Beginning with the 1960’s Batman series starring Adam West, live action adaptations of super-heroics on television has had a penchant towards camp. Only in the past decade have recent entries into the genre taken significant steps to sanitize such shows of their soapier elements. Arrow, The Flash, and season one of Heroes all favored mythology over melodrama. Both the deliberate, self-aware hamminess of Batman and the sincere fan-service of the CW superheroes are excellent approaches for immersing viewers into a world of comic-inspired capes and cowls.
What does not work is the strange middle approach taken by CBS’ new Supergirl series. While less alliterative the dialogue is never less cheesy than any lines utter by Romero’s Joker or Burt Ward’s Robin. There is rarely a sentence spoken that does not serve the double duty of character building and exposition, which reduces almost every conversation to some variation of “I was feeling one way, then blank happened, and now I’m feeling this way.” But such inane ramblings are never presented as fun. Batman was a self-effacing comedy which left viewers laughing hysterically; Supergirl is a self-serious drama which will leave them groaning.
Arrow and Flash, on the other hand, succeed because such shows demonstrate a reverence of the source material and respect for the readers which popularized their characters. When the latter dropped the name Ronnie Raymond, the characters’ knowledge of his death in the pilot is superseded by the viewers’ knowledge of the source material, utilizing such to shape expectations and build anticipation. Supergirl borrows the names of pre-existing characters and little more. James Olsen, Cat Grant, and Hank Henshaw, are all so divergent from established lore that they are essentially newly created characters whose names amount to glorified easter eggs.
Benoist is the show’s one bright spot, bringing a strong combination of serious acting chops and natural charisma, enough so to almost redeem the poorly written character of Kara whom she depicts. Despite a flat performance from Brooks as Olsen, she nails the perfect combination of awkward and affable in their meet-cute. She’s so effortlessly charming, in fact, that an early scene of her striking out on a blind date come across as absurd. Even less plausible, however, is the character’s initial desire to lead an ordinary life to the neglect of her extraordinary nature. It is necessary as a starting place for her character arc and heroic journey, but nothing about it rings true to life. People have a desire to be normal only when they perceive themselves to be abnormal, not when they are unequivocally gifted and blessed by the differences which set them apart.
The special effects seem to be done on a shoestring budget. This power set has been depicted on television several times in the past; the quality here seems to be slightly higher than the ‘90s era Lois and Clark but sadly lower than Smallville from nearly fifteen years ago. With further regards to verisimilitude, the glasses have never been a less plausible disguise. The secret magic that always made the character of Superman work in live action was actors such as George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, and Brandon Routh all being able to sell the audience on the idea that no one would see through such a seemingly transparent disguise. Benoist appears to be making no effort on this front, with her appearance in her “secret identity” as Kara Danvers being clearly one and the same cute blonde as the newly debuted Supergirl in a costume that’s a step down from most cosplay.
Said costume had been revealed in all the promotional images leading up to the pilot, but it works no better in motion. It borrows the worst elements of the Man of Steel design, namely the overwrought textures and the desaturated color scheme. The elements of that costume that worked, the sleek sheen and formfitting design which accentuated Cavill’s powerful physique, are totally absent here. Benoist’s suit does her no favors. It is decidedly unsexy (which the character specifically cites in the episode), while at the same time being neither empowering or accurate to the source material. Whatever mark the costume designers were trying to hit, they certainly missed it.
Besides the conservative attire, there are a number of indication that the show is courting a primarily female demographic as opposed to superhero fans in general. There are numerous instances of female character of minor importance in the comics being promoted to central players in the show. Whereas Kara had traditionally been defined as the daughter of Zor-El (Jor-El’s brother, through whom she is related by blood to Kal-El/Superman), the eminent scientist here is barely merits a mention, while her mother Alura, a character of such little importance that she went decades without being given a name, is central to the show’s lore. Meanwhile, Cat Grant has gone from vapid gossip writer to CEO of a media conglomerate. About halfway through the episode she and Kara have an awkward and ham-fisted discussion on how best to advance modern feminism.
Supergirl was a show which I was greatly anticipating. Superman himself was always my favorite fictional character from any medium, and more stories set in his world was an exciting prospect. Furthermore, I had been quite endeared to Supergirl herself for a time, specifically during her reintroduction by Jeff Loeb. But nothing in the pilot suggest this show will be anything but a major disappointment, one which CBS should never have picked up as a series. Supergirl is not more powerful than a locomotive; it’s an absolute train wreck all by itself.