Melissa Benoist in CBS Television’s “Supergirl.”
In a world where…
Sorry. Slipped into cliche with our opening sentence. We’ll start again.
It’s like this: we’re ten years into the superhero renaissance, and by that we mean we’re a decade into the revitalization and mainstreaming of this traditionally simplistic and mostly America-centric genre of adventure-storytelling. Billions of dollars have been made revamping and updating half-century (or more)-old characters that were created to literally be disposable to a generation of kids at least two generations ago. Filmmakers and certain television producers have smartly figured out that the superhero genre is inherently adaptable and allows you to tell everything from spy stories to street crime drama to wartime tales to space operas to detective stories to straight up science fiction. In fact, it seems like there isn’t a type of story the superhero genre isn’t perfectly suited to tell, with just a little tweaking. So long as that story is told from a male point of view, that is.
Female superheroes aren’t a new idea, of course. They’ve been around for almost as long as their male counterparts, and several of them have reached similarly iconic statuses in the minds of the public. Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Storm, Batgirl, and yes, Supergirl are all, for the most part, household names who are just as recognizable as any male superhero, from The Hulk to The Flash. And yet, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in property after property, to sometimes astonishing returns, for over a decade now, we still haven’t had a female-centered superhero story on screens big or small. Wonder Woman is on its way on 2017, and Netflix is releasing the highly-buzzed-about Jessica Jones next month (which should serve as the perfect counterpoint to this series), but aside from Agent Carter, which has most of the trappings of a superhero story without actually having a superhero in it, there have been no female-oriented superhero adventure stories at any time since this whole highly lucrative wave started. If you don’t have a penis, you only get to be a sidekick or a team member. That is, judging by the output, the rule, apparently.
Sorry, sorry. Cliche again. What is it about this show that makes us talk like a movie trailer?
Is Supergirl the show to pick up and carry the banner for female herodom? Yes, it absolutely is, but it’s doing so by pretty much ignoring the male fanbase that traditionally supports this kind of story. It’s doing so by deliberately subverting the MEGA-cliched “Strong Female Character” tropes that turn women into cold, musclebound revenge factories who can kill a man with her thighs but has never shed a tear. The creators of this show have taken what we hope is a wise course of action and created a superhero show specifically for young women. Supergirl doesn’t just punch her problems away, the way most male superheroes would. She has to first learn to believe in herself before she can overcome her enemy, who all but holds up a sign that says “Girls are gross.” She has to deal with a mean boss lady while working in an unfulfilling (but nonetheless kind of glamorous) job that somehow pays for a huge wardrobe of cute outfits and an apartment straight out of InStyle magazine. She is surrounded by cute men who are crazy about her but she either doesn’t notice their ardor or winds up tripping over her tongue in scenes that no doubt had the word “ADORKABLE” scrawled somewhere in the script notes. She has an older sister who vacillates between bitchy jealousy and girl-power supportiveness depending on the scene. Older female figures are either maternal, jealous of her youth, or straight-up evil in the classic Wicked Stepmother role. It’s a melange of women-oriented tropes spanning from classic adventure tales to romantic comedies to fairy tales.
Is the feminism perhaps a bit paper thin and slightly shallow? Sure. Did we want to roll our eyes at the silly rom-com tropes? Oh, yes. Was the first thirty minutes of this pilot painfully awkward, with a ton of incredibly clumsy exposition and too much asked of a child actress who couldn’t handle the material? Definitely. Supergirl isn’t a perfect show by any means, and this first episode had more than its share of slightly awkward moments.
But was it fun? HELL YES.
And more importantly – perhaps most important of all – star Melissa Benoist is so charming and so committed to the character (in fact, we haven’t seen a performance this committed to capturing both the inherent pathos and inherent silliness of a superhero since Christopher Reeve) that she more than makes the show worth watching. She is the main reason to watch the show and her performance more than makes up for any first-episode wobbliness.
It’s not for two men to tell women what kind of heroes they should have and what kinds of portrayals they should support if they’re at all interested in how women are portrayed in our culture, but it’s hard for us not to gush over this one. Despite some cliches in the writing and a perhaps childishly shallow take on heroism (which does, after all, fit the genre), we can’t recommend this show enough as a fun, smart, TOTALLY girl-centric tale about heroism. If we had daughters, we’d want them to see Supergirl.
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