Superman: I’m here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.
Lois: You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!
Superman: Surely you don’t mean that, Lois.
Lois: I don’t believe this.
Superman: I never lie.
I’ve been trying to explain for a while now my problem with the Supergirl television series, now in its second season.
I tried to sum it up in brief before, but the superheroine held back by angst problem, still epidemic in Hollywood, is only part of what makes Supergirl 2015 not really Supergirl.
I then poked at it later, acknowledging that where Superman in his iterations remains the most powerful thing in the world (with rare and special exceptions), Supergirl’s world is leveled up with her. Where Superman is free in his early career to focus on managing disasters, Supergirl is attacked by aliens as tough as she is on S01E01. Then the DEO agency comes around and they’ve been experimenting with Kryptonite for so long that they have a whole arsenal of devices to turn Supergirl’s Super off. I’m sure it’s great for administering medical care (assuming Kryptonians ever need medical care) but it isn’t that great when someone wants to administer bullets.
And this made Supergirl in Supergirl 2015 distinctly not Supergirl.
Bob Chipman, fortunately, explained this by way of the Superman paradigm. Twice, even. The first time, he talked about Superman (1978, Christopher Reeve) in light of the yet-unseen Man of Steel. Then he did a more thorough analysis (50 minutes!) in an episode of Really That Good. It’s in his latter piece that he explains the Christopher-Reeve-era Superman paradigm:
All superheros represent power fantasies… The fantasy of Superman is about the power to stabilize and restore. Superman doesn’t create good situations. He protects them and builds them back up when they fall down. That’s why this character and his world only work when approached from a place of optimism: …Superman only makes sense in the context of a worldview where good is the default setting of the universe and the job of a being of godlike power who aims to do good is to fix things when they break and thwart evil from spoiling the natural state of goodness.
Because if the universe is not good at its core then the moral responsibility of that same godlike being who wants to do good is to assume power absolutely and make the universe good by force.
And that’s not Superman.
Part of the charm of Superman 1978 (Chipman explains,) is that it acknowledges the rising complexity and cynicism of the world, and how it was presenting a challenge to the Superman optimism. Clark Kent runs to a payphone to change but finds it a 1980-era stand payphone (rather than a booth enclosure). He just moves on to plan-B.
The message throughout is that the Superman paradigm still works in the cynicism of 1980. It worked so well that hallmarks of Superman 1978 have become staples of Superman mythology ever since. The Christopher Reeves near-orbit sunrise flyby remains a quintessential Superman image, echoed in later movies and animation. The crystalline fortress of solitude (1978 Krypton used crystal-based technology) has informed all fortresses of solitude since, including the one in Supergirl 2015.*
And the world of Supergirl 2015 neither reflects this optimism, nor does it allow Supergirl to be a godlike being that protects and restores what falls apart in a world that is intrinsically good. It’s not a good world, and Supergirl caged by greater powers from S01E01.
Now to be fair, we have stories about heroes and heroines that work under government agencies, and for the most part, this is a perfectly fine paradigm. Jamie Sommers depended on the OSI to maintain her cybernetics as well as to serve as mission control. Every superspy during the cold war (plenty of whom were women despite pandemic male chauvanism in the agencies) depended on their supporting agency for logistics and intelligence. In fact, such characters become problematic when they became too singleton, ceasing to operate under their unilateral chain of command. When Steve Jackson Games considered superheros-in-the-real-world scenarios for GURPS, they realized that Marvel mutant-level individuals both resilliant to harm and capable of less-lethal intervention would serve well to give international tribunal organizations (such as the United Nations) some teeth, especially against hostage and terror attacks. Setting aside the War-on-Terror clime in which governments and their agencies have become adversarial to civilian populations (and to each other), attached, unilateral heroes (male or female) are quite plausible. They’re how most mortal heroes work.
But that’s not Supergirl.
It doesn’t give Supergirl a chance to be actually super. She gets no chance to strike out on her own and choose on her own to do right and good. (As Superman did, with Terrance Stamp’s General Zod demonstrating that right and good are not necessarily intrinsic to Kryptonians).
From S01E01, Supergirl has to knuckle under to higher authorities, to choose to respond to situations not merely acting to save lives and control damage and do right for right’s sake, but also to consider the wishes of her superiors and the opinions of the public.
Even Supergirl is subject to a glass ceiling.
And we’re in an era where Hollywood (with few exceptions) is dead-set against letting women be super, or very heroic at all. Or acting with the same level of freedom as a man.
It’s time to cut that shit out.
It’s time to give Supergirl her hour. It’s time that heroes’ glory is shared with women, and shared generously. It’s time that women of power are allowed to choose to do right and good on their own.**
It’s time to let Supergirl actually get to be Super.
* Additionally, it was Marlin Brando’s idea to make the iconic S symbol a family crest rather than merely an S-is-for-Super icon it had been before Superman 1978. The family crest notion has been part of the Superman canon ever since.
** Curiously as Ursa demonstrates women have long since been allowed hold personal power to choose evil or self-interest. The implication is that the according to this consistent Hollywood narrative, women are incapable of choosing a proverbial high road.
Aaargh! And now the New 52 Supergirl costume has a bright red crotch patch. This made it past the drawing board how DC?