Though superheroes have become a massive business for Hollywood in recent years, Marvel and DC — the two biggest providers of superpowered people — have been slow to venture beyond the standard-issue white-dude-in-a-costume model for their movies and television shows. That changes tonight when Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) takes to the air on CBS’s “Supergirl,” the latest superhero show from the team behind the CW’s “Arrow” and “The Flash,” executive producers Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg and Sarah Schechter.
It’s not just the fact that it’s a woman (who rejects a sexed-up potential uniform) in tights that makes “Supergirl” feel different from so many other superhero stories on film and TV. “Supergirl” is a series with multiple powerful women who earnestly debate the best ways to exercise their considerable abilities. It’s also an entry in the genre defined by joy rather than grit and angst, and by the blue skies of Los Angeles rather than the perpetual darkness of Gotham or Marvel’s New York. And rather than dodging the series’ feminist implications, a conversation with Berlanti, Adler, Kreisberg and Schechter are embracing the opportunity* to shake up the conventions of the genre where they’ve told so many stories and to stage new conversations about women and authority.
To accomplish the series’ feminist goals, the “Supergirl” creators developed a number of guidelines to avoid the appearance of coddling their heroine and to stay clear of the traps that often ensnare fictional relationships between women.
“In the pilot we were determined to never cut away from her getting thrashed or beat up where we wouldn’t have cut away with a male character. So there are times where Flash or Arrow would have gotten their a– kicked, and we would have watched that, and everyone would have been been fine with it. And we were in testing and people were watching Supergirl get beat up in the middle of the episode and people were getting uncomfortable about it,” Berlanti noted. “But then, you can’t have the same kind of joy and exhilaration at the end if you don’t have that point in the middle. … What we try and do, what would our code be if it were a dude, and let it be the same, and let the audience figure out for themselves what they think the difference is.”
And tension between the female characters has to be driven by substantive differences.
“We’re not really particularly interested in putting each other down and fighting each other,” Schechter explained. “If they’re fighting, they’re fighting over philosophical or moral differences, not out of any sort of competition. So when [her adoptive sister] Alex and Kara fight, it’s because Alex really is concerned for Kara, and these are choices Kara is making that impact a lot of people, and you know, Alex is worried she hasn’t thought it all the way through so there are consequences to that.”
Berlanti and his colleagues are eager to embrace the opportunities that come not just with a female superheroine, but by reversing the dynamics not just on the other superhero shows they’ve built together, but on the current superhero boom at large. Berlanti said that while “The Flash” often reminds him of his previous show “Everwood,” working on “Supergirl” takes him back to “Political Animals,” his sharp, sexy 2012 miniseries starring Sigourney Weaver as a riff on Hillary Clinton that also meditated on the dilemmas particular to powerful women.
“Whether you think it’s true or not, I think it is much harder to be a woman in the world,” Schechter explained. “And I think that is an opportunity for us in terms of drama and the depth of character and relationships. Supergirl has a really tough job, and I think that her gender is a part of it, and hopefully we’ll someday live in a world where it’s not. But I think for now, and I think one of the things that makes her a distinct character, because she really, she has a very academic way of looking at it, it’s really interesting.”
Supergirl, unlike her more famous cousin, has a different trajectory to superheroism that plays into her gender as well. “She was born on Krypton, but she’s not Kal-El. She grew up there for 12 years and before she came to Earth, so she’s actually … more human certainly than Superman. She grew up not having these super-skills and speed and strength,” suggested Adler. “And then she came down to Earth for puberty. So she had her own super-version of that and took on all of that, and too in Earth with the lens of an immigrant.” Added Schechter: “I still maintain there’s nothing more frightening or terrifying in the whole universe than being a 13-year-old girl. Period. So for her to have to go that and try to fit in, and in trying to fit in, she suppresses all the things that make her different.”
Another element of the show is the relationship between Kara and Alex (Chyler Leigh), who is an expert on alien lifeforms and a talented fighter but lacks her sister’s superpowers.
“If you watch the show and you have a sibling, you’ll see immediately your own dynamic,” Ali Adler said of the love and sometime-rivalry between the two women. “We talk about the show without superpowers, and that’s one of them. And also, please, Alex was an only child for the first 14 years of her life. And suddenly a super-child drops in and she has to adjust accordingly. Not only would it be regular sibling rivalry, it’s that she’s super as well.” In future episodes, Alex will use her superior knowledge of fighting techniques to train Kara and help her sister make full use of her strength.
“Arrow” and “The Flash” have highly distinct action styles, and the “Supergirl” techniques play both on Kara’s ability to fly and her gender expression.
“One of the things that came up for me that I didn’t even realize until they were doing the pilot and [director] Glen [Winter] worked it out with stunt coordinators, is there’s this whole ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’-esque aspect to fighting while mid-flight,” Berlanti said. “And there’s a beauty to that and an elegance to that as well that we don’t have on the other shows.”
Gender plays a role in National City’s reaction to their new protector, too.
“That was always part of our pitch. The city itself would go from being ‘‘Why did we get this one? They got him,’ to ‘We wouldn’t change it. We want her,’ ” Berlanti said. “And that’s very much the arc of the first season to a certain extent, is really the city as an entity coming to terms, and the universal thing being where in our lives do we feel second best? And then have to realize our own heroism.”
That role reversal even plays out in the way the show plans to use James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), who has come to National City and to Cat’s magazine company to try to reinvent himself as something other than Superman’s pal and as a journalist whose career is due only to his relationship with the man in the red cape. “What’s interesting about the trope, is people are always like ‘Oh, that Lois [Lane], she’s so curious, she’s going to get into some trouble.’ But you sideline her when the action comes along,” Berlanti said about journalist counterparts to superheroes. “Sometimes that’s James on the show, his own curiosity will get the better of them, but it’s nice that he’s not necessarily always there when the action starts. He can ground her. It’s interesting to watch that flip.”
Switching genders changes the action sequences involving the superhero and the journalist, too. “Mehcad doesn’t look like anyone’s ideal of a damsel in distress,” Kreisberg noted. “And for him, a 6-foot-4 guy, being rescued by a girl half his age, that aspect of it gets talked about and played with, too.”
“I think it’s just that there’s a dearth of female heroes across film and TV and hopefully there will be less of a burden on us,” Berlanti said of teaching audiences accustomed to male heroes to root for a superpowered young woman. “When we started ‘Arrow,’ there weren’t really a lot of superhero shows in general. And it was a burden on us, because it was ‘Are you going to fail or succeed?’ And now they’re everywhere. So obviously our hope is as we’re entering season four of ‘Supergirl’ there’s so many other female superheroes on TV or in the film universe that there’s not quite the same burden or conversation around that.”
And while Berlanti may hope for imitators in the future, his fellow “Supergirl” creators think it’s about time that anyone who’s not ready for a female superhero catches up. And they’ve written that sentiment into the pilot in the form of a debate between Kara and her boss, publisher Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart, who sparked a round of similar debates in her title role on “Ally McBeal”). “If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?” Kara asks her boss, who is moving quickly to brand the new hero in town in hopes of boosting newspaper circulation. “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’?” Cat, a classic post-feminist, demands of her junior employee. “I’m a girl. And your boss. And powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?” In conversation, they can be even blunter. As Schechter put it, “I think if a female kicking a– makes you uncomfortable, it’s a good opportunity for you to look at yourself.”
* When I joked that I wouldn’t write a “Can ‘Supergirl’ have it all?’ headline, Berlanti immediately replied that this was the theme of a forthcoming episode, and Adler had a whole raft of reasons that such a balancing act would be particularly salient for a superheroine.