Superman is a joke. He’s an overpowered boy scout – an antique from a simpler time, irrelevant in our modern world of corruption, paranoia, and economic turbulence. That is the common wisdom regarding this character, a character that once defined the very idea of what a superhero is. Yet even now when these stories have never been more popular, people will tell you that there is no place in the world for the original superhero.
I disagree profoundly. The idea that we have become somehow too cynical for Superman completely ignores the historical context from which Superman was born. In comics, Superman was the fantasy of a couple of Jewish kids living through the worst economic collapse in America’s history while increasing anti-Semitism and the specter of the Holocaust loomed on the horizon in Europe. It’s no accident that Kal-El is an outcast in a foreign land, the last of a once-great people who have been exterminated. But Superman didn’t leap fully formed from the funny book pages in 1938; it wasn’t until four decades later with the classic Richard Donner film that the mythology of the Man of Steel was solidified. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 1970s were another turbulent time for America – 30 years into the Cold War with no end in sight, a generation revolting against the lie of wholesome Americana fed to them by their parents, government officials revealing the depths of their corruption, and a defeat in a purposeless war that had cost 19 years and nearly 60,000 American lives. There’s a reason why the cinema of the ‘70s is noticeably grim and nihilistic, yet in 1978 we get a film that is not only almost aggressively hopeful, but is also the defining depiction of the hero who stands for truth, justice, and the American way. Richard Donner’s Superman arrived at a time when the world was falling apart and presented a hero who saves the day by literally stopping the Earth from collapsing.
It seems to me that it’s at the moments when our world is in the most dire straights that we need heroes like Superman. Incorruptible paragons of virtue and justice who remind us that we can be better; that if we don’t sacrifice our integrity or our drive to help our fellow man, we can accomplish great things. We are certainly in one of those times now, with catastrophic economic collapse, unending conflict in the Middle East, and almost daily examples of mass shootings and horrific police brutality at home. Yet when we need him the most, Superman is nowhere to be found. In his place we have an impostor, one who was raised to resent his responsibility and who looks at his powers as a burden that he would rather shun than as a gift that might help him make the world a better place. This is a character who leaves devastation and destruction in his wake and seems to care little for the innocents that stand between him and his goal. In other words, this is not Superman.
And yet, despite having spent three paragraphs discussing him, this is not an article about Superman. Superman (or more accurately the people charged with telling his story) may have failed us, but last Monday we got our first glimpse at the hero we so desperately need, but has thus far been robbed of us.
That hero is Supergirl.
Supergirl – or Kara Zor-El, if you prefer – is not just any sort of hero, but instead a hero in the truest sense. Someone for whom helping others is not just their duty, but their singular drive and passion. It’s significant that in the very first moment we meet Kara, nearly four decades before she dons the cape, she is performing a selfless act to protect the helpless. Kara chooses to leave her home and her parents, knowing they face eminent destruction, in order to look after her baby cousin. It’s important to note that unlike Kal-El, Kara is 13 years old, old enough to understand the weight of this choice and old enough to actually make the decision for herself.
Unfortunately, Kara’s pod is knocked off course, and she ends up arriving on Earth 24 years later than her cousin (during which time she doesn’t age, because comics). Kal-El has long since taken up the mantle of Superman, and he’s far from the helpless baby she was sent to protect, so without being able to fulfill her intended purpose, Kara has no outlet to satisfy her desire to help others. At first, Kara tries to blend in and work within the system to make a difference. After all, the world has Superman, so why would they need another Kryptonian superperson flying around saving the day. But Kara finds that, as a woman, the system seems designed to prevent her from accomplishing anything of real value. She wants to inspire hope and change the world for the better, but instead, she’s stuck picking up her boss’ coffee. Her adopted sister tries to encourage her to be content with the life that she has, but Kara knows she’s meant for more, and when a plane departing National City begins falling from the sky, Kara leaps into action to save the day.
This sequence (which happens before the first commercial break) is the truest depiction of heroics from the house of El since Richard Donner’s Superman. Kara doesn’t pause to wrestle with whether her own self preservation is more important than the lives of the passengers on the plane, she simply soars into the sky to help people because it’s the right thing to do. And she succeeds! She saves all the passengers on the plane! And afterwards, she goes home to celebrate with her sister! This isn’t some tortured soul, wrestling with a responsibility they didn’t ask for; this is someone who honestly and earnestly wants nothing more than to help others, and that’s so incredibly refreshing!
The conventional wisdom is that we’ve become too cynical and jaded as a society for unabashed, earnest optimism, but I don’t believe that is true. It may have been true ten years ago, but I think we’ve grown weary of cynicism. We’ve seen how bad the world can get and we’ve wallowed in the depths of that darkness, meditating on what it means when our heroes fail us, but now I truly believe we – as a society – are ravenously hungry for hope. Just look at some of the most prominent fixtures of our popular culture today: the Marvel movies, which go out of their way to focus the action around heroes helping people and finding a way to save the day against impossible odds; The Hunger Games, which shows a group of idealists inspiring a revolution to fight back against a corrupt, oppressive government; and Mad Max: Fury Road, which depicts a group of women not only taking freedom for themselves, but then overthrowing the very patriarchy that once kept them enslaved. Even Star Wars seems different now, distancing itself from the prequels’ dark meditation on the entropic nature of government and power, and instead giving us stories of good people standing up for a cause greater than they are. When The Dark Knight came out in 2008, it was the right time for that kind of story, but while the world has moved on, DC and Warner Bros. have not. Their insistence on making their superhero films these dark, brooding things comes across as being hopelessly out of step with what we need right now. We don’t need Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we need Supergirl.
In the week following the pilot episode’s release, the most common criticism I’ve heard of Supergirl is that its themes are presented in an incredibly on-the-nose fashion. On the one hand, this is absolutely true; the show is not shy about vocalizing its intent or using obvious visual metaphors like Kara using her heat vision to destroy the phallic weapon of an angry alien misogynist that’s trying to kill her, but on the other hand, this is how it’s supposed to be. Superhero stories were originally written as morality tales for children, with obvious on-the-nose writing so that the message behind them wouldn’t be lost, so it’s completely appropriate for Supergirl to follow suit. Which leads me to the point that Supergirl is the first major DC Comics adaptation in ages that doesn’t resent the intended audience of these characters.
The idea that Superman has been co-opted by angry manbabies, giving kids today no context for who this character is really meant to be, is an idea that saddens me profoundly. This character who was meant to inspire children to be heroic is now an angsty, brooding, asshole, and kids aren’t really even invited to his new movies. Supergirl not only fills that vacuum, but provides inspiration on a whole different level. Not only is Supergirl a noble, incorruptible hero for kids to look up to, but she’s also a woman – in fact she’s the most culturally prominent example of a woman superhero we’ve yet had in the modern era. She’s a character that both young girls and young boys can look to, to understand that you can be super no matter what gender you are.
Thus far, the pilot of Supergirl has been a big success, and I hope that success continues in weeks to come, but beyond that, I really hope that this show is a big hit with kids. Supergirl is the kind of hero I know would have been a big deal to me when I was 9, and I hope lots of 9-year-olds are out there watching this show. Twenty years from now, I want to read an article from a 9-year-old today who is sitting down with their parents each week to watch Kara Zor-El selflessly do everything in her power to help those in need and how it changed the way they saw themselves. As much as I may need Supergirl, it’s these kids who need her even more, and I hope she inspires them to make the world a better place.