Supergirl’s second season premiere was one of the more self-consciously “meta” exercises that a major network TV series has undertaken in quite some time, especially for an occasion as high-profile as a season debut on a new network. Rather than jumping right back in to advance its own running storylines, the episode was (narratively) an occasion to set up “canon” explanations for upcoming changes to the status quo and gently work info-dumps for new viewers who skipped Season 1 into the conversation.
But the episode also had a second, more surprising undercurrent: Associating itself (positively) with references to the Superman movies of the 70s and 80s.
Fans were already primed for Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman to be a prominent part of the premiere. The character was deliberately kept on the sidelines in Supergirl‘s first season, so making him an onscreen presence even for just a few episodes was always going to be the most immediately discernible change in season 2. Those involved in the show had also said that this take on the Man of Steel would be a pretty “traditional” incarnation, in contrast to the more angst-ridden Superman of the DC Extended Universe films.
So, it wasn’t exactly surprising to see Hoechlin first show up as a “back to basics” version of Clark Kent (affecting the part of a clumsy dork, taking a browbeating from an offscreen Perry White, and using tragically un-hip slang) before pulling off a classic-style shirt-rip costume change into a super suit that shared Supergirl’s bright and shiny color scheme. It was, however, none the less unexpected to see Supergirl draw an explicit tonal/thematic link between this TV series and the iconic 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve, directed by Richard Donner.
While the character’s first appearance was, at least, played broadly enough that any sense of “Donnerverse” nostalgia could have conceivably been chalked up to both instances being grounded in the original source material, once the episode got going the aim was readily apparent. Promos for the episode featured Jeremy Jordan’s Winn Scott stumbling over his words on meeting the hero before awkwardly blurting out a question about how the Kryptonian shaves, but in the episode proper he has a different question: How did Superman go about stopping Lex Luthor’s attempts to destroy California with man-made earthquakes?
While the reference wound up serving a purpose in the story-proper (we subsequently learn that Luthor is in jail, presumably for this, thus explaining why we hadn’t heard from him before and setting up a new seasonal subplot involving his adopted sister Lena) it was definitely a sit-up-and-take-notice moment for longtime Super-family aficonados. Lex Luthor has been involved with almost every sort of evil scheme imaginable over 80+ years of comic book, television and movie continuity, so to single out a deed expressly related to the Christopher Reeve films feels like a fairly deliberate signal (another possible nostalgic shout-out only moments later: “Corto Maltese,” a fictional DC Comics Universe nation likely still best known to popular-culture as part of an offscreen subplot in the ’89 Batman movie.)
And then there was Cat Grant and her new assistant. Calista Flockhart’s continued presence on Supergirl now that the series has changed its shooting locations and moved to a more budget-conscious network has been a question mark hanging over the new season since the move was announced. While it’s known that her character will be ceding day-to-day “boss” duties to a new character, and will likely only appear onscreen sporadically thereafter, how that will be handled/justified within the context of the show will (presumably) have to wait for next episode. Her role in the premiere was mainly ordering Kara to hurry up and pick a new job to go with the new CW status quo, and to otherwise look uncharacteristically indecisive over whatever her own big life-change will end up being.
But amidst all that, we also got to meet the girl who has taken Kara’s place as Grant’s personal assistant… Miss Teschmacher – who not only shares a name with Lex Luthor’s girlfriend/sidekick from the ’78 movie, but whom Grant is prone to shouting for in the bizarre diction (“Tesch-MACH-eeeeeerrrrrr!”) that Gene Hackman so memorably deplayed in the same. The new Miss Teschmacher’s presence may end up being a one-off joke, but it’s still another explicit callback that seems to emerge as part of a broader implicit creative choice: After almost two full decades (and counting) of live-action Superman material self-consciously looking to escape the Donner films’ shadow (Bryan Singer’s lukewarm-reviewed pseudo-sequel Superman Returns being the noteworthy exception), Supergirl seems eager for fans to make the association.
In fairness: All of this business largely lived in the expository/character-building moments of the episode, which was mainly concerned with establishing Lena Luthor as a mirror-character to Kara (she’s trying to rebuild the family company’s reputation and, in doing so, separate herself from her famous relative’s reputation), and introducing new ongoing storylines. Kara hits the breaks on her romance with James Olsen, the mystery-man in the Kryptonian escape pod is in a medical coma at the D.E.O, Superman’s limited presence has been in part because he doesn’t get along with Martian Manhunter after he refused to help him eliminate Kryptonite, and a hitman apparently dispatched by Lex to kill Lena winds up in the hands of Cadmus – who plans to transform him into Metallo. But it was still hard to miss, especially since it all surrounded the massively-hyped arrival of Hoechlin’s Kal-el.
Why would a show built largely around gifting Millennial female audiences with a character to call their own double down on associating itself with an almost 40 year-old movie about her (male) cousin? Most likely, they just thought it would be fun. Supergirl has a hefty amount of nostalgia for previous live-action DC and Superman adaptations already baked into its meta-narrative, with original live-action Supergirl Helen Slater and Lois & Clark Superman Dean Cain in prominent supporting roles, and original Wonder Woman Lynda Carter set to join the series later this year. As such, explicitly calling back to the ’78 Superman is par for the course.
Whether the “Donnerverse” nostalgia becomes an ongoing aspect of Supergirl’s existence or (more likely) comes and goes with its associated guest star remains to be seen, but for now it’s an amusing development for a series clearly looking to redefine its own identity in a new space.
Supergirl continues Monday October 17 with ‘The Last Children of Krypton’ at 8pm on The CW.