Supergirl and the (So Far) Winning Model for the Modern Superhero Show

By Kevin K.

Whenever you’re watching TV, you’re faced with a question of whether the things you like in a program please you enough to overlook the more troubling parts. I ask this question a lot while watching CBS’ Supergirl. The show is mired in messy plotting and an overcomplicated mythology, but in just two episodes it’s already produced some fun and unique moments of television. A lot of this is thanks to the book on how to do a superhero show on TV in the 2010s has not only been written but revised a couple times.

Supergirl is shepherded onto screen by Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kriesberg, producers of the successful Arrow and Flash shows on the CW, and they have the benefit of knowing what worked and what didn’t with those while putting this show together. (They’re joined by Ali Adler, who seems to be handling the day to day running of the show from here on out.)

Image via CBS (@supergirlcbs)

Image via CBS (@supergirlcbs)

From the start, Supergirl has the same core strength as its sibling shows in its unabashed willingness to embrace the strange and fun elements of its source material. You have a lead character that can fly and shoot lasers out of her eyes, and her goal is to track down escaped alien criminals and there’s no straining to make any of that more realistic or drab than it sounds on paper, and that’s great! Like Arrow and Flash, the Berlanti team knows that the chance fanciful and over the top superheroes, villains, and powers on screen is what’s drawing the audience.

The longstanding tradition of secret identities is still in place here, and the team knows the benefits of holding this in place from a dramatic and character standpoint. The dichotomy between Kat Danvers and her alter ego “Supergirl” still finds life in the old theme of using a super identity to find new life and escape from an otherwise boring normal life. It’s a standard story that still works well for this kind of escapism. And though there could conceivably be drama in Kat trying to separate her identities and keep the link between them secret, Supergirl avoids the poisonous pitfall both its predecessors fell into by keeping nearly the entire main cast in on the secret from the get go. It’s a good sign that the production team knows how to quickly cut to the chase and be ahead of the audience rather than behind them.

The devotion to the source material might be a little too extreme however, as one thing that remains a misstep across all shows is a slavish devotion to source material when it potentially gets in the way of a coherent story, as well as an over ambition in trying to incorporate as much of DC canon as possible.

Kara might have a problem from the get-go with the presence of her more famous cousin. Even when constantly off screen by studio mandate, Superman takes up a lot of the oxygen of the show as characters talk about his history and legacy and constantly compare Kara to him. It’s a nice attempt to work an inferiority complex into Kara’s character to try to justify this, but the reality is the writers couldn’t imagine a world with Supergirl but no Superman, but are hamstrung by not being able to show him thanks to WB’s bizarre licensing rules. It may be heretical to say a show about the Superman mythos should leave out Superman himself, but he’s adding too little for all the attention he takes up.

Image via CBS (@supergirlcbs)

Image via CBS (@supergirlcbs)

 

When it comes down to it, Berlanti and co. know what puts audiences in the seat for these superhero shows week after week and that’s the marquee hero vs. villain fights. The biggest and most obvious way to distinguish between two superheroes is what powers they have and how they deal with threats, and when asked to deliver something new Supergirl definitely delivers. By pitting her against villains that are as strong and as fast as her, the climatic fights on Supergirl span whole locations, as characters get thrown from room to room before bounding and flying back into action. Fisticuffs are thrown in mid air, lasers fly, and the scope widens to bigger than anything we’ve seen on TV before.

The show is also wise to start escalating the threat from the get go. After teasing ruthless recurring baddie Astra at the end of the pilot, Kara is already coming into conflict with her at the end of the next episode, in a fight that’s fought across an entire warehouse. Pulling an episode nine move in episode two is a sign this show is going to be moving faster than I thought and hopefully is going to continue increasing the threats for Kara without feeling like it’s slowing down and becoming predictable.

Though too much of these initial episodes have been focused on exposition dumping, the fact that the centerpiece elements and characters are being handled so well early on is a great sign for the show’s future. Supergirl is evidence that the Arrow team has refined their adaptation process to a science, though repetition is beginning to show the cracks in some areas. Still, the biggest advantage Supergirl has right now is youth. While its sibling shows have already tangled themselves into messes, there’s a charming simplicity to Supergirl and potential lying ahead of it. Though it’s in the air whether it will match its predecessors in being fun but confusing, stagnate into something worse, or soar to be something even better and brighter is a mystery, and discovering the answer to that is going to be fun itself.

More Supergirl stuff

Review of episode one by JJ
Another review of episode one by Ryan
Review of episode two by JJ