When Supergirl finally takes flight Monday night, its heroine Kara Zor-El will have already endured months of derision for everything from GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s boneheaded “she’s pretty hot” comment to her show’s early resemblance to a girly girl-parodying SNL skit. The sight of a Kryptonian bustling through crowded streets carrying coffee for her Miranda Priestly-lite boss, apologizing frantically to grumpy Earthlings for bumping into them, was a sign of clichéd inferiority, we were told. (Though, it’s worth noting, no one leveled this claim at Barry Allen in CW’s The Flash, who is introduced as an adult onscreen in almost the exact same way.)
The message was clear: A female superhero shouldn’t be girly. Romances, costumes with skirts—ugh, sissy stuff, amirite?
But Supergirl, to its infinite credit, never shies away from its charming, bubbly protagonist’s hyper-femininity, even in a culture that still, somehow, perceives girlish women as intellectually inferior and frequently condescends to and underestimates them. In fact, the show makes a spectacle out of directly answering accusations of anti-feminism, in everything from its choice of villain to Kara’s costume to a pointed meta exchange between Kara (Melissa Benoist) and her boss, high-powered media magnate Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart).
“I don’t want to minimize the importance of this,” Kara says after learning that Cat has branded her alter ego Supergirl. “A female superhero! Shouldn’t she be called Superwoman? … If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?”
Cat, sporting stilettos, a form-fitting dress and a killer blowout, answers, “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl?’ I’m a girl. And you’re boss and powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”
The dialogue is almost painfully on the nose, but then again, it needs to be. Putting a woman in a cape on TV for the first time in 13 years is an inherently political act—even long after news of yet another supermale-driven movie or TV show has become old hat.
Going a step further and asserting that said woman-in-a-cape can fly in bright, sunny skies with a smile on her face (a superhero actually enjoying her gifts?!), wear cute skirts to work, and go on dates—all while wielding enough power to shoot heat rays from her eyes and stop a speeding big rig with a single punch? Now that takes balls. (The figurative kind, of course).
Executive-produced by Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash), Andrew Kreisberg, and Ali Adler, Supergirl picks up with 13-year-old Kara the moment she blasts off the planet Krypton to look after her baby cousin Kal-El on Earth. Her mother, a scientist named Alura (Laura Benanti), bids her a tearful goodbye and perishes, but her memory looms large over the rest of the episode. Ultimately, she becomes the reason Kara is targeted on Earth by an escaped group of Kryptonian convicts.
Kara’s ship, you see, was derailed from its Earth-bound course by a shock wave from her exploding planet, which landed her in an area of the galaxy called the Phantom Zone, where time doesn’t pass. She spends 24 years there before being miraculously dislodged and sent back on her way to Earth—along with a floating space prison full of the galaxy’s deadliest criminals.
Back on Earth, we’re introduced to Kara’s adoptive family, the Danvers, her co-worker/confidant Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan), and the new, impossibly handsome Jimmy Olsen—er, sorry, James Olson (Mehcad Brooks), Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and Metropolis-to-National City transplant.
Unlike most other superhero origin stories, Supergirl isn’t about a hero discovering her powers. From the very start, Kara already knows exactly who she is and what she’s capable of, though she’s kept her powers hidden her entire adult life. But we still get the pleasure of watching Kara morph from a civilian into a superhero, squealing with pride at the sight of herself on the news saving a burning plane.
We watch her choose a costume with the help of Winn who, naturally, has a hopeless crush on Kara. (In one of the episode’s most pointed and funny moments, Kara tries coming out to Winn as a superbeing, only to have him interrupt her and scream, “Oh my god, you’re a lesbian! That’s why you’re not into me!” Male solipsism, your name is Winn.) She rejects a pair of hideous hot pants and a crop top (“I wouldn't even wear this to the beach. Where’s my cape?”) in favor of long sleeves and a miniskirt—a more sensible ensemble representative of Kara’s personality and Supergirl’s history.
And we watch her face her first superpowered enemy—a bald Kryptonian named Vartox (Owain Yeoman), who calls women “females” and tries to exploit Kara’s Superman-induced inferiority complex: “Fighting him would be an honor,” he tells her. “Fighting you is just exercise.”
But the actual fight, positioned as the climax of the episode, pales in comparison to the breathtaking, plane-saving stunt Kara pulls within the first 10 minutes. And the Superman question is frustratingly omnipresent in the otherwise Supergirl-centered narrative. Leaving him out of the series entirely is a smart choice—otherwise every episode would be plagued by anticipation for a cameo from the Big Guy—but evoking his name, photograph, backstory, and cape over and over creates a big S-shaped hole in the story. You can’t have your cape and eat it too.
The pilot suffers from a number of other flaws—CBS ominously provided critics with only the pilot—involving sometimes-clunky dialogue, cheesy special effects (Kara’s heat vision so strongly resembles the possessed schoolboys in “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that I had to laugh), and an irritating reliance on Kara’s lack of self-confidence to raise the dramatic stakes. There are only so many times you can listen to the most powerful woman on Earth say “I can’t do it” before rolling your eyes.
Still, The Flash—the Berlantiverse show most similar to Supergirl in its hopeful, optimistic tone—managed to recover from like flaws and is now the most purely enjoyable supershow on TV.
And, 40 years after Lynda Carter first took up the mantle of Wonder Woman—and one month before Marvel premieres its own first superheroine-led title, Jessica Jones—broadcast TV has been graced by the image of a 24-year-old woman, striding forward confidently as bullets bounce off her chest.
Kara Danvers may not be hardened like Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa or haunted like Jessica Jones, but she doesn’t have to be. Superheroines of every shape, power, and personality save the world every day—we just haven’t had enough of them onscreen to know that yet.