Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Super Show

Next Friday, DC Comics will play its biggest card yet in an attempt to grab a share of the big-screen superhero pie heretofore consumed mostly by Marvel. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will try to build off of 2013's Man of Steel to create a shared cinematic universe and build up to a film featuring the Justice League, as Marvel Studios stair-stepped its way into The Avengers.

Meanwhile, on TV, the joint CW-CBS "Arrowverse" hums along quite nicely, beginning with the 2012 debut of Green Arrow in Arrow and subsequently helped along by The Flash, the animated Vixen and Legends of Tomorrow. All of those shows are on the CW Network or its subsidiaries, but in 2015 CBS debuted Supergirl, out of the same production company but on the parent network. A crossover later this year between Supergirl and The Flash will establish some continuity between them, although apparently the ol' reliable alternate universe card will be played. Supergirl has been renewed for a second season.

Watching Supergirl can induce a bit of a flashback feeling. It's light-toned and willing to be a little silly, although it's not as full-fledged campy as the 1990s Adventures of Lois and Clark. We don't actually see Superman, the cousin to our Kryptonian title character, except in silhouette once or twice, but it seems pretty clear he'd feature about 100% less glower than Henry Cavill's Man of Steel.

The story tells us that Kara Zor-El, the teenage cousin to the infant Kal-El, was also sent to Earth when Krypton exploded, to watch over and protect him. But sent in different spaceships, they were separated and Kara's suspended-animation pod didn't arrive until Kal had already grown up as Clark Kent/Superman. Now, 10 years later, Kara's kept her abilities secret and is only now starting to take on the role of a superhero. She works with her adoptive sister for a black-book federal agency charged with protecting the Earth from alien threats -- and some threats that spring up closer to home.

There are a lot of reasons Supergirl works -- and there are a lot of reasons that it shouldn't, but does anyway. The lion's share of credit for its success goes to series star Melissa Benoist, who's more than convincing playing two different people who happen to be the same person. Superman and/or Supergirl have always appealed to readers because of who they were without the capes, and the best Superman portrayals have had the best Clark Kents. Benoist's "Kara Danvers" combines Christopher Reeve's dorkiness with Mary Richard's shyness-battling spunk -- I can't believe that at least one of her "Oh, Miss Grants" to her boss was not a deliberate callback to Mary Tyler Moore's frequent refrain to her boss, Lou Grant. Benoist's skill at pulling off the combo helps watchers understand that she's the real person, while "Supergirl" is someone she's at when she's at work, so to speak. She deepens her voice, stands and acts more assertively and wears a costume that shows Benoist did some work in the gym to convey strength.

Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers, the previously mentioned adoptive sister, and Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant also add acting chops to the cast. David Harewood as Hank Henshaw mostly just grumps as the director of the agency they work for, as well as grumping about his own secret. Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen and Jeremy Jordan as "Winn" Schott do well enough, but their roles are also part of one of the show's biggest soft spots.

Among the several things that should keep Supergirl from working is the silly romantic quadrangle between Kara, Winn, James and Lucy Lane (Jenna Dewan-Tatum). Winn likes Kara, who likes James, who likes Lucy, who likes James -- at least, this week. The difficulty of romance for someone who moonlights as an invulnerable superhero could be an interesting dimension of the character, but so far all this particular love rhombus has been is annoying. It lets Alex and Kara have "sister-talk" scenes, which are nice, but not worth the cost.

Show writers also continually saddle their excellent cast with lousy episodes, perhaps because the season is a few episodes too long. Episode 16, "Falling," is a great example. It's the obligatory "red kryptonite" episode, in which a Super-someone encounters a variation of the radioactive remnant of their homeworld that makes them mean instead of dead. There are the standard "mousy Kara gets assertive" blips, followed by some predictable "Kara scares her friends and acts sleazy" moments. Then we get to the "assert my dominance because I'm powerful so you all do what I say" windup before Kara's cured of the red K effects. Benoist is so good in the final eight minutes of the episode she almost saves it. Far from being the kind of emotional release pop psychology suggests it might be, Kara's "getting in touch with her dark side" agonizes and almost breaks her. But the whole structure is so slapdash and rote that even a series of scenes that could be Benoist's Emmy reel can't really salvage it, and her own screenwriters sabotage her work by having the other characters in Kara's life exposit how there was some truth in what she said that will have to be dealt with.

There really are too many such moments, where lousy storytelling or scripts are saved by the cast's talent. It's the kind of thing you hope happens less often, so that Brooks and Jordan can have more opportunities to be something other than a male version of Betty and Veronica and Benoist and the others can stop rescuing mediocre work and start building on good work.


Todd Bergman said...

The thing that bugged me the most about that episode was the direct rip-off of Spider-Man 3 (the bar scene) and Superman 3 (the bar scene) minus Richard Pryor.

I think the 10 second action scene when Hank let his hair down was a big bonus, though.

Friar said...

Agreed -- very cool, but too short. The whole episode had an "OK, let's get it over with" air that the supposed-to-be-shoutouts-actually-were-ripofffs didn't help. A red K episode isn't obligatory. If you don't have anything for it to do, then you don't have to make one ;-)

And plus, if you're a showrunner, why would you want to remind anyone of Superman 3?