Supergirl's freshman finale airs next Monday and as we reach the end, it's a time to look back. Supergirl has been a great ride but never been quite perfect, filled with some fantastic episodes but also some clunkers. Behind a budget that only just covers the the production, occasionally underwhelming villains-of-the-week and a tendency to tone down the story to remain family friendly, there has been one constant shining light that keeps viewers such as myself tuning in week after week; Melissa Benoist as Supergirl.
In the wake of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman's less than well received interpretation Superman as portrayed by Henry Cavill, Benoist's stellar performance as Kara Zor-El has not only carried the show but stood out as what Superman should have been. The show tackles some similar elements to the Movie-verse's Superman, including the fear and apprehension about such a super-powered individual existing, but it remembers to show us that it's not all darkness and fear.
1. Supergirl is a lot of fun.
Even when other elements of the show are failing or simply average, Supergirl remembers to just have fun with this stuff. There will always be a wish-fulfillment aspect to superheroes and Kara's powers are frankly so incredible it would be completely unbelievable if she didn't find any joy in them at all. Simple scenes such as Supergirl enjoying an afternoon soaring around the city speaks volumes about the character and this interpretation. Of course she uses her heat vision to warm up coffee so as not to get in trouble with her boss, because that's what a normal person who had heat vision would do. The plots may be simplistic and/or cliched and the production values aren't quite always there, but at its core Supergirl remembers that superheroes are meant to be entertaining.
The crossover with The CW's The Flash is a wonderful example of how superheroes are still fun and putting Melissa Benoist alongside Grant Gustin's Flash is just a good time from start to finish. The entertainment of these two characters enjoying themselves, their powers and their ability to be heroes drowns out the other problems that would otherwise threaten to drag down the episode. Interestingly, this episode aired only days after the launch of Batman v Superman and could not be more different. One crossover deals in fear and punches, the other in hope and optimism in the face of danger. I'll let you work out which one is which.
2. She embraces her humanity.
Benoist brings an extreme likeability to Kara that is sorely missing in Henry Cavill's performance. Despite being able to do pretty much anything with her abilities, Kara never acts above the people around her. She's charming in a humble, modest way, simply by being genuinely kind and warm to the people in her life. She isn't perfect, but her flaws and mistakes lead to actual character development that feels real and earned. Kara engages in her day-to-day life in a way that the film version of Clark Kent isn't and as much as Kara loves to be Supergirl, Kara Danvers is a chance for her to feel normal, a way to escape the loneliness and insecurity of being an outsider.
An inherent difference with Supergirl and Superman's stories is that Clark Kent was only a baby when they fled Krypton, where Kara was old enough to know what she was losing. She remembers her original family, making her connection to Krypton's destruction far more emotional than Superman's. Some of Benoist's best work is when she allows that devastation and pain to come to the surface, as she shows that her Girl of Steel just as vulnerable as the rest of us in several heart-rending scenes. A perfect example of this is in Episode 8, 'Hostile Takeover, when Kara confronts an apparition of her mother and utterly breaks down in both anger and grief. Benoist absolutely nails the different layers of the character.
3. Kara's powers are a motivation for heroism.
When we meet Kara in the pilot, she has been hiding herself and her abilities ever since arriving on Earth, while Superman flies around and saves the world. Similarly to Henry Cavill's Superman, she was raised to hide in order to protect herself. In this universe, Earth has a defender in Superman and Kara is resigned to a simple, human life. But where the recent movies choose to focus on the potential dangers and push-back of Superman's existence, Supergirl's first public use of her powers are a heroic revelation. After risking exposure to save a crashing plane, she realizes that this is a part of her she cannot deny. Her power is a responsibility to do good, no matter how large or small, and she loves it. Her failures are all the more powerful for how seriously she takes them and how much they push her to try harder. There are multiple plots throughout the show of others not trusting her powers, such as antagonist Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli) and elements of the US Army led by General Lane (Glenn Morshower). These threads are similar to those in Zack Snyder's recent movies but Supergirl's defining characteristic in the face of this opposition is optimism and her only goal is to keep doing what she is doing and prove them wrong.
Heroism isn't a burden to Supergirl, even when its detrimental to herself. After years of hiding, it gives her a purpose and makes her happy. Even when she has to put her personal life on the back burner for the sake of being Supergirl, we know she's doing it for the right reasons. If there is one constant in Supergirl's life, it is her desire to help others, even when it might risk her own life. In her confrontation with the various villains that oppose her, she's always willing to put herself in the way. At one point, she engages in a city-set fight with another Kryptonian that is very reminiscent of the climatic battle in Man of Steel, but the key difference being that she goes out of her way to try and limit the damage of the battle, even if it means getting hurt herself.
4. She is designed to be inspiring.
When it comes to Henry Cavill's character, violence is maybe the second resort. He makes a brief attempt at another option before going in with super-powered fists a-flailing. But to Benoist's Supergirl, violence is normally the absolute last tool on her belt. It's probably the most effective tool she has but it's more important as a character to be able to do it without. She'll do everything she can to talk down her opponent before resorting to a fight, and even then will likely never throw the first punch. It isn't about her inherent strength and any fear of what she can do with it. It's simply a part of her character, that she doesn't want to hurt anybody.
Which all plays into the fact that a huge part of Supergirl's character is that her very presence is inspiring. When the music swells as she makes her entrance, we are reminded why she is a symbol of hope. Whereas Man of Steel merely tells the audience that Superman's symbol stands for hope, Supergirl takes the time to show us and, more importantly, makes her earn it. The public hold her to a higher standard than everybody else, something she learns when she makes mistakes. Having the abilities to prevent disaster means that whenever she fails or is unable to be there in time, she will be judged and held accountable. Her heroism is something she has to commit to and work hard at to prove that she is more than just some alien with powers, why she is different to all the monsters and villains that threaten the 'normal' public.
And by the end of the season, we can see how much her actions have begun to affect people for the better. Hope and optimism are the most powerful themes of her character, even in the face of overwhelming opposition. More than powers, this is what makes the character a hero and why Supergirl works where the cinematic Man of Steel falls down.
Which Person of Steel do you find more inspiring? Which hero do you want to see fly by your window?