I heard about CBS’ upcoming Supergirl series when a trailer was released and commenters were making derisive comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada. I was reminded of when Superman Returns was released and the reviews panned it as a plodding, deliberate movie that was short on action and long on introspection – I was excited to see it. In both cases, the negative reviews seemed to be describing something interesting and unusual in the field of superhero movies. After all, we should know by now that superhero stories do not need to be confined to frivolous, mindless, violent adolescent boys’ power fantasies, right? We’ve seen superhero movies draw from war movies, spy thrillers, space operas, and political allegory, so what’s wrong with The Devil Wears Prada? An action-packed superhero dramedy could be a lot of fun. On the other hand, it could – like Superman Returns – be a huge, frustrating disappointment.
On watching the trailer, the comparisons I had read on multiple websites to The Devil Wears Prada were confusing to me, not because they are inaccurate, but because I am so used to comic book fans’ only frame of reference being other comic books. When Calista Flockhart is clearly playing the mean, overbearing J. Jonah Jameson to Melissa Benoist’s awkward, insecure Peter Parker, it’s strange to me that just because Calista doesn’t have a moustache, the reference jumps to some chick flick. Regardless, the workplace drama and Kara’s personal life in general are where this trailer shines. Supergirl’s greatest strengths have always been how relatable and likeable she is. A person unsure of her place in the world struggling for respect and recognition is something we all can relate to and we all can cheer for. Flockhart, for her part, plays the mean boss well. Her justification of Supergirl’s nom de guerre was a clever preemptive rejoinder to the inevitable criticisms of calling a grown woman a “girl” that points out that identifying as a “girl” doesn’t diminish one’s power or standing. The trailer doesn’t address the fact that applying a label to a person who does not self-identify with that label is a dick move, but I buy it because J. Jonah Jameson is a total dick.
Unfortunately, the trailer also highlights some problems with the show’s very premise. The line, “I didn’t travel 2,000 light years just to be an assistant,” really stuck in my craw. It makes her sound entitled, like her job is beneath her and the world owes her more. To contrast, in the comics Supergirl has worked as an artist and a student counselor and an actor – things that superpowers don’t help with, but she finds fulfilling. Why did this Supergirl take a job as an assistant if she finds fetching coffee so demeaning? We have no sense of what she is passionate about, other than punching monsters. If she really isn’t working toward her dreams in her day job, then couldn’t she find some way to monetize reality-bending levels of strength, speed, and endurance? I understand that questioning one’s career path is something that an audience can relate to – and relatable problems are great – but being a super-powered alien gives you certain options that aren’t open to other people. There’s a reason that the comics don’t also give her problems with opening jars or reaching things on high shelves.
The other major problem is with all of the references to Krypton and to Superman. I understand that Kara’s origin has to at least be addressed, but the less said about it, the better. The real problem is with the constant references to Superman and Superman’s adventures. The fact is, there are people in the audience who will see Supergirl as just a cut-rate stand-in for Superman. In order to dispel this perception, Supergirl will have to stand on her own two feet, without falling back on Superman’s mythology. Kara’s relationship with her cousin has created some really great stories over the years, but if he’s not even going to be in the show, filling it with his supporting players like Cat Grant and Jimmy Olsen does nothing but support the idea that Supergirl’s series is just an adjunct to or substitute for Superman’s. If this series is to stand on its own, the audience needs to have no doubt that this is Supergirl’s show and that it is everything it is meant to be. For God’s sake, they even have Kara paraphrase Man of Steel when explaining the symbol on her chest. I guess if Superman is wearing the Coat of Arms of the House of El, it’s too much to hope for that Supergirl just be wearing an S for “Supergirl.”
Despite what may prove to be minor flaws, I am actually mostly hopeful for this series. It looks bright and fun and positive and human. It could really be something special if the creators keep in mind that The Devil Wears Prada is a better movie and better inspiration for a superhero series than Man of Steel.