Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SUPERGIRL: The Pilot

I've long been a mouthy advocate for getting--finally getting--comic book heroines on the screen and Supergirl has always seemed to me a character with a lot of potential for adaptation. Her one feature appearance, 1984's SUPERGIRL, became a bit of a fiasco and, in turn, became something of a camp classic. She was later introduced into SMALLVILLE, which did hint at all that potential but she was still just a supporting character. I was pleased when Greg Berlanti, a creator of CW's ARROW and THE FLASH, announced he was working on a Supergirl series. Eventually, CBS picked it up and last night, it made its big debut. The pilot is slapdash at times, dramatically confused at others but it left me at least willing to see more.

The series eschews the original--and convoluted and bad--origin of the character in favor of a sort of mucked-up version of one introduced in the comics about a decade ago. In the tv telling, after baby Kal El--Superman--was launched to Earth from a dying Krypton, his cousin Kara Zor El, then 13 years old, was dispatched to look after him. The blast-wave from the explosion of Krypton knocked her ship off course and into the Phantom Zone. When it finally made its way out and to Earth, twenty-four years had passed, though she, preserved in suspended animation, hadn't aged.

Given Superman's own story, the nature of the Phantom Zone, etc., very little of this makes much sense but as quick and dirty as it seems to a comic vet, it effectively sets up everything.

When Kara arrives on Earth, Superman finds her and places her with an adoptive family. It's a long tradition in Superman adaptations to recruit for cameos actors and actresses from previous screen incarnations and here, Kara's adoptive mother is played by Helen Slater, the original screen Supergirl, and her adoptive father by Dean Cain, Superman from LOIS & CLARK. Kara grows up and goes to work as the assistant for media mogul Cat Grant but all the while, she keeps her powers and her real identity secret. When the plane in which her adoptive sister is flying nearly crashes, she's forced into action. She saves the plane but she's photographed, becomes a media sensation and gets hero fever--decides she'll just burst if she doesn't take up the cape and the family business. Supergirl is born.

Melissa Benoist plays Kara in an overly-bright-eyed and maybe way-too-enthusiastic manner that is, at first, rather endearing--the vibe is straight "it's cool that a girl can do this stuff"--but carried too far and too long, it could make her look flighty and stupid. Benoist is basically doing a 15-year-old Supergirl. That would be great if the show featured a teen Supergirl. The character in this series is supposed to be 24 years old.[1] How this will play out is something only time will.

A significant plot point--because it will provide the series' villains--is a Kryptonian prison ship that apparently followed Kara's ship out of the Phantom Zone and to Earth. It seems pretty unlikely a whole prison full of inmates--hardened criminals with the Earth-shattering powers of Kryptonians--have been hiding out on Earth for over a decade without drawing the attention of, say, Superman. There may be a larger plot at work here. Something else to watch. In the pilot's biggest error, the identity of "the General," the central villain revealed at the end, was quite confusing. It's Kara's Kryptonian mother, who, up to that point, hadn't be shown to have a villainous bone in her body, to say nothing of the fact that she's supposed to have been dead for years. In the brief preview for next week's ep, Kara calls her "aunt," so I'm assuming Kara's mother had a twin sister but there's no mention in the pilot of any twin sister.

When it was announced earlier this year, the casting of Mehcad Brooks as Superman's longtime pal Jimmy Olsen caused a bit of an internet stir. Jimmy Olsen is, of course, a very young, short, wimpy, freckle-faced redheaded white guy, whereas Brooks is a 35-year-old, 6'5', 230-or-so-pound muclebound bald black guy with a deep voice--a guy who could, himself, be playing a superhero. And, indeed, he is, in practice, as bizarre a Jimmy Olsen as he looked on paper, a guy who commands nearly every room he's in. While the comic vet in me just can't seem to accept him as a Jimmy Olsen, his Olsen is a very good character--my favorite, in fact, of the supporting roles so far. As it turns out, he knows all about Kara; her cousin filled him in.

Nearly everyone knows about Kara. Olsen knows. Her adoptive sister knows. Her adoptive sister's employer--a secret agency charged with monitoring and countering potential extraterrestrial threats--knows. She even tells a friend at work. The only regular among the  so-far-introduced supporting cast who doesn't know is Kara's boss Cat Grant. This exposure could come back to bite our heroine in the future.

The pilot's biggest shortcoming is that nearly all of the performances are carried out in an over-the-top, anti-naturalistic manner that perpetually borders on camp yet they're so contrary to one another they never cohere as a unified dramatic universe. One sees all of these sorts of performances pretty regularly with genre properties (though, mercifully, not as often as was once the case). With Kara, this sort of characterization can seem charming. With Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant, it's full-blown caricature. And at the other end, Kara's mother/the "General" is insanely over the top, spouting ridiculous, stilted, ever-so-serious dialogue as melodramatically as possible. One could break down each of these by their relative merits but whatever conclusion such an evaluation may yield, few of them seem as if they belong in the same show.

Still, while this wasn't a great pilot--it certainly wasn't up to that of either ARROW or THE FLASH--it was, rough edges aside, a pretty good one. I'm pleased to have Supergirl back on the screen and interested to see where this incarnation goes.

--j.

---

[1] When Kara's boss Cat Grant dubs the mysterious new hero "Supergirl," Kara objects, arguing for "Super Woman," but not only is it a ridiculous objection given how Benoist is playing the character, Benoist is also playing the very scene in which she's making this objection as if she was 15.

3 comments:

  1. Overall, I liked the pilot. It left me interested in seeing more. But like so many pilots these days, it embraced the "get big fast" mentality, force feeding as much plot as possible in an hour. I was disappointed that all of Kara's closest pals already know her new secret identity, wrapping up what could have been dragged out for at least a few more episodes. And the show already has a big bad who is already gunning for Kara.

    Going forward, I think the biggest challenge for the show will be existing in the same universe as a Superman. They CANNOT make things too hairy for Kara and then not have Supe show up or at least have him doing things off screen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, there's a lot of things that could become a problem. The Kryptonian villains in particular just seem like a really bad idea. A bunch of rowdy prisoners with earth-shattering powers have been here for over a decade without making themselves known? That first adventure alone was--yeah, I'll say it--a job for Superman. Wouldn't it have been better to eschew this element entirely, keep the scale more modest and, when it came to villains, focus on some of the other not-so-world-threatening DC characters?

      Delete
    2. It was made pretty clear that the prisoners were from all over the galaxy and not kryptonian. And at the end Olsen mentioned that superman wanted her to finally become a hero. In the shows logic superman won't show up because he knows she will be able to stop anyone and she needs to fight her own battles. They also made a point that now that she has shown herself the prisoners will begin coming after her.

      Delete