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There’s no getting around the fact that one of the primary casualties of this season of Supergirl has been James Olsen. Not in a literal sense—he remains very much alive—but in terms of the character’s prominence in the series. James played a vital role in Season 1 as a primary love interest to Supergirl/Kara Danvers, as well as a major driver of the action in his own right. But this season has seen the character diminished even as he assumed Cat Grant’s role as CatCo CEO. In fact, James often seemed like an afterthought even before the showrunners shunted him into a second-hand role as a second-rate DC hero, the Guardian.
James’s decision to become a non-powered hero (albeit one with hand-to-hand combat experience and wonderful toys supplied by his crime fighting sidekick Winn) was especially quixotic in a universe that boasts not only a Supergirl but a panoply of superpowered aliens. Clearly the initial aspirations of the Supergirl showrunners for Guardian was that he’d form a dynamic with Supergirl similar to the one between Batman and Superman. In this week’s episode, Winn makes an allusion to the Dark Knight in an attempt to compare him to the Guardian. Bless the show’s heart for trying, but no regular viewer of the show was making the mistake of confusing the two. Try as it might, the Guardian thing. Just. Wasn’t. Happening. With “City of Lost Children,” however, it seems as if the Powers That Be belatedly recognized their Guardian mistake and are course correcting by focusing on the real hero: James Olsen. It’s a smart move.
James is front and center in this episode’s primary storyline about a race of telepathic/telekinetic aliens called Phorians that happen to share James’s phenotype profile. Or to put it bluntly: the Phorians are Black like James. While James and Winn muse about how much Guardian sucks (OK, they don’t actually say that, but they do wonder about his efficacy), one of the aforementioned aliens attacks National City civilians with her powers. As Guardian, he gets a lead on the woman from an alien informant and breaks into her home in order to detain her. Instead of finding her, he encounters her son Marcus. Marcus is scared of the intimidating intruder until James takes off his Guardian mask to reveal his true face. James’s resemblance to Marcus forms the initial basis for a friendship, as he is awed by seeing a person who looks like him as a superhero. It’s a tender moment that also comes with an unmistakable racial subtext for people of color still seeking greater representation on TV and other forms of mass media.
The DEO takes Marcus in for questioning, where they’re unable to get him to say anything. Even Alex’s torture tactic of eating delicious hamburgers in front of Marcus isn’t enough to get the boy to crack. J’Onn reluctantly remands Marcus in James’s custody in order to get him to reveal his mother’s whereabouts. James takes his “nephew” Marcus (that’s the cover story he gives the CatCo staff) to his office, where he shows the boy his camera collection and explains its significance. One camera, James explains, was used to take photos during the Civil Rights Movement while another was a gift from his personal hero, his deceased father. As much as this scene advances the plot in terms of getting Marcus to open up, it also spotlights many of James’s essential and appealing qualities, from his Pulitzer Prize level skills as a photojournalist to his compassion toward Marcus.
We also find out that Marcus’s people are refugees who’ve been forcibly removed from whatever planet they’ve settled on. The parallels between the Phorians and modern-day situations like Syria are obvious. Drawing such comparisons is a conceit that the Supergirl showrunners have played out before (e.g., Winn’s girlfriend Lyra were smuggled to Earth by slavers). But it’s an effective storytelling strategy in terms of making the aliens immediately identifiable, not to mention a canny humanistic strategy that enables sympathy for real-life immigrants and refugees. “City of Lost Children” marks the show’s most explicit effort to foreground James’s race, particularly in a conversation between him and J’Onn. The only misstep in that scene is that it assumes that James would ever abandon Marcus, despite whatever frustrations he might have had, but the episode ultimately redeems that wrong turn by making James, and not Guardian, the one who is able to get through to Marcus when the machine created by Lena Luthor and Rhea causes him and the other Phorians to lose control of their powers.
I’ve glossed over the other storyline in this episode because there will presumably be a lot to say about it in my final two reviews of the season. But let’s briefly address the fact that Rhea is successful in getting the machine to work—or rather, is able to inspire Lena by getting her to recognize her own feminine form of genius distinct from Lex’s phallocentric obsession with power. (OK, again, this isn’t exactly the conversation they have, but were one to read between the lines…) Rhea’s maternal dynamic with Lena has helped give an added dimension beyond her single-minded obsession with her son, even if that was her motivation for entering into the partnership in the first place. In any event, the episode culminates with the building of a Stargate-like portal through which a fleet of Daxamite ships stream through. The machine also, improbably enough, has the effect of messing with the Phorians and their powers. One presumes that they’ll have some role to play in the climactic final two episodes. For now, I’m pleased with the simpler story that freed James from his dull gray suit to reveal the hero he always was underneath.