Saturday, 31 October 2015

Review: Supergirl - S1E01 (Pilot)

Comic-book fans have been crying out for a female-led super-hero franchise for some time with Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Black Widow among the names being thrown around for promotion to a starring role. While each and every one of those potential films have faced struggles and delays during their journey to the screen, CBS's new TV series Supergirl has come together relatively quickly. Beginning development in September of 2014, the show is now airing on screens around the world just over a year later: but is it worth your time? Having made it's debut with a trailer reminiscent to an SNL sketch about the misinterpretation of female super heroes, many assumed the show would be terrible - perhaps only marginally better than the much maligned 1984 film starring Faye Dunaway. With that in mind it's quite a pleasant surprise that Supergirl has started off relatively strong, with a pilot episode arguably better than recent episodes of the CW's Arrow in terms of entertainment value.

This episode sets up what this series is going to be very efficiently setting up both a likeable main cast and an overarching antagonist. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this pilot was that it was a little formulaic and didn't really break any new ground in terms of what these DC super-hero shows are doing. Sure, the protagonist is a woman instead of a man but outside of that the same procedural 'monster of the week' structure that's been the norm since Smallville began in 2001 is still in use here, while the CW-esque melodrama also remains a prominent device. I don't criticize Supergirl too heavily for using these familiar practices as this is network television after all, so to expect anything too edgy would be foolish. However, it does have me wondering just how many more shows can be launched adopting this same formula which audiences will surely grow tired of at some point.

Fortunately, Melissa Benoist brings a lot of fun to the titular role and her charismatic performance immediately had me on the side of Kara Danvers and her mission to help the people of National City (side note: is National City the most generic name for a city in the history of fiction? Yes. Yes, it is.) Jeremy Jordan's character Winslow "Winn" Schott is probably the most loveable member of the supporting cast at this point, although admittedly he seems to be doing little more than filling the role taken by Felicity Smoak on Arrow and Cisco Ramone on The Flash. Chyler Leigh's Alex Danvers comes a close second as her relationship with Kara is well-defined in this opening chapter, while her admission that she felt jealous of Kara's abilities felt like a very understandable human response to your parents adopting a super-powered alien.
Less memorable were the characters of James Olsen, Cat Grant and Hank Henshaw who by this episode's end still feel little more developed than the basic archetypes of helpful friend, bitchy boss and stern government man - although it will be interesting to see if this show draws at all on the latter's troubled comic-book history. That could be a cool arc to watch unfold in live-action. I don't judge Supergirl too harshly for having a few undeveloped characters as it is tough to fit everything in to one pilot, and it's likely this series will have twenty or so episodes to add some interesting elements to those characters currently lacking depth.

One thing I must praise Supergirl for is its action sequences. It's immediately clear that CBS have invested a sizeable amount of money into this show. The airplane rescue looked surprisingly convincing as did Kara's numerous leaps into flight - thank goodness special effects have progressed since the days of Smallville, or we may have had ten years of Kara running in front of a green screen instead. Additionally, the fight with Owain Yeoman's Vartox was also well choreographed even if the villain himself was rather one dimensional. Sadly, that's the case with most of the villains on these shows. The fact of the matter is that the writers on these series' have less than forty minutes to give a villain their powers, establish there goals and chronicle their demise and it simply isn't enough time to do anything truly compelling.

Still, in spite of its flaws Supergirl has already gone above and beyond my expectations. This pilot undoubtedly has problems - some of them it shares with fellow DC shows Arrow and The Flash - but there is real promise here for this series to improve over time. The supporting cast has potential although admittedly could use some development, but Benoist is a genuinely impressive lead whose fun performance will draw me back for a few weeks at least to see if this show's weaker elements can be righted. Could it be that the first successful live-action female super-hero franchise could originate from the small screen as opposed to a bigger budget film franchise? This solid pilot ensures that it's far from out of the question.


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