‘Supergirl’ producers: ‘Superman’s not in the show is because it’s not about him

When CBS unveiled the first extended trailer for “Supergirl” – its entree into the ubiquitous new world of TV superhero action, as well as the network's biggest priority for this TV season – in May, many fan's immediate reaction was to note the unfortunate similarities to the recent “Saturday Night Live” parody trailer for a “Black Widow” movie that suggested any female superhero story would be presented as a  romantic comedy.

But while the “Supergirl” trailer definitely played up the most “Devil Wears Prada”-ish aspects – where the title character (Melissa Benoist) in her civilian identity is the mousy assistant to a snarling media mogul played by Calista Flockhart, and has bad luck in the dating department – that's only one component of the full pilot, which has a lot of action, and a lot of discussion about how Supergirl should be taken every bit as seriously as her more celebrated male cousin.

Some of that trailer reaction, though, seemed as much about the long and often very clumsy history of Supergirl as it did about what people were actually watching. Introduced to the comics world in 1959, Supergirl's a character that DC writers have often struggled to know what to do with, emphasizing her romantic struggles, or her feelings of inadequacy compared to Superman (even though their powers are identical), either because it was assumed that's what the audience wanted, or because that's all most of her writers could think to do with her. For a long time, the most memorable Supergirl story was the one (in 1985's “Crisis on Infinite Earths”) where she died.

So there's an assumption, at least among comics fandom, that Supergirl will default to that simpering rom-com mode without the proper writers in charge. In the case of the CBS show (which debuts on October 26 at 8 p.m.), the pilot's writer is Ali Adler, who's written both strong women and superhero-ish characters on “Chuck” and “No Ordinary Family,” while Adler's fellow executive producers include Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Sarah Schachter, who have been working for years on the CW's “Arrow” and “The Flash.” They know the world and they know how to make it work on television.

At press tour, I sat down with the quartet to discuss their vision for the character, how they intend to work around the absence of Superman (who exists in the show's universe but will never appear as more than a blur in the background), why it would be complicated to attempt a crossover with either of the CW shows, plans for some of the weirder Supergirl supporting players like Streaky and Comet, and a lot more.

In your version of the universe, Superman is never going to appear, but he is discussed.  Is that Superman supposed to be the Superman of the movies or not?

Sarah Shechter:    I really think it doesn”t matter.  I think that this whole notion that we did Supergirl because Superman wasn”t available is wrong.  I think that Supergirl is such an interesting character and is so under-explored that the opportunity there was so enormous.  And I think the reason why Superman”s not in the show is because it”s not about him.  And it”s her show and it”s about her and he is just sort of a shadow in the back of her psyche, and I think that”s the right way to portray him because that”s how she experiences it.

Andrew Kreisberg:    But it”s not specifically the Christopher Reeve tie in to the universe.  It”s not the Christopher Reeve version.  It”s not the Henry Cavill version.  It”s a version of Superman and what he has gone through in the world that we live in and the things that he”s faced and what”s happened to him vis-a-vis how it reflects on Kara is all our invention.

In the CW shows, when things get really, really bad, Arrow and Flash can team up.  You”ve introduced a major ongoing threat to the world in this pilot, and Superman does exist in this world.  Have you guys figured out how to explain why they won't be teaming up?

Ali Adler:    We will find a way to address that question.

Andrew Kreisberg:    It”s actually one of the big storylines of the third episode about what Superman means in this world, what he means to Kara and what people”s view of him is in relation to her.  Kara says says to somebody, like, “I don”t want to be his cousin, you know, I want him to be my cousin.  And I want people to think of me in the same way that they think about him.”  And it”s really the episode where the city starts to turn towards supporting her in a way that they previously hadn”t.

I once had a roommate who was obsessed with Supergirl, and she would go on these long rants about how she loved the idea of the character but almost never the execution of the character.  She reminded me about this panel…

Andrew Kreisberg:    I love that panel.

Ali Adler: Awww… But that's not our Supergirl.

Greg Berlanti:    I remember when she had the little S.

The little S and the hot pants.

Ali Adler:    I think it”s the carnation S that is making her not succeed with men.

Andrew Kreisberg:    The only girl in Kansas without a date.

Greg Berlanti:    And there's at times been an over-sexualization in this character too, which is also not at all what we”re trying to do.

But I think that history is part of why you guys ran into the reaction to the trailer that you did, where any kind of relationship story, or any moment where she”s vulnerable, you”re going to be judged so much more harshly with a female hero than if, say, Flash gets emotional about something.  How do you approach that, because that”s a part of who she is?

Sarah Shechter:    I think we want this to be, to quote Greg, what would this show be if she didn”t have super powers?  And I think exploring her personal life and her romantic life is a very interesting area for any television show.  But it”s not a romantic comedy, you know.  There”s action adventure, but that”s not all it is.  There”s all this genre exploration, but that”s not all it is.  And the wonderful thing about the show for us anyway is that it is all those things.

Andrew Kreisberg:    You could take the Richard Donner Superman movie and cut a similar trailer if you had all the fun, romantic aspect of it.  And it”s a show about a 24-year-old girl.  And one aspect of any 24-year-old woman”s life is that she”s dating.

Sarah Shechter:    It definitely works for that.

Andrew Kreisberg:    And so there will be that aspect to it, but it”s also a…

Ali Adler:    I guarantee if there”s danger out there and she”s about to go on a date, she”s always going to choose danger.

Greg Berlanti:    But it”s also a workplace comedy.  It”s a spy thriller.  It”s an adventure show.  It”s a superhero show.  It”s a family drama.  It has all those things.  It”s just one aspect of it.

There's a big action set piece early in the pilot, and then a big battle late between Supergirl and Vartox. Some combination of you four has worked on both “No Ordinary Family” and “The Flash,” so you have some level of experience with doing super-powered action on network TV.  Have you had a sense yet of whether you can do things that big weekly or not?

Greg Berlanti:    There”s a bigger fight in the second episode than there is in anything in the first episode.  I think we learned a lot from “Flash” is in terms of the prep work that happens.  It starts months in advance. Before we even have outlines for the scripts we start, visualizing and storyboarding some of the sequences.  And sometimes we don”t finish them until a day or so before air.  So you have eight, nine weeks working on a shot and you have to be really organized about that element of the show and know that you have more flexibility.  And you have to get the network and the studio to sign off on that element of it a lot earlier, so that you can actually start fabricating them.  

Andrew Kreisberg:    It”s actually a weird mix of “Arrow” and “Flash,” because it obviously has the digital effects that “Flash” does but it actually has a lot more stunt work.  There”s a lot more actual stunt people fighting.

Greg Berlanti:    And more aerial stunt stuff than we have on either of the shows.

Sarah Shechter:    And Flash has a mask, whereas we really need to put this girl front and center.

So do you have to start with the action and figure out everything else later to match it?

Sarah Shechter:    Just with some of it.  One of the things I think that made people fall in love with “Flash” was it didn”t feel like, “Oh, this is a level below film.” It”s the same high standard regardless of where people are watching things.  So I think with the things that have to be visual, you have to just plan in advance.

Ali Adler:    I feel like the second episode really competes with or even bypasses the pilot.

Greg Berlanti:    Right now it feels a little bigger than the pilot.

The pilot, as you've talked about, really has the lighter feel of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman movies, and that”s not at all the tone that the DC movies have been going for of late.  Was there any pushback from DC in your dealings with them when you said you wanted a lighter tone for Supergirl?

Ali Adler:    No, they said, “Go find Supergirl.”

Andrew Kreisberg:    I think they just want their universe, just like in the books, to be all those different colors. And they also know that that”s a lot of all of our strengths.  We move more in those waters.  And plus that tone is good for being on television, I think, where people want to come every week.  It doesn”t mean we don”t have danger and gravitas and hopefully the same stakes when we need them.  But there is just an element of fun that I think lends itself to the TV side of it.

One of the things you guys did with “Arrow” is you took in a bunch of Batman villains who were not necessarily going to be in use in an upcoming Batman movie.  By the same token, Vartox is more of a Superman supporting character.

Andrew Kreisberg:    We have both.

Greg Berlanti:    Supergirl.  Superman.  Some other ones from other characters. We go off planet on this show, which that introduced a whole level of villains that we haven”t been able to on the other shows.  

Ali Adler:    The Fort Rozz escapees.

Andrew Kreisberg:    That group will be made up of alien villains from across the DC Universe canon.

I know Nina (Tassler) said there aren”t going to be crossovers, but do your versions of Flash and Arrow exist in some other neighborhood of her world?

Greg Berlanti:    Look I think in success anything”s possible but the reality is, on “Flash” and “Arrow” we haven”t mentioned Superman, and Superman”s in this universe.  So we would have to do a bit of our own retconning if we were ever to make that a possibility.  So that hasn”t happened yet but, again, if the show does well on its own, I think anything”s possible.

Are there any plans for Streaky the Supercat or Comet the Superhorse?

(all laugh)

Andrew Kreisberg:    By the way, there”s probably been far more Streaky and Comet talk in the writer”s room than the public imagines.  As always, one of those fun things of the show is taking all of those fun things and finding different ways to do them.

Comet is just ridiculous.  Like, it”s a horse, and a centaur, and her boyfriend.

Andrew Kreisberg:    Comet was added because somewhere they all thought, “Oh, girls like horses.”

Sarah Shechter:    It predated My Little Pony.

Greg Berlanti:     Superman and My Little Pony put together?

But they take it to the extreme that she dates Comet.

Sarah Shechter:    That is insane.

I assume you”re not going to that if Comet does appear.

Sarah Shechter:     We will not do bestiality for Supergirl.

Supergirl has been through a lot of costumes over the years, and at one point, DC would invite readers to send in their own costume designs and she would wear them. The one she ends up with here looks like it”s made of the same kind of material that Henry Cavill wears in the movies. How did you decide on exactly what you wanted?

Sarah Shechter:    We just said, “Let”s ask the Academy Award winner.”  So we really let (Colleen Atwood) do her thing and had tiny thoughts.  And everything is so thoughtful with her.  She knows the etymology of every stitch.  It”s very well thought out and it feels like a practical suit.  Like, if I were going to be super, I would wear that suit.  I don”t need to run like Wonder Woman like this when I want to save people with no straps on my top.  She”s amazing.

Andrew Kreisberg:    One of the great things that Colleen does is that it”s not running away from what the character is.  I think a lot of times Supergirl, but female comic book heroes in general, their costumes go through all these crazy iterations, because people are afraid of embracing what it really is.  And Colleen finds a way to make this classic look feel contemporary.  And she did that with the Arrow outfit.  She did that with the Flash outfit.

Ali Adler:    She has thumbholes and she has boots above her knee and there”s fun with it, but it”s very fresh.

That was a feeling for a while before the shows you guys have been doing, where producers felt they had to normalize it. “Heroes” or even “Smallville” went out of their way to keep superheroes out of superhero costumes.

Greg Berlanti:    I think with the plethora of all these films, you can”t try and do that for a superhero show on TV when people can go to the movies and see the characters in their uniforms. We had to compete with those things.  And so every time we”ve done one of these, we”ve gotten even faster and faster to the suit. And even faster to people finding out their secret, to a certain extent.  And with this one, we have a lot more characters who know who she is.  Just so that we can  think move on with the storytelling.

One of things I”ve discovered in watching “Arrow” and “Flash” is I”m much less patient about secret identities than I was reading comic books growing up.

Greg Berlanti:    Right.  I think that's the audience right now, and we discovered that while we”re going on.  It”s like with Iris last year on “Flash,” midway through the year: Why doesn't she know? We knew she was going to find out at the end of the season, and that would have been so revolutionary before.  I mean, we”re glad we at least had to have her, you know, find out at that point.  

Andrew Kreisberg:    But it”s funny.  You look back at  “Arrow” in the beginning, in the pilot there”s no other character that knew his identity, knew his secret.  And, you know, the minute Diggle found out, the minute Felicity found out, the show suddenly became so much more interesting.

Do you have access to Lex Luthor”s sister Lena (a supporting character in some Supergirl stories) or not?

Andrew Kreisberg:    That”s interesting.  I don”t know.  

Greg Berlanti:    We haven”t asked about it yet.

Andrew Kreisberg:    DC”s been really amazing.  Georff Johns has obviously been our partner in all of this and they”ve been incredibly supportive about letting us sort of play in the Superman sandbox.  We”ve got access to all the Flash characters and stuff, and there”s obviously some of the characters that are associated with the films that we won”t be able to touch on.  But we”re very happy with the characters that we do have.

Supergirl's a character who's been in a lot of stories since 1949, but somehow the most definitive Supergirl comic book story is the one where she dies.

Greg Berlanti:    Right.

Is there a comic book story featuring her that you look at and say, “This is what we”re trying to do”?

Andrew Kreisberg:    I think, like with any of the things that we”ve done, we cherry pick the best bits.  None of these shows are direct adaptations of any specific comic book.  Obviously, with “Flash” we took aspects of “Rebirth” and “Flashpoint” for season 1, but it”s chock full of stuff from all the versions. And I think thatthere”s little bits of her from the '50s in this show, there's obviously little bits of the Jeph Loeb version of it.  But there”s even little bits of the movie.  Obviously Helen Slater”s in it. I think for us, it”s always finding the kernels throughout the history as opposed to glomming onto one specific storyline that really spoke to us.

But does the fact that there isn”t a definitive Supergirl story actually help?

Sarah Shechter:    That”s what”s exciting for us, is that our canvas is much more easily painted because people aren”t stuck in ideas of who Superman is want this version or that version. We get to take the most choice bits, as Andrew was saying, and weave it together and just give you our Supergirl.

Andrew Kreisberg:    People are surprised when I tell them we work on “Supergirl.”  How many people actually don”t know who she is, even ones in the general public and are comic book fans.  But which in a way is exciting, because that means that we”re able to bring a lot more to it.  And that all you really need to come to the show is just like a little bit of knowledge of Superman for you to enjoy the meal.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com