Will Supergirl Take Flight?

Photo: Darren Michaels/CBS.
There are so many moments during the Supergirl pilot when you’ll raise your fist in solidarity with what Kara Danvers, née Zor-El, is saying, doing, and experiencing. In her day job, she’s media mogul Cat Grant’s assistant who can’t seem to get anything right, mostly because — as Grant frequently lectures her — she needs to take more ownership of her work. It’s as much a commentary on what’s happening in the show as it is a statement on the real world, and similar advice offered in books like Lean In and #Girlboss. Although Supergirl, the character, has been in existence since 1959, it feels like there’s never been a more perfect moment in the pop culture zeitgeist for her story to be retold. And that’s exactly what CBS is doing in its new series — the network’s first foray into the superhero genre.
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Yet for all of the show’s thus far mostly positive reviews — it currently has a 75% rating on Metacritic and is 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes — there are still moments both during and beyond the show that remind us what a long slog it’s been to bring a female-led superhero franchise to the screen — big or small. On October 21, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said during an interview that, “I saw that Supergirl is on TV…[W]hen I was working out this morning, there was an ad promoting Supergirl. She looked pretty hot.” With those few unfortunate words, the former governor of Florida summed up the public's persistent and extremely narrow perception of what a superheroine can be.

Notable in the '90s, women in comics were very much objectified in three prominent ways. They were overly sexualized in the “brokeback pose" (where you can see both their breasts and butt in the same forward-facing image), mere “sexy lamps,” (a female character in the story can be replaced with an attractive lamp, and the plot still works), and often “fridged” (murdered, chopped up, and placed in a refrigerator to move the male hero's storyline forward). They've finally broken out of this mold, and three TV shows are now letting strong female heroes shine. ABC’s Agent Carter, which premiered last January, has been renewed for a second season. Jessica Jones drops on Netflix November 20. And, of course, Supergirl is taking flight on October 26.

The series seems to be all about empowerment (it's Supergirl, for pete's sake), but even in the pilot, there’s a moment when it loses its own female empowerment thread. When Kara (played by Melissa Benoist, previously seen in Glee and Whiplash) puts on her superhero suit for the first time, the final part of her transformation involves taking off her glasses. For her, it’s an act of revelation; no longer is she going to hide behind the lenses she doesn’t even need. But the moment loses some of its import when Winn (Jeremy Jordan), her coworker and confidant who helps her make her suit, says “Wow, you look really pretty without your glasses.” It’s the classic trope of “girl removes glasses; guy notices that she’s gorgeous for the first time.” Winn’s had a crush on Kara (glasses and all — gasp!) for a while, but that line detracts from Kara’s powerful moment of revealing her true identity for the first time.
It’s clear that Supergirl has a challenge ahead of it. There have been relatively few female-led superhero films, and their box office performance and reviews have been grim. Halle Berry earned a Razzie for her role in 2004's Catwoman, which currently stands at 9% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is considered one of the 10 biggest box office bombs of all time. There was also 2005's double whammy of Elektra and Aeon Flux. Even though the problem with these movies was that they were, in a word, terrible (and backed by a fraction of the budget of, say, Batman Begins), the industry clings to them as cautionary tales. Prior to Catwoman, Elektra, and Aeon Flux, it's hard to even recall other female superhero films save for 1984's Supergirl, which also isn't very good, nor did it perform at the box office. But there's an adage that what you put in is what you get back. If a studio were willing to properly invest in a female superhero film — get a great screenwriter, director, and special effects with a property fans truly care about— it might see a better return.

“When there is less of something, each test case weighs more in a conclusion,” Sarah Schechter, one of Supergirl’s producers, tells Refinery29. “Fantastic Four not really working at the box office doesn’t mean people automatically go, ‘Oh, Batman vs. Superman isn’t going to work.’ When you don’t have [a history of quality retellings of a female superhero's story], you have more responsibility, and it’s overly weighted because you don’t have enough of a sample size.” In other words, no pressure.

In an interview with The New York Times from October 16, Melissa Rosenberg, the showrunner of Netflix’s upcoming Jessica Jones series, recalled a movie producer saying that Catwoman and Elektra were proof that “women can’t open at the box office.” “I told him, ‘You just cited two not-very-good movies.’” A leaked email exchange between Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and Sony CEO Michael Lynton, with the subject line “Female Movies", dated August 7, 2014, reveals a similar sentiment. It cites Elektra, Catwoman, and the 1984 Supergirl film as box office disasters. While Perlmutter doesn’t elaborate on the purpose for the list (it appears to be a continuation of a phone conversation), one can read between the lines. Even though there have been more than three male-led superhero flops, the stakes are much higher for each female outing.

So far, the only superheroines who have appeared in successful movies have been surrounded by a bunch of superdudes: The Avengers, which grossed $1.5 billion worldwide at the box office, and the X-Men franchise ($1.3 billion). (Never mind that Katniss Everdeen — who, while not a superhero in the comics sense, is nothing if not super heroic — has propelled The Hunger Games films to a total box office gross of almost $1.2 billion. At least there finally are female-led superhero blockbusters on the way: a Wonder Woman film is scheduled to hit theaters in 2017, and Captain Marvel will arrive in 2019. Rescuing these movies from development hell has been a herculean task, though. And DC Comics is priming the audience to be more receptive to Wonder Woman by introducing her in 2016's Batman vs. Superman.
It seems fitting that TV seems to be welcoming superheroines more quickly than movies. For the past decade, the small screen has been much more receptive to female-centric projects than the big screen, to an astonishing degree. In the case of Supergirl, the creators say they saw an obvious hole in the television landscape and wanted to fill it. “There hasn’t been a really true female comic book hero on TV sinceWonder Woman,” says executive producer Andrew Kreisberg, referring to the live-action series starring Lynda Carter that ended in 1979. (Kreisberg created Supergirl with Schechter, Ali Adler, and prolific powerhouse producer Greg Berlanti.) “Along the way there’s been Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias, but someone in a costume out there saving the day the way you see that men do — you haven't really seen that in decades. We obviously felt like that was missing in the marketplace."

Along the way there’s been Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias, but someone in a costume out there saving the day the way you see that men do — you haven't really seen that in decades."

Andrew Kreisberg

For Supergirl to work, the creators knew they had to make their protagonist relatable, which was no small feat, considering she can leap tall buildings in a single bound (that's right, her cousin's not the only one who's got that marketed cornered). So they decided to use the idea of Kara being an actual alien to tap into the alienation girls can feel during adolescence. The hope is that in this era of girl power campaigns, including #LikeaGirl and Lean In, this particular extraterrestrial's story resonates. “Supergirl has an experience that unfortunately is all too familiar for women in this world, which is that she arrives [on Earth] at the age of 13 — which as we know, is a horrifically terrible age for any girl," producer Schechter says. "She’s basically told what a lot of young girls are told, which is to suppress the things that make you different. Whereas Superman was told that he was extraordinary, and that he had a gift, for Supergirl, the world responded as if it was a curse. She spent her entire teenage years suppressing those things that truly make her who she is because she wanted to fit in....Kara Zor-El’s story is of a girl coming into her own and embracing what it is that makes her special and unique and powerful.”

Part of the mission to make Kara's alter ego appealing has involved reclaiming the word “girl.” This became abundantly clear last summer, when CBS debuted the first trailer. When Kara wonders why she's been dubbed Supergirl and not Superwoman, Grant (played by Calista Flockhart), snaps, “What do you think is so bad about girl? I'm a girl and your boss and powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem...you?” The message was delivered, loud and clear (not to mention a tad defensively).

“We wanted to take the strength of that word and make sure it was as powerful as we intend it to be," Adler says. "[Kara is] strong and brave and smart and beautiful, and all the things that a powerful person should be, so we didn’t want ‘girl’ to be diminutive in any way."
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Photo: Richard Cartwright/CBS.
And viewers found other bones to pick with the trailer. In May, a few weeks before the Supergirl trailer hit the web, SNL released a trailer for a parody Black Widow movie that pretended to answer the question “Does Marvel not know how to make a girl superhero movie?” The badass, catsuit-wearing Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) becomes a stereotypical rom-com lead. She’s suddenly klutzy, works at a fashion magazine, and just wants to find Mr. Right — except she just keeps meeting Mr. Wrongs (in the form of Ultron and The Hulk).

And when Supergirl was released, the comparisons to SNL’s Black Widow parody were instantaneous, especially since Kara can be rather klutzy, tends to over-apologize, doesn’t realize her hunky best friend is in love with her, and goes on dates with many Mr. Wrongs. Supergirl’s creators and its star welcome the comparisons, though. “I think that parody was hilarious,” Benoist says. “We do take a lot from The Devil Wears Prada and things like that because that’s where powerful women are right now, in those kinds of atmospheres.”

And, ahem, let's not forget that the Superman saga is also a workplace drama when the Man of Steel is in Clark Kent mode, toiling away at The Daily Planet. “He had a pair of glasses and a good slouch, and was never recognized — and Kara’s the same,” Benoist points out. “It’s just who they choose to be during the day.”

Schechter welcomes the Black Widow parody comparisons for another reason. “I thought it was really clever, [but] I think it speaks more to how if you look at female characters in these films, they have very narrow representations. That’s what it was making fun of, the idea that you can’t have a female character that isn’t in a romantic comedy. I think that says more about the film business than the television business. The Good Wife, which is one of my favorite shows, has an extremely strong, complicated woman who is highly capable, and still has crushes on people.”

Speaking of Alicia Florrick, Kara will be network mates with her, a pairing that many find surprising. Not only was CBS the only broadcast network without a genre show, but it's also known for skewing much older in its viewership. When you think of the Eye Network, shows like The Big Bang Theory and Survivor probably come to mind, yet CBS also boasts some of the most complex female characters on television: In addition to Julianna Margulies' Alicia on The Good Wife, there's Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) on Madam Secretary and Avery Ryan (Patricia Arquette) on CSI: Cyber. They are the groundwork for the network’s newest (and youngest) strong female, Kara Zor-El, in this promotional video called “This Is How You Fight Like a Girl.”
Photo: Matthias Clamer/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Though the producers insist Supergirl is for the all-inclusive e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e, it's clear the target audience is young and female. As part of the marketing campaign, the network arranged for a Girl Scout troop to stop by the set while the pilot was being filmed. CBS also launched a viral campaign called “#MySupergirl,” which allows users to upload a photo of their personal female heroes and share it on their social media channels.

There's a lot riding on Supergirl when it premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. Will it speak to the female experience? Will it reach its intended young female audience while also capturing others? Can critics review it as a superhero show, rather than a female superhero show? Are we over the whole Supergirl versus Superwoman issue?

As the person strapping the iconic S on her chest and red cape on her back, one might think Benoist — who's never carried a show or film before — would feel the weight on her shoulders. “I do feel a lot of pressure," she says. "It kind of ebbs and flows, because some days I just get caught up in work and forget about the outside world. But I also think that I have this kind of innate instinct. Something in my gut is telling me that people are going to like [the show], and I’m not afraid of what it’s going to bring, even though it feels rather large... I’m so ready for it to air.”

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