Thanks to the massive success of superhero cinema in the Marvel Age, television is finally starting to put serious effort into small-screen superheroics. It started small, with 2012’s Arrow, which slowly turned the CW into a superhero powerhouse — and in just three short years, one CW show has ballooned into three (The Flash and the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow) while Gotham has just kicked off its second season on Fox.
It’s into this world Supergirl crashes onto CBS, the least likely of all networks to be hip to well, anything, much less the superhero craze, and simultaneously beat its network competitors and Marvel’s eight years of movies in putting a woman at the head of a franchise. Who’da thunk, right?
So, is it any good? Worth the DVR space? Or the weird-as-hell hour CBS is airing it on for crazy people who like to watch things live? (8:30? Really? C’mon, son.)
Totally. You just have to forgive it for being yet another show to start with a silly “MY NAME IS …” opening. There are way too many of those. But this is just a pilot, so maybe it won’t keep that particular habit up.
Regardless, Supergirl is really impressive in how quickly it conveys everything you need to know: It’s pretty much Superman’s story, but just imagine the camera lingers just a little bit longer on the doomed planet Krypton after baby Superman (just named Kal-El at this point) is sent off to Earth by his parents.
Except he’s not the only one: Kal-El’s Aunt Alura and Uncle Zor-El also send their child to Earth. Only Kal-El’s cousin Kara isn’t an infant, she’s at least 5, and intended to protect baby Kal-El while he’s vulnerable on Earth.
But then something goes wrong during her escape, and she gets trapped in another dimension called the Phantom Zone for 24 years and doesn’t age a day. So when she miraculously escapes and crashes on Earth, the tables have turned: Kal-El is now an adult, and already famous as Superman, and she’s the child.
We don’t see anything more than a silhouette of Superman, and his hand reaching out to Kara as he finds her crashed ship and takes her to the Danvers family, entrusting them to provide little Kara with the same wholesome upbringing that his adoptive parents, the Kents, gave him. Growing up, Kara concluded that although she had all the same powers as her famous cousin, the world didn’t need another hero, and went about trying to change the world in smaller ways — like working for a publishing magnate played by Calista Flockhart randomly acting out scenes from the SparkNotes version of The Devil Wears Prada.
Flockhart plays Cat Grant, a mainstay of Superman comic books of yore reimagined as the haughty Arianna Huffington-esque CEO of CatCo, an online and print media company. Kara is her beleaguered assistant, doing unpleasant gruntwork like fetching her coffee and drafting termination letters to employees about to be fired.
It’s that last bit that sends Kara into a bit of distress, since “The Daily Planet doesn’t have to downsize,” to which Grant says that The Daily Planet is in Metropolis, a city where a guy straps a cape to his back and flies around saving lives, which is almost a really good point but in the real world, even crazy banana-pants news like that probably wouldn’t help sell papers thanks to the internet.
We also meet Winn Schott, Kara’s work buddy who has a secret crush on her, and James Olsen (don’t call him Jimmy), who made a name for himself taking photos of Superman in Metropolis and is now relocating to National City (yup, this is set in a city called “National City”) for a change of pace (and for Kara to fawn over).
Back at her (very nice) apartment, Kara laments to her older sister Alex about how she wanted to change the world, and her sister — a Very Important Businessperson about to leave for Geneva — reminds her how much she wanted a normal life and should just suck it up and do normal things like go on a date.
So she does, and it’s awful — her 82 percent compatible online date is a complete prick, but it’s okay (kind of) because there’s a news broadcast about a flight to Geneva that’s suffering engine failure and might crash before it even leaves National City.
In a great-looking sequence, Kara remembers how to fly and takes off to catch the falling plane, only scraping the Otto Binder bridge (named after Supergirl co-creator Otto Binder) and managing to drum up a media spectacle in which no one can recognize her nor take a high-resolution picture.
I’m going to suggest you let this one go, which should be easy, since that scene was so much fun. Melissa Benoist — in a way not all that different from Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen on The Flash — really looks like she’s having fun, and it’s a delight to see how pleased she is with herself. I couldn’t help but laugh with glee (see what I did there?) at the following scene, where Kara all but cheers for the news report to mention her heroics, only to yell at the reporters who said she might be a menace for the property damage she caused.
Her sister Alex, however, is a buzzkill, reprimanding Kara for exposing herself after she saved her damn life. It’s kind of like a reverse Frozen situation. Messed-up stuff.
Cat Grant, however, is thrilled that her city and staff have a superhero of their very own to obsess about, and tells everyone to hit the streets and find out everything they can (except for Kara — she tells her to get a lettuce wrap).
Kara is understandably bummed out, but someone is going to be happy for her, dammit, and it might as well be Winn. So she takes him up to the roof and shows him that she can fly, and they are now Team Supergirl. They work on a costume together and test the limits of Kara’s powers, while elsewhere a creepy dude takes serious interest in the news reports about Kara. A creepy dude that seems to be working with other creepy people. Creepy people who seem to know all about Kara and her Kryptonian family.
Kara, now with a complete costume (like in all of the movies, the “S” is a family crest, so while the Supergirl look is complete, no one’s calling her that yet) goes out to the scene of a reported arson, only to be taken out with Kryptonite tranquilizers.
These are not courtesy of any bad guy, but the DEO — the Department of Extranormal Operations. They are more or less the government’s anti-alien squad, and since Kara decided to come out in all her Kryptonian glory, she is now the DEO’s problem. Said organization is run by a steely fellow named Hank Henshaw (that name will ring a bell for comics fans, but elaborating on why could be construed as a spoiler) — who’s assisted by Kara’s sister Alex.
Here is where we find out how Supergirl will work on a week-to-week basis: Henshaw reveals to Kara that whatever dragged her out of the Phantom Zone also pulled Fort Rozz — a prison complex full of Krypton’s Most Wanted — crashing to Earth with her. Said alien criminals have inexplicably become more active in the last year, which suggests they are up to no good. However, the DEO doesn’t want Kara to do anything but hang up her cape and stay out of the way, for some weird reason, and since she’s discovered her sister secretly works with the DEO, she’s feeling used and morose enough to listen to them.
Things don’t get much better at work, either. After protesting Cat Grant calling National City’s new hero Supergirl, Grant is ready to have Kara fired — only to be saved at the last minute by Jimmy Olsen. Kara wants to be mad at him for intervening, but gets interrupted by a high-frequency broadcast that only she can hear coming from the Creepy Dude from earlier. He wants to meet at an old power plant. His name is Vartox, and he has a bone to pick with Kara’s mother in particular, and women in general.
“On my planet, females bow before males,” he snarls, revealing his superpower to be Men’s Rights Activism. (Briefly: This is cartoonish and on the nose, but superheroes are inherently cartoonish and on the nose, so I am cool with it. What makes this a problem is that whatever it’s trying to impart is entirely undermined by Henshaw, a man whose approval is needed before Kara can be a superhero.)
Unfortunately, Kara’s inexperience works against her, and she is nearly trounced before the DEO intervenes with a few well-placed rockets and Vartox gets away. Back home, Kara grapples with self-doubt before her sister comes back and tells her that she was wrong, and the world needs her. Alex gives Kara a recorded message from her birth mother that the DEO had confiscated from her ship, and the two of them go back to the DEO together to say that they need to let Kara take on Vartox. Begrudgingly, Henshaw allows it.
Supergirl vs. Vartox round two is another great action scene, one that ends with Vartox choosing suicide over capture — but not before leaving an ominous threat about how Kara has no idea what’s coming for her, which is pretty much required in pilot episodes.
The episode ends on the CatCo roof, with Jimmy Olsen revealing that he’s known about Kara from the very start — Superman asked him to come to National City to help her, and to give her a message and a gift: It’s the blanket Superman was wrapped in as a baby, for Kara to use as a nigh-indestructible cape. The message? He wanted Kara to choose this life for herself. It looks like she did.
Oh and also there’s a quick tag at the very end where we find out there’s a Big Bad and it’s Kara’s aunt and GASP GUESS WE’LL FIND OUT MORE NEXT WEEK.