Superheroes are more prevalent in media today than ever before. However, despite the growing number of film and television shows featuring caped crusaders, very few have had a woman as the central focus. While not excluded in the genre, female characters are usually relegated to the supporting cast or serving as members of a larger ensemble. Sure, Scarlett Johansson’s (“Lucy”) Black Widow is a major member of the Avengers, but her prevalence is overshadowed by the likes of the franchise-anchoring Iron Man, Thor and Captain America.
However, with its premiere on CBS, “Supergirl” puts women front and center, not just in the lead but also in several key roles. While its lack of subtlety can be jarring, “Supergirl” has a personable lead in Melissa Benoist (“Whiplash”), in spite of the show’s early struggles.
As Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin who landed on Earth several years after her famous relative, Benoist brings an infectious energy to the pilot. Kara wants to make a difference in the world, yet initially tries to do it without her powers. Finding herself the assistant to media mogul Cat Graham (Calista Flockhart, “Ally McBeal”), Kara works hard but knows she can do more.
Once Kara embraces her powers — after saving a crashing plane carrying her adoptive sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh, “Grey’s Anatomy”) — she finds newfound purpose. With a beaming smile and ceaseless enthusiasm, Benoist displays this transformation of Kara with a satisfying charisma comparable to the optimism of Grant Gustin’s (“Glee”) portrayal of Barry Allen on “The Flash.” As Kara develops her suit with the help of her friend Winn (Jeremy Jordan, “The Last Five Years”), her confidence grows as she develops the powers she has long repressed.
Benoist’s performance helps carry “Supergirl” even when the show begins to drag. It’s important to have women anchoring superhero franchises today; addressing this fact in the pilot isn’t a misstep, but “Supergirl” doesn’t exactly soar with the execution. Written by Ali Adler (“The New Normal”), the premiere overstuffs itself with ham-fisted dialogue meant to emphasize girl-power. Some attempts work fine like a woman in the background expressing her happiness about a new role model for her daughter. Also, a speech by Flockhart about the term “girl” itself has the subtlety of a jackhammer, but its point isn’t lost.
However, these moments are diluted by less than effective instances of female foregrounding. A bland alien villain yelling, “On my planet, females bow before males,” is groan-worthy. Winn’s statement to Kara that “You look really pretty without your glasses,” is ripped straight out of cheesy high school movie.
“Supergirl” ’s focus on Kara’s role as a female superhero stems from a lack of representation of comic book heroines on the screen. However, the show puts too much of a burden on itself to illustrate this relation in its plot, which weighs its message down. Kara’s female identity will probably remain a central focus throughout the series’ run, as it should, but “Supergirl” can definitely find more effective and defter ways to get its message across. “Agent Carter,” showed that comic book settings could look at issues of sexism and female-empowerment with a relatively mature lens, and hopefully “Supergirl” can continue this tradition.
“Supergirl” also struggles in other aspects of its initial development. A brief sisterly rivalry between Kara and Alex, who happens to be a secret agent, is never fully explained. Other characters like Cat and Winn lack defining dimensions, becoming relatively flat in their portrayals. Meanwhile, the whimsy of the pilot, while enjoyable, can detract from more dramatic scenes, sparking a laugh where one shouldn’t be and preventing any seriousness from coming across.
However, by bringing Kara to the forefront and making Superman a faceless, distant influence, “Supergirl” is able to define its heroine’s role. Kara isn’t just a female version to Superman as her name suggests, but rather, she is a continuation of a legacy. She’s a powerful being and a force to be reckoned with no matter what gender she is.
“Supergirl” still has some growing pains to work through before its full potential and message are realized. But, with Benoist anchoring the show in bright optimism, “Supergirl” can potentially establish roots and carve out a place for itself among the growing retinue of television superheroes.