SUPERGIRL is a sunnier strain of the superhero franchise that finds its latest outlet in this Melissa Benoist-fronted TV show, finds Martin Gray
Supergirl | Sky 1, Thursday, 8pm
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s... Supergirl!
Yes, but not Helen Slater of the ill-fated 1980s movie whose biggest enemy wasn’t witch Faye Dunaway but the horribly camp script.
Nope, this is former Glee gal Melissa Benoist, and she got off to a flying start last night as Sky 1 added to its collection of DC Comics TV shows. Arrow started off grim and gritty and got lighter, while spin-off The Flash hit the ground running, wearing its superhero colours with pride. Supergirl gives us a hero more like Scarlet Speedster Barry Allen than Battling Bowman Ollie Queen, not a reluctant do-gooder but one thrilled that she can help the world that took her in.
Because like Cousin Superman, Kara Zor-El is from the doomed planet Krypton. Sent to Earth after baby Kal-El to look after him, the tween’s career as a super-babysitter was derailed when her rocket wound up in the Phantom Zone for 24 years. The wonders of cosmic Nytol meant she missed the horrors of the ghost dimension and didn’t age a day, until she finally wound up on Earth to be found by Superman. Wanting Kara to have the lovely smalltown upbringing he had - or so he said, really, who needs a super-kid cramping their bachelor style? - he placed her with his trusted friends, the Danvers, and their daughter Alex.
That’s a lot of exposition, but it’s elegantly dealt with in a pre-credits sequence narrated by Benoist, allowing us to speed forward 12 years and on to National City, where the finally adult Kara Danvers is working as a gopher for media mogul Cat Grant. As played by Calista Flockhart, Cat is fabulously bitchy - the actress is channelling Lucy Liu in their Ally McBeal days. Cat has no time for klutzy Kara, who’s not putting on an act like Clark Kent, she’s genuinely a bit of a schlub - geeky, awkward, a terrible online dater.
And she’s miles from being a superheroine, having decided long ago to try to fit in on Earth, believing she’s never going to match the deeds of her cousin. But Fate has other plans...
If ever a pilot episode needed to be double length, this is it. In just 46 minutes we’re introduced to Kara, Cat, IT guy Winn, Superman’s Pal Jimmy - sorry, James - Olsen, Alex, the Department of Extra-Normal Operations and its chief, Hank Henshaw, and murderous alien Vartox. Oh, and cameoing as Kara’s foster parents, the blameless Helen Slater and small screen Superman Dean Cain. Bless.
But where, you may wonder, is the Superman of this continuity? In Metropolis, unseen and unnamed - it’s always My Cousin or The Big Guy or My Friend in Blue. The conceit, which is likely something to do with not tripping over Chris Nolan’s miserablist Man of Steel, is a little strained, but not a show-breaker. Because this show is a delight, a sunny shot of heroics designed to inspire. Its mission statement is encapsulated in a beautifully played scene between Flockhart and Benoist in which Cat explains why she’s christened the Maid of Might Supergirl, rather than what Kara reckons is the more feminist-friendly Superwoman.
Another highlight sees Kara and Winn trying to come up with a costume for her: Benoist and Jeremy Jordan have real charm together, and my fingers are crossed for romance.
It’s not all cheeriness, Kara has a couple of low moments before picking herself up again, and Benoist plays them as skilfully as she does the comedy and action. She actually had me tearing up when, having been chastised by a worried Alex for going public with her powers, she tells Winn her secret: ‘I really want someone to be excited for me.’ It’s a very human moment for the alien from Argo City, a sign that no matter how high Kara flies, she’ll keep her red DM-ed feet on the ground.
Benoist really is a find - like Christopher Reeve, she can give us the strong, determined hero as convincingly as the meek alter-ego, while showing us where they meet. She looks great in the classic colours, carrying herself with grace and quiet power. She’s the heart of the show, her commitment to the material evident in every beat.
The drama also scores with its action scenes, as Kara, unpracticed in the use of her powers, has a tough time stopping first a falling plane, then Vartox and his atomic axe. One slightly dodgy brick wall apart, the skirmishes convince, with Kara’s climactic strike against the knave from Krypton especially impressive.
Benoist looks cute as heck in her specs, though I’ve no idea why she’s wearing them BEFORE deciding to take on a second identity - the woman has X-ray, telescopic, heat and micro-vision. And the appearance of dead mom Alura in comforting hologram form is reminiscent of Smallville’s painfully ever-present interactive Jor-El.
Minor things. If you missed the pilot, track it down, because while the comic version of Kara has been around for more than half a century, this is Supergirl for a new generation. And we’re lucky to have her.