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Despite fumbles, Supergirl tackles important issues

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Oct 12, 2018, 3:04 PM EDT

In the world of The CW’s Arrowverse, every show has a part to play. Arrow is the big brother, the very serious initial superhero outing from a network looking to change its image. The Flash is the lighter, happier kid brother, tasked with making people laugh, and providing the beating heart of the burgeoning league of heroes. Legends of Tomorrow is the black sheep, with its time travel and its giant fluffy creatures. So what does that make something like Supergirl?

Now entering its fourth season, Supergirl represents a difficult part of the DCTV universe. Without her more famous cousin headlining his own series (instead making occasional appearances in National City), Supergirl is now forced to play his role as moral compass, and the series, as the only entry focused primarily on telling the story of a female hero, ends up falling victim to the Smurfette Principle on a macro scale. Supergirl is the girl show, the feminist show, the show with the biggest weight on its Kryptonian shoulders and the greatest pressure to inspire and empower young women (and men) in the audience.

At its core, Supergirl is a story about the issues far more than any of its fellow DCTV entries are required to be (though Black Lightning has also taken on a much more issue-based approach to its own storytelling). Supergirl isn’t just a fish out of water or a young woman coming into her own as a hero. She is a refugee, she is adopted, her origin quickly and easily mined for any number of allegories about our tendency as humans to fear the unknown. She is a literal alien, and a powerful one. She keeps her identity secret, playing at once on public fears of what people keep hidden and personal concerns over privacy and the safety of our families.

Supergirl is also a woman, and one who stands in the very real and looming shadow of a male hero who came first, did things better and bigger and with perhaps greater renown. She carries with her all the hopes and dreams of young women and girls who watch her fly, and she bears the brunt of all their jealousy and self-loathing as they wait impatiently for her to fall, to prove she is human.

These attitudes may represent the feelings and concerns of the fictional population of National City, but the very same things can be said about the place the series occupies within our own understanding of its purpose and impact. Supergirl is not allowed to stumble, but stumble it certainly has. During the show’s third season, a great many criticisms were lobbed its way. There were problems with pacing, with the tone. Perhaps the greatest concern was with the way Supergirl herself was written: wayward, questioning, struggling with who she was as a hero and as a person.

Supergirl Season 3 Finale Kara, Reign

Katie Yu/The CW

These are not undue criticisms. Since it debuted on CBS three years ago, Supergirl has gotten steadily more serious, the larger arcs of each season have become darker, and all the while, the messaging has become much starker. It is no longer written in a light script with an inviting lilt and instead has converted to big bold letters virtually shouting its lessons from your television screens. It is not a show that knows what it means to be subtle. But despite its shouting and its seriousness, Supergirl remains nearly the only Arrowverse show that goes out of its way to tackle big issues, both in individual episodes and in its larger themes.

While a series like The Flash may devote a great deal of its time to depicting its titular hero as the savior of the city, Supergirl took time out of last season to have its hero grapple with the idea that those she saves might consider her more than just a person when she encounters an entire religion based on worshipping her. Kara is more than happy to have the people of National City look up to her as an example, but the idea that people might pray to her makes her uncomfortable. While the show could have easily taken one of two roads — either they and by extension religion are crazy or pivot into full Jesus allegory a la the DCEU — Supergirl instead splits the difference. Though ultimately offering a cautionary tale about allowing your faith to manipulate you, the episode still lets James Olsen offer the other side of the argument. Of course people believe in Supergirl. Some people need to believe in something, and she is far more real to them than any invisible god has ever been.

In a far less nuanced episode, Supergirl attempted, however obliquely, to tackle the issue of gun control and police brutality. In others, they broach the topic of the current state of American racism and fear of immigrants (refugees are a longstanding theme in both the show and comics), or issues surrounding LGBTQ experiences. At the end of Season 3, James grapples with whether to tell the world that he is the vigilante Guardian, weighing the cost of revealing his identity with the benefits of seeing a man of color as a hero.

In what might have been the most inspiring story of last year, Lena Luthor presents a side of corporate America we so rarely see in the media, and certainly in reality. Lena is not only a woman of authority standing her own against men who use their power and influence for evil, but she is also a powerful woman who wants to see other powerful women succeed, and gives them the tools and opportunities to do so. Not only does she support Kara in her work at CatCo, and Supergirl in her job as the hero of National City, but this past year we saw her supporting women at her own company as well. The relationship between Lena and Sam Arias, a single mother and L Corp’s CFO, was easily the show’s most powerful in Season 3, as Lena supports her friend both personally and professionally. Lena promotes a woman she respects and admires, allows her the time she needs in order to care for her daughter without making her feel like she is failing, and helps her when Sam discovers that something is very wrong.

Supergirl is a show that is constantly getting things almost right. It can see the finish line, but just can’t quite make it all the way over. Character arcs may be disjointed, the plot may be uneven, but when all is said and done, you do have to give the series at least a little credit for trying to use its platform to say something important, even if the message is a little garbled.

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