Supergirl

Supergirl is bland, bland, bland. It pains me to say so, because I don’t like writing reviews that are mostly critical, but so far Supergirl looks like a cobblepot of questionable decisions that’s trying to be too many things to too many people. As a result, the CBS show has wound up as ineffectual and inoffensive. It sticks out like a nail against the other DC films and TV shows. Maybe that was the point. Unfortunately, what they’ve produced feels like a series more at home in 2005 than 2015.

The plot follows Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin, who is sent to Earth to protect Kal-El during the destruction of Krypton. The explosion sends Kara’s shuffle off course though and she winds up in the Phantom Zone. Somehow she escapes, having not aged a day. Kal-El on the other hand is all grown up and saving people. Kal sets his cousin up with an adoptive family and, with no one left to protect, Kara tries to fit in with life on Earth. The series picks up several years later, with Kara as a young adult working at CatCo.

If you guessed that Kara would become bored with her normal life and want to use her powers, you’d be right. If you guessed that some bad guys also followed her out of the Phantom Zone, you’d also be right. Wasn’t that the plot of Smallville’s sixth season? Not that that’s a bad thing. Sometimes the simplest stories are the best but in that case Supergirl would have benefited from embracing their simplicity. Instead, the plot is more intricate. Kara has to contend with the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, who don’t particularly like her.

Melissa Benoist stars as Kara Zor-El, the young woman who will become Supergirl, in CBS's TV adaptation of the DC Comics character, Supergirl.

At least they got the costume right.

It’s not that characters can’t have more than one antagonist or have to work with a difficult and ambiguous ally. Those are pretty much staples of television because it creates a natural conflict so long as there is a legitimate reason for the two parties to work together. But it’s becoming a rather commonplace for the government to outright object to the presence of superpowered peoples. At least in Man of Steel Superman didn’t reveal himself until after General Zod and his henchmen had already started tearing up the city. It’s not shocking that the government might still be a little suspicious. Here though, Superman is nothing but revered and loved but Supergirl gets criticised for scraping a bridge while saving an entire plane. One character mentions it just isn’t popular to not like Superman but what the series shows the viewer is various characters idolising Superman while Supergirl gets branded dangerous. Sounds fair…

The show is also rife with feminism. That in of itself is not a criticism but it could have been executed better. There’s an in-show debate about calling Kara’s alter ego ‘Supergirl’ rather than ‘Superwoman’, which actually feels more like the writers and producers responding to fan criticism than a necessary conversation. It would be more effective to simply portray Supergirl as strong and independent. Instead, she get’s captured, beat up by the villain of the week and only actually manages to defeat him by pretending to be weak and vulnerable. The final plan is actually conceived by her sister, a DEO agent but it still took two women to formulate and execute a plan whereas Superman often operated alone. The cardinal rule of writing is ‘show, don’t tell.’ Supergirl tells the audience that woman can be strong and independent but it rarely shows that to be the case. Even Cat Grant, CEO of Catco., has all of the decisions second guessed by Kara.

This next point will probably earn me a lot of grief but, I don’t like that Jimmy Olsen is a black guy. It’s really an odd decision. It’s obvious that CBS were going for a more diverse and representative cast but I don’t see how making Jimmy Olsen black benefits that movement. Olsen is the second most well known character in the series right after Supergirl. Everyone knows that he’s a dorky red-haired white kid. The guy they got was a well-built, bald, black man. It’s almost offensive to everyone that CBS thought that Kara couldn’t fall in love with the original, socially incompetent Jimmy Olsen and that the only black guy she could fall for would be tall and confident. There are dorky black guys.

Melissa Benoist and Mehcad Brooks star as Kara Danvers and Jimmy Olsen in the CBS's adaptation of the DC Comics superheroine, Supergirl.

Jimmy Olsen as you’ve never seen him before.

I don’t mind that they cast David Harewood as the traditionally white Hank Henshaw though because it’s important to show black people in positions of power. The best character they could have recast with colour is Cat Grant, who could have acted as a role model to black women, a group that is generally under represented to a greater extent than the men.  I just don’t see the significance of changing Jimmy Olsen. It’s not just skin colour, the personality isn’t even the same. It would have been less irritating to cast Mehcad Brooks as an original character but it’s clear that CBS just wanted the connection.

Speaking of the connection to Superman, the series seems afraid to speak his name. He gets called ‘man of steel’ or ‘my friend in blue’ but the actual name Superman doesn’t get said a whole lot. Maybe it’s because the writers are being coy but it just comes across as vague and annoying. The intention is not to focus on Superman because the spotlight here is squarely on Supergirl. But that presents a problem. Supergirl is fighting some pretty dangerous criminals with serious plans for Earth. The leader even seems to have connections with the El family. That seems like something Superman would get involved in.

As much as I’m not a fan of this Supergirl series right now, it is only the first season and it hasn’t even begun. It may find its feet and learn to balance the various elements in a way that eliminates the blandness. One can hope. A TV show about a female superhero is culturally significant and it deserves to be better than this.

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