So the big news in costume crimefighting funnybooks last week was the new trailer for the upcoming Supergirl show on CBS:
Lots of people are unhappy with it. For starters, it looks a lot like this idiotic and satirical SNL parody movie, except played straight. Our protagonist is a down-on-her-luck assistant to a powerful magazine editor who is looking for love and approval. So it’s Superman crossed with The Devil Wears Prada, maybe with a twist of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” thrown in. It feels like an executive got the green-light to make a superhero show and – unable to imagine a world where women would watch a power fantasy – his first instinct was to take the bog-standard “chick flick” formula and make the protagonist a super. Going by the trailer, it feels less like a superhero with romantic elements and more like a rom-com with comic book elements.
It really rubbed me the wrong way. The whole thing. The whole, “Nobody respects me” angle can work for some heroes. But Supergirl? At one point a guy tells Supergirl – in her Supergirl costume – to stick to getting coffee. I can buy the idea that a government guy would tell Spiderman to “stick to taking pictures”. I can believe he’d disrespect Daredevil, Ant-Man, Aquaman, Mr. Fantastic, The Flash, or Luke Cage. But Supergirl? if you don’t trust her with matters of national security, fine. If you’re really so dumb you can’t imagine ANYTHING more useful that could be done with limitless thrust, fine. If you’re dumb enough to SAY THAT TO HER FACE then your character is the worst sort of drama-for-its-own-sake contrivance.
Also, the line about capes aiding with “aerodynamics” made me reflexively shake my head. I can believe in a world where an alien gets laser eyes because the sun is yellow, but I’m not going to accept the idea that a loose cloth cape offers the slightest bit of air control. Stop being so silly.
The problem is not this show, the problem is the lack of alternatives.
My wife and daughters loved the trailer. It resonated with them. Yes, it’s stupid that some government guy would tell AN IMMORTAL BEING OF STAGGERING POWER AND SPEED to “go back to making coffee”. Yes, the fact that she gets no respect kind of makes a lot of people in the story into idiots. But that’s fine. Her experience feels genuine and familiar to a lot of women. “Oh, I’ve had people talk to me that way before, and I wish I had the power to show them how wrong they are!” It is an empowerment fantasy. It’s just more focused on interpersonal empowerment than physical empowerment. (Assuming, of course, that the show sticks to the presented formula and is setting up this world of strawmen jackasses for Supergirl to overcome.)
Her story actually feels a lot like Spiderman: The hero has tons of powers, but super-strength doesn’t solve the fundamental problems of caring for your family, making friends, and (assuming you keep your identity a secret) impressing the people you meet. ClassicBy “classic” I mean in the early days, before he wound up married to a rich supermodel or whatever Mary Jane became. Peter Parker is actually a pretty sad case once the mask comes off. He struggles to please and care for his Aunt May, his work is remarkable but his boss still uses him as a doormat, he struggles to pay the bills, and he’s lonely and looking for a girl in his life. All of this is the reason I love Spiderman so much. I can’t relate to a handsome billionaire who is Awesome at Everything, but I can relate to a teenage kid who has gifts he doesn’t know how to use and problems his gifts can’t solve. And the thematic similarities between classic Spidey and the new Supergirl are striking.
This is not to say I think everyone should love the new trailer. In fact, I don’t blame people who loathe it. It feels like the worst sort of clueless corporate bungling: Let’s put this superheroine into My Big Fat Greek Wedding, because female viewers like that sort of thing.
But like I said, the problem isn’t the show. The problem is the lack of alternatives. If you don’t like the grim-n-gritty Batman, you can watch Thor. Don’t like the fantasy magic in Thor? Watch Iron Man instead. Don’t like the pro-corporate vibe of Stark? Try Captain America. Don’t like the whole idealistic “boy scout” attitude? Try Guardians of the Galaxy. Too much silly comedy? Watch The Punisher, Avengers, Superman, the Hulk, Chronicle, Kick Ass, Daredevil, Blade, or the Fantastic Four. No matter what tone or style you’re into, there’s probably a movie in there that you’ll dig.
But if you’re looking for something with a female lead, then this show is basically it right now. And this show can’t be all things to all people. If they went gritty, some people would deride it as “Batman with boobs”. If they go for comedy, other people will complain that nobody takes female heroes seriously. If they go full-on power fantasy then other people will gripe that the show is just a “guy show” that doesn’t explore feminine themes. It’s not that any of these things are bad, it’s that many of these things are tonally or thematically mutually exclusive.
The best thing that could happen would be for this show to be a hit and kick off a wave of female-led shows. There are obviously a lot of women out there who are looking for some kind of hero story, and if we’re lucky then some of them will like this specific attempt enough that other shows will be greenlit. If it tanks, executives are never going to conclude that they were wrong to turn Supergirl into Bridget Jones. No, they’ll shrug and say, “I guess women just don’t like superheroes!” And then it will be another decade before anyone gets the nerve to try again. It’s been almost a decade since the last female superhero (ish) movie, and that one was shockingly bad.
EDIT: I have no idea why, but an alarming number of people are leaving with the impression that I said this show has no right to exist, or that they did it “wrong” just because I don’t like it. This is really annoying, since it’s the opposite of the point I was making. I assume people are dragging their expectations into this discussion and trying to pigeonhole me as either a fan or a hater. So let me repeat:
I don’t like the show, but lots of women do. Which was the point. The only reason this is controversial at all is because we get so few female-led shows.
 By “classic” I mean in the early days, before he wound up married to a rich supermodel or whatever Mary Jane became.
The product of fandom run unchecked, this novel began as a short story and grew into something of a cult hit.
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