Rest easy, DC Comics fans. The first episode of Supergirl packs enough DC Comics mythology into its 45 minutes to satisfy fans of Kara or her more famous cousin. Fans of The Flash and Arrow will instantly recognize the formula that has made both of those shows so successful, and there’s no larger continuity barring entry for new fans.
Without spoiling a thing that you haven’t already seen in the promotional materials for the show, Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) is Superman’s cousin from Krypton, hiding her powers and living an ordinary life in Capital City as an awkward assistant to a powerful media mogul (Calista Flockhart). Circumstances force her to use her powers in public, she creates her new public identity, and goes forth to fight a powerful alien menace who has also ended up here.
The pilot moves fast, and manages to get Kara in costume before the halfway mark. If you found the sweet tone of the trailer irritating, there are two full blown punch-ups between Kara and this week’s villain (Vartox) that look as solid as you could hope for on television, and the special effects are not only handily the equal of the best moments we’ve seen on The Flash, but are probably the best that any member of the Super-family has ever looked on TV. For that matter, when it comes to looking good, her outfit (designed by Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood) is one of the best superhero costumes I’ve seen in years, and would be at home in any cinematic superhero universe.
Like all Greg Berlanti superhero productions, the show is well cast, but the obvious standouts are Ms. Benoist, Mehcad Brooks’ charming, confident James (don’t call him “Jimmy”) Olsen, and Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant. This is Benoist’s show, though, and she easily flips the switch between her nerdy girl next door Kara persona and a convincingly powerful, even intimidating, Supergirl when she’s throwing punches at aliens.
Pilots are pilots, though, and this first episode of Supergirl suffers from the usual problems of constant exposition and characters practically introducing themselves to the audience with a series of the broadest possible beats. The setup for easy introduction of future villain of the week episodes is all correct, present, and accounted for. I won’t spoil it here, but it should make Superman fans happy, and there won’t be any shortage of superpowered action in the weeks ahead.
The similarities to The Flash are perhaps a little too numerous (the adorably awkward lead, the sarcastic mentor who provides scientific resources) given that show’s runaway success. Supergirl certainly displays a similar reverence for overall super-mythology that The Flash does for its title character. On its own, that’s no bad thing, but…
Part of the reason that The Flash has been able to get away with its continuity mongering and fan-service is because Barry Allen and his world (a wonderful but virtually forgotten one season CBS show from 25 years ago aside) were, until 2014, almost completely foreign to the broader television viewing public. That isn’t the case with the world of Superman, with story elements that not only have been omnipresent in popular culture for decades, but two relatively recent big screen outings (with a third on the way), and a combined total of fourteen seasons of live action television in the last 20 years between Lois and Clark and Smallville, and well over twenty if you add in the Superboy TV series and assorted animated efforts.
In general (and bear in mind, it pains me to write this, as you’d be hard pressed to find someone who loves a good Superman story as much as I do), the general public seems to have lost their taste for the kind of earnest, “truth and justice” storytelling that goes into telling tales involving Kryptonians. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see that there is no “deconstruction” of the mythos on display in Supergirl, and I found its earnestness (like that of The Flash) endearing.
Unlike Smallville, for example, Supergirl makes sure Kara is in full costume early and often, and there’s no soul searching about the meaning of heroism or her place in the world, which is noticeably different not only from the most recent small screen version of the Superman legend, but the current big screen incarnation, as well. Superman fans tired of seeing their hero dragged through the existential mud will find much to love about how Kara behaves here, and how the world of the show views her more famous cousin. Audiences less inclined towards heroes in red capes might feel differently, though.
And here is where Supergirl will face her first real challenge…
By midseason, The Flash had shed some of its dippier CW trappings and monster of the week episodes in favor of some harder science fiction elements, and Doctor Who-esque timey-wimey shenanigans. More impressively, it did it in a fashion that felt organic. With the same talented people behind the scenes here, then its best to hope that Supergirl has a similar plan.
The question then becomes: what kind of show does Supergirl want to become? Don’t be surprised if it takes a half season to answer that question, and it will be worth sticking through some early episodes that I imagine will play things very safe.
Mike Cecchini has seen every episode of every Superman related TV and animated series. Throw Kryptonite at him on Twitter.