PILOT LITE: Supergirl (2015 television pilot)

Posted: November 4, 2015 in Pilot Lite
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Comic-based television shows have become big business lately. As mentioned previously, more shows are pulling from comics, and this trend doesn’t seem to be slowing. With that in mind, it’s easy to dismiss any number of shows premiering this year as the also-ran cash-grab to the first wave of this new phenomenon. And while there may be some cynical viewers who do just that, I think, if anything, this second wave of series would be more likely to out-perform what came before simply because they have the gift of hindsight. And if there’s ever been a premiere that has benefitted from hindsight, it’s Supergirl.
The pilot quickly sets up the backstory: Kara Zor-El is Superman’s older cousin. She was sent to Earth at the same time he was to watch over him as he grows. However, her ship was knocked into the Phantom Zone and only emerged 24 years later, after he’d grown and become the hero we all know. She spends her youth in seclusion with an adoptive family and grows to be a normal person, ignoring her superheroic lineage. However, when her adoptive sister is put in danger on a crashing plane, she embraces her powers and reveals herself to the world in order to save the day.

“See ya on Earth, cuz!”

The plot is very standard “new hero” fare, and that is absolutely not a bad thing. It’s funny that in the year 2015, when fictional super-powered heroes are expected to be filled with angst and doubt, it’s almost refreshing to see an optimistic hero who enjoys having powers. Like The Flash before it, Supergirl is a show about someone embracing what makes them different and using it to enhance their life instead of hinder it. That said, Kara is still a young hero whose inexperience leads to self-doubt. However, that is shown as something to fight through rather than to dwell on. She finds strength within herself and those around her to become a better and more capable hero.

“Olsen. James Olsen”

Melissa Benoist stars in the titular role. She is able to play to all of the above-mentioned facets of the character in a way that seems very natural. I’m not sure how long she spent researching or rehearsing the role, but she certainly feels comfortable with it. She’s joined by an impressive collection of B and C level DC characters. Calista Flockhart plays Cat Grant, reimagined as the head of a media empire. She’s a perfect fit for Cat and may end up as the definitive take on the character. David Harewood takes the role of DEO agent Hank Henshaw, who I am very happy to see finally show up in expanded media. While he’s a bit rough and abrasive in the pilot, I’m curious if he’ll go full-on villain like in the comics. We also meet James (not Jimmy!) Olsen, played by Mehcad Brooks. At first I was a little turned-off by Jimmy. He’s handsome, sure of himself and mature which are all the exact opposite of how the character is typically portrayed. However, about halfway through the episode I had a realization: this Jimmy (James! sorry) has been around for a while. He’s spent the last few years working with Superman and winning Pulitzers. It makes absolute sense that he’d grow into a far more confident character. In fact, it would feel completely out-of-character if he was the same bumbling doofus from the golden age comics. Since that dawned on me, I’ve taken quite a liking to James. He’s a human, but due to his past proximity to Big Blue he can somewhat relate to what Kara’s going through. That’s a unique take on someone who was, essentially, a stock sidekick for decades.

The other cast mates of note are Alex, Kara’s sister, played by Chyler Leigh and Winn played by Jeremy Jordan. Alex’s past with her super-sister make up the crux of the pilot’s emotional story, while Winn is a sort-of sidekick for Kara. He helps design her costume and acts as an early confidant for her “coming out” as a superhero. Kara’s human parents are played by Superman and Supergirl of times past, Dean Cain and Helen Slater. In the pilot, they have no dialogue and are essentially stunt-cast cameos. It’s a little distracting here, but I’m anticipating that they’ll have more to do in the future.

Am I the only one who would have liked a more literal take?

Am I the only one who would have liked a more literal take?

The villain of the pilot isn’t the strongest, but he does give Kara a nice set-up where she can display her ingenuity. Vartox, played by Owain Yeoman, is actually one of Superman’s allies in the comic where he’s portrayed as, essentially, Sean Connery in Zardoz. This series adapts him into an escaped alien prisoner who seeks revenge on Kara’s family. As a one-off, he’s a decent enough villain but he lacks any real depth. But that actually works to the show’s advantage. Aside from the fact that the final battle was actually pretty awesome, (and she intelligently takes him out BEFORE he reaches the city) it’s good to start with a villain that Supergirl is able to dispatch in order to show just how powerful she is. Thus, later in the series when she faces a REAL threat, the stakes will seem that much higher.

“Wait, I can be optimistic? Awesome!”

Now here’s where the hindsight comes in. This is a completely literal adaptation of the character. That’s not to say that any specific scenario or element is taken directly from the comic, but the character of Supergirl decidedly is. She is everything that this god-like superhero should be: strong, independent, caring and undeniably human. Essentially in stark contrast to the way Superman was portrayed in Man of Steel. I harp on that movie a lot, but I try to ensure that it’s not surface quibbling about costumes or sets. I find the underlying core of DC’s greatest hero to be completely missing in that film. It would’ve been easy for this show to learn from the movie’s box office and follow in its footsteps. However, seeing how dour a glowering all-powerful hero can be, they thankfully embraced the optimism that has, until recently, been intrinsically linked to the Super-family.

It’s also interesting to note that this series has two people of color and three females in its main cast. I feel like that shouldn’t be impressive in this day and age, but it is. It’s refreshing to see a different set of POV’s in a comic book adaptation and hopefully, with the success of this show (it has a healthy 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and premiered to excellent first-run ratings), we’ll see even more diverse leads and casts in comic book television. I’d say that Supergirl is an excellent addition to the pantheon of televised superheroes. If this is the quality we can continue to expect from these series, then keep them coming.

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