Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase – Supergirl

January 6, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

2016 is over, and it’s time for another year of Comic Book Showcase. I’ve got a fairly big project coming up in February, a counterpart to my DC Countdown from October. I hope you’ll join me for something a little more… Marvellous.

But this week, I’m going to talk about Supergirl. Kara Zor El, Superman’s cousin, the Last Daughter of Krypton, star of her own television show that is way better than any of could have predicted. At least, it’s way better than I expected, and holds my interest better than any comic book show on the CW, FOX, ABC or even Netflix. It’s also probably the best live-action Superman-related material since Superman II, and yeah, I’m including Smallville. In fact it’s so much better than how Superman has been portrayed in DC’s blockbuster movies that it’s frankly embarrassing.

What’s kind of fascinating about Supergirl is that aside from a well-written version of the character, it draws very little direct inspiration from Supergirl in the comics. A lot of that is necessary; the show sees Kara in her early twenties when she’s usually portrayed as a teenager. What the show opts to do is to basically do a Superman show, but with Kara. She has her own Perry White, her own Jimmy Olsen, the actual Jimmy Olsen working as Lois Lane, and faces a slew of Superman villains including her own versions of Bizarro and Lex Luthor.

One could choose to look at this cynically, but that’s not my take on it. Rather, I find it to be another tribute to the Girl of Steel’s adaptability. Supergirl has had a lot of changes since she first burst onto the comic book scene in the late 1950’s. Which really isn’t that shocking; the definition of a “model” female citizen has changed considerably in the last sixty years. And yet, the basic appeal of Kara has always been that she has all of the powers and basic heroic nature of Superman, but lacks his experience and tends to make mistakes along the way.

But Kara is also supposed to be a role model for her perspective audience; young girls. In the 1960’s, that largely meant being obedient to her older cousin, despite his more insane ideas like having her stay in an orphanage. Not exactly progressive, but Kara was popular and eventually got to come out to the world as her own superhero. She had a moderate amount of success, but the idea of the character was still iconic enough that killing her was a huge shock when they needed to raise the stakes in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The death was is one of the big moments in comics and arguably the defining moment for Kara.

But since this is a column about comics, you should know that good ideas have trouble dying. To their credit, DC got really creative about introducing Supergirl in the 1990’s without her literally being the Supergirl that died. Earth 2 Kara (Powergirl) stuck around largely because she wasn’t a teenager and using her sex appeal was obviously going to fit in with the 1990s. Another alternate dimension gave us Matrix, a shapeshifter created by that dimension’s Lex Luthor. There are many strange stories with Matrix, but she eventually gave way to Linda Danvers, another Supergirl designed to cash in on the popularity of the character in the animated Superman show.

As you can imagine, all of this was kind of a mess. Jeph Loeb eventually managed to bring Kara, Superman’s cousin, back to DC in the pages of Superman/Batman, using the classic origin with modern sensibilities. Kara is now an “idealized” teenager, she’s much more real; more independent, more rebellious, and more interesting. This has been the standard for comic book Kara, proving that she doesn’t need Superman to be her own person, or a hero, or to sell comics. Or to get TV ratings.

Supergirl is a character who, by all rights, shouldn’t be an icon in her own right. She’s a distaff counterpart to the world’s most well known superhero. But she’s different in just the right ways, becoming a character who is more vulnerable, complex, interesting, and yes, more “likable” than Clark Kent. In fact, I’d argue that while Supergirl uses Superman tropes to serve as a backbone for its storytelling, writers of Superman comics should take a few cues from the show to make genuinely good stories.

I am on Letterboxd!
Check me out here to see my star ratings for over 650 films. I have reviewed every movie I’ve watched since mid-August, and recent additions include Fences, La La Land and a movie I probably should have seen before now; Superman II.

Check out From Under A Rock!
Michael Ornelas and I write weekly on 411, taking turns introducing each other to films the other hasn’t seen. Last week, we closed the year out withSnakes On a Plane. This week, I introduce Michael to one of the all time great comedies; The Big Lebowski.

What is your favorite version of Supergirl?