In the premiere of Supergirl, Kara Zor-El (played by Melissa Benoist, whose performance is utterly charming) has a lot of learning to do—and that is not necessarily a bad thing. After a mishap on her way to Earth as a child (her pod got caught in the Phantom Zone, resulting in her arriving after her cousin, who she had been sent to protect), Kara is struggling to find her way, doing her level best to fit in. We get a brief glimpse at her adoptive Mom and Dad, the Danvers (Helen Slater and Dean Cain, respectively—nice touch, including the original Supergirl and a somewhat recent incarnation of Superman). But it’s her complicated relationship with her sister, Alex Danvers (played by Chyler Leigh), that I find most interesting. (More on that later.) Overall, I think the pilot was really strong. And if someone wants to send me a pair of red boots, I wouldn’t protest. *ahem*
Kara (pronounced Car-uh, not Care-uh) has a thankless job at Catco Media, fetching its CEO, Cat Grant (confession: I have loved Calista Flockhart since The Birdcage) lukewarm coffee. Winn (played by Broadway darling Jeremy Jordan) is nearly as hopeless as Kara is delightfully exuberant. He’s carrying a torch for her large enough to rival Johnny Storm, and she—wearing glasses in all her Clark Kent-esque glory—offhandedly informs him she has a date later that night. Crestfallen doesn’t begin to cover the look on his face.
But Cat swans into the office with an air of aloof command. Comparisons have been made to the Miranda Priestly character in The Devil Wears Prada, but such things are inherently dismissive. She’s tough, yes, but Cat’s also a successful badass. She is both attractive and formidable, serving as a sharp contrast to Kara’s industrial-strength innocence. Ever the business woman—or should that be girl?—Cat tasks Kara with drafting termination letters for employees of The Tribune. Almost bored, Cat quips that nothing short of a superhero will save the dying business.
Which is excellent timing, because Alex’s plane (heading to Geneva) blows an engine. Fleeing her disaster of an online date, it doesn’t matter that Kara hasn’t flown in quite some time. She rises to the occasion without hesitation. Like all good heroes, sometimes, a girl just needs a reason to fight. And, despite a few setbacks later on, Kara has found hers. She saves the plane, including Alex. But if you’re waiting for her sister to be grateful, she isn’t. She’s furious that Kara is out there in the open, exposed. A spat between the siblings ensues, and Benoist’s performance in that scene was moving. Her disappointment and sadness border on the kind of pain that can only be inflicted by someone who knows you best. Kara expects a hug. What she got was a slap.
The next day in the office, Kara is brimming with pride, which is then overshadowed by a adorkable frustration: Cat dubbed the mysterious savoir “Supergirl,” and Kara accidentally says what’s really thinking out loud to her boss: “Supergirl? We can’t name her that.” What follows (watch here) is a spectacularly fun laying out of the reasons why the word “girl” isn’t inherently offensive, and I kind of loved it. A lot. I maybe cheered. (Kara is not the only one who is prone to dorky outbursts of total joy.)
Some quick reveals: in what might be the fastest divulging of a superhero identity ever, Kara tells Winn who she is (please don’t get me started on how his first instinct to think her big confession on the roof is that she is gay. Because that clearly was the only possible explanation why she wasn’t interested in him. Spoiler alert: NO.), and he helps her make several versions of a suit. (IT guy has mad sewing skills; meanwhile, all I can manage is sewing on a button. But I digress…) Kara wants to save the paper, so goes out and does some good deeds. However, on route to one, she’s felled by a tiny green dart that turns out to be low-grade Kryptonite (there are grades?), and her sister is part of an organization called the DEO (Department of Extranormal Operations). (This plot point is kind of hard to swallow. It’s like S.H.I.E.L.D.’s black sheep cousin, twice removed.) The DEO is headed by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), who is dismissive and condescending, and repeatedly dresses Kara down for being new at this whole superhero thing. At one point, she defends herself, “I’m still learning.” Later, Henshaw spits, “You wanna help? Go back to getting someone’s coffee.” And yes, dear reader, he is kind of a jerk.
The DEO is fighting escaped Kryptonian prisoners. When Kara finally got out of the Phantom Zone—possibly the worst case of Sleeping Beauty ever, being stuck there for 24 years—her pod accidentally pulled Fort Rozz to earth. This sets up who and what Kara will be battling in the show. And we get a glimpse of a couple of the Bads in this episode. In between battles with escaped prisoner Vartox, Kara and Alex make up, the latter urging: “The world needs you to fly, Kara.” Alex is a jealous person, who loves her sister. She’s not perfect. But she carries with her the difficulties a once-only child knows: she was the center of her parents’ world, and now she has to share it…with a cheerful girl who can fly. Not exactly easy to compete with, as far as sibling rivalries go. I’m inclined to cut her some slack, but I’m also curious to see how Alex grows.
Vartox, after a brief battle with Kara, commits suicide rather than be caught. It appears, at least for now, that the Big Bad is the General—Kara’s aunt (mad love for Laura Benanti), who appears to be the twin of Kara’s mother, Allura. If her name doesn’t turn out to be some variation of Zod, my nerd heart is going to be disappointed. Before Loki, General Zod was all about telling people to kneel. But, again, I digress.
Kara is self-possessed and brave, but she has no idea how to be a superhero. She is muddling through in a way that is utterly relatable and more than a little charming. Sure, she bumbles through meeting Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks ftw!) in a way that made me cringe. And she is appallingly bad at thinking on her feet where words are concerned, but who hasn’t been known to trip over their tongue and carry a watermelon or two (Dirty Dancing, anyone?)? The beauty of Supergirl is that Kara isn’t a polished hero. She’s going to make mistakes. She is beginning to work out how to embrace who she is, instead of projecting the idea of normalcy. She has spent most of her life trying to fit in, trying not to be noticed. It isn’t going to be easy. But being normal is highly overrated. It reveals a lack of courage. And say what you will about Supergirl, courage is not something in short supply. Plus, she was given some pretty great advice in a holographic message from Allura: “Be wise. Be strong. And always be true to yourself.”
Ali Trotta is writer and editor who lives on a steady diet of coffee and sarcasm.