Season 1, Episode 17 - "Manhunter"
David Harewood, Melissa Benoist, Chyler Leigh, Dean Cain
US: 21 Mar 2016
One of the best things about Supergirl is David Harewood’s Martian Manhunter. The revelation that Hank Henshaw’s really the shape-shifting extraterrestrial, J’onn J’onnz, transformed that unlikable character into a compelling and interesting part of the Supergirl team. The Manhunter is the last of the Green Martians, an alien and an immigrant to Earth, who has devoted his new life to protecting his adopted planet while hiding his exotic origins.
The Manhunter is one of DC Comics’ lesser known heroes, although he’s been at the center of the DC Universe since the birth of the Justice League of America in 1960. He was an odd choice for original membership in the JLA. His teammates (Aquaman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Superman, and Wonder Woman) were better-known characters with origins in the ‘40s “Golden Age” of superhero comics. Manhunter, on the other hand, was first introduced in 1955, the creation of writer Joseph Samachson and artist Joseph Certa, as a reaction to the outer space craze of that era.
He wasn’t, and isn’t, on the level of his more famous teammates. He did play an important role in those early stories, however, as a stand-in for Superman, whose origins and powers the Manhunter clearly emulated. The heroes even shared a common vulnerability: Superman to kryptonite, the Martian Manhunter to fire. Since Superman and Batman, the most popular of DC heroes, were often absent from the JLA’s adventures in order to prevent overexposure (an unimaginable strategy in today’s comics marketplace), Manhunter did the sorts of things that Superman might otherwise have been called upon to do.
Although he was a central part of those early JLA stories, the character didn’t really come into his own until the ‘80s, when he was called upon to lead the new (post Crisis on Infinite Earths) Justice League. There, for the first time, the Manhunter became a fully fleshed-out character and was transformed into something more than a Superman knock-off. Written by J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, with art by Kevin Maguire, stories about the Manhunter and his team were at once both hilarious and profound. It was my first introduction to the character and he will always be, for me, the fish-out-of-water yet powerfully commanding figure depicted in the pages of that series.
We’ve already seen some of the Martian history of Supergirl‘s Manhunter. The latest episode of the series, “Manhunter”, shows us how J’onn J’onnz came to take up the identity of Hank Henshaw, and how he came to be involved in the life of Kara (Melissa Benoist) and Alex (Chyler Leigh). Much of the episode is told in flashback, where we get to see the Manhunter’s meeting with Kara’s and Alex’s father, played by former Superman, Dean Cain. Likewise, a flashback shows us how the Manhunter first introduced himself to Alex, and how young Kara first used her superpowers to rescue the victims of a car crash.
The episode provides a lot of the backstory that’s only been hinted out until now, and ends with a couple of twists that promise to push the action in new directions. Overall, however, the episode doesn’t quite work. I’d imagined the origins of the Manhunter’s devotion to Alex and Kara to be based on a much deeper relationship to their father than the one that we’re given here; likewise, the story of the Manhunter’s recruitment of Alex. To ask us to believe that the well-trained and serious-minded Alex was, until just three years ago, a hard-drinking party girl, goes against everything we’ve been led to believe about the character up until now. In both instances, the simplified telling of these backstories does some damage to the characters whose motives these stories were meant to elaborate.
I keep waiting for a bit more humor in this series, but so far, even when they embrace the silly Silver Age origins of these characters, things are kept on the serious side. Harewood’s Manhunter captures the authoritative side of the hero, but it wouldn’t hurt the writers to go back and read the terrific DeMatteis, Giffen, and Maguire run in order to see how humor can go a long way towards humanizing a character as exotic as J’onn J’onnz. The ending of this episode suggests that he and Alex are going to be taken in a new direction, a promising development considering that plotlines involving the D.E.O. are often the weakest part of this show.
The exciting news is that the next episode will feature a crossover with the Flash (Grant Gustin) from the CW series. That series manages to balance comic book camp with human drama in a way that Supergirl would do well to emulate. Of course, I’m not asking that Supergirl completely change its tone to match that of the lighter Flash. It might be nice, however, if this series, which has time and again told stories about immigrants, could find a way to make those stories a bit less cautionary and a bit more inspirational.