Harsher critics of Supergirl often include one or more of the following in their comments:
- The costumes are silly.
- The fight scenes are clumsy.
- The villains are ludicrous.
- The plot is predictable.
- Supergirl isn't Super enough.
All those things are true. But unless your interest is in seeing yet another comic-book franchise transferred reverently to the screen they're of only marginal concern.
Supergirl is a glossy evening soap opera in which the tired tableau of destruction and good vs evil sit in fuzzy background to the business of who loves / fears / admires / deceives who. This is a show in which a kiss is way, way more important than a pow.
If you turned up merely to watch a woman flying around and beating up criminals, you were always likely to be disappointed. Supergirl's main attraction isn't so much the overused laser eyes or zooming through skyscrapers. It's her extensive network of competing, neurotic, ambitious, needy friends.
There are plenty of critics in the sphere of fantasy entertainment who look down on the melodrama of office politics and millennial romances. But it's interesting how often those same people take a bizarrely keen interest in the appropriate use of Kryptonite, as if this were a matter for lofty minds.
Supergirl pays lip service to the rote of action hero stories. So, from the great pantheon of D.C. baddies, we end up with a pair of cardboard villains, Non and Indigo, whose names sound more a pair of talking rabbits from Sesame Street than Earth-ending fanatics.
The climatic fight scene looked like it was pulled from Power Rangers. Indigo was ripped asunder, delivering her evil last lines as a half person. Non was literally stared down in a laser eye contest in which one line of blue light got the better of another line of blue light. It managed to be both boring and ridiculous.
Later, Supergirl lifted an alien space station into space and was about ready to sacrifice herself, to lay down her life for the great blue beneath, until her sister showed up in teenage Kara Zor-El's single-seat spaceship. I expect it was pretty snug in there.
This in-the-nick-of-time rescue was sorta dulled by it being telegraphed one scene earlier. Also, it was entirely the obvious thing to do. If your sister is lost in space, jump into a spaceship and save her. Duh.
We live in a world in which mega-budget superhero movies are thrust upon us, seemingly on a monthly basis. Despite their popularity, most of those are incredibly dull confections of mass destruction, enlivened by neat personality clashes, like the more memorable Avengers and X-Men and their ego-driven squabbling.
Supergirl cedes the whole whizz-kebang thing and goes straight for the inexpensive but tricky-to-write human stuff.
On the whole, this follows familiar patterns of standard types. Supergirl's cast of characters includes the following:
- A complicated, protective, slightly jealous sister.
- A doting romantic, goofy boy-friend.
- A more rugged man who, for most of this season, is unavailable.
- A love-rival.
- A caustic woman mentor.
- A man / alien father-figure.
- A meddling / loving Mom.
- A missing, heroic Dad.
- A megalomaniac tech guru.
The show's main interest is in taking these stock characters and layering them with back-stories and complexities that interest the reader and that reflect back upon Supergirl's own failings.
Supergirl's real power is not in her strength, but in her weaknesses. She is presented as a perky, pretty, girl-next-door, but she's really a monumental fuck-up. Her fuck-uppery isn't delivered to us via the usual TV rebel signals — tattoos, dive bars, low-life apartment — but in the way she strives for normality, and is constantly thwarted.
This is a young woman who lives as a secret alien, because her home planet died, an event for which her mother was at least partially culpable. She spent a bunch of years mooning around in limbo, before being raised by a secret agent, who then disappeared. She has super-powers which she does not really understand and spent years suppressing. Her aunt is a terrorist. He cousin is a Messiah.
Little wonder that all she wants is to be a normal young woman.
At various times during this season, she goes seriously doolally, with spectacularly damaging results. The only thing that really keeps her sane is her network of friends. This all adds up to a slightly schmaltzy, but still satisfying moral tale about the value of other people. Supergirl is not at the center of the show. That place is taken by the connections between the people around her.
At the point in this show when she was supposed to be saving the world, she literally goes and visits all the main characters to give them an earnest little speech about how she feels about them and what they have done for her. This, rather than out-of-town combat or space malarkey, was the real centerpiece of the finale.
I wish I could say it was neatly done, but it landed heavily, as finales often do. On the whole though, Supergirl's interactions this season have been emotionally satisfying.
Individual episodes of Supergirl explore many of the issues we face as individuals and as a society, most especially fear, prejudice, anger and trust. Powerful people follow their own codes that lead them toward villainy. Supergirl is sometimes seduced by these impulses, confused by their implications and finally aware of their downsides. She does not clearly see the problem, every time it occurs.
The slithering, multi-colored villains in this show are cartoon characters. But the real bad guys are terrifyingly moral, direct and self-assured. The general doing his duty. The eco-warrior determined to save a planet. The zillionaire libertarian who believes wholly in technology. They are all white men. They represent the status quo.
The most powerful good characters in this show are Supergirl, her boss Cat Grant, her crime-fighting sister, a black man who runs a government agency. They are all unsure of their own place in the world, under attack, over-compensating. They represent the possibility of change through self-doubt.
Most superheroes stand tall at the center of their tales. But Supergirl is lost, fighting her way through the crowd.
The scene when she saves the world is given as much weight as the following scene when Cat Grant gives Cara her own office, and an 'atagirl'. Cara is made up. She finally has her own space, a magnolia little office, a tiny slice of hierarchical recognition. It's difficult to imagine the big boy superheroes getting excited about anything outside their own titanic battles.
Supergirl is a story about a character who is uncomfortable with her own power, who fits saving the world in between grabbing a latte for her boss. She's vulnerable and it's this that makes her interesting. There's a lot more to this show than costumes and capes.
You can read all Polygon's Supergirl recaps here.