‘Supergirl’ recap: It’s good to be a hero

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Several things are abundantly clear in the first episode for CBS’s big swing at the comic book genre: Supergirl is not going to hide its optimism, its sense of fun or the gender of its protagonist for anyone expecting a broody, Christopher Nolan-esque, masculine take on superheroism. The show is not going to be shy about its feminism or the pure joy it finds in telling a story about someone who flies around and punches bad guys and has heat vision. I mean, the first thing we see our hero do is apologize to a guy she bumps into on the street, and then by the end of the episode she will literally stand in front of a semi-truck as it crashes around her. There is nothing subtle about this feminism.

Supergirl is going to go on bad dates, cry about the mother she lost and wear a skirt. And she’s also going to leap tall buildings in a single bound. She’s going to fight the bad guys and she’s going to win. And, as the pilot makes abundantly clear, if you’re not OK with all of the above, this is not the show for you. But I hope you are, because there’s just so much fun to be had if you stick around.

The start of something new

Like nearly all the superhero stories you’ve seen on the big and small screen, Supergirl starts with an origin story. And, as the show itself notes, it’s a story you’ve already heard, not just because a lot of comic book origin stories have similarities, but because Supergirl (or Kara Zor-El) has the exact same backstory as her cousin, Superman. OK, it’s not 100% the same, but it still involves a child being stuck in a tiny spaceship on Krypton (if they had bigger spaceships so many of their problems would have been solved) and catapulted towards Earth as Krypton explodes. Only it turns out that Kara, who is 12 at the time and was ostensibly sent to protect the young baby Kal-El, gets sidetracked and stuck in the Phantom Zone for 24 years, where she doesn’t age. Eventually her pod escapes and she lands on an Earth where Superman is already grown and protecting the planet. Kara is sent to live with a foster family, including an older sister, and she chooses a normal life, trying to fit in with the rest of the world and not overstep.

Flash-forward another dozen years and yes, we are in what looks an awful lot like that parody Black Widow movie from SNL. Kara is indeed, a young woman in the big city just trying to make her career as an assistant to a media mogul work. Yes, she has a cute co-worker who clearly has feelings for her that she is oblivious too. Yup, she even goes on a terrible date. But, and this is the important thing, Kara is not happy with this life. She feels like she’s squandering her potential, and she’s talking about more than her superpowers.

The kick in the pants she needs to figure out what she actually wants is a plane, that just so happens to have her foster sister Alex on board, spiraling down towards National City (like Metropolis but on the West Coast). Clad in a blue sweater (it’s her color), Kara rushes into an alley and, after a few false starts, she is up, up and away, literally carrying a 747 to safety with her bare hands. Soaked, exhausted but incredibly happy, she steps out onto the wing of the plane as her life is changed forever. And the credits role.

Girls just want to have fun

It’s in the next few scenes that Supergirl truly sets itself apart from its broodier super-cousins. After performing her first act of heroism, Kara does not retreat to brood in a cave — she eats pizza and watches herself on the news, booing a reporter for being mean and squealing when her silhouette appears onscreen. Because come on, that would be so incredibly cool. It’s so cool, in fact, that Kara just can’t believe that her older sister is so down on the whole thing. But she’s not wavering because of it.

In fact she brings her co-worker Winn into her secret, just because she wants someone to be happy for her. Winn provides Kara with the optimism she wants and the fashion help she needs. In a twist on the fashion montages you’ve seen on Sex and the City and the like, Kara tests out a variety of costumes, ditching a midriff-baring option for a sleek skirt-and-cape ensemble (capes are good for aero-dynamics says Winn, and we just go with it). The twist in the fashion montage is that Kara tests out her various uniforms by thwarting car chases and bank heists, smiling away as bullets bounce off her body.

She officially gets the name “Supergirl” when her boss, Cat of Catco Worldwide Media, christens her the unnamed hero in the media (with a hashtag, of course). And then we get this positively brilliant exchange:

Kara: “If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?

Cat: “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? I’m a girl. And your boss. And powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”

The show is practically daring you to disagree.

The first cut is the deepest

Kara’s fun is cut short when she’s captured (a little too easily but hey, she’s still learning) by the DEO (Department of Extranormal Affairs), a government agency tasked with dealing with aliens that just happens to have Alex on the payroll. The not-so-subtly dismissive leader, Hank Henshaw, has no time for Kara, and blames her for the landing of a much more dangerous alien ship: a prison that landed at the same time as she did and unleashed the universe’s worst criminals on Earth.

One of those criminals, the also not-so-subtly misogynistic Vartox, was the one who tried to crash the plane, and after learning about Kara’s existence, he calls her out to try to kill her. It’s the first time Kara is up against someone who even remotely matches her skill level and it’s certainly a wake up call. Potentially, she realizes, hero work is not all fun and games (it’s still mostly fun and games, though, let’s be real about this). Kara barely escapes the fight with the help of the DEO, and is told in no uncertain terms by Hank that’s she’s basically worthless. It’s enough to knock Kara down enough that she heads home, her drive to be super seemingly gone.

Don’t stop believing 

Of course Kara wasn’t going to just give up that easily — this is the start of a network television show, after all. Alex finally comes around and realizes that yes, her super-powered alien sister is probably pretty good at saving people. She brings Kara a present in the form of a holographic message from her biological mother (the always-lovely Laura Benanti) which has just the right amount of love and inspiration to get our Supergirl back on track.

She suits up, convinces Hank she can go up against Vartox, and swiftly and efficiently destroys the sexist alien. The scene at the beginning of the episode where Kara saves the plane is a stunning action sequence for sure, but this final fight is more a taste of what we’re going to get week-to-week, and it is seriously thrilling. The fighting style is different from what we’ve seen on other superhero shows or even movies. There’s a lot of power here — enough to stop a truck — but also a fluidity and flexibility that’s almost mesmerizing, especially in the way she uses flight to dodge or put more power behind a punch. And, to be honest, I really just dug the pure cheese that was the heat vision. Exploding a magic axe with heat vision to defeat an alien foe is the stuff nerd dreams are made of. The Superman baby blanket/cape is just icing on the cake.

The Supergirl at the end of the episode may not be a perfect or even well-trained hero yet, but she is someone who knows who she is and what she wants to be doing, which is a far cry from the Kara of the beginning of the hour. She’s got allies and a purpose and shred-proof costume, and an intriguing villain in the form of an evil aunt (love an evil aunt) to contend with. This all bodes well for the rest of the season. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

 

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