Things like the appearance of J’onn J’onzz (the Martian Manhunter) and the upcoming crossover with The Flash have, along with the show’s own merits, insured Supergirl‘s rightful place among television’s most-compelling primetime dramas. Yet the Greg Berlanti-produced series has been hampered at times by other elements, one of the most prominent being the way in which directors tend to shoot its action beats. They often frame and pace them in an awkward, disconnected manner — leaving viewers hopeful that an expected Berlanti-esque dramatic beat is on the horizon. That’s possibly why Lexi Alexander was brought on to direct “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”
For starters, per Alexander’s interview with HitFix, Berlanti has a mandate that “he doesn’t want to be a company that doesn’t include women and people of color.” It’s a nice sentiment on paper. It’s even better to see a powerful person in the industry putting his words into action, especially because only two of the nine directors responsible for the previous 13 episodes were women.
Then again, Alexander’s gender isn’t the chief reason why her hiring was a good thing. As her work on “Truth, Justice and the American Way” demonstrates, the former professional fighter and stuntwoman’s expertise on all things action proves that she’s a directorial force to be reckoned with. As she has demonstrated with films like the Oscar-nominated short Johnny Flynton, festival darling Green Street Hooligans, and the insatiably violent Punisher: War Zone, Alexander knows how to do action better than most.
Consider a brief comparison between two fight scenes, one from “For the Girl Who Has Everything” and the second from Alexander’s episode on Monday. The former was directed by Dermott Downs, a Berlanti regular whose directing and cinematography credits include Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, as well as Gotham, CSI: Cyber, and The Tomorrow People. Most of Downs’ work revolves around dramas on The CW and occasional one-offs on similar shows airing on other networks. His direction is good, but when it comes to action, Downs tends to cram too much into his frame and keep the camera running for much longer than audiences expect, as when Astra (Laura Benanti) faces off with J’onzz (David Harewood) for a few beats in “For the Girl Who Has Everything.”
The two fight for about a solid 20 seconds’ worth of action, and most of it takes place off camera. And while this has much to do with the fact that the two characters are superpowered beings whose flight and speed allows them to blink past their human counterparts, it doesn’t preclude their actions making it onto the screen. Maybe Downs was trying to portray the battle from a non-superpowered perspective. This would make sense, especially when the camera mirrors a would-be bystander’s attempt to follow Astra and J’onzz as they speed up the side of a nearby building. Then again, it also doesn’t make any sense. Downs has no reason to try to make such a connection. If a human audience were present in the scene besides Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), the perspective would work, but because no such group is present (and Alex is in the shot), it doesn’t work.
Enter the biggest of several action scenes in “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” in which Alexander pits Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) against the episode’s villain, the Master Jailer (Jeff Branson) for the first time. While one of the Jailer’s victims cowers in the background, the two duke it out in a match made even by the antagonist’s armor and iconic chains. Supergirl is just as fast as Astra and J’onzz were before her, but Alexander keeps the camera focused on her movements more often than not. Such is possible not by slowing down the heroine’s movements, per se, but by speeding up the camera’s tracking and multiplying the number of cuts significantly.
Is it perfect? No, especially when it comes to the scene’s editing and sound mix. As great as the action is, the higher number of shots encourages just as many edits, and Alexander’s countless camera placements made for some frenetic cutting. Add on an uneven mix of onsite audio, added sound effects and musical score, and boom — an action-packed fight between the hero and villain that seems a little too packed at times.
Yet that action itself is good, and its frequency throughout Supergirl and Master Jailer’s many punches, blocks and throws makes for one of the series’ most intense beats. Alexander puts her personal and directorial experience with fight choreography and stunt work to good use in “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” and it shines throughout this moment in particular. Supergirl viewers can only hope that Berlanti and his crew keep the hits coming through the season finale’s crossover event in April.