Continuing with comic book adaptations, this week’s subject is also a look at how one work can still have influence. While the 1984 Supergirl movie wasn’t the blockbuster the studio hoped for, the movie it was spun off from, the 1978 Superman, is often taken as the definitive version of the title character. As a result, audiences have expectations of what a Superman or Superman-related work involves.
Lost in Translation went through the history of the character of Supergirl in the analysis of the 1984 film. However, there’s more to the character than mentioned there. Yes, Kara Zor-El was Kal El’s cousin and became Supergirl after arriving on Earth after Argo City was destroyed. Kara was the first Supergirl, first appearing in 1959 in Action Comics #252. She wasn’t the only Supergirl.
After Kara dies in the mini-series reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths saving Superman and the multiverse, other Supergirls appeared. The first was Matrix, an artificial life form from an alternate universe, with a different power set. As Supergirl, she spent time with the Teen Titans and as a hero on her own. When Matrix finds a dying Linda Danvers, she merges, becoming an Earth-born angel. This Supergirl has a different set of powers, including wings made of fire. Eventually, this merged Supergirl falls from grace, causing Matrix and Linda to separate. Linda keeps some of the powers, though not at the same level as before, and continues to be Supergirl.
The changes to Supergirl post-Crisis came from DC’s editorial wanting Superman to be the only surviving Kryptonian. When that policy was relaxed, Kara returned, though with her origin rebooted. She’s still Superman’s cousin, but after being launched from Krypton, she loses her memory. Her first meeting with her cousin has her in disbelief; to her, he should still be an infant. In reality, she had lost time while in her lifepod.
That brings us to 2015. The CW has had success with Arrow and The Flash, showing that a broadcast network can have success with a superhero TV adaptation. CBS took the chance on the lastest from Greg Berlanti, Supergirl. With Melissa Benoist as the title character, the first season explored hope, dreams, family, and how the three mix. The analysis that follows focuses on the first season; cinematic universes tend to go in their own direction once started, even when the studio works to keep close to the original work.
The opening voice over explains the background; thirteen year old Kara Zor-El was sent by her mother to keep her cousin, Kal El, safe until he grew up. However, Kara’s pod was knocked off course into the Phantom Zone, where she lingered unaging until somehow she got out. When she reached Earth, her cousin had grown up and become Superman. Instead of her taking care of him, he finds a way to take care of her, bringing her to her foster parents, the Danvers, Jeremiah (Dean Cain) and Eliza (Helen Slater). Kara grows close to her older foster sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh).
Once Kara has graduated college, she started work at CatCo, the media empire owned by Cat Grant (Callista Flockheart), former Daily Planet journalist. The series starts with Kara being Cat’s assistant and gopher, with her name mangled to Kira. Still, Kara keeps her spirits up. She enjoys her job and her co-workers. One, IT whizkid Winslow “Winn” Schott, Jr (Jeremiah Jordan), has a crush on Kara but can’t quite tell her. Starting that day is James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), who has moved from Metropolis to National City to work for CatCo as the art director. Kara is looking forward to seeing her sister; Alex had been out of town on work. All in all, Kara’s life is normal.
All the normal goes out the window when Kara sees a news report about her sister’s flight in trouble. An engine caught fire and the plane was on a course to crash in the middle of National City. Kara runs out, throwing her jacket aside and, after a few short jumps, flies off. She catches the jet, but because women need to work twice as hard to be considered even half as good as men, she has to dodge a bridge before setting the plane down in the river. Despite the efforts, news anchors criticize her for setting the jet down where rescuers couldn’t get to it immediately. Nevermind that no one died.
Alex realizes who saved her and the other passengers and confronts Kara. However, Kara is just so earnest that Alex breaks down and reveals her big secret – she’s really an agent for the DEO, the Department of Extranormal Operations, whose mandate is to protect the Earth from alien threats. Alex knows Kara isn’t a threat, but her boss, Hank Henshaw (David Harewoood), isn’t so sure, but he trusts Alex enough that he’s willing to accept Kara. The problem that the DEO is facing is that Fort Rozz, the Kryptonian prison in the Phantom Zone, has crashed on Earth, letting the prisoners escape.
Kara can’t keep her excitement at bay. At work, after Cat names the new hero “Supergirl”, Kara needs to share her news with someone. That someone is Winn, who helps Kara with a costume. As Supergirl, Kara does what she can to keep National City safe. Her appearance, though, lets General Non (Chris Vance) and Astra (Laura Benanti), the twin sister to Kara’s mother, Alura, know that there is another Kryptonian on Earth. The plane crash Kara prevented was to kill Alex, set by escapee Vartox (Owain Yeoman) under Non’s orders. Vartox tries to kill Supergirl but fails, committing suicide when she beats him.
As the season plays out, Supergirl makes a few rookie mistakes, but with the help of Winn and James and with Cat giving her a media boost, she improves and becomes the darling of National City while still helping the DEO in its mission. However, as Superman’s cousin, Supergirl is constantly compared to him. This changes after she stops Reactron, a villain Superman couldn’t completely defeat.
Other characters from the comics make appearances through the season, including Dr. T.O. Morrow; his creation, the Red Tornado; the Silver Banshee; Jemm, Son of Saturn; the Toyman; and possibly the greatest danger to National City, Maxwell Lord(Peter Facinelli). There were also some twists on villains from Superman’s Rogues Gallery. Bizarro, who in the comics looks like a twisted copy of Superman, is based on Supergirl thanks to Max Lord and his experiments with Kryptonite to create a counter to the Girl of Steel. Brainiac appears as Braniac 8, though she prefers Indigo (Laura Vandervoot).
Of note is the episode “For the Girl Who Has Everything”, which takes a cue from a Superman comic. The producers realized that the Black Mercy, a creature that traps a victim in an memory recreation of a happier time, would work better with Kara. Superman has little personal experience with Krypton, having arrived on Earth as an infant. Everything he knows about the planet comes second hand. Kara, though, was older when she was sent away. She had family and friends, all of whom perished when the planet exploded. Kara is far more vulnerable to the Black Mercy, and the episode shows how.
Just having the names of characters, though, doesn’t make the series a good adaptation. It’s how the characters are presented. Kara is earnest and adorkable, which does follow from her appearances in the comics. She’s heroic because she wants to help. The Martian Manhunter is protective of the Danvers sisters and shares with Kara the loss of a family and a home. Maxwell Lord does reflect the character in the comics, a mix of helpfulness and dangerous-ness that makes it difficult to pin down if he is a hero or a villain.
The show also gave itself an out with accuracy. “Worlds Finest”, the crossover episode with The Flash, reveals that Supergirl isn’t quite in the same universe as Arrow and The Flash. Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) at one point goes through the differences between the universe he’s from and Kara’s. Cat also gets an interesting line when Kara, Barry, James, and Winn are lingering in her office, “You look like the racially diverse cast of a CW show.” Supergirl moved to the CW with its second season.
Each Supergirl episode plays like an issue of a comic. There’s character development; every character has a story arc. There’s heroics. If there’s a villain, Supergirl has a setback that helps her discover what she needs to defeat the miscreant. There’s even a end-of-episode cliffhanger, a hint on what will happen next week. Episodes have both stand-alone elements and still contribute to the the season’s main arc.
Supergirl, being the latest in Superman TV adaptations, also winks at the audience. Kara’s foster parents are played by leads in previous works. Helen Slater was Supergirl in the 1984 movie while Dean Cain was Clark Kent in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Cain’s co-star Teri Hatcher, who played Lois Lane, appears in season 2 as Rhea. Laura Vandervoot (Indigo) portrayed Kara on Smallville.
The series has the potential to be the definitive version of Supergirl to the general audience, much like the Richard Donner Superman. The chemistry amongst the cast and Melissa Benoist’s portrayal of Kara will leave a long lasting impression that will be hard to top.