Whether encouraging or skeptical, the conversation surrounding CBS’ Supergirl has been one mired in curiosity and anticipation. Following a leak of the pilot episode shortly after it was officially teased, allowing some fans to have their hunger sated a bit earlier than expected, the series’ first episode was shown (officially) to the public for the first time during San Diego Comic-Con 2015.
Warmly received by those fans who sought out the early preview, the episode gave a clear indication that – although limited to showing the potential of a Supergirl series – it’s pursuing a path all its own, as opposed to following the formula of The Flash or Arrow. Make no mistake: the show’s journey won’t be one that every existing superhero fan will want to take, but for those charmed by the pilot, Supergirl may be the fix of hopeful heroics fans have been waiting for.
For those who haven’t followed the plot details or casting updates along the way, Supergirl follows Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), the other survivor of the planet Krypton’s destruction as she makes her way to Earth on a mission to arrive with, and protect, her infant cousin Kal-El. When a wormhole sees her arrive years after Kal has grown into the beloved superhero Superman, he leaves her with a foster family to develop her powers in secret, and choose what future lies in store: that of a happy young woman, or a full-fledged superhero.
While working in the offices of CatCo as an (under-appreciated) assistant to Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), Kara is forced into heroics when her sister’s (Chyler Leigh) life is put in danger. Realizing she is meant for the same greatness as her cousin, Kara has her eyes opened to the many alien threats currently loose on Earth, with hints that a far greater plot – with her at its center – is slowly developing.
This review of the Supergirl pilot will contain minor SPOILERS, so you have been warned.
The success of Supergirl‘s pilot – as is quickly becoming a rule of thumb for the genre – rests largely on the shoulders of Benoist (and a particular nod to friend and confidant Winn Schott, played by Jeremy Jordan). But surprisingly, it isn’t her caped heroics that steal the show. Although the CG fight sequences and superpowers are a satisfying thrill for any fan of the original “Superman” family, and there really is no substitute for a shirt torn open to reveal the iconic ‘S’, it’s the vulnerability Benoist brings to Kara’s ‘human’ side that’s likely to charm die-hard “Supergirl” fans and casual TV audiences.
Vulnerability, however, isn’t the right word. To be clear, those who assumed that ‘Kara Danvers’ would be a bumbling, insecure, clumsy or socially awkward persona to keep Kara’s true identity hidden – a la ‘Clark Kent’ – were off the mark. Kara’s tongue-tied snorts when faced with the handsome James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) seem far from a put-on, and instead a genuine glimpse into her personality. By the same token, the scenes shared with her older sister confirm Kara has no desire to project confidence, or even the notion that her life is progressing exactly as she hoped it would. In short: Benoist and the show’s writers make Kara a likeable, relatable lead in a modern setting (even if the pilot fails to show any substantial depth just yet).
Many still doubt that a network like CBS has the audience or experience to make a superhero TV series a hit, but the pilot shows that a network budget placed in many of the same hands that shaped The Flash and Arrow can do wonders. Producers and showrunners have spoken at length regarding how the rise of (cost-effective) special effects have made things possible on TV that would have seemed a pipe dream just a handful of years ago. And when Kara is helping to guide a flaming passenger jet through a suspension bridge, comic fans may wonder how even The Flash can compete.
Not that it needs to; despite Supergirl sharing plenty with The CW’s new hit – a cheery lead, strong family dynamic, stressful working life, struggles with romance, and a collection of villains on the loose – its tone and target audience seem to make it a female complement to The Flash, not a carbon copy or imitator. The fact that the writers have worked the existence of the Man of Steel into the show’s universe (and Kara’s own rise to hero status) as well as hint that their shadowy ‘big bad’ for the season is already in place is simply an added bonus.
Supergirl isn’t without any shortcomings, though, most of which are a result of the need to portray a rise from civilian to superhero in the space of a single episode. It’s hard to blame the show’s writers and producers, since the appeal of seeing Kara Zor-El – or anyone – wearing the iconic blue tights, red cape, and House of El sigil is hard to resist. But the time spent establishing Kara as… well, not very super to begin with is soon cast aside. Since Kara, not Kal-El, actually knows what it means to be normal (as she was on Krypton), her Earth life is just that. Her nervous work persona has more to do with an overbearing boss than a need to ‘fit in’ – read between the lines, and it seems CBS isn’t keen on a heroine who has to outright lie about who she is on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, that means that Kara’s meteoric rise to superhero is (perhaps unavoidably) blistering. As thrilling as it may be to see Kara plant hands heroically on hips or walk victoriously through flame, it’s the journey to those heights that holds the most promise. The moment in which Kara realizes she is, in fact, bullet-proof is as much a treat to the viewer as the heroine herself; the kind of wish-fulfillment and fantasy that will always strike a chord. But the pilot’s pressing plot and antagonist soon pushes many of those thrills to the background.
A shadowy government organization monitoring extraterrestrial threats may not be the most original trope of the genre, but this version of the Department of Extra-Normal Operations makes its purpose clear from the outset, and serves it aptly. A crashed alien ship has sent all manner of alien miscreants loose on unknown missions, and while Kara may be eager to round them up, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) doubts that such a task could be accomplished by a… *chuckle* girl.
It’s here where Supergirl makes its most concerning turn, swapping a relatable female lead for feminist cheerleading with all the subtlety of a Whoopie Cushion. No feminist TV show is expected to be perfect these days, but implying that a seasoned military man doubts the effectiveness of an amateur alien in a cape because “she’s just a girl” is an odd step. Supergirl‘s efforts to show that a female superhero can be more than effective work far better than these attempts to merely tell, which CBS hopefully acknowledges moving forward.
Regardless of gender, it’s the pilot’s sudden shift from hopeful but crestfallen heroine to proud and powerful where most of the troubles lie. The pilot’s need to see its heroine emerge victorious is fair, but if Kara’s leap into action wasn’t so formulaic, or her ascent to Supergirl wasn’t so complete by the episode’s end, then viewers may be enticed to follow her on a similar journey spanning weeks, or months.
Even so, the heart and charm Benoist grants Kara, and the early chemistry of her supporting cast members shows potential for any pilot – the fact that it bears so much scrutiny and can still find firm footing is a relief. Like the character the show is based upon, Supergirl has an uphill battle ahead of it, but if the writers ignore that fact and make the most of what they have, then – as is always the case with a “Super” character – reason to hope.
Supergirl premieres on CBS at 8:30 p.m. EST on October 26th, 2015. It will air at 8 p.m. EST on Mondays thereafter.