Tuesday, 4 August 2015

REVIEW: Supergirl - pilot episode

So, it's been long enough now since the pilot episode of this series was shown at ComicCon and subsequently leaked onto the internet for me to download it, watch it and give my opinion. I won't post details of how to illegally download it, but it's not exactly difficult to find. Following the previous leak of the extended promo for the series, there's not much left to spoil. That was the shorter cut of this episode, designed to sell the show to the top brass, and frankly it's hard to believe that these leaks are anything other than deliberate PR moves. Anyway, we know when WB haven't planned a leak, because they get pissy about it.

Before watching this, I finally got round to watching The Flash, the CW's second superhero show after Arrow. While Arrow left me a little cold, The Flash was a joy from start to finish, and it's gratifying that two series with such different approaches to their genre can co-exist and crossover. Supergirl, while not a CW series, is, like Arrow and The Flash, the creation of Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, so hopes are high. Judging by the first episode, Supergirl is going to follow the formula and feel of The Flash more than anything, embracing the silliness and straightforward heroics of its source material and the sheer fun of the comicbook world. Some turned their noses up at the promo version, due to its focus on the day-to-day working girl life of Kara Danvers, our heroine. Yes, it's all very Devil Wears Prada and that sort of thing, but really, what's the problem with that? The objections to the approach were basically as follows:

This is a girls' series!” So what? There are plenty of “boys' series” around featuring superheroes, and frankly, while plenty of women enjoy those, there's certainly room for a show that is directed more at female viewers. And anyway, just because a programme is designed for girls, doesn't mean boys can't enjoy it.

It's sexist.” Nonsense. I can understand this opinion, of course; the idea that a female superhero should be worrying about her bitchy boss and swooning at boys could come across as very sexist. However, it's really not very different to how Clark Kent or Barry Allen spend their personal and office hours. As for Kara spending a great deal of time picking out her outfit: the look's important, and have you seen how much the Flash or Iron Man worry about their look in the field? More than Supergirl, I can tell you. Also, while we're on the subject, the costume is spot-on, and extra marks for explicitly dismissing an extra-revealing sexed-up version during the episode.

There's not enough superhero stuff.” A fair point, concerning the promo, but the episode as cut for broadcast gets the balance exactly right. After a prologue designed to set up the show's mythology, with a young Kara sent to Earth from the dying Krypton (told with great economy and clarity), some time is spent dealing with the now adult Kara's personal and working life. There's some to-ing and fro-ing between her and her sister, Alex, concerning whether she should use her powers or hide them for her own safety. At about the halfway mark, it's decided: of course she should use her flippin' powers! Get the best friend on board, design an outfit, and go out saving people.

This approach is just right, balancing the necessary origins and development with the need to get this show underway and having fun. It's fast-paced, and while this does necessitate some clunky exposition – a genre-wide failing – it means we're straight on the way to having fun. The promo is basically just the pilot's first half, and while Kara's ordinary girl life is clearly going to continue to be the backbone of the series, her heroic efforts are at the forefront of storytelling. It also looks fantastic, with effects on a par with The Flash, currently the series to beat when it comes to televisuals. Kara's first “mission,” the rescue of a crashing plane, looks as good as anything seen in superhero cinema, and the montage of mini-missions sets up her character and role in the series with ease and style.

The leading lady, Melissa Benoist, is charmingly awkward as Kara, imposingly heroic as Supergirl, and utterly captivating as both. She's also, pleasantly, not absolutely tiny; very slim, by any measure, but tall enough and broad-shouldered enough to convince as a powerful woman who can land a punch on an alien. Standing out among her co-stars is Mehcad Brooks, as James Olson. After years of somewhat nebbishy Jimmy Olsons, this older, sexier, more assured version of the character is a breath of fresh air. He's the one who is confident in the world of superheroics and what it entails, and is someone for Kara to look up to. It took me a little longer to warm to Chyler Leigh and Jeremy Jordan, but by the end of the episode they'd been cemented as fine members of the core cast. Leigh is Alex Danvers, and while it seemed they were setting up an unnecessarily antagonistic relationship between the sisters, resolving this and having her as Kara's contact in the series version of the MiB makes sense, if being a rather convenient bit of plotting. Jordan is Winn Schott, who gets the obligatory friendzone role, and also has the potential to become a villain somewhere along the line for those who know the mythology (more shades of The Flash series there).

David Harewood is perfectly fine and imposing as Hank Henshaw, leader of the alien hunting organisation, but his character is lazily written. He's a simple cypher, a continually abrupt and aggressive boss, who “doesn't trust aliens” and has no other character traits. Hopefully he'll be developed somewhat before his own inevitable turn to villainy. Calista Flockhart isn't particularly good as Kara's boss, the uber-bitchy Cat Grant, but again, she doesn't have much to work with. She just has to stalk her office putting people down. Again, with some actual character development, she might be something. Of the other cast, this episode's minor villain, Vardox, was broadly but entertainingly portrayed by The Mentalist's Owain Yeoman. Even though he does appear to be half-Klingon as portrayed here. Casting Dean Cain and Helen Slater as Kara's adoptive parents is a nice touch, too, continuing a long tradition of recasting stars from Superman and Supergirl productions in small roles alongside their successors.

One problem with the set-up is the big, Superman-shaped shadow cast over it. Throughout the episode we are reminded that Kara is Clark's cousin, and that the Big S is watching over her, this world's number one – maybe only - hero. Unable to properly show the character, he's a vague presence that is unable to fully be resolved in the story. If the series continues to take this approach, viewers are going to wonder where he is and why he isn't actually stepping in to help his cousin deal with increasingly powerful threats. That's another issue: supposedly, a prison ship from the Phantom Zone crashed on Earth ten years ago, and its various escapees have been lying low ever since. While this will keep the series in baddies for the foreseeable, it's very hard to swallow that all these aliens have been keeping quiet and successfully hidden on Earth all this time, especially if most of them are as absurdly aggressive as Vartox.

There's also the question of how this series will tie into other productions. Understandably, its creators are interested in crossing it over with their other shows, and while they're on different networks, ownership issues aren't relevant (CBS co-owns the CW). Something could be worked out, but Supergirl doesn't seem to be part of the Arrowverse, where there are now many, many superheroes, nor do the Arrow and the Flash appear to live in a world protected by Superman. It's also certainly not tied into the current movie version of Superman, with the DC movies seemingly kept very much separate to anything on TV. While I'd love to see a crossover as much as the next geek, it shouldn't be at the cost of maintaining some level of story plausibility.

While there's some definite room for improvement on Supergirl, it's hard to think of a pilot episode that couldn't be said of. With some development of certain characters, and so long as they don't rely on alien-of-the-week for too long, this show could really be something. Great fun, with some real potential. Series proper starts in October. 

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