Monday, June 08, 2015

Supergirl: A Shotgun to the Face [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Superhero TV is all the rage. Which is a good thing. The latest entry is DC's Supergirl starring Melissa Benoist. Watching the first episode made me realize what separates Joss Whedon's Avengers from the dog's breakfast that is Supergirl. It's one simple factor. Just one. A team of superheroes must stop an invasion of extra-dimensional baddies from taking over the Earth, or a single hero must face a gang of cons escaped from Krypton's worst prison. Looking at these two scenarios I can't see anything that jumps out and says one will be a massive hit and the other a quickly dwindling mistake. They are both improbable and "comic book." So what is the difference?

First off, is it fair to compare a movie series with a TV series? In this case, yes, because the problem isn't budget, special effects, or star power. Daredevil (which I talked about a few posts ago) had none of these, and it was probably the best superhero show of the year. Money is not the issue. It's something else.

In this pilot you meet eight important characters: Kara, her sister Alex, her sister's boss Hank Henshaw, Kara's boss Cat Grant, Kara's work buddy and confidante Winn, Jimmy Olsen, and two major villains. And you don't have time to get to know any of them. Which is a huge mistake. Take Calista Flockhart as Kara's bitch-boss, the rich and eccentric Cat Grant. We don't get any hint of a redeeming quality or something of interest in her. None. You just want to punch her in the face and you hope she dies. Which is more than you can say for almost all the other characters. They don't even get that much frisson. The entire cast (with the exception of Jimmy Olsen, perhaps) could be wiped off the face of the Earth and you'd not care. You might even cheer. And the villains: cardboard, replaceable, non-entities. The main antagonist this first episode was Vartox (Owain Yeoman), an ax-swinging bad-ass from the Krypton prison. I enjoyed seeing Yeoman out of nostalgia for his Rigsby character on The Mentalist, but not much else.

So what's this singular problem? It's pace. This first episode goes off like a shotgun in your face, with too many characters, too much back story, too little genuine feeling. If the show had taken four or five episodes to reveal this much information you might have something. Don't give away you are a superhero to your work buddy half way through the first episode! Don't reveal your sister's secret life before the first commercial. Give us time to get to know and like (and dislike) the characters. Kara could have told her boss to go #$%& herself at any point and it wouldn't matter. Make it matter (making the temp assistant feel she is responsible for saving the jobs of the entire bullpen was a nice try, but logically doesn't fly). Daredevil made you interested in Kingpin's life even if you didn't cheer for him. Gotham spent an entire season getting to know all the villains. Arrow and The Flash both assembled teams to support the hero, but not in one episode. Supergirl tries to set it all up in forty minutes, leaving them with nothing to do for the rest of the season except throw new villains at her each week or descend into soap opera. I felt bored with it after one episode.

Pace. This has been Joss Whedon's magic. He makes these characters into people you want to follow. He gives them problems and struggles and wins and losses. And he knows pace. He knows it takes time to do all this. A great example was Agent Phil Coulson in The Avengers. What should have been an anonymous government stooge proved to be one of the great death scenes in fantasy film. (We'll ignore the fact that people other than Whedon decided to milk that success, revive him and give him a TV show.) Why? Because Whedon took the time to make you care about him, and then dared to actually do something interesting with him.

Pace. That's all they needed to change. The cast is good. Benoist has the right blend of innocence and strength. Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) was good as the guy saving Kara from being fired, but slipped as he revealed his secret mission. Again, good stuff for later in the season. The special effects were great, with Kara having to divert a jet plane through a bridge. The fight scenes were pretty standard, reminding me of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. All the material was there. All of it. Kaboom!

I suppose the one redeeming feature I have to praise: no Oliver Queen-style, drive you crazy, go get a soda flashbacks. Ah, there was that. The short glimpse of Kara's life with adopted parents, the Danvers, was a fun cameo for Dean Cain (who played Superman on Lois and Clark) and Helen Slater (who played Kara in the 1984 Supergirl film that followed the Reeve movies). I suppose the producers didn't want to do more than suggest this part of Kara's life because they didn't want to go down the Smallville road. (Or as Sheldon Cooper puts it, ten seasons to see a man who can fly, fly.) Personally, I would have welcomed more from these two and perhaps that is the plan, to bring them in as recurring roles?

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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