Supergirl: a few thoughts on the trailer criticism

The Supergirl upfront has garnered strong reactions online, not all of it positive. Here's a response to its critics...

It’s fair to say the Supergirl trailer has attracted a lot of praise. It’s also attracted a lot of criticism. But how valid are those criticisms? I’ll say now that none of us has any idea whether this show will actually be good or not – I think it will, based on what I’ve seen – but I don’t know. What I do know is that some of the things people are saying about it don’t seem fair.

Criticism of the trailer’s rom-com influences, perceived cheesiness, comparisons to a certain Saturday Night Live sketch, and complaints that its version of Kara Zor-El isn’t (we’ll come back to this) a “strong female character” are all problematic, and here’s why.

“It looks like Saturday Night Live‘s Black Widow sketch”

So here’s the thing. The joke in Saturday Night Live‘s “>Black Widow: Age of Me sketch was, primarily, that Hollywood’s sexist machinery might churn out a Black Widow movie in which – to pander to the imagined expectations of female audiences – she isn’t actually a superhero. Sure, they pad the sketch out with the idea of giving her a ditzy makeover and romance elements, but the important point – the thing that makes it satirical instead of just absurdist comedy – is that they strip out the superhero elements completely.

The Supergirl trailer, in contrast, contains quite a lot of superpower use, leaving us in no doubt that she can do everything you’d expect a super-powered Kryptonian to do. This suggests, at the absolute minimum, that they aren’t going to make the show exclusively about her personal life. If the Supergirl trailer looks similar to Black Widow: Age of Me it’s because they’re both using the same reference material as a springboard: romantic comedies. Which brings me to my next point.

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“It looks like a rom-com”

People are saying this like it’s a bad thing. Admittedly, it does look a lot like Supergirl‘s pilot (at least) will have the structure and tropes of a rom-com. It’s about a young woman struggling to get her life together and figure out who she is – except that instead of falling in love with some dude (or two) who help her sort herself out, she awakens her superpowers and becomes an actual superhero. If it’s a rom-com, it’s a rom-com about falling in love with yourself.

The point to remember is that riffing on existing tropes isn’t inherently bad. It’s the combination of teenage-girl high school tropes and superhero action that helped make Buffy The Vampire Slayer the glorious piece of genre television that it is. I’m not saying Supergirl will definitely be the next Buffy, but the potential is definitely there. It isn’t automatically bad that it looks familiar.

And the thing about superheroes is that romance is baked into their DNA. Hardcore comics nerds will know that when superheroes became popular in the 60s, it was off the back of writers and artists who had been working in the romance genre for years beforehand. Pick almost any 60s Marvel book off the shelf – Daredevil, Spider-Man, X-Men, Thor, Iron Man – and you’ll probably find a romance subplot inside. After creating Captain America in the 1940s, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby literally invented the romance comic genre with 1947’s Young Romance #1, and that visibly fed back into Kirby’s Marvel work in the ’60s – and you’ll struggle to find a Marvel Studios movie that doesn’t in some way rest on Kirby’s work.

Similarly, John Romita Sr. (who some consider the definitive Spider-Man artist) spent the late ’50s and early ’60s drawing romance comics with titles like Falling In Love, Girls’ Love Stories, Girls’ Romances, and Young Love. When he moved to Spider-Man, he created the visuals for Mary-Jane Watson and the series refocused itself on a love triangle between her, Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. Peter Parker’s numerous romantic foils are almost as popular as he is.

As it is, these romance-steeped 60s Marvel books defined the template for modern superheroes – one where a hero’s personal life is as important as their costumed adventures. Dismiss Supergirl on the grounds that it features prominent love interests and you equally dismiss the genre’s most electric and formative period.

“She’s not a strong female character”

The problem with this complaint is that the phrase “strong female character” has been misapplied so long to mean “physically and mentally without weakness” rather than “well-defined” (as it briefly, originally meant), that sometimes people hoping for a strong female lead get disappointed if a woman has personality traits that might be seen as in any way weak or frivolous.

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But look at it this way: is anyone complaining that dorky Clark Kent or flaky Peter Parker aren’t “strong male leads”? Of course not, because their personalities aren’t a function of their gender – that’s just how they are. This version of Kara Zor-El quite clearly draws parallels with the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic. She isn’t strong in the sense that she doesn’t take crap and can deliver a beating – she’s strong in the sense that her weaknesses aren’t tied to the fact that she’s a woman, but to her personality.

Admittedly, Kara’s personality might just not be to your taste – and in that case, fair enough. One of the problems with any female superhero is that – like the Black Widow in Avengers – they’re burdened with an expectation that they’ll be all things to all people. They have to satisfy the people who want their superheroines to be headstrong and independent leaders, and those who want them to be flawed but ambitious underdogs, and those who want them to be cold, calculating instruments of death, none of which are reconcilable. The problem is one of variety, or rather the lack thereof.

Again, look at it from the male perspective: if you’re a nerdy loser looking to see your experience reflected, you’ve got your Hulk and your Spider-Man. If you’re after a confident and super-capable badass, you’ve got your Batman and your Iron Man. If you want a morally certain boy scout you’ve got Superman and Captain America. If you want a hero with a dark side you’ve got The Punisher or Wolverine. No-one complains that Hawkeye isn’t a geek or Wolverine is a killer because there are other options out there. With superheroines, there are so few around that disliking even one closes off a significant portion of them all.

So if your disappointment with Supergirl is that you wanted something else entirely, that’s fair enough. Perhaps AKA Jessica Jones will scratch your itch. Perhaps Captain Marvel will. Perhaps they won’t. But there’s a difference between “this is bad” and “this isn’t what I wanted”. Supergirl might not be the show you were hoping for, but it’s going to be the show some people wanted. The only way to make that sting less is to make sure the variety of female heroes one day matches the variety of male heroes.

“It’s cheesy”

Maybe it is. But does that matter? This sounds like a complaint about tone. If you’re used to DC adaptations where the hero happily murders his foes with a bow and arrow and Superman snaps his enemy’s neck after levelling half a city, then maybe a light and relatively upbeat adaptation might seem too cheesy. But stop and consider whether this complaint makes sense. Yes, there are moments where it seems to be a little naïve, or optimistic, or chirpy. Where’s the rule that says it can’t be?

The thing we all need to realise is that not every superhero show is aimed at us. You might exclusively like grim, serious, realist superhero television. Not everyone does. The important question is whether the tone works for the character, and in this instance light and upbeat works for Supergirl in the same way dark and dour doesn’t work for Superman. Supergirl was never going to be as dark as Daredevil, nor should it want to be. If you want a darker superheroine show, the chance will hopefully come around. That doesn’t mean this one is bad. It means it’s aimed at an audience that doesn’t include you. That’s okay.

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If anything, the show this is most similar to in tone is, of all things, Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman. If you’ve never seen it, it was great fun. Sure, it was light-hearted and about 90% of episodes seemed to involve Superman breaking down a wall to rescue Lois from a contrived deathtrap seconds before she lost consciousness. But on a week-by-week basis, it was genuinely fun to watch, and remains so.

“It’s aimed at teenage girls”

It’s Supergirl. It’s supposed to be aimed at teenage girls. If you’re not one, and it bothers you that it’s aimed at someone who isn’t you, just think: now you have some understanding of what it’s like to be a teenage girl (or indeed, grown woman) watching another TV show/movie/video game trailer and thinking “oh right, another TV show/movie/video game aimed at men.”

It’s worth hanging on to that perspective for the next time this complaint bubbles up.

So I should like this?

Well, that remains to be seen. We still don’t know whether it’s actually any good or not. For all we know it might be braindead, clichéd rubbish on a weekly basis. But the point is that the show shouldn’t be criticised for what it’s attempting to be. I didn’t like or watch the Dawson’s Creek Superman, Smallville, but that’s because I wasn’t the audience for the show, and clearly it found an audience out there. Supergirl deserves the same chance to succeed on its own merits. To be allowed to be fun, or quirky, or romantic while remaining free of sexist perceptions that – because it stars a woman – it’s more superficial than any show starring a man. Personally, I’m going to give it a go.