Despite Jeb Bush’s commentary, there is more to “Supergirl” than the fact that Melissa Benoist is “pretty hot.” “Supergirl,” CBS’s newest Monday night attempt to capture a young adult audience, is far from super. But the mere fact that it has a female lead, in a genre where they are about as common as quality Nicholas Cage movies, makes it culturally significant. We spent much of our childhoods watching cartoons like “Superman: The Animated Series,” “X-men: Evolution,” and “Batman: The Animated Series,” as well as movies like Christopher Reeve’s Superman (and unfortunately all of its sequels). Later on we enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and even watched a bit of “Smallville,” before it turned into a soap opera. Yet throughout our superhero-filled childhoods we personally never once saw a superhero movie or TV show with a female protagonist. Why?
In the last thirty years there have only been three superhero movies with female protagonists: Supergirl (1984), Catwoman (2004), and Elektra (2005). All three movies performed terribly (and currently score between 7% & 10% on Rotten Tomatoes). The failure of these movies has apparently deterred studios from producing more female superhero movies or television shows for quite some time. However, recently a few studios are starting to test the waters. Perhaps this is due to the recent popularity of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), heroine in The Hunger Games, perhaps studios are finally realizing that women make up at least half of the moviegoing population (according to the Motion Picture Association of America), or perhaps at long last they’ve gotten over the sour taste of their past failures.
Unfortunately, “Supergirl” is a bit too similar to many of the children’s cartoons we watched as kids: predictably written, poorly acted, and littered with minor plot holes and contrivances. Granted, many successful television shows are far from critical masterpieces. The characters in “Seinfeld,” for instance, undergo less character development than Wilson does in the film Cast Away, yet “Seinfeld” is one of the most successful sitcoms in history (in case you haven’t seen Cast Away, Wilson is a volleyball). And if “Supergirl” is successful, it may inspire more studios to make superheroine stories. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll get a big blockbuster Nolan trilogy with a female lead.
“Supergirl” begins with Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) explaining in voiceover how she was sent to Earth at the same time as her younger cousin, Kal-El (Superman) to protect him. However, her travel pod was sucked into the Phantom Zone where she didn’t age. Eventually Kara drifted out and landed on Earth, but by that time cousin Kal-El had grown up to become Superman and didn’t need her protection. Kara was raised by Jeremiah (Dean Cain, known for playing Superman in the 1990’s television show) and Eliza Danvers (Helen Slater, known for playing Supergirl in the 1980’s British film) with their daughter Alex (Chyler Leigh). Because her cousin no longer needed her protection, she decided to keep her powers to herself and now works at CatCo Worldwide Media, mostly getting coffee for the company’s founder Cat Grant, played by an unnaturally youthful and vain Calista Flockhart. This seems ironic given the feminist nature of the show, unless it’s trying to teach young girls that to be successful you have to look young and pretty even when you’re fifty.
The opening voiceover that provides Supergirl’s backstory is helpful, but also immediately establishes the cartoonish tone of the pilot. Even the acting feels inauthentic, more like an adult version of “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.” Worse still, the emotional drama seems cliché, and too strong given how little the script builds up to it. As one of our Jewish mothers said, “It’s sooo schmaltzy.” Given Benoist’s fine performance in Whiplash, we tend to think some of this inauthenticity is just poor writing, but it’s hard to believe the delivery of the trite dialogue is not equally to blame.
One particularly sappy scene shows Kara receiving a holographic message from her mother, Alura. The message consists of classic motherly life advice, ending with “be wise, be strong, and always be true to yourself.” Kara sobs, and then reaches out to touch her mother just as the hologram fades. Clearly meant to be touching, Alura’s monologue is so packed with platitudes and Kara’s emotion is so intense that both instead come across as utterly fake.
And then there’s the plot—a plot that just doesn’t add up, literally. Kara says she left Krypton 24 years ago when she was 13, then she got stuck in the phantom zone for 24 years (where she didn’t age), then she lands on Earth (and is still 13). Yet in the present she seems to be in her early 20s. So apparently 24+10=24? Later, when Supergirl reveals her secret identity to a coworker, she says only three people already know. In truth, her sister, both foster parents, and her cousin are all in on her secret. So far, “Supergirl” doesn’t seem to be doing much to contradict stereotypes about women not excelling in mathematics. What a shame for a show with an obviously feminist bent.
But not all the problems with the writing are mathematical. When Kara is on a date, her date asks her where she’s from. After a pause, she replies “the North.” Really? In approximately a decade of keeping her secret identity, she never came up with a better cover story than “the North”?!
Silly plot contrivances run even deeper. Later in the pilot, Supergirl is getting pummeled by a muscular, male chauvinist alien with an ax, but she is saved when he suddenly decides to run away when the Department of Extra-Normal Operations arrives. If this guy can defeat someone with the powers of Superman, why is he running from a few regular humans with guns and helicopters? Seems like the writers just couldn’t think of a better way to make the villain seem more powerful than Supergirl but not have him actually kill her.
We had hoped that Supergirl, as a newcomer in a male-dominated genre, might offer a shining example of a successful heroine legend. It certainly has the potential: a young woman protagonist with all the powers of Superman, who, here and there, actually has real conversations with other women that might even pass the Bechdel test (check it out on Wikipedia if you’re curious about feminist fiction). Kara even argues with her female boss over branding her superhero alter ego “Supergirl” instead of something a little more analogous to Superman, say, “Superwoman.” But no such luck. The boss wins and we’re left with “Supergirl,” her superficial fight against some big, bad, misogynist alien criminals, and her internal struggle to find a place beyond her cousin’s colossal shadow.
In short, “Supergirl” is super disappointing but also worth paying attention to if it manages to bring about a genre shift. We hope this show inspires studios to create enough female superhero movies so that eventually it won’t take any more chutzpah to make them than it does to make male superhero films. And we hope it inspires a superhero show whose female lead is more than just “pretty hot.” “Supergirl” is not the glorious female superhero TV show we’ve been waiting for, but it’s cartoonish tone makes it well suited to inspiring young girls to be who they are. Grandparents with nostalgic feelings toward the 1950s Superman TV show may also enjoy it, but if you’re looking for something with quality writing and acting that keeps you thinking after you watch it, for now you’re probably better off re-watching The Dark Knight.
Fun for children and children-at-brain