Supergirl’s return was needed

“Supergirl Lives.” Supergirl Season 2, Episode 9. Directed by Kevin Smith. Story by Andrew Kreisberg. Teleplay by Eric Carrasco and Jess Jardos.

We have needed the return of Supergirl.

While some reviews may overstate it as the most progressive series on television right now (Steven Universe says hi), even as heavy-handed as it could be the last year and a half, its messages have been spot-on.

The show follows a bit from what Buffy the Vampire Slayer did: turn real-life issues into allegories. Some work better than others, yet the discussion they can motivate is vital when it comes to xenophobia, refugee relief, racism, sexism, homophobia, schools of feminism, toxic masculinity, being the change you want in the world, and forming a coherent society.

And as the United States allows a fascist and a bigot to walk into the White House, those messages are more important.

(And yes, I will get to reviewing the episode in a moment.)

The absence of Supergirl during the winter hiatus was particularly difficult as the United States has allowed itself to install a fascist into the White House, a man who brags of sexually assaulting women while calling Mexican persons rapists, who mocks the appearances of others while he looks like a melting Jack O’Lantern your lazy neighbor can’t bother to throw out, and who is so insecure in his own skin that he just can’t stand that a woman kicked his ass and got three million more votes than his popular-vote-losing sad-sack self.

To put it bluntly: fuck Donald Trump, fuck the minority of voters who selected him, fuck the Electoral College for installing him against all reasonable concerns about how unfit he is for office, and fuck y’all who keep asking that we compromise with a bigot, a fascist, and a buffoon.

That aside is cathartic–but also relevant given the recent women’s march, where Supergirl herself Melissa Benoist joined, Wonder Woman made a few cameos, and where artwork (trying to find the link again) has circulated of Supergirl doing to this fascist what Captain America did to Hitler.  It is coincidental that both Supergirl and the Clinton campaign have used the phrase “stronger together” (H/T Ellak Roach for pointing that out), and it is a similarity emerging from similar concerns in the fact of people who divide on the basis of identity, rather than on the basis of character.

That message is central to Supergirl serving as a symbol of hope to motivate others around her–the important of being the change you want in the world, regardless how bleak circumstances seem. Tonight’s episode about human trafficking, feelings of inadequacy among men, the importance of setting an example–these themes are not obviously to me related to the last year and a half of horrible campaigning by a horrible human being. But they are topics whose significance will only grow as the United States confronts a dark time. Popular culture, whether mainstream or niche, highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow, has a resonance because it speaks to concerns of its viewer, whoever that person is–and it is up to that fan to make that series relevant, and it is their ethical responsibility to do so in a way that makes the world better. That is why an actor marching with women can be start; it is why fan art of a female superhero a literally punching a male abuser can be start.

Okay–that’s enough of a start about what the series means right now at the beginning of 2017. Let’s talk about what the episode itself did.

Kevin Smith has already directed episodes of The Flash, and while “Runaway Dinosaur” remains the best episode that series has had, and his hand lent needed atmosphere, his follow-up episode “Killer Frost” was underwhelming due to the script and by-the-numbers plot. With much less action in this episode (barring the well-done van tipping chase), Smith does much better. In fact, having an episode with a red sun helps Smith to focus on this atmosphere and the dialogue. The episode is centered around him a bit, not only in playing to his strengths for conversations over action, but also the title (“Supergirl Lives” alludes to the script Superman Lives that Smith wrote for the undeveloped Tim Burton/Nicholas Cage production) and one guest star (his daughter, Harley Quinn Smith, as the kidnapped young adult Izzy).

As with “The Runaway Dinosaur,” Smith and his colleagues know how to use lighting to affect the mood: the sunny, cheery atmosphere to Alex’s (Chyler Leigh) apartment and new romance with Maggie (Floriana Lima), the dark and cool colors to the street when a thief pummels Winn (Jeremy Jordan), and the red sun planet sapping Kara and Mon-El (Chris Wood) of their powers. The setup for Winn’s shouting at James (Mehcad Brooks) in the locker room, the camera getting closer on Winn as his anger and panic increase, provides a more claustrophobic frame that emphasizes his turmoil. Compare that framing to how close Alex is to the camera when she gives Winn the pep talk–it’s like the two scenes show two different ways intimacy can be overwhelming or comforting.

Plotwise, there are some tricks to get the story moving and may strain disbelief. The mother of a missing child goes to a newspaper, while the police, including Maggie, seem to have missed out on the trend of missing children. J’onn (Dorian Harewood) can’t go to the alien planet because of silicates in the air that Martians must not inhale. Few people draw attention to Winn’s attempts to cover up his injuries–even Kara, whose x-ray vision should have seen it (although, I doubt a member of the Supers would start randomly x-raying people and violate their trust). The jewel thieves manage to escape Supergirl–even after she blew out their tire with heat vision (which seemed like some Zack Snyder overkill, even after the thieves shot a rocket at Supergirl). Alex blames falling in love for leading her to make foolish errors and causes a rift between Maggie, one that is solved pretty quickly at episode’s end and either is too easy or lends complexity to tough-as-nails Maggie by showing her capacity to forgive.

Speaking of Alex and Maggie, I am overjoyed that an episode shows a same sex couple, clothed, in the kitchen, just hugging and kissing at breakfast. This is a far more realistic portrayal of two women in a relationship, and without filming it with male gaze, compared to some portrayals of such relationships in popular culture. I compare it to the small moments confirming Korra and Asami’s relationship in The Legend of Korra: there are few grand gestures like in a typical love story, but the lived, everyday work of maintaining a relationship. So far, Alex and Maggie have had a slow buildup in a relationship; now, this episode shows an everyday quality to that relationship. I cringe at the thought of another stuffed in the fridge moment, or another Tara moment. I am not asking that Alex and Maggie be kept invulnerable: that is not realistic. I ask that the drama and potential threat to their lives be earned, not a cynical attempt at shock value.

Other details in the episode did not attract my attention. The episode is part of the longer arc in developing Mon-El into supposedly another caped superhero, similar to his Legion of Superheroes comic book iteration. And whoever is following Mon-El across the galaxy–maybe the Legion itself?–is still cryptically vague. Roulette (Dichen Lachman) was here–and I didn’t care much, even as the show hammers a message that human trafficking is wrong, a point that Daredevil has handled a bit better just by showing the lengths Matt goes to beat up Turk for his involvement in Season 1.

Winn’s storyline has its problematic qualities: for him, a man, to respond to the shock of being attack, and any potential post-traumatic stress he has, he has to go out into the field–even though he is not a field agent–and punch out an alien. This is like an extraterrestrial Teddy Roosevelt manual. Alex’s plan works, and I’m not in any capacity to advise on mental health solutions, Alex obviously opting for taking a big leap in confronting a trigger rather than a gradual reintroduction into stressful circumstances. It’s also not that different from James taking up the shield as Guardian after his confrontation with criminals: so far, that’s two men who respond to being hurt by lashing out physically, a classic superhero (and supervillain) trope of being the vigilante in order to never feel weak again. But I also can’t accuse the show of adhering to gendered norms: going back to James again, as occurred in Season 1, it was both he and Kara who were using punching bags and talking, at the same time, to work out their stresses. In their own confrontations so far in this series with such stresses, Winn, Kara, and Alex have all responded to this stress with punches (coded as traditionally masculine) and talking (coded as traditionally feminine). I’m not yet making a firm argument, so much as exploring this idea for right now–and likely will continue to as Supergirl continues, since it has been confirmed for a third season.

Random Observations

  • As soon as the portal appeared, I said, “Stargate!” I beat you to that reference by about 10 minutes, Winn.
  • Snapper (Ian Gomez) is right: until caffeine is taken in, do not ask so many questions.
  • So, a Dominator is there for some reason. Any applicability to the previous CW DC crossover miniseries, or just fanservice?
  • Alien rocks: good souvenir choice, Winn. Kind of like collecting seashells–only earthier and more out-of-this-world.
  • Is Roulette stuck on Planet Red Sun?

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