Miss Taz was watching Supergirl (the 2015 television series) a couple of Sundays ago. Usually I don’t watch television, but sometimes it’s being watched, and I absorb the gist of the story, or notice bits of the story that seem add or awkward. I had an incident like this before, regarding a Justice League animated series episode.
Another Rant For Another Time
I wanted to (want to) get into some of the devices that made the story offensive in contrast to how superhero stories with males play out. I will at some point, but it’s a long diatribe. The short version is this:
• Learns his super powers and wants to do good with them.
• Kicks some butt and saves lives (in Superman’s case, saving them from disasters)
• Encounters some challenges (tough disasters, facing emotional fallout regarding the victim he couldn’t save, A supervillain knows his secret weakness)
Female (Non-Buffy) Superheroine
• Learns her super powers and wants to do good with them.
• Suffers from angst and emo which she must overcome to use her superpowers and do good.
• After trials and tribulations, overcomes her angst and emo long enough to save some people.
• New angst develops and old emos return and she’s disabled again which she has to overcome to save anyone else.
I won’t get into the details of Supergirl 2015, but yeah, She totes wasn’t allowed to actually do the superhero thing from episode one, because complications, and if it were a Superman story instead of Supergirl the writers wouldn’t have written it that way. (Though amusingly, Stan Lee wrote Spiderman’s paradigm to pretty much follow the Superheroine model because, well, Stan Lee just wanted Peter Parker to suffer.)
Then there’s one part of the Supergirl 2015 milieu that I would like to see happen to Superman, not as a fixed device in his narrative, but as something that Supes has never (or only rarely) faced yet is particularly topical in the twenty-first century.
What Would Superman Do?
It’s established in Supergirl 2015 episode S01E01 that she’s been tracked all along (and will be monitored and directed) by a special government agency (The Department of Extranormal Operations or
DHS DEO) that monitors super-human traffic on Earth. Her agency handlers friends insist they’re the good guys and they will reliably be there to help her.
Except (established in S01E02) they can turn her powers off with Kryptonite ray emitter technology. Of course they won’t use it on her except in practice, but it’s implied they can totally shut her down if she goes rogue. So Supergirl has to go through DEO training, adhere to DEO protocol and only operate in DEO-authorized response situations. If a disaster happens and Supergirl wants to go rescue some humans, but the DEO says no, she has to wait it out and not ask questions. But really they are the good guys. Just ask them.
That was established through episodes S01E01 and S01E02 of Supergirl 2015. Essentially, Supergirl is an agent for the United States. She’s free to leave, though that means she will no longer be an asset. Instead she would be a threat to national security. There are specific policies we have in 2015 regarding threats to national security.
As the series has been written the Department of Extranormal Operations will be there for Supergirl, for better and worse, for the entire series. And Supergirl is okay with this. Incidentally Superman is around, and he is not a DEO asset, but is allowed to do what he wants because…reasons.
When I say we should see what happens when we do this to Superman I’m saying we should see what happens when we do this to any established unfettered superhero at liberty to fly around with a drive to serve truth, justice, liberty and love (regardless if they’re approved by a government agency). In Supergirl 2015, Superman is implied to be the Man of Steel version and not a central character to the series. Obviously if it were a Superman series, his character, limits and abilities would have to be established within the series.
So choose your Kryptonian. What I want to see is her (him) established as a flying disaster-responder and general all-around savior of humankind. Then shown that she (he) can handle the occasional Luthors and Darkseids of the world…
…And then see the DEO come in with Hi. We’re from the government. We developed this kryptonite ray field emitter in case of Kryptonian contingencies. Say if you get mind-controlled, or super-extorted. That sort of thing. You’re not going to be a Kryptonian contingency are you?
In the twenty-first century political clime, this is bound to happen anyway. If the United States military isn’t all over stopping the Supers family, China will be soon enough. It’s a literal arms race. We may not like to think about it, but Superman and Supergirl, like Godzilla and Dr. Manhattan serve rather frightfully as a metaphor for nuclear might. Better even than they serve as Christ figures.
Depending on how attached the Supers are to specific humans (Dick Malverne? Lois Lane? Fred and Edna Danvers? Jimmy Olsen?) the US government might have been able to establish leveraging measures from the beginning. Direct leveraging measures (e.g. kryptonite rays) might be developed as early as the 1950s. Leveraging the Kryptonians wouldn’t become actually legal until the Patriot Act‘s measures that allow the suspension of a person’s constitutional rights (e.g. the right to life or liberty or due process) if they are a potential threat to national security. The Supers would pose such a threat from existing. Their powers alone and the potential that they might act against United States interests is enough to regard them as a threat to United States national security.
Would the Henry Cavill Superman be a willing pawn of the United States military? Would the Christopher Reeve Superman serve at the pleasure of the President? Would the George Reeves Superman be a willing stooge for the US government?
As far as I know (with very limited Superman lore), the US government never exerted leverage to force Superman to act (or not act). There may be minor exceptions as instigated by Lex Luthor. However Superman (begrudgingly) served President Reagan in The Dark Knight Returns (not canon), attacking Soviet MiGs and military units and diverting a nuclear warhead. Superman was then sent after Batman for not playing nice with (read: embarrassing) the Reagan Administration, leading to a much more satisfying Batman vs. Superman confrontation than as featured in a recent movie.
How would a modern-day President utilize Superman in the war on terror? In the war on drugs? How would Trump want Supes to attack the Islamic State? Or Iran? Or whoever else pissed him off?
I think the idea behind the agency in Supergirl 2015 was originally to give Supergirl a mission control she could rely on for detective work and logistical support. It was a common trope (if maybe a naive one) in 80s era series like Knightrider or Airwolf. But in the post 9/11 era, we have clearer living records of agencies abusing powers and tools, from drone strikes to electronic surveillance and hacking tools to cell-phone spoofers. We can expect that they would just as eagerly abuse an asset such as Supergirl. Eventually Supergirl will come to realize that asset handlers are not the ones that will be choosing targets and objectives. And the implicit threat that she could be turned off or even executed at any time creates an air of antagonism between asset and agency, regardless of intent.
But rather than making the agency a stock trope of the series, it could have been an intermittent element. The agency would be obviously useful, but with unclear intents, much like the Watcher’s Council in Buffy. Sometimes the agency would prove invaluable. Sometimes its interference would be problematic. Then eventually, management would change, replaced by dangerous officials that ultimately want unrelenting obedience from the Kryptonian asset. Supergirl would realize the leverage was too much of a liability, and she’d have to choose between remaining an asset of the US government, or going rogue and neutralizing the leverage.