Have we reached peak superhero on film or TV? On balance, we may be close, but it doesn’t look like we have yet. With The Flash and Arrow on the CW (Legends of Tomorrow premieres in January), Agents of SHIELD on ABC, Daredevil and the soon-to-premiere Jessica Jones on Netflix, the television landscape for superheroes may be reaching a saturation point. Or maybe not if Supergirl, the latest DC superhero to make the jump from comic books to the small screen is any indication. Yet another production from Greg Berlanti (the co-creator, executive producer of the CW’s superhero series), the pilot episode of Supergirl falters where it matters least (too much set-up for upcoming episodes or the first season) and soars where it matters most, in creating a root-worthy, multi-dimensional superhero character and a recognizably real, but not too grim, world for her to inhabit.
When we first meet Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), she’s in hardcore voiceover mode, info dumping left, right, and center, a necessary, if awkward, step toward acclimating new viewers to Supergirl’s place within the DC universe. Sent to Earth ostensibly to protect her then infant cousin, Kal-El, the Kryptonite refugee who would become Superman, Kara’s spaceship gets stuck in the Phantom Zone for more than two decades. By the time she reaches Earth, Kal-El’s older than she is and her mission to protect him obsolete, leaving her with little else to do by blend in to Middle America with the help of the Danvers family, Jeremiah (Dean Cain, TV’s Superman of Lois & Clark fame), Eliza (Helen Slater, the original big-screen Supergirl), and Alex (Chyler Leigh), Kara’s adopted sister. But with the exception of Alex, the rest is background information, to be revisited as needed throughout the first season and beyond.
The adult Kara is all of 24, a small-town girl in the big-city (National City, a pale imitation of Superman’s Metropolis), working her first thankless job as the personal assistant of Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), the owner/CEO of a multi-media conglomerate. Initially shy, awkward, and unsure of herself, Kara seems to have modeled her human persona on her cousin, Clark Kent, except this Kara has willingly suppressed her superpowers, instead attempting to live like any normal post-college twenty something. Her work friend, Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan), madly crushes on her, but she doesn’t notice (or pretends not to notice). Whatever future romance with a non-powered human awaits Kara in future episodes or seasons, it’s not likely with the permanently friendzoned, neutered Winn, but with James “Don’t Call Me Jimmy” Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and the new art editor at Cat’s company.
Supergirl, however, doesn’t save its big effects-heavy set piece for the climax, instead closing out the first act with Kara saving a potentially doomed flight carrying her sister. Rather than try to hide herself, Kara lets multiple cameras capture her in the first of many triumphant moments. Kara’s no brooder. She might have suppressed her superpowers out of a misguided idea about the world not needing any more superpowers (a plot contrivance if there ever was one), but once she saves her sister, she’s found – or rather re-found – her true calling or vocation, Supergirl. Berlanti and company bend over backwards trying to justify the “Supergirl” name not as a putdown or a relic of another century, but as a means of empowerment, but they don’t quite pass the threshold necessary to be convincing or persuasive. On the plus side, we probably won’t have to revisit the “Supergirl” name anytime soon.
Not content to introduce Kara in her day-to-day life or Supergirl first taking action, the pilot throws in a super-secret, stealth organization dedicated to finding and neutralizing alien threats as they appear. They even have their own underground bunker and the obligatory military hard-ass leading the super-stealth team, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) and before you know it, Supergirl gets her first face-to-face with a similarly powered alien. The confrontation feels rushed and perfunctory, an obvious strain on an already generous effects budget, but before the episode closes, the season-long Big Bad makes an appearance and she (or he) has an extremely familiar face, all of which could have been teased or hinted at in the pilot episode rather than crammed into forty minutes of actual running time.
Aside from its too many subplots for a pilot episode problem, Supergirl also suffers from a bad case of insecurity and uncertainty. As Superman’s lesser-known cousin, Kara/Supergirl has often come across as a knockoff, a poor imitation created to bring in preteen girls to the DC universe (true as far as that goes). The clearest example of that insecurity or uncertainty can be found in the addition of James Olsen to the cast. Not only does Olsen serve as a constant reminder of Supergirl’s better known, A-list cousin, but he’s explicitly sent to National City by the perpetually absent Superman (he’s off doing the superhero thing in and around Metropolis and can’t be bothered to visit his cousin personally) to watch over and presumably mentor Kara. It’s paternalistic and borderline sexist, but given Olsen’s lack of superpowers, hopefully that mentoring won’t be necessary and Kara/Supergirl can stand – not to mention fly – on her own two feet in future episodes.