This article contains major Supergirl Season 2 spoilers up through “The Darkest Place.”
Well, “The Darkest Place” was certainly an eventful episode, wasn’t it? One of the several “holy moley!” moments came during Kara’s battle with a cybernetically enhanced, and supremely angry, original Hank Henshaw. So, why would Supergirl go through all the trouble of making sure Hank Henshaw identifies himself as “Cyborg Superman?” Well, because that’s a catchy code name that once made comic book history.
Once upon a time, Hank Henshaw was a throwaway character in a throwaway Superman comic. Actually, I shouldn’t dismiss it like that. Hank Henshaw was the Captain of the Space Shuttle Excalibur, and he and his crew were introduced in Superman #42 in 1992, as a kind of dark reflection of the Fantastic Four origin story. C’mon, Hank Henshaw/Reed Richards, you get the idea. He and his crew suffered a cosmic mishap, and ended up with strange powers, although with more horrific results. DC and Marvel routinely “homaged” each other’s characters in stories, and this was a neat (although certainly not feelgood) DC Comics version of what happens when four brave astronauts are exposed to cosmic radiation and find their bodies transformed. To condense a pretty cool story perhaps unnecessarily (for real, you don’t need me to recap comics for you), ultimately Henshaw and friends found themselves in conflict with Superman before they were defeated (or, ummm…defeated themselves).
So, this is what’s cool about this. Nobody, and I mean nobody, ever expected to see this character again in any form. He was a sidenote in a cool Superman story, but not the kind of character you expect to see more than once. So to have him end up a crucial piece of one of the most famous superhero stories of all time was quite a curveball.
Fast forward to 1993. Superman is dead. And this is 1993, so the idea of killing off a headliner like Supes was a big frakkin’ deal. Comic fans figured he would be back, but the general public wasn’t so sure, and DC Comics, wisely, was doing everything in their power to keep fans guessing. For one thing, Superman died, they spent a couple of months on the aftermath and his funeral, and DC put the Superman books on hiatus for a few months. That seems pretty drastic, right?
When they returned, there were four characters laying claim to the Superman name, what appeared to be a teenage clone of Kal-El, an almost emotionless, seemingly alien, character who certainly looked enough like Superman but who dispensed exceedingly harsh justice (hey! Just like the version in the Zack Snyder movies! I’m joking, chill out), a scientist in a high tech suit of armor who may or may not have been touched by the spirit of Superman (you now know him as Steel, and please put that ridiculous movie out of your head), and a tragically scarred, cybernetically enhanced Superman.
Since the Cyborg Superman’s enhancements even appeared to correspond with injuries Superman sustained in his fatal battle with Doomsday, and he appeared to have at least a few of Supes’ memories, and that even the President gave him his blessing (I realize that come 2017 that may not carry as much weight, but those were simpler times) there was certainly enough reason for readers in those pre-internet days to make their case for him as the real deal. Then again, we all had our favorites, and a case could be made for any of the four. That was part of the brilliance of the whole Reign of the Supermen storyline, and why writing it off as just another example of ‘90s excess is something you do at your own risk.
Needless to say, the Cyborg Superman wasn’t really the Man of Steel. In fact, none of the four Reign of the Red Herrings were, but that’s fine. The Cyborg was actually in league with Mongul, the dictatator of DC’s answer to the Death Star, Warworld (which recently got a shout out on Supergirl, so keep that in mind for the future), and he helped enable the destruction of Coast City. DC wasn’t screwing around in the early ‘90s. They killed Superman, and then they killed Green Lantern’s entire goddamn fictional city, and holy moley, don’t even let me get into what they did to Hal Jordan because of that…it’s a whole ‘nother article.
This all made for great drama, but the ultimate reveal that the Cyborg Superman was in fact Hank Henshaw was a terrific rug pull. Even longtime readers had to take a minute to say, “waitaminnit…the Fantastic Four riff from a year ago? For real?”
It turned out that in his dying moments, Henshaw had managed to project his consciousness into a piece of the rocket that first carried Superman to Earth. That rocket of course had Superman’s DNA in it, and was imprinted with data that manifested as memories, so, things like the Kent Farm. He went off into the cosmos in this makeshift bit of tech and wandered space for awhile, grew himself a body, made pals with Mongul, and hatched himself a plan to screw up Superman’s afterlife by returning to Earth to do things like destroy an entire city. Don’t worry, the real Supes came back and kicked his ass.
Simple, right? Of course not. Cyborg Superman has popped up a few more times through the years, but he never had the dramatic impact he did in Reign of the Supermen. But you can see why just the inclusion of Hank Henshaw’s name on the early Supergirl casting notices sent fans into a frenzy, and why the show went out of its way to have the “real” Hank Henshaw identify himself as “Cyborg Superman” in “The Darkest Places,” even if it kind of made an otherwise amazing moment into something kinda puzzlingly dopey.
The real Hank Henshaw is on the loose now on Supergirl, and despite the fact that he has little in common on the surface with his comic book source material, this isn’t a character that you should ever turn your back on. Supergirl Season 2 has been terrific so far, but this show has always had problems when it came to major, long-term villains. They may have just solved it with this one.