Supergirl is best when it sticks to the heart of the show: the women

Contributed by
Nov 27, 2017

As far as superhero adaptations go, Supergirl has been something of an unforeseen surprise. The series, which originally launched on CBS in 2015, was the first planned live-action appearance for the character since her brief stint on the CW’s Smallville; prior to that, there’d been only one other attempt to give Kara Zor-El her own film series with 1984’s Supergirl, albeit with mixed results.

Due to these varying levels of success, it’s no wonder both long-time devotees and new followers of the character looked to the approach of Supergirl’s premiere with a combination of optimism and trepidation. The good news is that the show has delivered, for the most part, on what fans were hoping for. Now in its third season over at the CW, Supergirl’s had its ups and downs in terms of storylines and time afforded to certain characters - but when the show decides to focus on its strengths it’s a reminder of how powerful a comic book adaptation can really be when done right. For Supergirl, that means putting women front and center in the story.

No Supergirl story would be effective without Kara herself, and as a show Supergirl benefits wholeheartedly from Melissa Benoist in the titular role. As the superheroine, Benoist infuses Kara with both heart and power, as well as passion and vulnerability. It’s the kind of duality that’s essential to the character, not simply in the navigation of both her “secret” identity and her public hero persona but her believability on-screen. Season one primarily followed Kara’s attempt at a complicated balancing act as she juggled her 9-to-5 job at Catco with her newly-shouldered responsibilities as the costumed superhero of National City. There were emotional aspects to Kara’s journey as well: her interpersonal relationships with family and friends alike. None were more compelling, though, than her connections with other women.

In Supergirl’s first season, it was encouraging to see considerable story time given to the essential female figures in Kara’s life - both at work and at home. At the former, it was Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), a professional authority figure for Kara during her tenure as Cat’s assistant. What the series later came to emphasize over the course of season one was that Cat didn’t just represent the media owner that was going to be bossing her employees around; she wound up becoming more than a mentor for Kara and Supergirl in different-but-equal measure, but also something closer to a maternal figure. Although the show frequently toyed with the possibility of whether Cat had discerned Kara’s true self, it was never relevant even after that question was answered at the end of the following season. The significant evolution of that relationship, and the final conversation they had before Cat left the series, had always been the most significant part.

The emotional core of the first season also lay closer to home for Kara in her growing rapport with her adoptive sister, Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh). Their journey proved to be an evolving one as well, especially since Kara wasn’t the only one with a massive secret to keep. When Alex revealed that she had been working at the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO) as an extension of her assumed responsibility to look after Kara, it was initially the source of a lot of conflict between the two sisters until both came to the realization that they were stronger together rather than apart. Kara may not have known she could divulge her secret with Cat, but she could always rely on Alex to keep her secret - as well as find a safe haven in which to decompress after a long day of superheroism. As their relationship strengthened, so too did the series; it’s difficult to find a scene between the Danvers sisters that doesn’t embody some of the best emotional beats between female characters on television. Other superhero adaptations tended to fall back on the anchor of a romantic link to ground a story, but Supergirl was the exception to the rule at first. Kara certainly wasn’t immune to those kinds of attachments - and the show occasionally delved into aspects of her love life like work crushes or bad first dates - but they also weren’t the focus of her narrative.

That’s why it was discouraging when season two shifted most of the attention away from the important female friendships that had almost come to define Supergirl. Some of that couldn’t be helped; the announcement that Calista Flockhart would be leaving the series prior to its second season was definitely a major blow to those who had come to know and love Cat Grant for her unfiltered honesty. However, the show’s decision to give Kara a new love interest with a story arc so intricately tied to her own proved to be one of its most contentious among fans. When Kara entered into a relationship with the Daxamite Mon-El (Chris Wood), whose ship had crash-landed in National City at the tail end of season one, it was an unexpected route for the character after her sudden decision to backpedal out of a potential romance with James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks). Mon-El also became more than a supporting character; the slow burn of a plot centered around his real identity as a rival of Krypton started to eclipse Kara’s story until it seemed as if everything Kara did had to be tied back to him in some shape or form.

Fortunately, Alex was still around - and in season two, as Kara floundered on her own show, her sister flourished. Alex’s coming out arc received well-earned praise for offering genuine LGBTQ representation as well as illustrating the potential of mainstreaming storylines for queer characters, and it was undoubtedly one of the highlights of what proved to be a very uneven second season. Alex was afforded the opportunity to explore her own identity, similar to the journey that Kara had taken a season prior. The only downside was that the show seemed unable to split focus on building up the sister dynamic while also devoting time to the development of their respective romances - Kara with Mon-El, and Alex with Detective Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima). Some of that is relatable, of course; finding time for family and friends after entering into a new relationship can be tricky. But it was a loss for a show that had already been forced to relinquish another linchpin of what had made Supergirl successful the year before. Eventually, Kara and Alex would have several impactful moments together towards the end of the season, and episodes like “Exodus” and “Alex” were reminders that the writers hadn’t forgotten about the show’s heart.

Now that the show is entrenched in its third season, there appears to be another shift - back in the right direction. Part of that is a result of Supergirl's growing cast, and the fact that Kara is now surrounded by more women than in previous years. In addition to Alex, the series has added two more recurring female characters in Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath), who has become one of Kara’s closest friends, and Samantha Arias (Odette Annable), who currently has more ties to Kara than either of them know thanks to some mysterious Kryptonian origins that the show is still exploring. Mon-El’s exit at the end of season two has led to Kara needing to rely on the support of women to overcome her heartache as well as be a support system for others when they need it. As we’ve seen in the season so far, Kara’s been there not only for Lena to give her sound friend advice - she’s also literally come to her rescue while in the guise of Supergirl. And, while Floriana Lima’s unfortunate departure from Supergirl has meant the end of the Alex/Maggie pairing for the time being, it was encouraging to see the show give Alex the narrative time to lean on her sister rather than trying to forge on solo. That being said, Sam’s continuing journey into her true identity as the Kryptonian bio-weapon Reign signals some upcoming animosity between her and Kara - especially if the acquisition of previously blocked memories means that she forgets their burgeoning friendship. But the fact that the show is now giving considerable focus to each and every one of these female characters in season three means that Supergirl has the potential to be stronger than ever before.

Off screen, things are still complicated; numerous allegations against Andrew Kreisberg, one of Supergirl’s co-creators, have left the show’s fans as well as those working behind the scenes wrestling with how best to move forward. Thankfully, there are individuals who are renewing their commitment towards making the show a more respectful and safer space - including Benoist herself, as well as Leigh and several of her female co-stars within the larger DC television universe. It’s a reminder that the women of Supergirl have always been its true leaders - and amplifying their stories is a big part of what contributes to the show’s lasting popularity. As long as Supergirl doesn’t lose sight of that, it won’t lose its power.