The pilot episode of Supergirl offers its own version of the old Superman tagline: You will believe a woman can fly!
SupergirlAirtime: Mondays, 8 pm
Cast: Melissa Benoist, Calista Flockhart, Owain Yeoman, David Harewood, Chyler Leigh, Mehcad Brooks, Laura Benanti
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "Pilot"
Air date: 2015-10-26
With the first season of Netflix's Daredevil, Marvel proved that their superheroes can work just as well in episodic television as in 3-D summer blockbuster movies. (ABC's mostly mediocre Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was supposed to demonstrate the adaptability of the Marvel universe to television, but is only now beginning to live up to its potential.) Daredevil also demonstrated that the upbeat and family friendly "Marvel Cinematic Universe" has a place for dark and gritty storytelling. Likewise, CW's The Flash, and to a lesser extent Arrow, have proven that DC Comics characters can make for really good television as well. The Flash, in particular, has also shown that stories about DC characters can be light and breezy, in contrast to the "realistic" and ponderous films that DC heroes tend to inhabit.
CBS's new series, Supergirl, reinforces the success of The Flash. Like The Flash, Supergirl manages to capture the comic book spirit of the characters without becoming either too unbelievable or overly ironic. As a matter of fact, the Supergirl pilot feels more true to the Superman family of characters than either 2006's Superman Returns or 2013's Man of Steel. Unlike those films, and even though the Man of Tomorrow makes only the briefest of appearances here, this episode actually feels like a Superman story.
Melissa Benoist is perfectly cast as the new hero in National City and, like Christopher Reeve, manages to fully inhabit both the role of Kara Danvers, personal assistant to media mogul Cat Grant (wonderfully played by Calista Flockhart), and the role of Supergirl, strange visitor from another planet with the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and bend steel with her bare hands. Benoist brings energy to every scene and manages to make the already strong script seem even better than it really is. Frankly, I found myself mesmerized by her performance (and not in the creepy Jeb Bush sense).
Benoist's Supergirl is a rarity among DC superheroes these days, and I’m not just referring to the fact that she’s a woman. This Supergirl is a rarity because she, like Grant Gustin's Flash, actually seems to enjoy her superpowers. Unlike Christian Bale's Batman or Henry Cavill's Superman, Benoist's Supergirl seems to really get a thrill from her great power, instead of just being moody about the great responsibility that, as Stan Lee has taught us, such power entails. Benoist manages to make this nearly all-powerful hero seem downright human. When she takes to the air and stops an airplane from crashing into the Otto Binder Bridge, the moment is thrilling, not just because of the above-average special effects, but because Benoist actually seems to be having fun. It is mostly because of Benoist's talents that "you will believe a woman can fly!"
Not that everything is pitch perfect on this first outing, however. Overall, the episode suffers from a problem common to pilot episodes, especially when the episode is constrained by an hour-long timeslot. Everything here seems a bit rushed. I would have liked to have spent more time with Kara and her office mates and friends, and I would have liked to have seen more interactions between Kara and Cat Grant, the two characters who seem to have the most chemistry so far. Another hour would have allowed the show to breathe a bit more, and would have allowed us to see more of Kara's life before she decides to emulate her super-cousin and take to the skies over National City. This bodes well for the future of the show, of course. Wanting to see more of the characters is a whole lot better than wanting to see less of them.
A more serious problem with this first episode is that the villain turns out to be pretty boring. Owain Yeoman, as Vartox, is given very little chance to flesh out his character, an extraterrestrial who has been hiding on Earth for years waiting for Kara to reveal herself. Vartox is one of many alien convicts living on Earth following their escape from a Kryptonian prison. Here's hoping that these bad guys are going to do more than slug it out with Supergirl at the end of each week's episode.
I'm also a little worried about the show's Department of Extra-Normal Operations, led by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood). The DEO, which includes Kara's sister Alex (Chyler Leigh), is tasked with monitoring the alien threats. Considering that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is deep in a plot line involving Inhumans and the Advanced Threat Containment Unit while The Flash has introduced its own Meta-Human Task Force, it may prove difficult for Supergirl to make this storyline seem anything other than derivative.
These are minor quibbles for a TV pilot as strong as Supergirl. It may not yet be as good as The Flash, but it has a lot of promise. As the father of an 11-year-old daughter, I'm more than willing to give this show time to grow and find its footing. After all, it feels downright radical to watch a female superhero on a major television network. And even though Superman and his stand-in, Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), strike something of a patronizing pose toward the new superhero, the program is chock-full of other strong female characters, including Kara's mother and her mother's evil twin-sister (both played by Laura Benanti).
Supergirl’s self-aware enough concerning the importance of its message about women that it addresses one of the major complaints about the character head on. Why can't she be called "Superwoman," Kara wants to know. Cat, who coined the name, insists that to object to the title "Supergirl" is to imply that there is something wrong with being a girl. This answer may not satisfy everyone, but at least it indicates that the writers aren't afraid to address such issues. We'll see where they go in the future.
Of course, the real challenge for television isn’t just to defend the name of the hero, but to depict a female character who is strong, smart, independent, and brave. Names be damned; if they do can do that, we'll know that this "girl" is a woman.