Supergirl Is Much Better Without Its Superman Baggage

By  · Published on November 17th, 2015

For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching Supergirl on CBS waiting for just the right moment to chime in. That moment was probably last week, when the show stumbled for the first time. On the whole, the show has been very strong from the get-go. Melissa Benoist is endlessly charming in the titular role. The show is being written with a great deal of confidence, reminiscent of the way The Flash has found success over on The CW. And the tone of the show is perfect. Gone is all the gloomy, brooding Superman-as-outcast stuff that we’ve seen in the Man of Steel’s cinematic tenure, in comes a show that really feels like it’s about truth, justice, and hope (“The American Way” is an ideal that’s dead, but that’s another article entirely).

In short, Supergirl is winning by being unapologetically hopeful, confidently feminist and mixing in some solid action beats. The cast is strong. Calista Flockhart is divine as Cat Grant, Supergirl’s daytime boss and the media mogul behind crafting Supergirl’s public narrative in National City. Mehcad Brooks, most notably of True Blood fame, is a solid Jimmy, I’m sorry, James Olsen. And Chyler Leigh has great chemistry with Benoist as Supergirl’s adopted sister (and fellow badass operative). The show works, hands down.

But last week’s episode, “Fight or Flight,” was wonky. As Charlie Jane Anders explained in her recap over on io9, the show has a Superman problem: “Apparently Supergirl can’t actually show Superman as a character, because he’s starring in movies, so they’re trying to turn this into an artsy creative choice – he’s the guy that you always see out of the corner of your eye, as he’s rushing off to save the world somewhere else. It’s sort of a cute idea, except the more they do it the more contrived it looks. And it makes Superman look like kind of a douche, who can’t spare five minutes to come talk to his cousin in person. He can fly to National City in a few seconds, whenever he wants. So even though the show is going for a “Superman is always offscreen but constantly looming as the figure that Supergirl is compared to” vibe, it gets too much when we keep seeing a Superleg or a Superarm, but no Superface.”

Nothing, actually.

She when on to posit that the show would be much better if it didn’t show Superman at all. Which brings us to this week’s episode, “Livewire,” in which a freak accident turns one of Supergirl’s public detractors, radio personality Leslie Willis (Graceland’s Brit Morgan) into a villain with the power to absorb and use electricity. The episode avoids the need to call upon any Superman iconography, putting Kara (Benoist) in a position to deal with her own problems and strengthen her relationship with Cat Grant, both as Kara and as Supergirl.

It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the planned episode for this week. CBS postponed the scheduled episode following the Paris terrorist attacks, as it dealt with a series of bombings in the show’s fictional National City. That explains why “Livewire,” a Thanksgiving-themed episode, was moved up. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for the show. Not only did it allow a little distance between Supergirl and her more famous cousin, it also allowed for some exploration into Kara’s foster family dynamic. And for once, not everyone is excited and hopeful about her coming out as Supergirl. Her foster mother, played by original Supergirl Helen Slater, and her foster father (in flashback form), played by Lois & Clark star Dean Cain, are both featured prominently in a way that adds some complexity to Kara’s situation.

This more intimate, Earth-focused approach to Kara’s world works very well. There’s no doubt that we’ll see weird CGI-Superbody Man at some point again, but we have to hold out hope (as the show encourages) that it will be few and far between. Supergirl is soaring on its own merits, as it should be.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)