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Kara Zor-El is all too often overshadowed by her Kryptonian cousin, but last night’s premiere of Supergirl hoped to prove why she’s deserving of the spotlight. Luckily, though the pilot has problems typical of the superhero genre, Melissa Benoist makes an otherwise average episode something truly special.
Easily the best part of the premiere is Melissa Benoist’s portrayal of Kara Zor-El. The genuine excitement she brings to the role has shades of Grant Gustin’s Flash and makes watching her embrace her greater destiny a particularly enjoyable experience. Her performance doesn’t always hit the mark, especially when playing Kara as overly “normal” at the office, but it’s clear Melissa Benoist is going to be the major reason audiences continue to tune in.
The same cannot be said of her relationship with her sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), however. Beyond the fact that Kara says she loves her when Alex comes to help her pick out an outfit, I never got a sense of the love they have for each other. And any chance their relationship had of being interpreted as one based on this feeling is sabotaged by lines like, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” after Kara reveals herself to the world, and, “And yeah, it helps that I shared a bathroom with [an alien],” when Kara confronts her about her involvement with the DEO (Department of Extra-Normal Operations). Supergirl attempts to account for these moments by explaining that Alex felt inadequate when compared to Kara, but her mixture of envy and protectiveness came across as uncharacteristically cold.
Supergirl also suffers by forgetting about the existence of the Man of Steel as a means to add weight to Kara’s character. One could say the show was already doing this with the inclusion of classic Superman villains Toyman and Livewire, but the series goes a step further, playing up Kara’s feelings of otherness like she’s the only alien in the world and even showcasing her spaceship in a similar way to previous adaptations of the Superman mythos. It’s not that these elements aren’t good or at least passable, but I would have liked to see the creators go to greater efforts to give her issues that don’t feel like watered down versions of things we’ve already seen.
Despite the series stumbling due to the lack of Kal-El’s involvement (Why wouldn’t he be all over the other Kryptonians? Why wouldn’t he have told Kara about Kryptonite? Etc.), the inclusion of James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), someone closely connected to Superman, was clever. It gives the show someone to guide Kara through her struggles, having knowledge of how Superman handled them, not to mention giving a sense of how much Kara will grow with lines like “that’s the first thing he did. Save a plane.” In addition, save for Benoist, Mehcad Brooks is the strongest member of the cast, having immediate chemistry with Kara and able to match Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant in the newsroom. He’s also the biggest source of the beating around the bush regarding the use of “Superman,” but I assume the showrunners saw this as something they simply had to get out of the way.
While it’s unfair to judge a show’s ability to craft interesting fight scenes from a pilot episode, I didn’t find Kara’s encounter with Vartox very engaging. Kara is understandably lacking in the cool moves department, but little inconsistencies in the action, sound, and CGI prevented me from being completely engrossed in the experience. The lackluster fight scene actually made me that more aware of how fast the episode moved through important moments in Supergirl’s development, which made me wish they had given more emphasis to the scene where she catches the plane. TV has really come leaps and bounds in realizing what was previously the exclusive domain of film, and this scene was able to give a real sense of scope and excitement to the series (even if Kara lifting the plane for the first time seemed too easy).
The show also sometimes struggles to thoughtfully interact with gender issues. When Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) says Kara isn’t strong enough to beat Vartox, Alex rallies to her defense and asks, “Why? Because she’s a girl?” Kara’s punch being caught by Vartox was what prompted Hank to make his statement, making the transition to this topic feel particularly iffy. And this isn’t the only time the series is a little too obvious in trying to make a point. Perhaps it’s important at its outset (or just generally) for a show like Supergirl to go out of its way to send a message. Though I’m certainly not excluded from CBS’ target audience, I’m not exactly the one they’re hoping watches the show the most. Regardless, I thought other moments (like Kara telling her sister she didn’t want to take back saving the plane) were much more powerful in showing her agency as a female character, and I hope the series continues to add nuance to the way it engages with Kara’s role as a female protagonist and hero.
The most worrying part of the pilot for the show going forward are the almost comedic villains. Vartox never moves past a one-dimensional desire to get revenge on Kara for her mother condemning him to prison, and the poor dialogue and performances of his higher-ups, particularly that of The General, mitigate the threat they pose to Kara and the planet. In contrast to The Flash, where the promise of more Zoom and more substantial villains is part of why I continue to watch into the show, I’m not at all interested in seeing their nefarious scheme get closer and closer to fruition.
The pilot episode of Supergirl isn’t nearly a polished experience. The villains are bland and cheesy, Kara’s relationship with her sister falls flat, and the show sometimes ignores Superman’s existence to add dimension to Kara’s character. But Melissa Benoist’s fun and optimistic portrayal of Supergirl provides reason enough for people to watch the series, if only to see her further develop as a character.