The key conceit at the center of the new TV show Supergirl is that we never actually meet her cousin, Superman, but she’s constantly in his shadow. The show pushed this pretty far in last night’s episode, and it just did not work. Spoilers ahead!
So as you can see from the GIF above, the big moment of “Fight or Flight” is when Superman randomly shows up to rescue Kara, when she’s fighting a supervillain that Superman could never defeat. Later in the episode, we actually see Supergirl and Superman instant-messaging, and Superman is represented by text on a screeen—because he can’t actually show up and talk on screen, but he can apparently text.
This is getting ridiculous. Apparently Supergirl can’t actually show Superman as a character, because he’s starring in movies, so they’re trying to turn this into an artsy creative choice—he’s the guy that you always see out of the corner of your eye, as he’s rushing off to save the world somewhere else. It’s sort of a cute idea, except the more they do it the more contrived it looks. And it makes Superman look like kind of a douche, who can’t spare five minutes to come talk to his cousin in person. He can fly to National City in a few seconds, whenever he wants. So even though the show is going for a “Superman is always offscreen but constantly looming as the figure that Supergirl is compared to” vibe, it gets too much when we keep seeing a Superleg or a Superarm, but no Superface.
Seriously, it’s just getting ridiculous, and this show seems determined to run it into the ground. It would be better, if we can’t see Superman’s face, just to never see Superman at all.
But also, there’s about to be a big-screen version of the Flash, who’s not played by Grant Gustin. (Much as we all wish they would just make the Arrow/Flash universe canon on the big screen.) Gotham makes no attempt to be in the same universe as the Bruce Wayne played by Ben Affleck. Superman Returns was on the big screen while Smallville was on television. There have been plenty of examples of TV and movie versions of characters being different and unconnected.
So let’s hope that Supergirl’s producers either convince Warner Bros. to let Supes appear on the big screen, or else just write him out of the show. Superman has gone on a mission in deep space, one of those seven-year space trips that he takes sometimes. I’m all for Supergirl being constantly compared to her cousin who’s offscreen and thus can never actually stand next to her for a fair comparison. But not if we’re going to do this silly “you just missed him, oh there’s his foot” crap.
Part of the problem is that this week’s villain, Reactron, is kind of underwhelming. He’s a dude who’s sick from radiation exposure after a nuclear power plant disaster that Superman stopped (but Reactron’s wife died in the accident, and he blames Supes.) Reactron has taken the logical decision that since he’s dying of radiation exposure, he should strap a nuclear reactor to his chest.
The thing about Reactron is he only has one power: He shoots nuclear energy or something. His beams look like they’d be pretty easy to dodge, especially if you had superspeed. Plus you could easily disable his chest reactor from a distance, if you had, I don’t know, freezing breath, heat vision, or the ability to generate shockwaves by clapping your hands. In fact, Supergirl defeats Reactron on their very first encounter, but then can’t just repeat that accomplishment the next few times they meet. For most of Supergirl’s fights agaisnt Reactron, her strategy is, as described by the Mountain Goats, “Show up in shining colors/And then stand there and get hit.”
A huge part of the problem is that the writers decided to throw two elements into the same story: “the villain that even Superman couldn’t beat,” and “the villain who’s just a regular human, so the DEO doesn’t want to help.” Combining those two elements is a terrible idea, because then you end up with a regular human that somehow kicked Superman’s ass, over and over. (Okay, so Lex Luthor. But Superman generally beats Lex Luthor.)
Meanwhile, the thing where the DEO doesn’t want to help Supergirl isn’t really utilized that well. First of all, Supergirl already has her own crew at CatCo who will do research and stuff for her—and as of this episode, they even have their own lair. Plus Alex, Supergirl’s sister, starts helping her pretty quickly. And when Hank sees what’s going on, using his crazy glowy-eye cyborg vision, he pretty much immediately decides to help.
The other part of the episode has to do with Cat Grant publishing her interview with Supergirl, in which she: A) reveals that Superman and Supergirl are cousins, and B) rambles incoherently about millennials, as if Superman has flown around the world backwards and we’ve rolled the clock back to 2010. Did you know that millennials are feckless? It is true. They lack feck.
For the second episode in a row, the best part of the show is James Olson, to the point where there’s almost no contest. In a show that’s still bombarding us with canned sentiment for the most part, James Olson seems to have a real emotional center, and a genuine character arc.
Basically, James Olson has his own “in Superman’s shadow” issues to cope with. he has the famous signal watch, which allows him to summon the Man of Steel whenever he has a problem. (Among this episode’s oddities: Why can Superman hear the signal watch with his Kryptonian hearing, but Supergirl can’t? Is it a thing where you have to be listening for the specific tone? She should figure that shit out.)
James has moved to National City to get away from Superman, because he was only famous as “Superman’s friend” and the Man of Steel’s main photographer. But he still has the reflex of hitting the button on his signal watch to summon Kal-El whenever he gets scared—and in this episode, he gets scared because Supergirl is going to face Reactron alone. So James hits the button, and Superman comes to save Supergirl just as she’s getting her ass kicked by this D-list villain.
Supergirl is understandably pissed at James, whom she’s trusted but also has his huge goofy crush on. He didn’t believe in her enough to think that she could take on Reactron by herself, but it also takes a lot for the cocky James Olson to open up and admit that this was an instinctive fear reaction on his part, not a “lack of faith” issue.
In the end of the episode, instead of reaching for the panic button, James puts himself in harm’s way, offering himself as a target for Reactron while Supergirl gets a plan together to defeat him, with science help from Alex and Hank.
But just as James has proved himself worthy of Kara’s supercrush, everything is ruined. Because his ex, Lucy Lane (Lois’ sister) shows up because she’s not happy with how they ended things. And Lucy and James are going to dinner. Noooo!
Oh, and meanwhile, Winn the office nerd with a crush on Supergirl is not quite realizing his potential as a supporting character at this point. Him setting up a secret lair is cute, and him pining over Kara is also kind of cute—but he needs an extra layer or two.
And finally, Max Lord. The guy who helps found the Justice League International in the comics is apparently becoming a major supporting character on this show. And he’s sort of a standard-issue “cocky rich smart guy” character, who’s building a supertrain that he wants to go faster than any train ever, and anybody who raises practical objections is fired, Donald Trump-style. Max Lord gets captured by Reactron, who forces him to fix the suit, and then gives Superman all the credit for saving him. And later, he engages in super-awkward flirtation with Cat Grant.
At this point, the main purpose of having Max Lord on the show is to have another person obnoxiously doubting Supergirl’s effectiveness, but also to put a powerful man in the cast, so it’s not just Cat Grant being catty. For now, though, he’s just sort of a female Cat Grant with touches of Tony Stark.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.