Film & TV

Supergirl Proves Comic-Book Adaptations Can Soar Rather Than Punish

Here's a question faced by the creators of almost every superhero adaptation: How do do you pull this off without copying Frank Miller’s Batman? Too many modern superhero dramas — including the Dark Knight films, Arrow, Daredevil and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — either ape the dour realism of Miller’s Batman: Year One or the provocative nihilism of his The Dark Knight Returns. How do you bring a modern super-character to the screen without imitating Miller’s idiosyncratic cynicism?

CBS' charming Supergirl TV series answers that question with atypically upbeat action-adventure. Telling the story of Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist), a superheroine who lives in the shadow of cousin Kal-El, aka Clark “Superman” Kent, show-runners Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg borrow some elements from earlier Superman adaptations, particularly Bruce Timm's animated series and Richard Donner's live-action films. They even surpass their predecessors in one key way: presenting an authentically optimistic superhero.

Supergirl stands apart by convincingly arguing that many conflicts can be solved by understanding and even sympathizing with your enemy. Even with that welcome theme, the show's directors, special-effects designers and action/stunt coordinators manage to deliver some of the best action scenes in any recent comic adaptation.

Unlike Kal-El — or, you know, “Clark” — Kara was sent to Earth with a mission in mind: protect her cousin from hostile humans. She finds herself unable to complete that task because she arrives on Earth well after he does (her ship was knocked off course). So she finds her own mission. But when Kara decides to become a superhero like Clark, she faces a dilemma similar to what Supergirl's show-runners deal with: She realizes that people expect her to be Superman Lite.

Miraculously, Supergirl acknowledges but never sinks beneath the weighty expectations placed on Kara, a rare heroine in a field dominated by super-dicks. Kara may be related to Superman, but even members of her makeshift family must overcome their initial reservations about her. Astra (Laura Benanti), Kara's aunt and a super-powered Kryptonian terrorist who wants to stop humanity from destroying Earth, at first pities her niece for wasting her gifts on ungrateful humans. But Astra soon comes to respect Kara's stubborn idealism — a trait the heroine shares with Kara’s late mother, Alura (also Benanti).

Media mogul Cat Grant (Calista "Ally McBeal" Flockhart), Kara's Devil Wears Prada-style boss from hell, also comes to respect Kara within the show's first few episodes. Kara is Cat's favorite pincushion during the workday, but Cat promotes Kara's public identity with the same zeal that Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson hates on Spider-Man.

The trusting type, Kara forgives her loved ones' transgressions. Benoist is a sensitive, capable leading lady who makes that kind of noble aspiration believable. She delivers a moving speech in the otherwise lopsided episode “Human for a Day” when Kara, after mysteriously losing her super-powers, talks an armed robber into surrendering. The blocky dialogue — “I believe that we are better than this. We choose who we want to be” — could have easily gotten stuck in a lesser actor's throat. But Benoist is convincing even when Kara reaches out for the robber's gun and tells him “I know you're going to choose to be a better man.”

In another episode, Kara lets villains Reactron and the Master Jailer air their grievances in order to prevent unnecessary Man of Steel-style property damage. Kara may be a fighter, but unlike Henry Cavill's hormonal, Miller-esque Superman, she listens to her foes instead of wantonly snapping their necks. Maybe she's the one to save us.
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Simon Abrams is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.