Supergirl Season 1: Frustration



I've never been interested in Marvel, DC, or any other superhero worlds. The only reason I watched Supergirl is because according to my tumblr dash, the show is super gay. It wound up being extremely straight, almost forcibly so. But I kept watching, despite a lackluster pilot episode, a campy attitude, and relatively predictable plotlines. Something about the story of Kara Zor-El, a hotheaded, too-trusting, altruistic alien, stuck with me.

Maybe what stuck with me was the episode where Kara turns evil, because was terrifying.
I can't exactly figure out what that something is, since Kara herself isn't the most exciting hero. At the age of thirteen, she was sent from her dying planet, Krypton, to help her cousin Kal-El make the transition to Earth life. But Kal-El made it to Earth before she did, came out as Superman, and took his now younger cousin to live with a nice Earth family. Kara eventually became Supergirl and started beating up a new villain every week.

Kara as a protagonist is relatively cookie-cutter, obsessed with maintaining the status quo and unraveling her tragic past. Most of the problems Supergirl's writers throw at her are black-and-white. Imprison the bad alien. Convert your evil aunt. Rescue your sister. Save all humans by throwing an alien prison the size of a city into deep space. These problems don't change her character, even though they are fun to watch.

Like fighting a guy with his own chains. That's pretty cool.
The issues Kara grapples with which aren't black and white--whether to administer the harsh kind of justice her mother did back on Krypton, whether to trust tech billionaire Max Lord, whether to learn from her evil aunt--are either ignored or unsatisfactorily resolved. It's not enough to introduce a morally compelling dilemma for our hero. The writers have to use those dilemmas to reveal that the hero was wrong and should learn from the villain in some fashion. But, instead, the heroes keep stopping the villains from changing the world, and in doing so, preserve the destructive aspects of the status quo while pretending to have learned something from the villains' (usually far superior) ideas and modes of thinking. Most fantasy stories are like this. It's a dangerous argument in favor of maintaining destructive aspects of the status quo while offering no alternatives.

The largest example of this in Supergirl is the whole environmentalism dilemma. The show establishes early on that Krypton exploded because its inhabitants, the Kryptonians, overused its energy sources. Kara's aunt, Astra, tried to warn everyone to curb their energy use in the face of anthropogenic global warming (the show directly references rapidly changing ocean and weather patterns.) But the greedy Kryptonians don't listen, and so Astra becomes an eco-terrorist, blowing up government buildings and attempting to use mind control to turn the whole of Krypton into a think tank (yes, seriously.)

Astra's sister, Alura, cracks down on the terrorism and sentences Astra to a lifetime in prison. But right before she does, she tells Astra that Krypton will actually die and they're all screwed. A few days later, Alura ships her daughter Kara, our protagonist, off towards Earth and dies when Krypton explodes.

Years later, Kara learns all of this. And she's devastated that her mother didn't do anything to stop Krypton from dying.

Kara, getting upset at a hologram of her mother.
When Kara finds her aunt the eco-terrorist plotting to use the same mind-control tactics against humans, she obviously puts a stop to it. But Kara can't ignore the fact that humans are doing to Earth exactly what Kryptonians did to Krypton; and yet, she turns into her mother and does nothing to stop global warming. At least, not in Season 1. What's the point of agreeing with the environmentalists if you won't do anything to forward the cause? Kara is one of the most powerful superheroes in the world. She could use her image to champion an environmental agenda. Or at least persuade the feds to fund Max Lord's research into renewable tech. Something. Anything.

OK, so Max Lord's plan to get rid of the mind control regime was to irradiate National City and kill thousands of people. Maybe not the best idea. But he was all about green transportation in episode 5.
Kara needs to help fix Earth's sustainability problem to prove to herself that she isn't her mother, who watched Krypton burn.


At the show's finale, Kara saves the humans by throwing an enormous prison the size of a city into space. It's a voluntary suicide mission, and Kara is 100% prepared to die. Her act of heroism is apparently a big enough action to alleviate Kara's guilty conscience, making her feel like she did something to prove she isn't her mother. But in the end, Kara's foster sister rescues her from a death in deep space. Everyone goes on burning their fossil fuels and eating potstickers. Except for our libertarian tech lord billionaire, Maxwell Lord, who is up to some nefarious business in his back rooms. It's always the mad scientist/criminal hacker who gets pegged as the evil alternative to status quo maintenance. Maybe next time, Kara can team up with Max Lord to save Earth from its own destruction. That's what will prove Kara is not her mother. Kara Zor-El is all about working together, after all.

Astra, just telling it like it is.
I know that Supergirl isn't supposed to be great writing. But, I really hope this show addresses its glaring status-quo-enforcement issue, because Supergirl took so much pleasure in pointing out human wrongdoing that it's a crying shame it doesn't make its heroes address human wrongdoing.

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