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November 2, 2015

It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's a feminist spin on superhero clichés!

In a world where characters like Ant Man get film adaptations before Wonder Woman and Black Widow do, seeing that Supergirl would be getting her own TV show filled me with excitement usually reserved only for Muppet-themed shows. While I don’t watch many superhero TV shows or films—actually, the last one I saw was the original Avengers film three years ago—based on the trailer, this one seemed like an exciting, feminist take on the genre. Right up my alley.

These hopes were almost immediately dashed by one of the most cringe-worthy and poorly written backstories ever broadcasted. The eponymous Supergirl (Melissa Benoist), also known as Kara Zor-El, meets with her parents on Krypton just before the planet is destroyed. Her parents give her a quick overview of her mission: Keep her younger cousin Superman safe on Earth, where, due to the yellow sun, she will have super powers. All of the background information is just thrown out without any real explanation, and it all feels a bit forced. It doesn’t help that the actors are rather robotic in their delivery, not to mention the distractingly horrible CGI.

Kara is then blasted off into space, where her ship is immediately hit by the shockwave of Krypton exploding. Her ship is thrown into the “Phantom Zone,” a part of space where time doesn’t pass, and stays there for 24 years. By the time she finally arrives on Earth, Superman is already a hero. Instead of protecting him, she assumes the identity of an ordinary woman named Kara Danvers, who works as an assistant in National City. Fortunately, all of this convoluted, pseudoscience-filled exposition only lasts about three minutes, and although it’s an intense and unpleasant knowledge dump, it allows the series to move on to better things.

Once we reach the point where Kara is living in National City, things immediately perk up. Unlike recent adaptations of DC comics such as the The Dark Knight or Man of Steel movies, Kara isn’t a broody, complicated recluse with something to prove to the world. Instead, she’s a perky everywoman just trying to make it, and make a difference, in the big city. The setup feels almost like The Devil Wears Prada, but with super-strength. Kara feels unsatisfied getting coffee for her demanding, self-centered boss every day. She has “nothing to wear” on a blind date that goes terribly wrong and is adorably star-struck when she meets a famous photographer at work. She just also happens to have heat vision and the ability to fly.

In probably the most endearing moment of the first episode, Kara describes flying as “that moment before you kiss someone for the first time.” It’s moments like these that mix the heroic aspects of her character with a genuine personality that makes the show worth watching. In another standout sequence, Kara tries on various styles of costumes before going out to stop bad guys in a silly ’80s style montage that’s just the perfect amount of camp. When lives are on the line, it’s all business, but hopefully they leave room for her funny dorkiness to shine through as the series progresses.

Supergirl’s appeal is grounded in Benoist’s performance in these lighter moments. She plays Kara with a perfect mix of charm, enthusiasm, and slight awkwardness that makes Supergirl instantly lovable and much more relatable than her cousin. Her boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) is also a standout, but for the opposite reasons: She’s self-centered, passive-aggressive and super critical, but her biting comments give the series a needed cynical edge. Other than those two, the other leads are kind of duds so far. James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) acts as a potential love interest/mentor for Kara, but doesn’t really do anything except encourage her to become a hero. The same goes for her other potential love interest/best friend Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan). Her older, adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) has a lot of potential to become an interesting character, but the show rushed through a subplot about jealousy and wasted her character in the first episode.

Pacing was a big issue with the pilot due to the large amount of time devoted to her backstory. It also felt tonally uncertain. The show is obviously trying to be less serious than Man of Steel while trying to avoid the camp of earlier superhero shows like Batman, but in the moments when the show becomes more serious, the stakes feel artificial. This week’s villain is intercepted by Supergirl on his way to National City to “start killing humans,” but no one is ever in any real danger. His downfall is ultimately underestimating Supergirl because she’s a woman—something he, for some reason, is continually yelling while fighting her—but it will be interesting to see how the series deals with less overt examples of sexism as it moves forward. The show tries to touch on other feminist issues when Kara confronts her boss about why the media names the hero Supergirl instead of Superwoman, but after bringing up the issue, they never actually address it.

Despite a hard-to-follow intro and issues with pacing, I left my viewing of Supergirl feeling strongly optimistic. It’s certainly not a perfect superhero show, and it may not be as groundbreaking on social issues as I would like, but it more than makes up for it with its endearing lead and premise. Whether the general public will latch onto this kind of hero narrative is a different story, but as Grant said in one of the show’s more self-aware moments, “Besides fatty foods, there is nothing people love more than a hero.”

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