It’s rare for any hero who isn’t Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he’s Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?
In that context, Supergirl has a greater advantage than most and not just because she’s Superman’s cousin and bears the same emblem when she’s out being a hero. She comes from the same lineage and traditions as Superman. She has his unflinching support, more so than any woman not named Lois Lane. In a sense, she has fewer excuses than most heroes for not having a similar level of implicit trust among the public. That’s exactly why the situation she finds herself in with Supergirl #16 is so intriguing.
Taking a page right out of The CW’s Supergirl TV show, Steve Orlando and Jody Houser give her a city to call home, one in which she can establish herself as the kind of hero who deserves to wield the same emblem as Superman. National City is no Metropolis, but it bears many of the same traits. It’s a vibrant city full of people who are more eager than any resident in Gotham to embrace a hero. To her credit, Kara makes the most of that opportunity, especially after the events of DC Rebirth #1. However, the events surrounding Supergirl #16 count as both a setback and a reminder of why such credibility is so rare, even for blood relatives of Superman.
It’s not just bad PR that Supergirl is dealing with. The Department of Extranormal Operations, which had previously been an important ally, is now working against her. Eliza and Jerimiah, her adopted parents, once kept that from happening, but they’re no longer with the organization and utterly powerless to intervene. Even for someone as powerful as Supergirl, it creates a very different environment in which to be a hero.
People aren’t cheering her on, thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie. They aren’t reacting with fear or dread either, which is a big reason why Batman can get away with having such limited credibility. They see Supergirl saving the day, but they also see someone they don’t trust. Unfortunately, events throughout the series give the average person plenty of reasons to question her more than her cousin. Much of that is a product of bad circumstances, inexperience, and being a teenager. Her ability to still raise to the occasion, like her cousin, is a big part of what gives Supergirl her appeal.
(via DC Comics)
Supergirl #16 presents her with a unique opportunity to confront and navigate this trust disparity. It’s an opportunity that Superman doesn’t face as often anymore and one that offers Supergirl a chance to set herself apart. Initially, the narrative gives promise that, even in the face of public mistrust and one too many enemies in the DEO, she’ll still rise to the challenge and be the hero that everyone expects her to be. However, this narrative collapses quickly.
The events that play out, from Supergirl’s clash with Sharon Vance to her uncomfortable encounters with DEO agents, effectively throw away any notion that Kara will have to win the public’s trust the hard way. It’s not long before a generic conspiracy/smear campaign emerges, revealing that her struggles have less to do with her growing into a great hero and more to do with evil villains working against her. In terms of establishing a growth period for a hero, it’s basically the equivalent of letting someone take a shortcut.
The subversive efforts of the villains involved effectively ensure that things will snap back to normal fairly easily once Supergirl learns the truth. It’s akin to disabling a mind-control device or revealing that someone accepted bribes from Lex Luthor. It reduces what could’ve been an important step in the maturation of a hero to simply finding the right person to punch and letting that act solve all the necessary issues.
While this revelation overly simplifies the narrative, it also helps to create new opportunities in the sense that it puts Supergirl within a different conflict. The plot surrounding her winning back the trust of the public may have collapsed, but in its place is a different kind of conflict that relies on her having to do more than just find who to punch.
Orlando and Houser use this as an opportunity to get Kara’s friends and adopted parents involved, which helps strengthen the support structure that helps guide Supergirl through her narrative. It also reveals a larger threat with more menacing villains, which is always a challenge whenever a hero has power on the same level as Superman. Kara, being a teenage girl as well, adds more complications, albeit the kind that keep her likable.
While the overall plot in Supergirl #16 is disappointing in that it abandons a potentially rich concept, the story isn’t completely derailed, nor does it undermine Supergirl’s inherent heroism. It’s tempting in the era of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder movies to have heroes endlessly doubt their worth in the face of declining public support. Supergirl never gives into that temptation. She just grits her teeth, puts on that iconic cape, and does what she can within a messy situation. That’s what makes her a good hero, even when she misses out on a major opportunity to prove it.