Supergirl v. (Batman v. Superman)

Now that season one of Supergirl is in the books, and the initial back and forth over the merits or crimes present in the film Batman v. Superman: the Dawn of Justice has died down, I have an observation I wish to share:

The best presentation of Superman on screen today is in Supergirl.


There.  I said it.


Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the near-mythical blur that pops up every so often to prove the Man of Steel exists in this universe, or exchanges text messages with his cousin is what many die-hard Superman fans have been clamoring for.


Nope.


The best Superman on screen is, in fact, Kara Zor-El, Supergirl herself.


Why do I say these things? Well, it's only slightly based on my own readings of comics from the seventies, a small but eclectic collection of DC and Marvel titles that my aunt had at her house for her grandkids to read when I was very young.  I've also done some reading on various histories of the comics and even one specifically on Superman. In part, it is based as well on the reaction of folks far more fluent in comic book than I when reacting to what they believe makes for a good Superman story.

Below is a small sample of the themes that should be present in a good Superman story, and ones I believe are found in Supergirl.  Oh, a word of warning: There WILL be spoilers for Season 1 of Supergirl.

Family
Many of the comics I remember from my youth told stories involving the young Clark Kent and his adoptive earth parents. The Kents instilled in him from infancy a moral compass that served him throughout his life. Even later stories deal with this relationship. He has a groundedness because of his family that Bruce Wayne doesn't, which also speaks to how they approach crime fighting.

In much the same way, Kara was adopted by loving and supportive parents, as well as a sister who looks out for her. This relationship helps her to see her powers as a gift she can use to help others in need. This was consistently the message given in every Superman movie before Snyder's.

In Episode 13, "For The Girl Who Has Everything," Her family bonds are put to the test. In a battle, Kara's Aunt Astra, the leader of the Kryptonian bad guys providing the impetus for the conflict in this first season, is about to kill Hank Henshaw, the leader of the DEO,  the team that Supergirl is a part of. Alex, Kara's adoptive sister and also a member of the team, drives a kryptonite sword through Astra's heart to save Hank. When Supergirl arrives, Hank immediately claims responsibility, because he doesn't want Kara and Alex to become estranged over this act.

In a CW show, this subterfuge would become a season-defining arc (*cough* I'm looking at you, Arrow...*cough, cough*).But here, the secret lasts all of two episodes before Alex confesses. Rather than tearing them apart, the familial bonds that have grown for most of Kara's life by this point, provide a bridge toward reconciliation.

VillainsThe writers and producers of Supergirl are not afraid to use the full range of Superman-type villains.  Maxwell Lord is a better version of Lex Luthor than what we saw in Batman v. Superman. He is subtle, cunning, charismatic. Shave his head and you have Lex.

One of the biggest complaints leveled at any attempt to bring Superman to the screen is the lack of imagination writers use when finding a villain to throw against him. They seem to be fixated only on Lex Luthor or General Zod.

As I noted above, Supergirl has her own version of Lex, and a version of Zod (Non, who is presented here as the husband of General Astra, Kara's evil aunt).  But this show is not afraid to dig into the Superman catalogue of villains, giving us a version of Brainiac.  Here, she refers to herself as Indigo, but make no mistake, the show calls her out as originally named Brainiac 8.  

We also get a look at Bizarro Supergirl, a nod to Bizarro. Bizarro Supergirl was created by Maxwell Lord in an attempt to discredit and stop Supergirl.

Hope
Larry Tye, in his 2012 history of Superman called him "...a freshly minted Man of Tomorrow for a world not sure it had one." (p. 34) One of the key elements of Superman's character is that he never loses hope. The film Man of Steel tried to make this connection by referring to the S on his chest as a Kryptonian symbol for hope, but I don't think it really ever explored that theme, and the newest film fails to explore it as well. But the Supergirl series seems to be preoccupied with the idea that she gives people hope and in one

Tye also compares the Man of Steel with a couple of his inspirations: "Superman was a creature of light, and it was that very optimism that America loved most. And although (Doc)Savage and (Hugo) Danner were human and Superman wasn't, his pairing with Clark Kent gave him a groundedness and humanity Doc and Hugo couldn't match." (pp 33-34)

The season 1 episode  (#7) "Human for a Day" shows Supergirl losing her powers, but then putting her life on the line in order to talk a desperate man out of committing an armed robbery at a convenience store.  Another episode that makes this point even more directly is the season finale, "Better Angels." Briefly, Supergirl has to go on TV to make an appeal to everyone who has been brainwashed by Kryptonian supervillains. She has to offer people hope and inspire them to snap out of it and reject the false messages placed in their brains.  A snippet of dialogue also reveals one of the key tenets that makes a good Superman story: Maxwell Lord tells Supergirl "If you go out there and fight, you might win. But chances are this is a suicide mission." She responds, "You know I'll never stop trying." (emphasis mine). These words could just as easily come out Superman's mouth. 

Supergirl epitomizes what Christopher Reeve said:
"What sets Superman apart is that he has the wisdom to use his powers for good. He has all these powers, but he's got the mind of maturity - or he's got the innocence, really - to look at the world very, very simply. And that makes him so different.

When he says, 'I'm here to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way,' everyone goes: *snicker* *cough* *ahem*.

But he's not kidding." 

Inspirational
By giving us a hero who looks at the world very simply and tries to live by his moral code instilled in him by his adoptive parents, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster also managed to make him very inspirational.

Gary Weldon in his excellent Superman: An Unauthorized Biography, captures this idea perfectly:
"...unlike Spider-Man and Batman, he is not the hero with whom we identify; he is the hero in whom we believe. He is the first, the purest, the ideal. As long as character traits such as selflessness and perseverance manage to retain any cultural currency whatsoever, we will need a Superman to show us what they look like." (p. 4)

He also notes the following critical themes for any good story involving Superman:
"Superman changes as our culture changes. The only thing about him, in fact, that has remained untouched, inviolate since Action Comics #1 hit the stands in April 1938 is his motivation. That motivation is at once the simplest of them all and the hardest to unpack: he is a hero. Specifically:
     1.  He puts the needs of others over those of himself
     2.  He never gives up.
These are his two most essential attributes, the elements that make a Superman story a Superman story. As we will see, even when all of the other, more recognizable pieces of super-iconography are in place - the costume, the spit-curl, and so on - if one or both of these two bedrock elements are missing, our mind rebels; we instinctively reject it. It's just not Superman." (p. 3)


I realize that some will argue that Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman have these themes as well, but I just really feel that action set pieces have been privileged over those themes to the point that the themes are underdeveloped, and the story feels like it's missing something important. In my mind, Zach Snyder really wants to tell these stories, but I'm not sure he's skilled enough to do so.

To conclude, in much the same way that CW's Arrow is a disguised version of Batman for TV, Supergirl is doing the same for Superman.  I find it even more interesting that due to lower than hoped for ratings, CBS declined to renew the series on its own network, but allowed it to be picked up by the CW, where it is a more natural fit alongside other series like Arrow, The Flash, and DC's Legends of Tomorrow. I can only hope that we see more crossovers now, as the one featuring the Flash was a lot of fun, even if it wasn't the best story. 



Notes:
Reeve, Christopher: Secret Origins: The Story of DC Comics (video), 2010

Tye, Larry. Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. 2012 Random House

Weldon, Glen. Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ


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