The most famous refrain about why the Superman franchise remains one of the most recognizable intellectual properties on Earth, yet has such difficulty getting good film and TV adaptations, is that there are no new stories left to tell with the premise. Superman (and, to varying degrees, Supergirl and their adjacent family, friends and colleagues) has been around for decades. The mythology has been told, retold, deconstructed, rebooted and Crisis’d thousands of times, all the conceivable ground has been covered. “Evil Superman?” Dozens of times. “What if Krypton survived?” It’s been done. “Good Lex Luthor?” Done. “Superman, but as a monkey?” A few times, yes.
“What if someone started a religion around Superman?” Yup, as you might expect, even a premise as potentially eyebrow-raising as that has been fodder for several stories in the DC Comics Universe (and it’s been done even more often in the context of other characters meant to parody or deconstruct the character) – though, surprisingly, few have been all-time classics. Probably the best known version happened as a minor subplot during the “Reign of The Supermen” crossover event, wherein robed cultists convened around the site where one of the impostor Supermen claimed to have been resurrected; but it wasn’t the main focus of the series. Roger Stern and Curt Swan’s year-long Action Comics “backup strip” feature, The Power Within, also tackled a similar theme in the same era. This premise seldom is – if anything, it tends to be most popular as a joke at the expense of overzealous comic book fans as-viewed by (usually male) creators.
The CW’s Supergirl, however, has made it to three seasons in part by leaning into the notion of putting a female spin on familiar Superman storylines, so it’s no surprise that Episode 4: “The Faithful” – written by Paula Yoo and Katie Rose Rogers – has a refreshing take on even this well-worn “What If.” Where other writers have mined the premise for fanboy laughs or digs at the expense of the industry, “The Faithful” has a less jokey take on what it’s like for a woman (“Super” or not) to be the object of someone’s obsession (spoiler: significantly less funny), and for good measure also drops in some welcome commentary on cultural appropriation.
The story-proper actually begins back during the series first episode, introducing TV mainstay Chad Lowe as a random passenger who happened to also be on the malfunctioning plane that Kara Danvers saved (mainly) because Alex was aboard. Being photographed and declared “Supergirl” by the media served as her initial origin, but “The Faithful” reveals that Lowe’s Thomas Coville got a slightly better look at The Girl of Steel than the other passengers and became fixated on the “face” of his near-death experience. As the timeline skips ahead to the present, Coville has started a cult for fellow citizens whose lives were in one way or another saved by Supergirl: worshipping her as a messianic figure and conducting religious services loosely-borrowed from Kryptonian ceremonies honoring their god Rao.
Kara naturally finds Coville’s stalker-ish fixation creepy (also a problem: He saw Kara using her powers in her civvies, so he can see through her secret identity) and the repurposing of her native religion offensive, but there’s a more immediate concern in that the cultists are encouraging people to endanger their lives in the hope of being (literally) “saved” by Supergirl. As tends to be the case with “issue” episodes, Kara’s first instinct – leaning into her “godhood”in an attempt to talk Coville out of his actions – turns out to be the wrong approach, and she ends up having to stop the cultists from detonating a weaponized Kryptonian probe under a packed hockey arena. The denoument seems mainly designed to set up Coville as a recurring enemy and tease the presence of someone/something in a buried laboratory being awakened by the probe-bomb, but the buildup is all about working through some of the thornier aspects of the Superman mythos overriding metaphor in the series’ signature “millennial rom-com” flavor.
What’s been a continued revelation about the series has been how heavily it’s leaned on subtle change-ups to the Superman Family “formula,” rather than a need to reinvent the wheel. Part of what made Supergirl difficult to “update” in the comics after the original version of the character was killed off during Crisis on Infinite Earths in the mid-1980s was trying to make her significantly different from Superman, without abandoning the appeal of the franchise itself; with a frequent lament being “Well, you can’t just re-tell Superman stories but with a girl!” Supergirl’s surprising retort has been that, actually, you can… because that change (and a handful of others) isn’t nearly as minor as it’s often assumed to be, and can make all the difference.
Yes, “The Faithful” presents a fairly blunt version of it; since the writers, showrunners and cast all seem to understand that the idea of a someone obsessing over you and claiming their self-destructive actions are some kind of tribute to you takes on a wholly different (and sadly familiar) context when the character being obsessed over is a young woman. But you can see it more regularly in running storylines like Kara’s friendship with Lena Luthor: On paper, it may seem like little more than an urban-set/gender-flipped pastiche of the Young Clark and Young Lex backstory from Golden Age Superboy comics, but the overriding tension gets an extra dimension from the equally overriding acknowledgement of how professional spaces pit women against one another, even when they aren’t the relatives of mortal enemies.
Obviously, Supergirl has told plenty of totally original stories within the Superman mythos as well. But strong episodes like “The Faithful” are an important reminder to the rest of the superhero genre of how much less “played out” certain ideas, characters and concepts might be when one considers the perspective of both creators and potential audience members who will see them from outside the “traditional” fandom demographic – a lesson the cinematic side of the DC Extended Universe, so often described as “troubled,” would do well to take to heart.
Supergirl airs Mondays @8pm on The CW.
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