How Supergirl can avoid its predecessors’ pitfalls
From tone to costume to powers to sidekicks to villains to love interests, here are a few tips for CBS' forthcoming Supergirl series...
It’s official – Supergirl is coming to television next season.
We have an actress, a costume and an ever-growing list of characters being brought in from the comics and, at a time when female superheroes are still suspiciously absent from the slate of big film releases, executive producer Greg Berlanti and his team are expanding their television empire to include Kara Zor-El in addition to the already-successful Arrow and The Flash series.
But this show will be on a different network – CBS rather than The CW – and that’s not the only detail to suggest this will be a completely different series with new rules and (possibly, they seem to go back and forth on this one) a new universe not connected to Oliver Queen and Barry Allen’s.
In so many ways, this is completely fresh territory, but there are also plenty of things the show could learn from the mistakes of past iterations. Here’s our rundown of some of the potential pitfalls we think Supergirl should keep in mind, and how it might go about avoiding them.
Keep it light
There’s a temptation, especially with DC properties, to make everything a little bit darker than the way it’s previously been done. Proven by the slightly ‘grittier’ take on Superman in Man Of Steel (and the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice), these heroes are still fighting off the remnants of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films but, if there’s one thing that Supergirl should never be, it’s dark and brooding.
Assuming that she does exist in the same universe as Oliver Queen, this world already has one morally-ambiguous vigilante-turned-hero, and it really doesn’t need another. The Flash works because it’s light and fun, and its hero isn’t plagued by the angst that characterizes so much of its sister show.
Supergirl, then, could go either way, and a balance of the two tones would make for an interesting take on the character. The show can do practically anything they want with Kara, given that there hasn’t really been a decent screen-version to reference, but I don’t think anyone’s hoping for a super-serious crime show with a tortured heroine at the centre.
Don’t muck about with the costume
Though there will always be those who grumble, one thing the Arrow/Flash franchise has gotten right so far is the costumes. They stand apart for looking modern and high-quality while still being more or less in keeping with the comic-book versions, as well as practical and attractive on camera.
One of the many things we learned from the failed Wonder Woman pilot is that swapping a skirt for some trousers doesn’t instantly modernize a superhero costume, and sometimes what looks good on the page can be a travesty on screen. Striking the balance is near-impossible, and there are countless things that could have gone wrong with translating the iconic Supergirl costume to television.
The togs were revealed last week, and it looks as though resident designer Colleen Atwood has done it again. It’s been understandably compared to the darker, pants-less Superman costume from Snyder’s Man Of Steel movies, with muted red and blues and a notable modification to the emblem, but those details aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
The red stitching on the suit (you may have to zoom into the image to see it) is a nice touch that’ll probably look great on screen, and the tights under the skirt and boots instantly stops it from looking like an inappropriately-revealing Halloween costume.
She looks as though she’ll be able to fight in it, which is important, but it hasn’t been changed to the point where it’s not still instantly recognizable.
Keep Superman to a minimum
Rumors that Kara’s more famous cousin might be making an appearance in the series surfaced pretty quickly after a slew of announcements, with a casting call for a double with a “ripped physique” setting the internet off on a bout of wild speculation. While it’s indeed exciting that we may see Superman in some form, there’s also a danger of him overshadowing the show’s leading lady, and having this happen in the pilot or early stages of the show would take focus off Kara before she even gets a chance to make an impression.
Constant references to DC lore and famous characters may delight a portion of fans, but it can be incredibly alienating to those coming to the character for the first time. Until this universe is willing and/or able to introduce the character properly, Kara should be kept away from his significant shadow. A lot of the supporting characters featuring on the show (James ‘Jimmy’ Olsen; Cat Grant) will already bring with them a fair amount of Superman-related baggage for those in the know, and the inclusion of Hank Henshaw also has the potential to tie into that at some point down the road.
It’s understandable that connections will be drawn between the two characters, but keeping Superman to a minimum may be a better way to do this in the long-run. Crossover time would be better spent on getting Oliver Queen and Barry Allen involved, it could also be argued, but, again, we don’t yet know whether CBS/CW universe sharing is something we’ll be allowed to see.
Balance the villains
These shows already have a problem juggling the villain-of-the-week format with something more substantial, and there’s a danger that Supergirl’s home on CBS might exaggerate the issue even further. It’s a network built around police procedurals, and this could seep into the show’s DNA in much the same way as the CW’s relationship drama does with The Flash and Arrow.
This expands its audience, as there are plenty of ardent shippers who watch the aforementioned shows for the couples alone, but the case-of-the-week format done without any character development will only alienate fans hoping to see a repeat of the good work done on previous television superhero series.
Smallville is a good case study for this as, despite starting off with a Krypto-freak of the week for Clark to tackle in each subsequent episode, time was always made for his personal drama. In later seasons, the villains started getting multi-episode arcs, and there were great stretches of time where Clark would be dealing with becoming Superman way more than he was bothered with the latest threat to Metropolis.
It created the template for the current crop of shows and, as proven by The Flash’s commitment to the season-long Reverse Flash mystery, they can easily have their cake and eat it when it comes to the bad guys.
Get the love interest right
Yes, there does have to be a love interest, but no, they don’t need to be bland. This is something that seemingly always goes wrong somewhere between the ideas phase and the final product, from Lana Lang to Laurel Lance and all those in-between. They’re dull cardboard cut-outs, viewers don’t take to them and the internet fandom gets their claws into another pairing. The show could avoid all of this just by introducing a compelling romance in the first place, whether that’s Mehcad Brooks’ James ‘Jimmy’ Olsen or someone not yet known.
Please no love triangles, and give the romantic interest a role in the story that isn’t just about pining after Kara.
The show has a rather unique opportunity in having a female hero at the show’s center, with which they (presumably) get to develop a male character in the love interest role. This shouldn’t be a point of interest but, having not seen this in the current crop of male-led shows, it is.
It’s going to be a different problem, if not a slightly more difficult one to overcome, but the show still needs to avoid the same old mistakes.
Build a team, and let people in on the secret
Agents Of SHIELD may have taken a while to get there, but once it did, it became abundantly clear that a comic book show with a team dynamic at the center holds infinite possibilities. Arrow started off with just Oliver and Diggle, but Team Arrow soon expanded to include pretty much every character on the show, and The Flash learned from that mistake by introducing the STAR Labs team from the very beginning.
Weekly procedural shows need more than one character solving the case, and a variety of personalities around the hero ensures viewers have multiple things to latch onto. For this, some if not all of the supporting cast need to know about the big secret identity, if not just to avoid the annoyance of Kara sneaking around and lying to her loved ones for half a season.
Fail to tell everyone about her nightly (or daily?) excursions, and you risk another Iris West situation.
Like Queen Consolidated or STAR Labs, Kara will have a base camp in CatCo – the media company run by Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant at which she works as her assistant. James Olsen will also work there and, as a potential romantic interest and recognisable name from the comics, he seems like a good candidate for first member of Team Supergirl.
But then there’s the foster sister Alex Danvers, a doctor who will know about Kara’s identity as a Kryptonian survivor from the get-go. There’s also a recurring role for Laura Bernanti as Kara’s birth mother, Alura Zor-El, though what this means remains unclear.
Have a game plan with her powers
We know that Kara will have powers when we meet her, having already been on earth for 12 years but only learning to embrace them in adulthood, but there needs to be a definite game plan from the showrunners in this area. For example, does she have all of her abilities (even the silly, obscure ones), or are there still some yet to develop?
Supergirl is inherently too powerful for a weekly series, because she can easily thwart pretty much everything that comes at her. Shows featuring Superman sidestepped this issue by either introducing kryptonite or, as in Smallville, forcing him to learn about each new power as it arrived.
The Flash, too, starts at the point where Barry has only just developed super-human abilities, and Arrow is all about hard graft and training for its characters before they can even think about taking to the Starling City streets to fight the bad guys.
Make her too powerful and it’ll be hard to establish any adversary as a plausible threat, but miss out on some of the details and the complaints are sure to come flooding in. An incremental expansion of her powers could work well, and there’s a ready-built explanation for her not having quite mastered them after effectively hiding away for over a decade since landing on Earth.
Make her interesting
There’s nothing worse than a boring protagonist, and this seems to be an unfortunate problem with the execution of female superheroes in particular. There’s a danger of writers either thinking she needs to be tough without vulnerability or vulnerable to the detriment of her heroism, but all signs seem to point to this iteration of Supergirl stamping out that problem.
As a Glee survivor, I can confidently attest to Melissa Benoist being a fine actress, and pretty perfect for this character. She can do sweet and naive, but she’s also great with material that calls for her to be tough, noble and capable of fighting her corner. This, of course, is a different ball game entirely, but Marley Rose seems like a good training ground for this next step.
Kara needs to be interesting, and not just because she happens to have superpowers. Make her shallow or immature. Make her aggressive and arrogant. Heck, make her unlikeable, just don’t make her simple.