“I need a hero,” Bonnie Tyler famously wailed on the soundtrack to 1984’s Footloose. Of course, if that song were recorded today that line would surely have to change to “Seriously, do we really need another one?” such is the proliferance of super-powered saviours on our screens.
From Daredevil, Gotham and the late Constantine to the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, our telly boxes are currently overrun with spandex-clad vigilantes looking to save the world. The last thing we need is another hero.
Cleary, Sky1 begs to differ, though, somehow finding space inbetween its DC heavy-hitters Arrow and The Flash for Supergirl. Yes, it turns out girls can be heroes too.
And based on last night’s series opener you have to agree. Supergirl is a bright, fast-moving, self-assured offering that freshens up a bloated genre with a much overdue gender role reversal – even though the storyline still flies too close to the same old formula.
The show immediately sets itself apart from the crowd with its cheerful and optimistic tone. Most other shows may focus on dark, brooding heroes who turn to crime-fighting to cleanse their tortured souls, but Supergirl is something else entirely. Our hero approaches challenges with a can-do attitude and actually has fun using her special powers – with her first forays into heroism shown via a brisk, upbeat montage.
At its core, the story is about a young woman trying to find her place in the world. Kara Zor-El is Superman’s cousin and was originally shipped to Earth to protect him only to become trapped in the timeless Phantom Zone on route when Krypton’s implosion knocks her ship off course. When she does finally arrive, she finds her cousin is fully grown and in no need of her protection.
Now left without a purpose we next meet Kara as a listless 24-year-old (is there any other kind?) who uses her powers only for eavesdropping on her sleazy dates and to placate her ice queen of a boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart in brilliantly eviscerating form).
Melissa Benoist is excellent casting in the lead role. Her sweet, quirky nature may initially seem like a cheesy Felicity Smoak knock-off, but Benoist also imbues Kara with a brave heart and a sympathetic vulnerability that ensures we’re instantly drawn into her journey as a hero.
That journey kick-starts when Kara learns the plane carrying her sister has blown an engine and is plummeting out of the sky. It’s an incredibly sequence, realised with top-notch special effects that wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen. A shot of Supergirl twisting the plane as it skims across a heavily populated bridge is gut-wrenchingly tense and there are any number of great action scenes to keep the story zipping along at pace.
Where the show most excels, though, is with the sister dynamic that is at its core. Most shows try to shoehorn some sort of family turmoil into the story but very few attempts have felt as honest and authentic as Kara and Alex’s relationship.
While they undoubtedly have a closeness and love for one another, they also frequently fall out over Alex’s jealousy towards her adopted sibling as she often undermines Kara’s belief to prevent her from outshining her. This conflict takes on even greater significance when we learn Alex works for the DEO – the Department of Extra-Normal Operations – and has effectively been spying on her sister for the past few years.
This strong focus on relationships adds lots of emotional layers to enhance the drama with Alex eventually playing a vital role in restoring Kara’s confidence after she suffers a vicious beat-down during her first real fight with an extra-terrestrial villain.
Right now the show’s biggest stumbling block is the conventional nature of the storytelling. Like most of these shows, there’s a villain of the week mixed with a larger overarching threat (which, when revealed, looks set to continue playing on the juicy family conflict angle). So familiar is this formula that it often feels like we’re going through the same old predictable motions with every tired plot beat.
Of course, it doesn’t help that this week’s villain, the space axe-wielding Vartox, is rather weak and lacking in enough motivation to raise much interest in his subplot. You hope the show will improve in this area as the focus shifts more towards Kara’s crime-fighting adventures.
There are other flaws – there’s the usual pilot issue of clunky exposition and the writing is very heavy-handed in reminding us that Supergirl is, you know, a girl – but these are minor wrinkles that can easily be ironed out in the coming weeks.
And it seems churlish to highlight the few faults when the show gets so much right. With its gender role shift and focus on a real family dynamic, Supergirl has livened up the superhero genre whilst putting spectacular action and great performances front and centre. Looks like we really did need another hero after all.
Click here to watch a trailer for Supergirl