Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Superhero Shows Round-Up: Supergirl Season Four

Supergirl Season Four

Supergirl, however, keeps getting better.

The wonderful thing about this series is that it's about diversity and tolerance, and moreover, fighting for tolerance. In today's world, particularly today's America, this is the most important message. This is as broad as it could be, but the core targets for its focus are feminism and immigration, two things bound to make a lot of white guys very angry and send them to the internet spouting rage-fueled bile. The feminist aspect was a given, of course, given that this is a series focusing on a female superhero, but the immigration angle has been as important since the start, with the showrunners remembering that Supergirl and Superman are the story of All-American Heroes who came to the States as refugees.

For a while now, the universe of Supergirl (Earth-38, as it happens) has been a rather more utopian one than our own, where the President is a woman who very clearly beat Trump (or his Elseworlds analogue) and leads an America that welcomes extraterrestrial immigrants. While there have been anti-alien elements throughout, the series has been broadly consistent in portraying a world that accepts aliens. Two things have forced this to change. Firstly, real life politics can't be pushed aside forever; it's impossible to really comment on the state of the US today by going, “Wouldn't it be nice if the world were more like this?” Eventually, Supergirl's America had to begin to reflect the real world equivalent. Secondly, the alien acceptance angle sits awkwardly with the fact that the bulk of the villains on this series are alien criminals or invaders. It's hard to imagine Joe Public squaring this with a view of alien acceptance, so it's something that had to be addressed.

To this end, season four introduced a new character, Ben Lockwood, played with superb conviction and charisma by Sam Witwer. The TV version of Agent Liberty, Lockwood's story is powerful and chilling because it is so plausible. Indeed, it's the sort of thing we see in reality all the time, and his fall from grace is so upsetting because there are points where the viewer comes very close to agreeing with him. Lockwood never had a problem with aliens, but his father was a backwoods, anti-alien kind of guy. Only slowly, after catastrophe after catastrophe, does Lockwood turn from a tolerant, accepting man to a mouthpiece for the Far Right and subsumed by his hatred for alien beings. The major turning points are the Daxamite invasion of Earth and the attempted terraforming by Reign, the cataclysmic events that rounded off the previous two seasons respectively, which lost his his home and then his father.

This would have been convincing enough if that had been all that pushed him over the edge, but it's the little things that make it so much more effective. It's easy to see the parallel between the alien invasion driving people to hate alien civilians, just as Islamist terror attacks have led to a huge increase in hate crimes on ordinary Muslim citizens. It's the smaller things that slowly chip away at Lockwood, though, such as his father's steel business being pushed out by alien alternatives, and alien workers proving better at jobs than humans. It's not subtle, but this sort of thing isn't asking for subtlety. It's all the more effective for an American audience, I'm sure, in a country where “alien” - a terribly dehumanising word – is still the preferred term for a foreign national.

The anti-alien sentiment is given a huge boost when the existing President (Lynda Carter) is revealed as an alien herself, the sort of Republican wet dream that ran through the Obama administration when the opposition were desperately trying to come up with some evidence to support their claims that the POTUS wasn't legally American. It leads to a right-wing populist President, who happily uses Lockwood as his mouthpiece. Given that the core characters work as reporters and magazine editors in their day jobs, the line between the press' commitment to unbiased reporting and the moral commitment to fight for the right cause becomes a major sentiment.

However, there are more aspects to the series and its agenda of outspoken diversity. Most notable are the two new hero characters on the regular cast, Jesse Rath as Brainiac-5 (pushed up to main cast at the end of last season) and Nicole Maines as Nia Nal, aka Dreamer. I don't think there can be any question that Rath is playing Brainy as if he's autistic; although this isn't something that can necessarily be said to apply to the character, being an alien android and all, his delivery of lines, tendency to not focus on the other cast's eyeline and the writing of the character as struggling to navigate emotional relationships and everyday conversation can only be read this way. Is it right to characterise a robot like this? One of the worst things that autistic people hear is that they're perceived as “robotic” because of their way of communicating and expressing themselves. Nonetheless, Rath's performance is beautifully understated, utterly charming and very funny without the humour ever being at his expense, so personally I'm in favour of the approach.

Nicole Maines, on the other hand, truly breaks ground as the first transgender actor to portray a transgender character in this genre. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a trans superhero onscreen, and it's very rare to see it in comics. Gratifyingly, while her gender identity is very important to Nia and a significant aspect of her character, it's not all there is to her. She gets to be a new hero on the show, the precognitive Dreamer, and is also an alien settler. At first I wondered if this was really necessary, making her trans and an alien, but there's no reason that a character needs one defining characteristic as the “other.” People are complex and varied and can differ from the assumed “normal” in many ways. Maines gives a strong yet vulnerable performance as a character who is still finding her place in life, and she shares amazing chemistry with Rath. Take away the extraterrestrial topcoat, and you've got a story about two immigrants, one trans, one autistic, who slowly learn how to tell each other about their feelings. It's beautiful and it's bloody brilliant that we have genre TV willing to try these things.

Among the sterling work done with the new characters there's almost no room to praise the continued development of the relationships between Kara, Alex, J'onn and even boring old James. Although every relationship gets its moment, the core of Kara's story this year is her complex friendship with Lena Luthor (Kate McGrath). While it really stretches credulity at some points to believe that this genius can't work out that Kara is Supergirl (the phrase “galactically stupid” comes to mind), the edge it lends to their friendship is palpable. Into this the writers drop Lex Luthor, who was bound to show up eventually, but they wisely kept him aside until his presence was required to push things over the edge. While I love the tradition was of recasting actors from various Superman productions in new roles, I was absolutely ready to throw out the idea of Jon Cryer, formerly Lenny Luthor in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, as the new Lex. And I like that film, even if nobody else does! However, Cryer absolutely knocks it out the park, playing Lex with a huge chip on his shoulder and a desperate need for validation that propels his fight for power. It's a dead-on characterisation and his antagonistic relationship with Lena works well.

Of course, there's no point bringing in Lex if you're not going to have him mastermind some ridiculously complicated scheme. Adapting the classic Red Son storyline, albeit liberally, the season see a parallel plot with Kara's clone, the Russian-born Red Daughter, set up as her dark mirror. As well as giving Melissa Benoist the chance to show how flexible she can be in performance, it ties in nicely to the anti-alien storyline, a sentiment that Lex naturally would want to stoke. The season ties together with panache, accepting the odd slow-burner episode that could have been trimmed, and the finale packs a real punch. Plus we get Lex in his green-and-purple battle suit, and they even call the finale “The Quest for Peace.” That takes some guts.

Best episode of the season: “Man of Steel” - Lockwood's story.
Most pointless addition: Otis and Mercy Graves – Luthor's annoying henches.
Best monster moment: Menagerie as a knock-off Venom.

No comments:

Post a Comment