Apropos of Nothing: Supergirl S01E01 (Pilot)

So, this was a show I’ve been anticipating for a while, now. I’m pretty much a fan of Super-anything, and my family shares the appreciation.

My eldest is also a voracious reader (at almost-6) and has been devouring the New 52 “Last Daughter of Krypton” compilations ever since we started our tradition of encouraging reading through comic books. She’ll eagerly sit down with all six volumes now (the last one was called “Crucible”) and get lost in them over and over. There’s a bit of a thing here, though, where we occasionally insist she read what we call “imagination books” where the visuals aren’t provided for her. She’s doing OK there, but gets bored more easily – even so, she’s read chapters 7-14 of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three on her own, bit by bit.

Further, we’ve both read, either in whole or in part, the amazing “All-Star Superman,” which captures the pure heart of Superman better than most other medium that I’ve seen. Though “Superman and the Jumper” comes the closest to what I love about the character in short form. If you haven’t seen this short bit, go here and do so. I’ll wait.

Why do I bring this up? Just to note that I’ve anticipated this since I heard about it. I’ve seen Lois and Clark (great), Smallville (solid but extended and tiresome at parts), the Superman movies (1, 2, and “the movies that should never have been”), the Supergirl movie (wow that was poor – “why is she crawling across a broken stone floor? She can fly!” – my five-year-old asked me this), Man of Steel. Various comics. Justice League and the Adventures of Superman.

And of course, I have a young daughter that loves superheroes, and will casually wear her Supergirl (and Wonder Woman) costume around the house.

So, how did they do?

Quick summary: good but too jam-packed. I would have appreciated a 90 or even 2-hour pilot episode with the same basic points hit, but spending more time on each. The pilot hit all the notes at the pace of a game of whack-a-mole.

My review will be a rewatch of the entire episode, and I will make no particular effort to avoid spoilers. Be warned . . .

Opening Sequence

They hit the journey of Kal-El to Earth fast and effectively. They establish the young Kara Zor-El quickly as a brave, mission-oriented young teen (13) who shows up on earth having drifted asleep in the phantom zone. She arrives, of course, to find Kal-El something like 25 or more.

She’s placed with the Danvers’ – “scientists who once helped him understand his own super abilities,” and you get the first awesome fan-service of a Pilot filled with it. The Danvers’ are played by Dean Cain and Helen Slater – Superman from Lois & Clark and Supergirl from the eponymous movie.

Helen Slater gets a single line, Dean looks on, and you get a brief shot of the sister – Alex – from a window.

And we’re done – the stage is set.

Personally, I would have liked a bit more with Dean, Helen, and young Alex and Kara (thats KAH-rah, thank you very much). They established some good “learning to use the powers” things in about 80 seconds in Superman Returns, and given some of the dialog later, with Kara suppressing her powers purposefully to have a mundane life, it would have better established why this young girl, who ‘is not afraid’ and ‘will not fail’ her duty to protect her cousin, decides not to do extraordinary things, as her mother says she will – even must – do.

Working for Ally McBeal and All-Star Jimmy Olsen

Earth didn’t need another hero. Coulda fooled me. Especially since this happens in the same universe as Flash and Arrow and . . . but that’s not been established yet, even by reference. So we’ll let it go.

The sequence is fast-moving and sincere, but cursory. Kara (Melissa Benoist – I’ve never seen Glee so this is my first experience with her as an actress) the exec assistant for Cat Grant, played by Callista Flockhart – Cat Grant has appeared in many other places, too – most notably for me by Captain Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) in Lois & Clark.

They quickly establish the basics: Kara is single and dating. Aliens have been sighted but are disbelieved (though disbelief in Aliens with Superman around as a legendary illegal immigrant for two dozen years stretches credibility as much as an atheist character in a D&D world with an active godly pantheon does). The not-terribly-masculine IT guy has the hots for Kara. Cat Grant is an arrogant cold-hearted bitch, but her spouting of stats for the Daily Planet suggests a certain amount of market savvy, as does mention of the paper – The Guardian – being her first acquisition. Kara makes all the proper noises about downsizing the paper. And there’s a new art director – go meet him.

That entire bit? Roughly three minutes of screen time. Maybe a bit more.

She goes. The new guy is Jimmy – James, thank you – Olsen. Calm, cool, collected, and very influenced by what is clearly a close relationship with “The Big Guy.” OK, 2min and 20s later, we’ve established him, and paid that off with a funny bit: “You look a little like him, around the eyes.”

The Competent Sister

We meet Alex – played by (the stunning) Chyler Leigh – who is dressed for a business conference in Geneva. She’s played as smart, decisive, and the clear emotional superior to the uncertain and (at this moment) a bit whiny Kara, who is stuck in the “who am I going to be while fleeing my suite of superpowers” rut. After brief bonding over “blue is your color,” Alex is off to catch her plane, and Kara is off to her date. Again this sequence is something like 90s or 2min long. While not necessarily done in one long shot, the touch-points are each in very short segments.

The Rescue

This made up the largest part of the long trailer released some time ago, and is the first truly compelling bit of the show. Again, though, the trailer hit nearly the entire rescue scene.

The “date” goes immediately poorly, with Mr Self-Absorbed checking out and getting the phone number of the waitress. A bit over-the-top, but it quickly establishes that yet another date has gone badly. Benoist is capable of conveying a lot with a frown and a sigh, so kudos to the actress there.

And then hark! Sister in danger, and a great “whip off the eyeglasses” classic superman shot. Nice X-Ray vision effect, and she’s relearning to fly – and they get that just right. Much more Superman Returns or Man of Steel in the flight effects. This whole bit is a great pastiche of the original Superman and the 777 rescue that is one of my favorite bits of Superman Returns.

This is the longest shot before the first commercial break at 3.5-4min long. It was well done, and Kara speaks with authority and confidence (“OH, COME ON!”) for the first time. Little Miss Uncertainty is gone, and she takes to the rescue like a duck to water.

I don’t think this one could have been extended that much without ruining the pace.

Guardian Angel or Human Wrecking Ball?

That’s a bit of a nod to the question that will be asked over and over in Dawn of Justice. Heroes make a mess.

Kara is ecstatic. Alex is terrified of the reaction of the rest of everyone, and counsels Kara to pack it all in and not be super again. Kara is disappointed and they part.

This is where a bit more backstory with Alex and Kara would have paid off. Things they could have done?

  • A rescue gone awry when Kara was young
  • Showing younger kids making fun of the super-freak for being “too good” at athletics, and having Dean Cain explain how Superman disguises his powers by acting all bumbling and Clark Kenty.
  • A few short scenes of the development of Kara’s indecisive streak. I chalk it up to the fact that at every instant, she’s flooded with sensory input. She can’t not be Kryptonian. But every time something needs to happen, she’s caught between the need to hide. Perhaps Alex has hammered that in – parents say ‘you need to help your sister blend in! – and she takes it to her advantage. They even allude to this later.

Anyway, I think this one didn’t hit the right notes. Especially since in the very next scene . . .

Edit: Following a comment from another forum, and re-reading my own summary, I think I overstate my reaction. In retrospect (I’ve seen it three times now, including the very long watching that I did while I wrote the review) the scene after the rescue hits the wrong tone for me because I’m not prepared for the gravity of it, though they pay it off later after the DEO reveals itself (and Agent Danvers) to Kara.
I still think they could have done that one a bit better, with a bit more foreshadowing, but it is a powerful scene that shows the pressure on Kara to stay normal. Part underpinned with real peril (which we don’t know) and part sisterly rivalry (which we can infer, and is then explicit later).

“It’s what they do”

Then we get the post-rescue reaction. We get “a rookie hero with no suit?” James fibs a bit, and between the new hero being the best thing that’s happened to the paper and his insistence that if this new hero is anything like Kal-El, she’ll be back. “It’s what they do.” 

This clearly – and quite deliberately (“It’s funny. That was the first thing He did. Saving a plane.”) – pushes Kara over the edge on coming out as a superhero – an analogy they make rather explicit (but which showed in the trailer, so it wasn’t surprise-funny in the fifth watching) as she tells her friend her secret.

Frankly, I’m cool with this. The “hiding the hero secret from your friends” thing has been done and done and overdone in ten seasons of Smallville, one season of Flash, and several of Arrow to the point where we get it already. Pulling in a small circle of close friends in the pilot? Thank you.

Let’s not Say His name

One thing that is noticeable about the show thus far is they say the name Superman precisely once, in the first thirty seconds of Kara’s voice-over on Krypton. After that, it’s “the man in blue,” or “The Big Guy,” or even just “Him.”

Capital letters intentional.

I like that – it’s good at a meta level, in that we know it’s a Super-show, and they don’t have to beat us over the head with “yeah, yeah, Superman.” But also, it seems right to me, especially coming from people that know Superman well. It’s a bit like “when you say Superman, it’s like shouting FIRE,” especially for people Clark knows. “I hear everything”

If they’re borrowing at all from Man of Steel (and the casual reference to ‘not everyone feels that way,’ or ‘plenty are scared’ or whatever, then people may well not speak his name out of respect, fear, etc.

I could also totally see Clark/Superman saying “please try not to say my name. I’m always around, always listening. And I don’t want to sort out the needful from the fact that for an instant I’m eavesdropping on your conversation from a planet away”

Hero Practice

She goes up to the roof, and her IT friend (Winn Schott, played by Jeremy Jordan) steps up on to a strangely echoing helipad (sorry, I couldn’t help but notice that that set was so purpose-built for the scene. The wooden construction, the pointless and likely illegal extension of the raised platform to the edge of the building . . . ). She comes out to him, he disbelieves, she throws herself off a building, he isn’t nearly freaked out enough, and boom. “You’re HER.”

One interesting thing – she says she’s going to tell Winn something only three people in her life know. Three. An interesting number – Two parents, Alex, and Him. That’s four. Mistake? Or did something happen to one of her parents? Or is she not counting Superman because he’s not in her life – hasn’t been for 20 years?

The Bad Guys Emerge

They hit some fan service early on: “A female hero. Nice to have someone for my daughter to look up to.” Well, yeah. That’s why we’re having the special exception to “no TV on school nights” for this show.

They hit “the female” thing a bit hard for my taste. But there’s a lot of subtext there. The General’s arrival (Zod? We’re clearly meant to suspect so). The reference to “she will pay for our mother’s deaths” and the casual mention of the history of the escapes of the children, and that Jor-El and Alura (wife of Zor-El, her dad – recall Jor-El’s wife was Lara) were Major Players. The existence of “operatives” from the humans and that the plane was downed deliberately.

A bit of scenery chewing. And an axe. A good start.

Quilting Bee, and No Capes! – “It’s not an S”

Immediate nods to some of the worst of the worst Supergirl costumes, though I could not find that particular one in a search. I’m told it’s a composite of bad trends through the decades. The “capes are lame” line from the trailer is still funny.

They quickly settle on a small variation of the classic costume. Low boots, blue top, red skirt, and gold highlights on the belt. And we learn why “no capes” for flying heroes isn’t necessarily the rule that Edna Mode says it is.

Frankly, this is one of the places where they could have spent more screen time. The same way that Superman (in a combination of deleted scenes and actual footage from the original Superman movie with Christopher Reeve) went rescue-crazy when he first hit the Metropolis scene, I felt a bit more time could have been spent on some of the heroics. The way it was played wasn’t bad – the point was the evolution of the costume – but I love watching superheroics.

The echo of “it’s not an S” was well played.

The Allies(?) Emerge

Low-grade Kryptonite. OK, and now we have Hank Henshaw and Agent Danvers of the Department of Extraterrestrial Operations. They have her ship, they were started when Kal-El emerged, and we see hundreds of super-powered aliens from Fort Rozz, a Kryptonian Super-Max prison in the phantom zone, that was for some reason pulled out when Kara crashed.

Flashback reveals hundreds of prisoners – maybe thousands – of prisoners escaped. They’ve been hidden for two decades, but they’re emerging recently. And they touch on something that’s strongly echoed in Man of Steel (yes, I know the shows aren’t related to the movies; thematically echoed) that Superman is feared by many, though it’s unpopular to say so. Henshaw is openly hostile and dismissive of Kara.

That seems unwise, dontcha think? If Kara turned all Red Lantern on him, his entire division would be toast pretty fast. Though the kryptonite tranqs would help, hell hath no fury like a Kryptonian scorned.

So we get “sad Kara” again. And Alex is sorry, Kara is insightful about why Alex was recruited, and her background. Kara’s dangerous, etc.

Second commercial break.

Supergirl and “Good night, Wesley, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

We get the “what’s wrong with girl” speech. But they’re still basing that name off of the grainy image. And Cat claims by branding her with someone else’s brand she’s tied to Cat forever. Kara almost gets fired, James saves her with a photo. Cat turns on a dime and scolds her for not taking credit for the good stuff.

I think it would have been better for Cat to have named her Power Girl, as a nod. Then, if the whole Earth 2 tie-in with Flash is pulled in later, you could actually have a Power Girl show up (costume ad all? Probably not. Family show. Go with New 52 costume instead.)

After all – Superman might have been pissed at someone giving that name away, and one does not piss off Superman. And at that point, though Kara had started wearing it, no one had a picture of her with the S, or even in the color scheme that was presented by James in the picture he has for Cat.

Once she shows up with the crest, though . . . Supergirl is obvious. Again, with a bit more screen time, they could have done this. Cat says Power Girl. You still get the “what’s wrong with girl” speech. And then when she sees the outfit, cape, and color scheme, maybe Kara suggests Super Woman, and Cat says Supergirl and it’s done. And there’s a nice interplay showing how Cat might chew up her employees for showing weakness, but she can be influenced and is impressed by confidence and calm. They already do this every time Mehcad (James Olsen) is on set, so it’s in character.

Want to Fight? Fight me!

Kara gets an ultrasonic nasty-gram from misogyny central (“on my planet, females bow before males”), and flies off immediately to confront the sender, despite having just been informed that a small army of powerful foes has been kicking around for two decades.

We also see that they’re not going to skimp on the super special effects, which I like. These guys are throwing each other around like proper supers.

And Kara hasn’t learned to fight just yet. Gets tossed around and actually cut by atomic axe guy. But our villain flees when confronted with an angry blackhawk helicopter. Hmm.

Alex shows up, too, fast-roping from the helicopter to help her sister.

Note I have no problem with this. If she’s a few years older, a 28-30yo Alex could easily be the equivalent of an army Captain (average age about 27, I think) and be giving orders like that.  I got my Ph.D. at 26, and plenty get them faster. So this doesn’t strain credibility for me even a little – many special ops forces are very strongly cross-trained (SFOD-D, I’m looking at you) and having an elite unit expected to defend against super-powered aliens insist that their operatives – all of them – be field trained? That’s just good sense. She’s not “Doctor” Danvers, or “Miss” Danvers. She’s Agent Danvers. Also, for her to be credible as more than a pretty face in the lab, she needs to be field trained, so I applaud this characterization decision. It also adds to the facet of why she’s always decisive and in command – she started that way and was trained to emphasize this.

They rapidly establish the super-healing shown in Smallville, where wounds disappear in the blink of an eye. Smart. Easier for TV continuity from shot-to-shot if you don’t have to remember where wounds are unless it’s plot relevant.

And Henshaw’s still an ass. The team has a lot more knowledge of Alura than Kara does. She walks off again. This is getting a bit Hunger Games here. But Alex has a change of heart, and gives the jealousy monologue, and decides they need her. And gives her a very special message from her mom – a Kryptonian hologram in Kryptonese.

I’ve seen a bit of flak over this (Kryptonese rather than Kryptonian), but I don’t see how Kryptonian/Estonian is that much more right/wrong than Kryptonese/Japanese – in fact, this Stack Exchange question/answer muddles it too. Here’s a note from 2006 decrying the -ese usage as “other” and a derogatory suffix, which since Krypton is emphatically exactly this, would make Kryptonese the preferred term for Terrans that do not like aliens, and Kryptonian a more embracing one. Huh. Who knew?

She gets a 24-year old pep-talk . . . and suits up.

The Sister from another Planet

Great line, by the way. Lots of dots on that radar screen. 

She head out, and puts the literal in “could stop a truck with that outfit.” She does better with the fight, and again they did not skimp on the super-strength effects. A bit heavy-handed with the “just a girl” and “not strong enough” thing, though I get that this is the fundamental conflict of the episode – Kara deciding that she is, in fact, a hero that the planet needs. It’s also somewhat central to a lot of the old dialog on the character historically, though they avert the hell out of that in Last Daughter of Krypton and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, so there are other ways to go there. But none of those have Kara on Earth for 24 years learning restraint, so that wouldn’t have worked.

She also displays some very trained fight responses – this is actually not out-of-canon, since 13yo Kara may well have studied martial arts. The Kryptonian Trials feature prominently in the backstory for the Last Daughter of Krypton comic books. Again, one could have a quick flash-back here, or even better (though it doesn’t work with a scene at the end), we could have:

Kara is shown flying in, landing on frozen plain. A gleaming solitary fortress shines in the background. A footstep is heard, and a familiar voice (Tom Welling, Brandon Routh, or Henry Cavill would all work, though Routh exists in this universe, so perhaps he’s out) says with no trace of sarcasm: “Hello, Kara. It’s been a long time. I love your outfit.”
She smiles, and  says. “I trained for the Trials. That was years ago. I need a sparring partner.”
Superman’s Voice: “Are you sure?”
Kara takes a deep breath: “I am.”

They lure in the bad guy, engage in a bit more moments of believe in yourself, and boom. “You have no idea what’s coming.” Still, victory.

We’re not calling ourselves that

So we get to the end, and a great joke about an old Saturday morning cartoon. We find out that James was in on it the whole time, which makes some of the lines from before even more funny. She gets his baby blanket – her new cape. And it’s Up Up and Away!

The Villain Revealed

We are then treated to a very surprise ending. One I did not see coming even one bit. The villainess is played by the same actress as Alura, and refers to Kara as her niece. Alura’s twin sister? Yep. Confirmed by other sources and the Supergirl Wiki. She’s apparently the General, not Zod. I wonder if she were married to Zod in this back-history? That would make nine kinds of sense, given her monolog about ruling Krypton.

Parting Shot

So, with all that “they should have done this differently,” I didn’t like it, right?

Nope. I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to more. Why?
This was a pilot. A full episode designed as a trial balloon and sales pitch. Many are choppy and rough. Babylon 5? In my opinion the reigning champion for awesome Sci Fi? Remember how scene-chewing that pilot was? That was 90 minutes long, too.
They also got a lot of potentially crappy stuff out of the way. 
  • She already has a name and a costume.
  • She has a circle of people that know her identity so she doesn’t have to play the “lying to my friends” game for five seasons of painful scriptwriting
  • Hopefully she’s already got the “no, no, I can’t do it” out of her system
A lot of strong positives to play on
  • There are a LOT of bad guys out there, and a Big Bad with real bite
  • There is guaranteed to be a lot of good role-modeling for my daughter(s) here, though this comes with a caution.
  • The superpower set is well established, and they can work with her exploring her role as a hero, rather than the power-of-the-week trap many Super-stories (and a few seasons of Smallville) shows fall into
  • The supporting cast is good, with a group of somewhat-allies in the DEO. Alex is a compelling character in her own right.
  • More Dean Cain and Helen Slater, please. If they’re not involved with the DEO somewhere I’l be shocked. Scientists that helped Superman with his powers not recruited into this organization? Please.
  • The legacy of Man of Steel – heroic battles cause real heroic damage, and so there will be some of that going on too.
And that’s without even touching an expanded universe that includes all the comics, Arrow, and Flash. Look for a name-drop of Star City or Central City in addition to Metropolis as a signal there. 
What I hope they avoid? They beat on the “oh, I can’t do it, why me, I’m only an Earthbound God” thing pretty hard. Also the trope that other than Strong Jimmy and beta-Winn, all the guys are misogynistic evil lecherous humps (to quote Captain Tightpants). 

I very, very much enjoyed this characterization of Olson, by the way – it’s a new take on the character, but “Gee, Mr White, golly!” has been done to death. Brooks has real screen presence and I will enjoy watching him work the part.

Again, though, this has film precedent – the 1984 Supergirl movie has the Trucker Fight. But I hope they move past this as a constant theme. Hell, Linda Carter played it straight in the most feminist of all shows, the Wonder Woman TV show – everything was positive. They showed WW doing awesome things, and leading by example. They did not, paraphrasing the words of Alex from this very episode, need to make the hero strong by making the baseline weak. We need men and women worth saving here, and the hero is heroic by setting an example in action.

So: I can’t wait for the next Episode, and neither can my daughter. Some of the clips look interesting, some give some pause.
Part of the issue here is that most shows aren’t Firefly. Fourteen very, very strong episodes that pretty much hung together from moment one. Or, for another example. Agent Carter, which again was strong from the get-go. I found Daredevil similarly well done, though I know some (cough +Jeffro Johnson cough) will take issue there. That’s OK.
Most are Season 1 of, say Next Generation (uneven at best) or Babylon 5 (great but uneven). Even Arrow took a while to hit stride, and I think most shows are like that, as the actors and scriptwriters find their groove. As the poster child for a female-lead hero-in-a-cape series, one with a history going back to 1972 (I did not realize she was a year younger than I was!) as a stand-alone comic, and her original first appearance in 1959 (OK, that’s more like it). So there’s a lot of history, canon, not-canon, and burden that this show (and its actors and writers) carry.
Having seen Arrow and Flash, I know the team can do it. Let Kara be Kara, teach don’t preach, and we’ve got a real shot. Remember – Super-anything hasn’t really been on TV since Lois & Clark ended. Smallville ended where Super started, so that doesn’t count.

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