[WARNING: This is a review of Supergirl's premiere episode. There will be SPOILERS]
After months of waiting for DC Comics to bring a female-led superhero adventure to television, Supergirl has arrived. The pilot episode that convinced CBS to order a full series has been shown to fans at San Diego Comic-Con - and leaked online months ahead of airing - but now it has been broadcast for all to see. So, did CBS and the minds behind The Flash and Arrow launch another hit?
In the series pilot, written by Greg Berlanti and Ali Adler, Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) emerges after spending a decade on Earth playing the part of an everyday human. When she finally decides to embrace the same superpowers as her famous cousin, Kara has to learn the ropes quickly, while witnessing how her public persona is received - and exploited - at her office day job. When she learns that she wasn't the only alien to land on Earth in the past decade, Kara has to team up with a government agency to track down extraterrestrial criminals - as a larger threat looms.
Casual viewers (or, apparently, self-proclaimed comic fans) may view Kara Zor-El as simply "a female Superman," but the show doesn't take long to show why the character offers a much more fitting dose of wish fulfillment than DC's big blue Boy Scout ever could. Where Kal-El was born to be a superhero, Kara took a different path. She had the potential to be the same godlike being, but decided - like nearly every young man or woman in the world today has - that "the best thing I could do was fit in."
The idea of a potential superhero choosing to lead an ordinary life may seem silly, but lead Melissa Benoist carries it off convincingly. It's not an understatement to say that Benoist is the show's greatest strength... as Kara Danvers. The Glee alum was clearly chosen based on the demands of Kara's awkward, self-conscious and stammery personality, and the more time set aside for that side of the character, the better. Forming chemistry in a pilot is never easy, but the dynamics immediately formed between Kara and her sister (Chyler Leigh), boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) and Jimm-- excuse us, James Olsen himself (Mehcad Brooks) are the kind that lighthearted serials are built on.
Simply put, Benoist's Kara is likable, if a little heavy-handed in expressing her bleeding heart (blame the writers for that). As a result, who wouldn't cheer her on when she first takes to the skies to save the day with a whole city watching? In truth, the drama of Kara's everyday life (clearly influenced by Richard Donner's Superman films) isn't just the foundation of the show, but almost enough to make up a series on its own. The fact that she's Superman's cousin is just an added bonus.
Once Kara adopts her superhero alter ego, the benefits of a network budget should be clear for any fan of The CW's other superhero programming. The special effects are to be praised nearly from top to bottom, from Kara's passenger jet rescue to the standout flight sequences (which simply couldn't look any better). But the real enjoyment comes from watching Kara learn what it means to be a superhero, following most of the same steps that any comic book fan would, if given the chance.
Relying on her friend and de facto costume designer Wynn Schott (Jeremy Jordan), the two soon usher Kara into the world of crimefighting - a process that, unfortunately, passes much, much too quickly. It's hard to talk about the Supergirl pilot without noting just how much the writers cram into a single hour of television, with a brief dose of Kara's heroics soon shuffled aside as the plot takes center stage, leaving little room for anything else.
Kara soon finds herself pulled into the Department of Extranormal Operations, filled in on an alien jailbreak, and thrown into battle against her first villain (and some old fashioned misogyny to boot). Each new subplot is clearly a season-long tease - to be expected - but in it seems foolhardy to hope that a thirty-minute long emotional arc could be as satisfying as the show seems to imply. In the end, checking off the boxes of a superhero adventure - instead of devoting time to what makes this story, and this cast, special - results in a pilot episode that feels like a proof-of-concept more than anything else.
What Comes Next?
To be fair: the concept is more than proven in the first episode. And to give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt, the demands of the pilot were laid out before knowing which parts would shine. Luckily for Supergirl, its strengths may also be what sets it aside from any other comic book TV series on the air. Was the attention drawn to the lack of female heroes on-the-nose? Most definitely. Was the action or sentimentality a little too cheesy? Sure, but so was Superman: The Movie and Lois & Clark.
In its first episode, Supergirl featured everything needed to silence skeptics (and those who scoffed at the show's existence): a charming lead, accomplished supporting cast, and an obvious formula for weekly action. And to be honest, the absence of female heroes means even heavy-handed feminist rhetoric would be fair game (but we're not there yet). For now, CBS is focused on a hard enough task: introducing millions of American homes to another member of the Superman Family.
Supergirl, Superwoman, or Superperson - this hero does her family proud.
Supergirl returns next Monday @8pm with "Stronger Together". Check out a preview of the episode below:
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