In Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon identifies the necessary and sufficient conditions for a Superman story. Superman must put the needs of others over those of himself, and he must never give up. Everything else can be there, Weldon writes, “the costume, the powers, the spit curl and so on [but] if one or both of those two bedrock elements are missing, our mind rebels; we instinctively reject it. It’s just not Superman.”
On the comics page, Gary Frank and Geoff Johns – the latter of whom is now the chief creative officer of DC Entertainment – make a complementary argument. In Action Comics #867, Superman takes a reminiscence-filled walk with his adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent, on their family farm. “Your greatest power isn’t being able to fly or see through walls,” Pa Kent observers. “It’s knowing what the right thing to do is.”
His heart full, a smiling Clark Kent asks: “Where do you think I learned it from?”
Smiling as well, Pa insightfully deflects. “A lot of people,” he replies.
Whatever the DC Extended Universe director Zack Snyder has given us across two movies – I’ll be honest and admit I skipped Justice League – his Superman is not this. To Weldon’s point, Man of Steel presents a Superman who treats the decimation of Metropolis as an afterthought. He kills General Zod out of a resignation over not knowing how else to stop the mad Kryptonian. Superman extinguishes Kryptonian civilization without so much as considering it a tragic necessity to save his adoptive planet. “Krypton had its chance,” the alienated Superman declares.
He gets it from his cinematic parents. To Johns and Frank’s point, the on-screen Kents encourage Clark to wash his hands of humanity. “Be anything they need you to be, or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing,” Martha Kent sneers in Batman v. Superman. Kevin Costner’s Pa spends Man of Steel telling Clark to hide his gifts at all costs. “What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?” a wounded, teen Clark asks his disappointed father after he saves his school bus from drowning. “Maybe,” shrugs Superman’s role model.
But those of us looking for a recognizable and inspiring Super-figure, particularly in this current moment of darkness, have hope. It’s not found on the big screen. It’s not found in a man with an S on his chest. It’s on television, where the Greg Berlanti-shepherded Supergirl gives us an exquisite adaptation in Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin, played to perfection by Melissa Benoist. The third season, now on a winter hiatus, is making a case for itself as one of the all-time best seasons of superhero TV. It’s doing so by pointing Supergirl at everything small-minded and evil in present-day America. Supergirl is the Superman we need.
We need to get something out of the way before proceeding. Notice that Weldon, Frank and Johns’ compelling arguments about who Superman is and what a Superman story is do not depend on Superman being a man.
All the essential bits of Superman lore are given to Kara: the devotion to her city; the love for her extended adoptive family that enriches and explains her character; the sacrifices she must make as part of her heroic burden. If you can’t get past this Superman being a woman, close this tab, since, frankly, you misunderstand what makes Superman Superman, and nothing in this essay can convince you.
There is an impulse in contemporary Superman stories to keep politics out of his adventures. Yet Superman’s original creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, crafted a hero whose instincts incline toward a struggle for social justice – what was known back then as truth, justice and, however aspirationally, the American Way. “Superman! Champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” thunders the narrator of Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman’s first appearance. In the next issue, Superman’s adversary is a weapons manufacturer exploiting a South American conflict. Supes ruins his market by urging the opposing generals, “Gentlemen, it’s obvious you’ve only been fighting to promote the sale of munitions! Why not shake hands and make up?”
Supergirl treats that version of Superman as a mission statement. Every episode of the current season opens with Supergirl narrating the premise for her adventures. It includes a bracing statement of identification, rooted in an essential truth about the character, with those Donald Trump and his allies vilify: “My name is Kara Zor-El. I’m from Krypton. I’m a refugee on this planet.”
It is in this manner that superheroes teach empathy. Most viewers will never know Syrians who have escaped the unfathomable twin horrors of Bashar Assad and the Islamic State. But to turn your back on them, as the regnant politics of America and Europe would have it, is to turn your back on Supergirl and Superman.
When Superman or Supergirl’s supporting characters say the hero inspires people to greatness, this is what they mean. It’s not to fly or use heat vision – attributes that, after all, we cannot possibly share – nor to resolve conflict through violence. It’s to inspire us to help those in need and see the oppressed as ourselves. The S is for solidarity. Benoist lives this creed off-screen as well. She showed up at January’s mass Women’s March protest against Trump holding a sign reading: Hey Donald, don’t try to grab my pussy – it’s made of steel.
In 2006, Johns ended his Infinite Crisis epic by delivering a subtle treatise on the meaning behind Action Comics. Superman instructs a wayward, murderous Superboy: “You'll never be Superman. Because you have no idea what it means to be Superman. It's not about where you were born. Or what powers you have. Or what you wear on your chest. It's about what you do... it's about action.”
Supergirl acts accordingly. When the series begins, the mid-20s Supergirl has lived on earth for at least a decade, all in hiding. That ends when a plane carrying her adoptive sister falls from the sky, prompting her to use her powers in the open for the first time. It turns out that she’s not the only alien on earth. Some aliens menace unsuspecting humans. Some humans menace the other alien refugees. Whomever is at the mercy of tyranny – the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of a super-empowered minority, the tyranny of a government or a corporate overlord (longtime DC baddies Morgan Edge and Maxwell Lord), the tyranny of bullies – has Supergirl as a protector, regardless of where they come from from.
Supergirl’s mission costs her a lot. In the second season finale, she had to give up the man she loves, the quasi-Kryptonian Mon-El, to save earth from his villainous mom. The loneliness Supergirl feels is the backdrop to the show’s excellent third season.
Season 3 explains why Kara hasn’t been Supergirl her whole time on earth. A flashback episode takes us to her adolescence, shortly after she arrived here. It turns out the rapport she shares as an adult with foster sister Alex, something central to the heart of the show, didn’t come naturally.
While Clark lands in Kansas as a baby, Kara lands as a teen. Young Kara resents having to stifle her abilities for the benefit of people who treat her as an outcast – she super-speeds to the bathroom in the mornings for the pleasure of slamming the door on her sister; she laments, “I just want to be with Clark and be super” – while young Alex lashes out at the newcomer whom she cruelly blames for the loss of her father. It takes the murder of the only kid in school who’s nice to Kara to ultimately bond the sisters. Along the way, Kara realizes that using her powers puts Alex in danger. The Kryptonian girl who wanted to fly with her famous cousin ends up sacrificing a part of herself for ten years to protect her accidental sister.
Perhaps without meaning to, the episode makes Supergirl more heroic than even Superman. Superman starts life thinking of himself as Kansan kid Clark Kent. Thanks to the love of Ma and Pa Kent, and because he has no reason to think otherwise, he identifies with humanity as a cornerstone of his identity, only later realizing he is the Kryptonian Kal-El. But humanity is no default for his cousin. Because she grew to adolescence on Krypton, she thinks of herself as Kara Zor-El, longs for the life she can no longer live, and has to choose to identify with humanity. The same impulse leads her at first to suppress her superhumanity and then embrace it as Supergirl: the protection of someone she loves. For an extra touch of poetry, Alex eventually comes out as well, though as a lesbian (as an agent of the Department of Extraterrestrial Operations, Alex is already a superhero).
Alex is the nucleus of Kara’s support system. Supergirl is surrounded by both familiar and deep-cut DC Universe characters, from Jimmy (now James) Olsen and J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter to media mogul Cat Grant. Before Supergirl’s heart has healed, Mon-El unexpectedly returns from what turns out was the future, and brings along with him his wife, Imra Ardeen. As excruciating as it is for her, Supergirl doesn’t stand in the way of her old love’s marriage. Alongside a new character, the tech-support Winn Schott, and good friend/potential enemy Lena Luthor, it’s this earthbound family that grounds Supergirl from being an aloof alien demigod – in Johns’ phrase, a hero with the superpower of always knowing the right thing to do, thanks to the love of those around her.
You don’t have to read Superman comics to appreciate Supergirl, but the show rewards a familiarity with the source material. There’s the Phantom Zone prison Fort Rozz. Alex’s girlfriend is the policewoman Maggie Sawyer, one of the first out queer characters in the DC Universe. Reign is the big bad of season 3. The corny 1960s-era kid sidekick of the Justice League, Snapper Carr, is reimagined as a crotchety editor who spikes Kara’s stories. A poignant episode this season reunited Martian Manhunter with his long-lost father, played by Carl Lumbly, who voiced Martian Manhunter on the gold-standard Justice League animated series from the early 2000s. In an fandom environment where women’s expertise is routinely called into question with the derogatory phrase “fake geek girls” – let that flavor of idiocy marinate – a Supergirl show steeped in decades of classic Man-of-Steel lore feels like a statement of defiance to the overprivileged men of comics.
There’s a metatextual aspect of Supergirl’s heroism this season as well, arising from a #MeToo reckoning.
In November, the co-creator and executive producer of Supergirl and other DC TV shows on the CW network, Andrew Kreisberg, was suspended and then fired for sexual harassment. It was a now-familiar stomach churning moment: a driving creative force on a show about a woman hero’s fight for justice was, behind the scenes, responsible for what a writer for sibling-show The Flash told Deadline was a “toxic” environment for women.
Benoist could have kept silent about Kreisberg, much as she could have declined to attend the Women’s March. But she’s Supergirl. “[W]hen people commit crimes or harass others, they should always be held accountable – no matter what industry they work in or how much power they wield,” Benoist wrote on her Instagram account. “So this week, I’ll head back to work on Supergirl even more committed to being part of changing the norm by listening when people speak up, and refusing to accept an environment that is anything less than a safe, respectful and collaborative space.”
Amidst persistent churn with the DC Extended Universe movies, particularly after the perceived box office flop of Justice League, many in the fandom hope the movies will shift course and present a recognizable Superman. It would be nice if they do. But with Supergirl standing up for truth, justice and the American Way each week, must there be a Superman?