In this week’s Supergirl episode ‘We Can Be Heroes‘, Supergirl finally unmasks the mysterious vigilante Guardian and learns National City’s newest superhero is one of her closest friends and confidants, James Olsen. “That thing that you feel, that thing that makes you want to make everything better… I feel that too,” is how James explained to Kara why he’s spent much of Supergirl season 2 riding around in a drab grey armored suit playing superhero. Ultimately, Kara couldn’t accept or support James’ new heroic identity, and this echos the sentiment of many in Supergirl‘s fandom. Try as Supergirl might to justify this creative direction, James Olsen as the Guardian doesn’t work.
Jimmy Olsen, though Supergirl pointedly refers to him by his more respectable first name James, is one of the oldest sidekick characters in all of comics. His history with Superman goes back all the way to his first unnamed cameo appearance in Action Comics #6 (1938), though he wouldn’t be called by his name until Superman #13 in 1941. Jimmy Olsen has been side by side with Superman across every form of media over 70 years, through radio programs, television series like The Adventures of Superman in the 1950s and Smallville, and in every Superman movie. Jimmy also has a history with Supergirl, not just in the comics, but in the movies as well. Jimmy was present in the 1984 Supergirl film starring Helen Slater. While it’s true that Jimmy Olsen has gained superpowers many times in the past (Elasti-Lad?), these were bizarre circumstances from comic books flavored by a different era.
In DC Comics, Guardian is the superhero identity of Jim Harper, created in Star Spangled Comics (1942) as a policeman who donned a costume and shield to protect the Suicide Slum neighborhood of Metropolis. Supergirl introduced a villainous version of Jim Harper, Colonel James Harper (played by Eddie McClintock), in season 1 as an alien-hating government agent who works for the evil Cadmus Project.
When Supergirl reshuffled its creative direction following the series’ move from CBS to The CW, necessary changes had to be made for some characters. This mainly affected Kara’s circle of friends at CatCo in the wake of Calista Flockhart’s departure from Supergirl as a series regular. Winn was moved from CatCo to being the resident computer genius at the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, which has happily thrust Winn and the comic relief he provides right into the crux of Supergirl‘s “fighting aliens of the week” stories.
James, however, was the odd man out of the Supergirl season 2 shuffle. Though introduced as a potential love interest for Kara in season 1, Supergirl let that romance simmer all season before abruptly slamming the breaks on Kara and James as a couple right when season 2 began, to few complaints. Kara was promoted to CatCo reporter where she had a new boss, editor Snapper Carr, to exasperate her. James, CatCo’s art director. was inexplicably made acting CEO of CatCo, signaling a lack of anything else of substance to do with the character. James was relegated to occupying Cat Grant’s office, thereby occasionally making use of that handsome set, and being “a professionally handsome desk person,” in the aptly hilarious words of Mon-El.
Mehcad Brooks is a series regular and he does play James Olsen, one of the biggest names in Superman lore, so Supergirl needed to find a logical and substantial direction for James, a character who had taken to dropping by DEO headquarters unannounced just so his face could be seen in some early season 2 episodes. As someone who has been a close friend of both Superman and Supergirl, it makes sense that James would be inspired by their example and would want to be a hero himself. Except he should have stopped right there at “wanting to be.”
Out of the blue, James decides he needs to hit the streets and fight the heroic good fight, first in black street clothes, relying on a heretofore unmentioned “black belt in martial arts” to fight bad guys. James then recruits Winn as the Q to his 007, getting Winn to design him his Guardian costume and also somehow build a special motorcycle without anyone at the DEO noticing this diversion of funds and equipment. When James makes his debut as Guardian in the episode ‘Changing‘, it’s against the Parasite, one of the most dangerous of all Superman villains. Guardian got to help Supergirl defeat Parasite, but in no way could they be regarded on the same level as superheroes.
A non-superpowered costumed vigilante works best on Arrow, which is based around the idea of a very skilled and very determined crime fighter battling mostly human enemies. As the Arrowverse has evolved, superpowered metahumans have been creeping into Arrow over the years, but leather-clad heroes equipped with bows, arrows, guns, and melee weapons have managed to fight off even the occasional metahuman. Guardian, with his shield, armor and motorcycle, would fit in just fine with Green Arrow and his Star City crew.
The Flash has introduced myriad metahuman threats over the years, from people being able to control the weather (Weather Wizard), generate and control ice (Killer Frost), and even humanoid shark men (King Shark) and telepathic talking gorillas (Grodd). Guardian would not likely be terribly effective against the villains-of-the-week Barry Allen and his STAR Labs team take on, much less the Speed Force-powered Big Bad speedsters like Reverse-Flash, Zoom, and now Savitar.
As bright and cheery as Supergirl‘s world is, which reflects the disposition of the titlular heroine, National City and the Earth it belongs to is riddled with the most dangerous menaces in the DCTV Universe. A show about Supergirl needs villains powerful enough to challenge a Kryptonian. In one and a half seasons, Supergirl has faced aliens like an army of her fellow Kryptonians, the artificial intelligence Indigo, shape-shifting White Martians, renegade robots like Red Tornado, and metahumans like the electric Livewire and sonic screaming Silver Banshee. Supergirl needed The Flash’s help to beat Livewire and Silver Banshee, while it took the combined powers of Supergirl, Superman, Martian Manhunter, and Alex Danvers in Kryptonian-buster armor to defeat two Kryptonite-hearted Metallos.
Against enemies such as these, which often overwhelm even Supergirl, Kara’s concern over James’ well-being is apt: He will get himself killed as Guardian. Even on a fantasy superhero show like Supergirl, some nods must be made toward a degree of realism. In Batman V Superman, Batman immediately knew he was absolutely no match for Doomsday in the climactic battle. All Batman could do was evade and try not to die, letting Wonder Woman and Superman ultimately take the monster down. And this is Batman we’re talking about, the smartest, best trained, best equipped superhero in DC Comics. Supergirl faces aliens and monsters as powerful as Doomsday almost every week. James and his retractable Guardian shield are no match for that. As was found out in ‘We Can Be Heroes’, the Guardian suit isn’t even fully bulletproof.
It is telling, however, that Kara objects so resolutely against James being a superhero, yet she has no issue whatsoever with her sister Alex fighting by her side. Part of that can be attributed to Alex being introduced from inception as a bright, skilled, fearless, and capable soldier. Alex also has the resources and personnel of the DEO behind her, as well as Martian Manhunter as her mentor and commander. Alex is proven in battle and is the first human on Supergirl to kill a Kryptonian, Kara’s aunt Astra. Supergirl has overtly stated Alex is the “other Supergirl” of this story.
By contrast, James is a handsome, well-meaning photographer who wants to feel like he can stand shoulder to shoulder with his alien best friends. His abilities are questionable, at best. James “wants to make a difference” but Supergirl herself understands that without the necessary might or skills, in her world, that noble desire isn’t enough.
What’s more, James Olsen playing superhero sticks out like a sore thumb on Supergirl, which has been drawing acclaim both for its sensitive and inspiring portrayal of an LGBTQ relationship, Alex and Maggie Sawyer’s love affair, and its timely exploration of the issue of outer space aliens’ rights on Earth as a metaphor reflecting current events regarding immigration and refugees. On a show where Martian Manhunter is also poignantly attempting to connect with another survivor from his dead world, M’Gann M’Orzz, who was born his hereditary enemy, among other themes being tackled, including a heroic journey for Mon-El, Jimmy Olsen the superhero is weird and out of place.
The best thing one can say about superhero James Olsen is it creates some fun “bromance” moments between James and Winn. But James and Winn can contribute comic relief and support for Supergirl the way they did in season 1, without being a distraction in the midst of the action. Supergirl the character and Supergirl the show would be better off without James running around playing superhero.
Supergirl continues next Monday with ‘The Martian Chronicles’ @8pm on The CW.