CBS’s Supergirl and last weekend’s tentpole movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may share their roots in DC Comics, but they couldn’t be more different in their worldviews. The former is all sunshine, bright colors, and optimism; the latter is funereal, colorless, and ultraviolent. After seeing the Zack Snyder–directed Batman v Superman and, like most critics, disliking it, I rewatched the past two episodes of Supergirl as a much-needed palate cleanser. One scene from its March 14 installment — a scene that hadn’t had an effect on me when I’d watched it the previous week — suddenly gave me goosebumps. It more or less captured everything that’s missing from Snyder’s approach to superhero fiction. Indeed, by sheer coincidence, it felt like a total rebuke of Batman v Superman’s grim philosophy.
The episode revolved around Supergirl’s exposure to a mind-altering mineral called Red Kryptonite. Under its influence, all of her angriest thoughts come to the forefront of her mind, causing the usually pleasant Woman of Steel to become cynical and violent, convinced that, in a cruel world, the ends justify the means. In other words, the Red Kryptonite–infected Supergirl was sounding a lot like Snyder’s interpretations of Batman and Superman.
The scene in question comes about halfway through the episode and features Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl and Calista Flockhart’s journalism mogul Cat Grant. “You branded me in the media as a Girl Scout,” our accidental antiheroine says, referring to Cat’s past support of the Woman of Steel. “ ‘Supergirl is brave, kind, and strong.’ Isn’t that kind of a stock characterization? Very two-dimensional. Everyone knows real people have a dark side.”
Cat’s retort is terse and pithy: “Yes, but you don’t get to be a real person. You’re a superhero. You get to represent all the goodness in the world.”
I’m on #TeamCat here. We tell superhero stories to meditate on power; more specifically, on the proper ways all of us should use whatever power we have in our lives. Good Superman stories argue that all of us have innate power — call it privilege, if you want to use current parlance — and that we’re obligated to use it generously, helping and inspiring those around us. Superman doesn’t get the luxury of cynicism and wanton violence, because if he loses his focus on improving every human life, he could cause immense collateral damage. In this regard, the past couple episodes of Supergirl are far more compelling and heartfelt Superman stories than the one in movie theaters this week.
Let’s do a quick recap of what Snyder’s Superman does in Batman v Superman and its predecessor, 2013’s Man of Steel. While fighting a flying foe, he casually tosses the baddie into populated buildings over and over, killing thousands in the process. At the end of that conflict, he brutally murders his enemy. He shows no grief about all the lives he’s ended and tells the government to stay out of his way in the future. When a terrorist holds his girlfriend at gunpoint, rather than speeding over to take the gun away or shooting it with his heat vision, he gleefully slams the man through a brick wall. After some slight public criticism, he comes close to giving up on humanity entirely. During a dispute with Batman over a misunderstanding, he barely tries to convince the Dark Knight to lay down his arms, opting instead to beat the crap out of him. This is supposed to be our inspirational hero? “I’m a comic book guy and I made the movie based as much as I could on that aesthetic,” Snyder recently said. I’m not sure what Superman comics he’s been perusing, but they’re certainly not any I’ve ever read.
Now, let’s look at what happened in that Red Kryptonite episode of Supergirl. Before the sinister substance appears, we get a sweet scene where Supergirl notices a schoolgirl getting bullied and swoops down to cheerfully defend her by telling her bullies that she and the girl are best buds — demonstrating that all injustices deserve her attention. Then, with Supergirl acting irresponsibly while affected by the Red Kryptonite, Cat issues a public address about how we can’t trust the Maid of Might — and unlike Batman’s similar monologues in Batman v Superman, we’re supposed to be saddened, not titillated, by this paranoia. When Supergirl is finally cured, the first thing she says upon waking is, “Did I kill anyone?” That is, of course, what a Superman figure would worry about most.
This is a hero who understands the responsibilities of immense power. When she remembers all the horrible things she said and did, she weeps to her sister, “It was so bad. It was so horrible. Every bad thought I’ve ever had, it just came to the surface.” She’s agonized by the thought that she has pettiness and cynicism inside of her. She tells Cat she realizes the Red Kryptonite can only excuse so much, and that she has to learn from what happened. But she also tells Cat that the experience has reminded her of why she does her job: “And to me, every person in this city is a light, and every time I’ve helped one of them, a little bit of their light has become a part of me.” I won’t lie, I teared up a bit at that line.
Supergirl isn’t a prestige drama, aiming for weighty and intricate profundity. It deals in straightforward morals, crystal-clear iconography, and breezy dialogue. By contrast, Batman v Superman thinks itself massively profound, tossing us 150 minutes of sludge-heavy speeches about men and gods, good and evil. But that bluster adds up to virtually nothing. Supergirl, in its sweetness and simplicity, quietly offers us potent parables about the ideals we should hold ourselves to. “I just want to be useful to somebody,” our plucky protagonist says at one point in last week’s episode. “I wanna be worthwhile.” As an antidote to the poorly lit superhero nonsense at the multiplex this week, she certainly is.