It’s hard living in the shadow of another superhero – especially when that superhero is Superman. This figure has been around for decades now, deeply embedded into our public consciousness, with a level of awareness almost unprecedented even for comic bookdom. For the past 60 odd years, Superman has been one of the go-to figures of pop culture: an icon that transcends even his small beginnings on Krypton.
Unfortunately, it casts a long shadow for cousin Supergirl – Kara Zor-El, from the same family, sent to earth with much the same purpose, boasting many of the same powers. In the comics, she has grown to be a powerful figure all her own, outside of all that her cousin has accomplished. But elsewhere, she’s still struggling somewhat. And there’s no better demonstration of that than what the new Supergirl tv series has been presenting.
There’s so much positive about what Supergirl is trying to accomplish that’s it hard not to be too critical of its intentions. It’s one of the first female-led comic book shows of the new era, and it’s one of the most high-profile to boot. So much so that even presidential candidates have made mention of the character and their awareness of her.
Plus, for all its flaws, it very much means well. It hasn’t quite found its groove, and the writing and characterization can be kind of all over the place. But there’s also a cheery optimism to the approach that’s almost infectious – especially from Melissa Benoist as Supergirl herself. This is a show that wants to do an honorable adaptation of a beloved character, wants to find its place in the growing universe of comic book tv, and also wants to welcome women into this landscape with open arms.
But there’s almost no better demonstration of where the show is stumbling than in Superman himself. It has taken great pains not to show his face on-screen, and yet he’s still a looming presence for the series – something the writers themselves have been perpetuating. From the pilot itself, he’s already been a major (if somewhat peripheral) element to the show’s mythology. He became a superhero before she did, gave her a family when she came to earth, and much pains have been given in discussing the similarities and dissimilarities between Superman and Supergirl almost from the start.
And this hasn’t been a good thing. What should’ve been a relatively one-off element in the pilot instead it has dogged the characters across the first seven episodes to somewhat troubling degrees. Not unlike Agents of SHIELD early references to The Avengers, hardly a week (and sometimes a scene) goes by without someone making a reminder to the audience that Superman is Kara’s cousin and is already active on earth.
It’s largely emblematic of the very real-world ways in which the show is struggling to exist under the weight of all the other comic book fare – especially the abundance of male-driven material. Not even just Superman himself: Supergirl has been using this to constantly remind (and perhaps reassure?) the audience that yes, this is a female-led superhero show, and that it should be okay.
But it’s not okay when the show feels the need to keep reminding us. Kara is fighting Superman castoff villains, having online chats with him, interacting with not unimportant members of his universe (like James Olsen and the Lane family) and continuing to weather the continual comparisons between the two superheroes. What’s worse, the show is now reportedly casting an actor to appear as young Superman later in the season. Meaning the shadow of Superman isn’t going away anytime soon. Mostly because the show itself won’t let him.
For one thing there’s the problem of striving to individualize – though that is one of the primary issues resulting from Superman’s usage. It makes both Supergirl – show and character – look entirely incapable of existing on her own. This outside character is largely there because he’s so iconic to the minds of the audience and it’s defining too much of what the show can and even wants to accomplish. It runs the risk of making Supergirl look less like her own self-actualized hero and more like Superman-lite.
What’s more, it’s dramatically undermining the feminist overtones – which the show has been struggling in the presentation of in similar ways. In its defense, the show has very noble goals in this regard, but it does somewhat go about them in somewhat the wrong ways. Like the other two female-led shows currently in this genre (Agent Carter and Jessica Jones) feminism is very much a part of the proceedings. But unlike those other two shows, Supergirl is struggling to deal with it with any kind of finesse.
Granted, there can be something endearing about having on-screen characters praise the chance to have girls look up to a female superhero – because like much else in this arena of discussion, it’s true to real life. We’re still rather lacking in our mainstream society of prominent female superheroes for girls to emulate (much the same way boys can emulate the rich array of male superheroes). At the same time, there’s a problem with being too showy about the whole venture.
When Kara and Alex keep challenging people as to presumed surprise that a girl can do what she does (when the characters clearly didn’t mean it that way), it’s a problem. When people keep expressing surprise and commenting on the fact that this superhero is female, it’s a problem. When the show becomes bogged down in dated thinking about whether or not women can have it all, that’s a problem. It makes the show itself look insecure about the subject: as though it’s constantly having to reassure the audience that it’s okay to have a woman front and center and playing the muscle here.
Show don’t tell is a hugely important part of the discussion. And the series succeeds far better when it prioritizes female relationships (which is refreshingly has in abundance) and occasionally subverts expectations without needing to pause and comment on this. Like, for instance, he cold open for an episode a few weeks back when Kara took down a monstrous creature for the DEO; she casually referred to the creature as a “him” and was corrected that it’s a really a “her.” She gave a nice little, “Huh” and moved on.
Similarly, the abundance of female characters extends substantially over into the villainy in a welcome way – as even female leads are often pitted against male villains and surrounded by numerous male characters as though to apologize for having a woman at the center of the series. Supergirl hasn’t gone this route and it’s refreshing.
But Superman threatens to undermine – and even undo – a lot of the good it’s striving for here. Kara is still being defined just a little bit too much by her famous cousin. And when one of the primary markers of your female superhero is that she’s related to a notable male superhero, it rather works in contrast to the feminist goals.
What probably would’ve been best for the show would’ve been for there to be no Superman at all. Much in the same way that Arrow and Flash essentially live in a universe where there’s no Superman or Batman, and where Gotham is striving to pull out from under the shadow of Batman, Supergirl would’ve been able to stand much better as her own entity if she had simply been the only Kryptonian on planet earth, with no such cousin having ever existed. It would’ve meant tampering with the mythology – but adaptations do that kind of thing all the time, and often for the better.
But since that’s not possible to do at this juncture, I propose alternatively that the show just find a way to drop Superman altogether. Stop making reference to him all the time, don’t have him appear on the show, don’t have people comparing Kara to Clark – instead, pretend that he just doesn’t really exist. Because if Kara can’t ever learn to individualize free from her connection to Superman, then how can she ever truly flourish as a superhero? If the writers can’t stop bringing up the subject, then how will the audience ever forget?
And we need to forget: because that can be a powerful way of showing. Supergirl can be a feminist icon not constricted by the foreknowledge of Superman, but by her own accomplishments with no ties to any other superheroes in the verse. It’s a vital kind of decision that will aid the show – and character – in finally finding its own way.