara (played here by Melissa Benoist from “Glee”) to make this even more of the point. In most versions of her story, Kara is Superman's younger cousin, who turns up on Earth only after he's been here awhile, and who needs his protection and mentorship. Here, she starts out older, and is being sent to Earth at the same time as him specifically to be her baby cousin's bodyguard until he can fully grow into his powers. But her ship gets knocked off course, and she doesn't arrive at her final destination (not having aged at all, thanks to the usual timey-wimey comic book science) until he's an adult who's already made his costumed debut.
“Even though I had all the same powers he did, I decided the best thing I could do was fit in,” she explains, echoing the choices many girls and women are socially conditioned to make, rather than to demonstrate their own strengths.
She does follow her cousin into the newspaper world, but on a lower level, winding up as assistant to National City media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), mostly fetching coffee, and hiding behind a pair of mousy spectacles. (It's a wink to Clark Kent, but the pilot still manages to do a version of the old, “Why, without your glasses, you're beautiful!” gag.) Then a plane carrying adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) is about to crash, and Kara gets to make like Superman and debut saving a falling aircraft.
It's an exciting sequence, and one the pilot wisely doesn't waste time getting to. Instead, the bulk of the premiere is devoted to Kara fine-tuning her new heroic identity – there's a fashion montage of sorts, but all involving her and work confidante Winn (Jeremy Jordan) figuring out the practical realities of a costume for someone who can fly and is bullet-proof – and then discovering that she and Superman aren't the only aliens on planet Earth, and the others aren't nearly as nice.
Benoist occasionally overdoes Kara's nerdy side (though you could argue that it's Kara overdoing it so no one sees through the secret identity), but on the whole hits the right balance between exuberance at what she can do now that she's stopped hiding, and tentativeness at having to be responsible for protecting an entire city, and possibly an entire world. Between Stephen Amell on “Arrow” and Grant Gustin on “The Flash,” Berlanti's casting people know what they're doing when it comes to picking out plausible superhero stars.
Though Superman appears briefly just out of frame in one scene, and as a blurry photo in another, the show never mentions him by name, always referring to him as “he” or “your cousin.” Whether that's editorial fiat from DC Comics, or the creative team's own choice to emphasize that this is Supergirl's story, it ultimately becomes more distracting than if people were allowed to actually say the name now and then.
But if that decision seems more trouble than it's worth, the “Supergirl” pilot is smart in tackling other parts of the mythology, starting with the heroine's own name. In this version, Cat Grant coins it, and Adler gives Flockhart – who, a generation ago, was a very different kind of female icon as Ally McBeal – a sharp monologue about why the word “girl” shouldn't be a pejorative:
“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?”
The pilot doesn't try to hide its aspirations – at one point, a truck stop waitress observes, “Can you believe it? A female hero. Nice for my daughter to have someone to look up to.” – and mostly finds a happy medium between being a show little girls can watch and one adults will find thrilling. The alien villains lean more towards the latter, but while they might be intense for young kids, the show's not ultra-violent and for now, at least, there are only the vaguest intimations of a love triangle involving Kara, Winn, and Mehcad Brooks as an older, handsomer, more confident version of Jimmy Olsen who prefers to go by James these days. The tone isn't the bleak, grey one of Zack Snyder's superhero movies, but something lighter and more closely resembling the classic Richard Donner Superman films, which is a good match of style and character.
By the time of the climactic fight with Vartox (who unfortunately has updated his wardrobe from his '70s comic book introduction), the show is really hammering home its themes of underestimation, where Supergirl's new military liaison Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) suggests she's not strong enough to win, prompting Alex to ask, “Why? Because she's just a girl?” But Benoist is appealing enough, and the action sequences impressive enough, that the show gets away with the lack of subtlety. It's a competent superhero show made by people who've been doing this a while (even though Adler's new to the DC TV universe, she wrote for “Chuck” and co-created “No Ordinary Family” with Berlanti) and have gotten better at it with each new stage of things.
Besides, subtlety seems a bit besides the point when you wear a red cape and a blue costume with a giant S on your chest – whether you're Superman or this winning version of Supergirl.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org