This is a spoiler-free review. Read on at the end for spoilers.
“Every woman knows we have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.”
Supergirl continues its trend of wryly acknowledging both the obstacles facing its female lead and the show as a whole with Episode 2. After a promising pilot, which laid out its stall with a charming streak of humour, the second chapter in this fledgling narrative needs to demonstrate why Kara (Melissa Benoist) should stand out from the caped crowd. The answer, it turns out, isn’t Supergirl at all.
That’s not to say that our female hero isn’t every bit the answer to Superman we want her to be. The problem is the rest of National City don’t feel the same way. As a protagonist in a TV show, Kara-El couldn’t arrive soon enough. As a superhero, she’s only just starting out. We begin with the DEO putting her through her paces, testing her speed and strength – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s an alien. Those powers, though, are still being honed: Supergirl is as likely to cause an environmental disaster as she is to save a life.
Superman went through the same process in his early days, points out Jimmy, as ambitious news editor Cat gets angry with her front page gal tarnishing the brand that could take her newspaper up, up and away. It’s neat nod to Man of Steel’s controversial finale – an issue that Supergirl, on the other hand, tackles head-on – and a reminder of just how much Supergirl is in her cousin’s shadow. It might be hard to believe that Kal-El and Kara wouldn’t just pop over to each other’s houses for tea every 10 seconds – perhaps that’s what they do in the ad breaks – but it’s not hard to swallow the stacked perception of society against the fairer sex.
It’s here that Supergirl’s writers manage to do such smart work: like Supergirl, CatCo is fighting to be recognised alongside The Daily Planet and Kara is fighting to get credit for her menial work at the company. But women have to start small and work their way up in this male-driven world -and Supergirl’s climb, episode by episode, is already proving satisfying to cheer on.
Key to that is the realisation that she can’t do it on her own – another sign that showrunner Greg Berlanti has been paying attention to Superman of late. Kal-El is perfect, he’s indestructible and he looks good in red pants. In other words, he’s, well, boring. Supergirl, on the other hand, is flawed: determined, but also clumsy and able to laugh at herself.
Episode 2 proves that she needs the help of those around her to get ahead – another parallel that the character shares with the TV show. After all, over hours and hours of screen-time, audiences need more than one person to latch on to: there’s time to develop an ensemble of characters. It’s telling that Marvel takes several feature films to establish their individual characters before uniting them in the various Avengers outings, whereas Arrow and The Flash (Berlanti is now king of DC’s small-screen heroes) both grew their sidekicks within a season and have benefited from that.
It’s testament to Supergirl’s casting that these are looking to be an equally engaging bunch, from Mehcad Brooks’ pep-talking Jimmy to Jeremy Jordan’s lovestruck Winn (“He knows?”) and, most of all, Chyler Leigh as her sister, Alex.
Supergirl’s use of Astra, Kara’s evil aunt, as its big bad only reinforces that wider group focus: family isn’t just a back-story for our hero, but an active part of what defines both her and her show. Laura Benanti hams it up – a fitting approach, perhaps, given the largely unsubtle dialogue she has to deliver – but also makes it clear that age and experience are in her favour when it comes to knowing how to use Kryptonian powers on Earth. And, harking again back to Man of Steel, it’s a clever piece of choreography to make their first physical showdown less of a glamorous face-off and more of a scrappy catfight between relatives. Hair is pulled. Capes are grabbed. Windows are broken. No wonder Kara needs the trained, restrained and fully-equipped Alex’s assistance.
Using Astra as the overriding antagonist in Episode 2 also lays out the series’ arc in a neater way than relegating her to epilogue cameos in between Villain of the Week episodes – just look at how Neal McDonough’s early appearances as Damien Darhk in Arrow has given Season 4 a tighter feel. (That said, we do get some nice freaky mouth work from Justice Leak as grasshoppery bad dude Hellgrammite.) It’s unlikely she’ll appear much in the coming weeks, at least not as Astra, but her appearances as Kara’s mother, Alura, keep bring us back to the show’s surprisingly unique focus: Supergirl isn’t just the story of one woman finding her place in the world, but of her family and friends, whether that’s James trying to balance his career with his personal loyalty or Alex enjoying having a sibling and a friend to support her at work. That very fact that Calista Flockhart’s Cat is the one who delivers the episode’s key line is no coincidence. Stronger Together? You betcha.
Supergirl is on Sky 1 every Thursday at 8pm. Don’t have Sky? You can watch Supergirl online (live and on-demand) through NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The VOD service also includes The Walking Dead, The Flash and American Horror Story: Hotel.
Spoilers and further consideration
– That episode title isn’t just a statement of intent for the show: it’s the House of El’s coat of arms, according to Supergirl, a nice way to tie in the series to the existing Superman mythology.
– Episode 2 also introduces another key enemy of Supergirl: kryptonite. It’s interesting that both Kara and Astra are unaware of its existence until Alex and the DEO introduce them to it – a neat way to highlight both of their vulnerable sides and keep us firmly away from potentially bland Superman territory.
– James Olson gets more screen time, as Cat decides that she needs an interview with Supergirl to get her publication more hits – who better than Superman’s friend to set it up? It’s a plot that opens up some really nice little touches, such as the necessary debate about how on earth heroes get away with their alter-egos in real life. The answer? Because Cat could never see Kara, her worthless assistant, as a hero.
– James also gets a beautiful little monologue halfway through the episode, as he reveals his own struggle to assert his identity – back at The Daily Planet, he was famous for being Superman’s pal rather than a talented photographer in his own right. Brooks, who looks so fine, is doing some excellent work at being more than just a romantic interest. He’s practically Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane to The New Adventures of Superman’s Clark.
– Credit to Berlanti for being able to sell the detached but earnest dialogue given to Alura’s hologram – an “interactive artificial intelligence system” from Krypton, which roughly translates to “Automatic Basil Exposition” to tell us all about the Fort Rozz prison and its dangerous Villain of the Week inmates.
– You all got a load of those red eyes on Hank too, right? Theories on what that could mean? And will he turn out to be a bad guy too?
– “What do you ask?” says Alura at the end of the episode. All that exposition available and Kara’s response underscores the show’s smart ensemble focus: “A hug.”