UK VOD TV review: Supergirl (Episode 1)
Hero, not heroine8
Ivan Radford | On 30, Oct 2015Reading time: 8 mins
This is a spoiler-free review. Read on at the end for spoilers.
“Can you believe that?” cries a waitress halfway through the opening episode of Supergirl, which landed in the UK and Sky 1 last night, only a couple of days after she flew onto US TV screens. “A female hero. Someone for my daughter to look up to.” It’s a knowing joke, but Supergirl is an extremely knowing show. And it’s all the better for it.
The series arrives at a time when Hollywood is failing to tell female stories. Despite the success of films such as The Hunger Games, the high-profile female-led movies that are now happening seem to be either comedies trying to repeat the success of Bridesmaids or remakes of franchise films starring men. That inequality is especially true in the realm of the comic book movie, where people don’t even have the confidence to put Black Widow on a DVD cover for The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Supergirl, though, is flying the flag for female heroes – and, with Netflix’s Jessica Jones on the way next month, the stakes are high. Judging by this first hour, CBS’ series doesn’t just fly the flag, it wears it as a cape while saving an airplane. Not bad going for a mild-mannered 24-year-old employee at a newspaper.
The echoes of Superman are everywhere, but Supergirl shrugs them off with a casual confidence – and faster than a speeding bullet with wings on. In a matter of minutes, we’ve already been given the essential exposition: Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) is sent to Earth hot on the heels of her younger cousin, Kal-El, to watch over and protect him. But some timey-wimey space stuff later and she arrives on the planet years after him. He’s already become Superman. So what does she do?
Raised by the same foster family – The Danvers (including Dean Cain, in a nod to the wonderful 1990s serial, The New Adventures of Superman) – she resolves to blend in and pretend to be normal, hiding in plain sight, complete with glasses. But inevitably, that’s not enough for this plucky young woman – and, crucially, the series agrees with her. After, why would she live up to anything less than her potential?
It’s a decision, though, that’s born out of compassion, after a disaster strikes in National City, inspiring her to take drastic action. Rather brilliantly, Supergirl’s efforts aren’t flawless, managing to save people but still damaging stuff in the process – the kind of thing that sees the media brand as her “a guardian angel or human wrecking ball”.
The question of how heroes are presented is also a neat through-line: if The Daily Planet has Superman, CatCo (run by Calista Flockhart’s entertainingly cruel Cat) needs something to help boost its own circulation. The arrival of Jimmy Olson (Mehcad Brooks) from the Planet as a new Art Director, meanwhile, is perfect timing for some exclusive photos of the latest caped crusader.
Melissa Benoist is perfectly cast as Kara. After her scene-stealing turn as the kind but crumpled girlfriend in Whiplash, she steps into the spotlight with a winning blend of vulnerable goofiness and charming self-belief. You’ll laugh with her as much as you cheer her on – an essential power for any hero to have.
“I didn’t travel 2,000 light years to be an assistant,” she tells her foster sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh). That message of empowerment isn’t just a gimmick or surface plot device: it runs throughout the programme.
Ali Adler’s script populates her world with women in places of authority, with Kara’s character at the centre. Alex and her adoptive sibling discuss the fact that once she decides to go public, she can’t take that part of her identity back – but it’s telling that their sisterly bond (one of encouragement and support) proves more important to the show’s plot than any possible romantic relationship with Jimmy. (Although, for the record, we’re definitely on the Jimara boat; their chemistry, thanks to Brooks’ easygoing charisma, is up, up and away.)
The costume, designed by veteran Colleen Atwood, tastefully updates the old outfit so that it covers her midriff, while the texture recalls the butch strength of Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel. Even Blake Neely’s music, like his work on Arrow and The Flash, has an upbeat, inspiring feel to its fanfare-heavy themes.
But showrunner Greg Berlanti – who, along with Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim, was behind both of The CW’s DC Comics series – has a knack for keeping things light, a principle that writer Adler easily upholds.
“On my planet, women bow before men,” taunts a male villain. “This isn’t your planet,” she hits back, nailing the balance between cheese and cool, supported by some excellent special effects.
While Marvel’s projects feel weighed down by links across its universe, CBS’ Supergirl stands comfortably alone and cheerful, a show that recognises its lack of geeky nods and abundance of humour will play to a broader audience. And this is the kind of show that deserves that broad appeal; how often do you see a powerful female kicking butt on telly these days?
“Be wise, be strong and always be true to yourself” is the message that the pilot leaves us with – and it’s one that, for once, isn’t being told to a tortured, conflicted bloke. Even that dimunitive nickname is addressed head-on by Adler, as a row breaks out in Cat’s office over the fact that “girl” doesn’t have to be dismissive. But there’s a subtler feminist punch to the whole affair: at no point in the episode is Supergirl ever referred to as a “heroine”. She’s a hero. Who happens to be female. Every time that word lands, it hits with a grin. Smart and stylish, Supergirl is a significant landmark in the comic book genre. It knows it – but that doesn’t mean it can’t have fun.
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.
Additional notes and spoilers
– Shout out to Jeremy Jordan as “Winn”, Kara’s colleague and the token nerd for this comic book hero. He is, of course, totally smitten with her, which loses the show points for originality, but he’s already a likeable sidekick after his reaction to her jumping off the roof of their building – only to fly back up again.
– The pacing of Supergirl’s story-telling really is quite incredible. An origins story movie would have taken over 90 minutes to tell us this basic set-up, but here, we already have the basic decision to become a hero and the introduction and defeat of a first villain.
– It’s great to see that Kara’s sister, Alex, is working at the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, the secret government taskforce to defend the Earth from aliens: another sign that the writers aren’t afraid to put a female, non-romantic relationship front and centre.
– David Harewood goes even gruffer than normal as the Hank Henshaw, the head of the DEO – and he pulls it off, even if the exposition dialogue he’s given isn’t the most elegant.
– Hands up who doesn’t like what they’ve done to Jimmy – sorry, James – Olsen? We politely disagree: Mehcad Brooks is not only one tall drink of handsome, but he also clicks nicely with Melissa Benoist – it helps, of course, that he’s already familiar with who she really is. While it was amusing to see Melissa get all in a muddle over trying to conceal her identity, that schtick could have gotten old quickly. (Again, bonus points for speedy scripting.)
– Arrow and The Flash have both benefitted from their ability to pluck villains of the week from the source material – the perfect fodder for a serialised TV narrative. Supergirl’s MacGuffin? A prison that was nudged out of the Phantom Zone – a time-free bit of space – when Supergirl’s pod managed to drop in on the way to Earth. The result? A crash-landed prison on our planet, with all the naughty extra-terrestrial inmates running free.
– Our first inmate is Owain Yeoman as Vartox, who proves not much of a match for our powered-up Kara – although his ability to broadcast at a frequency far above human ears just to speak to her could prove a recurring mechanism of communication in the future.
– Every comic book series needs a big bad. Supergirl’s? None other than Astra, Kara’s niece, who has no hesitation in bumping off her young relative. In a nice bit of casting, Laura Benanti not only cackles her way through the cheesy villain monologues but also pops up as Kara’s mum, Alura, Astra’s twin sister, to dish out advice, hologram-style. “Be wise, be strong and always be true to yourself” are her final words near the end of the episode. Sorry, Princess Leia, but that’s a way better holo-message than “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope”.