"Fight or Flight"
Melissa Benoist, Mechad Brooks, Calista Flockhart
Regular airtime: Mondays, 8 pm
US: 9 Nov 2015
Jimmy Olsen: he’s Superman’s pal, a cub reporter and photographer who works beside Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the offices of The Daily Planet—a great metropolitan newspaper. He gets in trouble a lot and relies on his friendship with the Man of Steel, and the Superman signal watch that he wears on his wrist, to escape the most dangerous situations. He first appeared, not in the pages of comic books, but on the Adventures of Superman radio show in the spring of 1940. He then made the jump from radio to comics, but his time there was short-lived.
Later, in the early ‘50s, he came back in a big way, first as a regular on the Adventures of Superman television series, where Jack Larson played the character alongside George Reeves’ Superman and Noel Neill’s Lois Lane, and then in the pages of DC Comics.
In 1954, in the heart of what is usually referred to as the Silver Age of Comics, he starred in his own book, the self-titled Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. His adventures were bizarre, to say the least, and often involved Superman making an appearance to clean up the messes that Jimmy had inadvertently made. Hence the Superman signal watch. This Silver Age Jimmy Olsen, of both comics and television, laid out the basic core of the character. He’s the guy that Superman has to save; the male version of Lois Lane.
Of course, over time, the character has matured a good bit. In 1973, the great Jack Kirby made the jump from Marvel Comics and took over Jimmy’s book to make it a central part of his great “Fourth World” saga. (Legend has it that Kirby took this book, rather than one of the flagship Superman titles, because, unlike the others, it didn’t have an established creative team. Apparently, he didn’t want to be responsible for anyone losing a job.) Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen was an adventurer who teamed with the Newsboy Legion to explore the wilder and woollier parts of Kirby’s new corner of the DC universe.
Jimmy has played minor roles in the Superman story ever since. He’s there in the Superman movies and television shows. And he’s there in the many comic book incarnations of Superman. He has, from time to time, gained temporary superpowers, been transformed into a monster, and saved the day. But, at heart, Jimmy’s the perfect victim, the innocent who needs saving, the guy who is damned lucky to have Superman as his best friend.
In this week’s episode of the promising new CBS series, Supergirl, Jimmy (who prefers to be called James) is at the center of the story. This Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) is a decidedly more mature version of the character, an award-winning photographer who has left Metropolis and The Daily Planet to work for Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) in National City. He’s an old friend of Superman, and someone who’s in the know about the secret identity of both the Man of Steel and his super cousin, Kara (Melissa Benoist). As played by Mechad Brooks, this Olsen hardly looks like someone who needs anyone to save him from trouble.
Indeed, since he’s been asked by Superman to watch over the young Kara, in the first couple of episodes of the series he’s seemed more like a stand-in for the hero, like an authority figure that Kara can turn to when she is in over her head. The whole relationship had me a little troubled. Supergirl, after all, should be the hero of this piece, not the victim who has to be saved, either by Superman or his proxy.
The latest episode, “Fight or Flight”, tackles this problem head on. Is Supergirl a hero in her own right or just a junior version of her more famous cousin? Indeed, this is a question confronted by most of main players in this drama, including Supergirl herself.
“Who are you?” Cat Grant wants to know in the opening scene as Supergirl hovers in the air above her. Grant decides that Supergirl is a novice version of the great Metropolis Superman, that she’s a typical member of the millennial generation, a generation who believes that they deserve to be heroes but who take no real risks because they are always just a phone call away from being saved by their parents, a generation of Jimmy Olsens charging into danger with their Superman watches on their wrists.
This week’s episode is Supergirl’s, and the show’s, answer to the questions of whether Supergirl is a hero or a victim in need of rescue, of whether she must always stand in Superman’s shadow. The answer involves Jimmy Olsen, his Superman watch, an appearance by the Man of Tomorrow himself, and a battle with a villain that even Superman has been unable to stop.
“Fight of Flight” is, I think, the best episode yet in this delightful new series. Supergirl finally gets to battle a non-alien villain of the week in a story that seems more integrated into the larger episode than what we have seen in previous installments. More time is taken to explore the personal relationships between Kara and her friends and co-workers, which is by far the strongest part of the show. The battle scenes are fantastically done. Cat Grant throws a party where the servers are dressed like Supergirl, Peter Facinelli gets the chance to shine as Jack Kirby-creation Maxwell Lord, and Jimmy Olsen (James if you prefer), gets to use his Superman signal watch.
Most importantly, Supergirl proves that she’s neither Jimmy Olsen nor Lois Lane. She’s a hero, not a victim. She’s here to save, not be saved.
As it should be.