Last spring, SNL aired a spoof of Avengers: Age of Ultron that roundly mocked how Marvel — and, by extension, much of Hollywood — might approach stories about female superheroes. It was a cutting critique that quickly went viral, swapping in romance and pink cardigans instead of anything resembling a power fantasy. So it didn’t help at all when the first trailer for CBS’s Supergirl seemed to indicate that the show would make all the same limiting assumptions about what audiences wanted from the property. It looked like DC Comics meets The Devil Wears Prada, with Supergirl schlepping coffee for her cruel,exceedingly fashionable boss while falling in love with her hot coworker. It didn’t look good.
Supergirl, which premieres tonight, opens by intentionally checking off each of those "chick-flick" beats in the first 10 minutes — and then proceeds to turn the tropes upside-down. The fear going into this first episode was that the show would be a clichéd mess, running roughshod over a beloved character in a cynical grab at female audiences. Instead, Supergirl manages to be enjoyable, and in some ways even lovable. It’s still a mess that might lose casual viewers early, but the show is a winning effort for being every bit as feminist as it is fun and campy.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Supergirl stars Melissa Benoist as Kara Zor-El, the older cousin of Superman who, in a more modern take on the character, was originally tasked with watching over him moments before Krypton’s destruction. But after Krypton explodes, her spacecraft is sent careening into the Phantom Zone, where she’s kept in suspended animation for 24 years — just enough time for Kal-El to emerge as the Man of Steel. When she finally makes it to Earth, stripped of her original purpose, Kara sets out to do what any normal, Midwestern girl from space would do: try to make it in the big city as a personal assistant.
Supergirl doesn't fly in Superman's shadow
The show has no choice but to acknowledge the existence of Superman, but it makes a point of trying not to live in his shadow. First, it’s in no way as dour or ponderous as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Here, in the tradition of other Greg Berlanti superhero shows like Arrow and The Flash, Supergirl tries to have fun with its characters, and above all is invested in making you feel the wonder and amazement they feel when they see a woman fly. Second, the show doesn’t waste time letting Kara wax philosophical about her heroics. She can fly and can stop a crashing plane with her bare hands. She’s gonna do it, without the existential crisis that might plague lesser heroes, and she does so well before the first half-hour is even up. She may be an assistant, but she’s as powerful as any of her foes.
Of course, like any Greg Berlanti DC series, the show is unabashedly cheesy, blending daytime soap opera elements with the requisite pyrotechnics. That’s not a bad thing, per se. There’s a reason why Arrow — what might be considered the template for series like this by now — has such a massive fan base. But this show is silly, so much so that it’s hard not to roll your eyes or groan at the action onscreen. (Some slipshod CG here and there doesn't help either.) Whether or not that’s a strength or a weakness, however, is something that will be decided by fans. The show seems perfectly comfortable embracing its goofier sensibilities.
A deft mix of silliness and charm
For instance, during a montage of Kara developing her costume, the scene shifts to her walking through a hail of bullets to the tune of Carl Carlton’s "She’s a Bad Mama Jama." It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and my eyes rolled right out of my head, but I couldn’t help but be swayed by the moment’s hyper-earnest charm. Not every show can sell its campy side so deftly, but Benoist and her supporting cast, all so full of determined smiles and a willingness to chew a little scenery, make it work throughout.
The best part of the show, though, is that Kara isn’t the only powerful woman onscreen. Rather, the show is as much about Supergirl showing off what she’s made of as it is about the women in her life being forces to be reckoned with. Kara’s foster sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) is quickly revealed to be an engineer for the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, a government agency devoted to tracking down superpowered aliens. Kara’s boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) is the smart and capable publisher of CatCo Worldwide Media, who only happens to embody the well-worn "bitchy boss" stereotype. And Kara’s mother Alura Zor-El (Laura Benanti) was a ruler on Krypton before its destruction. All these women are formidable and three-dimensional, and are given plenty of screen time to prove it.
Supergirl is about powerful women
In one scene that may have fallen flat in the initial trailer, Kara confronts Cat about the name Supergirl, a moniker we learn Cat invented as a way to sell newspapers. "I’m a girl," Cat says, "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 scene is more than a little self-referential, and perhaps heavy-handed, but there’s something to be said for how Cat owns it. Like the rest of the women in the cast, she’s excellent and she knows it — just like Supergirl herself — and is unafraid to show it.
At the moment, Supergirl is the only show on television starring a bona fide female superhero. Soon enough, it’ll be joined by Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix. That’s nothing short of a miracle, especially considering how difficult it has been in years past to get a show of their kind off the ground. But it’s something else to make that show good, and in its pilot, at least, Supergirl surprisingly manages to succeed.