The (In)vulnerability of Supergirl
***This article contains spoilers for the first season of CBS’s Supergirl.***
Supergirl fans can, for the moment, breathe a sigh of relief that the series has been renewed for a sophomore season on The CW. But when CBS announced its intention to create and promote a series centered on Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-el (a.k.a. Supergirl), audiences could be forgiven a degree of skepticism. Why resurrect a seemingly sexist character? Why add yet another superhero series to an already glutted market? How could such a show possibly avoid being terrible, cheesy, or terribly cheesy?
By and large, however, Supergirl’s creators, producers, and writers succeeded is circumventing most of the potential pitfalls inherent in such a project. By keeping a jauntier, bantering tone in line with DC’s offerings on the CW like Arrow and The Flash, they avoided the train wreck that a less self-conscious “dark ’n gritty” take would surely have produced. Star Melissa Benoist engagingly balances the gravity of her role with just the right amounts of wit and goofiness to keep her absurd character plausible, at least for one hour a week. The producers likewise anticipated all the objections of possible chauvinism and tried to build answers into the dialogue. And while Supergirl is by no means misanthropic, it is populated with many thoughtful and powerful females—heroes, villains, and in-between.True human (or, one might say, Kryptonian) love carries with it the danger—nay, the certainty—of hurt.
But Supergirl’s cast represent more than mere window dressing, stage props against which to juxtapose the grandiose achievements of the eponymous heroine. Rather, they form an integral part of the series, a network without which Supergirl’s vaunted powers would still be insufficient. “No man is an island,” John Donne famously asserted, and the same might be said of our titular Kryptonian woman. Alien though she may be, Supergirl’s very vulnerability—her love for her friends, family, and home—becomes, ironically, her most potent source of strength.
Unlike many of Marvel’s Avenger-style heroes, the DC pantheon tend to adopt the now-familiar trope of the “secret identity”: Superman’s human persona is Clark Kent; Aquaman goes by Arthur Curry; Wonder Woman is known as Diana Prince; and, of course, Batman is in fact Bruce Wayne. Supergirl in one sense follows this pattern, taking the name Kara Danvers from her adoptive family before moving with her human sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) to National City. Like her cousin, Kara works for a media company, initially serving as faithful gopher to the domineering Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Beginning in the pilot, Kara decides she can no longer justify hiding her powers, and her early acts of heroism lead her to take on the role of Supergirl. But this leads to the perennial DC question: To whom does she reveal herself?
Unsurprisingly, most superheroes limit their inner circle to a select few. But while Supergirl hardly proclaims her secret identity to the world, she demonstrates a greater willingness to trust those around her than most other comparable comic characters. Of course, her human family—sister Alex and mom Eliza (Helen Slater)—already know, but friends Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan) and James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) are brought in with little hesitation. Her co-workers at the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO) likewise know that Supergirl and Kara are one and the same, especially erstwhile director Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), a man with a secret identity all his own—he is actually J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter (and far more reticent to reveal himself). Kara’s sometime nemesis, technology magnate Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli), also learns the truth, as does James Olsen’s ex-fiancée Lucy Lane (Jenna Dewan Tatum). By the end of season one, Cat Grant is the only main recurring character who does not know that Kara Danvers is Supergirl.
But Kara’s openness serves a relevant thematic function, for despite its proper emphasis on the eponymous heroine, Supergirl is particularly a show about the strength of community. In crafting a series around one of the few immediately recognizable female superheroes, the writers had to walk a difficult tightrope. If Supergirl were portrayed as too powerful—in the physical or relational realms—viewers would quickly lose interest, for audiences tend to relate better to protagonists who have failings like themselves. Yet the show’s creators needed to be wary of overcompensating and envisioning Kara as weak in comparison to her famous (male) counterpart. Supergirl largely succeeds at this balancing act, however, establishing early on the true range of her powers while also working hard to develop the supporting characters who help her persevere.
In developing this community across the first season, showrunners Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti, and Andrew Kreisberg remind viewers of the complexities inherent in human relationships (even if not every character involved is necessarily human). Supergirl’s relaxed tone initially seems at odds with the trauma of Kara Zor-el’s life: she has, after all, grown up orphaned after surviving the destruction of her homeworld, and her only surviving family members are a younger cousin who has now matured beyond her and an aunt and uncle who are her greatest foes. How could she possibly pass as an awkward but otherwise socially well-adjusted human, working a thankless job for a dictatorial media mogul?
As the season progresses, the answer becomes evident—it is precisely her adoptive family, her friends, and even her job that allow her to stay sane. By separating themselves from the humans around them, her Uncle Non and Aunt Astra (Chris Vance, Laura Benanti) cut themselves off from any similar hope for community, and as a result they become hardened and calloused to the life around them. Unlike DC figures like Batman and Aquaman, whose heroism derives in many ways from their very alienation, Supergirl is mentally strengthened because she is not alone. Her friends are not the source of her power, but they are the means by which she is able to keep her power within ethical boundaries.
Yet paradoxically, Supergirl’s greatest asset—her community—may also be her greatest weakness. If support from her sister, her co-workers at CatCo, and her colleagues at the DEO help her endure trying situations, she is concomitantly hindered and distracted any time a rift develops between them. Whether it is her ambiguous relationships status—Winn? James? Cat Grant’s son?—or her anger at deception from Henshaw and Alex, the Kryptonian Kara has the all-too-human propensity of letting her personal life interfere with business. But in this case, her business is saving National City.
Worse, her enemies often—knowingly or unknowingly—are able to exploit this weakness. Physically, Supergirl is largely invulnerable; but with the exception of Henshaw/J’onn, the people she loves are not. If Alex or James or Winn or Cat is taken hostage or threatened, Kara’s power is suddenly constrained. Her physical abilities are in no way diminished, but her attachment to those she loves makes her vulnerable.
But then, this vulnerability is also precisely what makes her a hero in the first place. Her empathy for the close-knit circle in whom she confides and from whom she receives emotional strength represents a microcosm of her concern for her new home of National City and—writ large—all Earth’s inhabitants. Kara’s job working for Cat Grant is important on a narrative level because it allows her near-immediate access to the vicissitudes of the city’s opinion toward Supergirl. National City’s perceptions of their local superhero rise and fall throughout the season, but the overall trend is toward greater and greater approval. Cat, Winn, James, and the others characters are the microcosm through which we begin to establish a sense of place and belonging, even as Kara herself does. Significantly, the writers ended season one with Supergirl using her public goodwill to break the city’s inhabitants free from a trance-like obedience to the villainous Non.
Non’s Myriad project is defeated because he, like most of Supergirl’s enemies, doesn’t understand true community. He may have truly loved Astra, but the two of them tend toward seeing individuals—human or Kryptonian—as means rather than ends. The same holds true of Non’s subsequent lover Indigo (Laura Vandervoort). A similarly agenda-oriented alliance occurs between Silver Banshee and Livewire (Italia Ricci, Brit Morgan) in “Worlds Finest,” where it is distinctly contrasted not only with Kara’s existing relationships but also with her alliance with The Flash (Grant Gustin)—who appropriately gives her relationship advice. Even the somewhat more ambivalent Maxwell Lord, who ostensibly wants to protect Earth from alien menaces, shows himself far too willing to sacrifice large swaths of National City’s population in the final episodes.
As Christians well know, these are precisely the tensions that love and community create. Love costs, and there is no greater love than the costliest love. Prior to creation, God existed from eternity in a state of perfect triune love, a state so ineffably beautiful that he chose to establish a cosmos simply so that he might freely share that love. He might well have refrained from creating, remaining in an invulnerable love. Instead, he formed an entire universe, including you and me, knowing before time that this love would—at least in one sense—cost him, that the only-begotten Son would need to die and experience pain, humiliation, death, and separation for this community in any measure to be restored.
True human (or, one might say, Kryptonian) love carries with it the danger—nay, the certainty—of hurt, because it exposes our hearts at their rawest and most vulnerable. For this reason, countless men and women fail to love at all or attempt to do so with a drastically atrophied and self-tainted version of love. Yet as is the case with the villains of Supergirl, such diminished, myopic views of love are ultimately self-defeating. Our weaknesses—our beating hearts, exposed to others—become our strength; or, as Paul might say, our “strength is made perfect in weakness” (KJV). As we prepare to enter into the season of Pentecost—the day when the Spirit’s power established loving community among the most insignificant of men and women—we would do well to remember that our own strength is not, nor has it ever been, of this world.