Supergirl Season 2 – Some Post-season Thoughts

The second season of Supergirl is now in the books and, overall, it’s been a welcome improvement over its premier season. Obviously I’ve got a few things to say about it, so let’s get to it.

Growth Spurt

While some of the improvement is due to the natural evolution of a show and the creative corrections that often occurs between seasons from lessons learned, a lot of credit has to be given to the change of networks. By consolidating Supergirl’s production in the same area as Arrow, The Flash, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, a lot of production resources and experiences could be shared. That combined with a re-balancing of the budget — specifically of the change in licensing fees — allowed the show to not only have a different feel and a greater pool of characters, but more intricately planned and executed effects.

This isn’t to say that the overall improvements didn’t come with a cost. The most obvious loss was of the constant presence of Calista Flockhart as Supergirl/Kara Danvers’ friend/mentor/surrogate mother Cat Grant, CEO of CatCo Worldwide Media. Her only appearances were in the first two and last two episodes of the season. Her presence in those four bookend episodes underscored the vacuum caused by her absence in the middle eighteen. We also lost some of the character of National City. Yes, a lot of the CGI models are still in play for the overhead shots, but having sun and palm trees one season followed by coats, foggy breath, and rain the following season forces some suspension of disbelief.

The mechanics and aesthetics of the show are hard to argue with. The fight choreography is levels above what it was in season 1 — often disciplined but also with haymakers when needed. The effects are larger, more complex, and more realistic. Both are on display nearly every outing instead of for just event episodes.

A disappointment has been the difficulty in nailing down the character models. The CG for Supergirl is understandably the most difficult (especially when compared to the Flash) because it has to account for the movements of hair, cape, and skirt. While the end result is often serviceable, sometimes it falls deep enough into the uncanny valley that these troublesome elements might as well be riding burros. The downsizing of Martian Manhunter, from about 2.4 m (8-ish feet) to more-or-less David Harewood size has made him seem less other-worldly. This was obviously done for budget as a man in a rubber suit on set is a lot cheaper and faster to finish in post than a composited out-sized character. While I accept this, I do miss having at least a few scene of J’onn at full size.

Character Arcs

This season there were three major character arcs: Alex’s coming out and relationship with Maggie; Kara forging a relationship with dude-bro Daxamite refugee Mon-El; and James’ attempt to step out from the shadow of his literally super friends. Each of these core arcs has sparked passions and derision throughout the season. While the passion has been laudable, it has bordered on toxic or pathological at some points — such is life in a fandom with a show people actually invest their emotions in.

I feel the only character arc that worked was Alex and Maggie. It was obviously well-planned and publicly committed to by the producers very early on. They knew where this was going and how it would evolve. Let me underscore that: They knew where this was going and how it would evolve. As a erstwhile screenwriter I cannot applaud that enough. In order to invest characters with the sort of verisimilitude necessary to spark the enthusiasm of an entire community, you can’t just be slapdash about it. You have to be honest, and in order to do that, unlike in real life, you have to plan the heck out of it. Every beat. Every word. Every significant event large and small. You can’t take it for granted and despite some whining from the viewing peanut gallery, they executed it very well.

I wish I could say the same about the other two arcs.

James’ arc with Guardian was a fustercluck from the get-go. Why? There had been no (none, nichts, nada) set up for there to be a reason for Guardian to exist. The best we got is that James has superhero envy and choose to combat his feelings of inadequacy by becoming a vigilante. Other than a toss-off line at the start by James that he’d earned a black belt, there was no set up for him having the ability to pull it off, which was put in high relief by the heavy reliance on Winn’s expertise.

This could have been addressed by exploring more the idea that Supergirl brought up not long after Guardian’s appearance: fighting ordinary crime for someone as OP as she gets boring. By spending a few episodes with that, by maybe having James be a participant in this discussion during, say, game night, there would now be the ember to fire the idea that a street-level vigilante might help free up Kara’s time. Now we have a motivation that makes sense. Unfortunately, even if it can be back-justified to this, the fact remains that the introduction of the character was rushed. This was a disservice to what Guardian could be and a disrespect to the character. It made James come off as too desperate in his need for recognition and validation. It was hard to watch most of the time.

As for Mon-El. The character is part of Supergirl canon, so he can’t be as readily dismissed despite the repeated whines of a number of reviewers and reactors. I previously wrote that I didn’t think his presence in the Kryptonian pod was the best use of a story opportunity, so I wasn’t his biggest supporter, either. Still, the enmity he garnered for whatever reason could have been mitigated if his evolution had been handled better.

The biggest complaints about Mon-El were his lack of respect, his irresponsibility, his questionable motivations, and the abundance of screen time for a seemingly pointless character (other than Kara’s obviously future boy-toy) at the expense of previously established characters and relationships.

I believe a key problem was that the writers were trying to have us go on this journey of trying to figure out Mon-El along with Kara. That was a mistake. His growth was spotty at best and this is because there was no context from which to see that growth. Flashbacks to Daxam, to his privileged upbringing on a world Kryptonians described as “awful” would have allowed the viewer an insight into how hard Mon-El was trying to break from what he’d learned was normal.

The small glimpse we saw of Mon-El’s true escape from the planet’s destruction, when he’d hesitate when witnessing those afraid or needing help, in contrast to his aide who was not only insensitive but murderous, showed that he might have been a Daxamite black sheep — someone who did have morals and heart but who didn’t have the support to let those traits flourish. Indeed, he was actively guided away from any show of empathy. If the audience had been given that context, Mon-El would have needed less time stumbling about to try to establish his character. Viewers, even anti-shippers, would have been more encouraging to see that yes, he was doing a harder thing than simply switching from a Hawai’ian shirt at the frat house to a suit at his new wear-a-suit job. It also would have established the threat Rhea posed thus making the arrival of the Daxamites more ominous.

It’s this sort of balancing act that makes writing hard. It’s the difference between showing the bomb-we-didn’t-know-was-there explode versus showing the timer on the bomb slowly tick down. When the audience knows more than the characters in certain situations, both the suspense and the payoff are more rewarding than any momentary surprise.

Season 3 wish list

So, what can they do going into the next season to elevate the show even more?

I think most people (me included) would say, “More Cat Grant”. Calista really needs to be in more than four bookended episodes a season. As she’s now confirmed her certainty that Kara is Supergirl, their mutual growth becomes much more interesting. (Also, how great is it that a civilian is now keeping identity knowledge secret from the hero? Also, or those wondering when she knew, go back to 1×19 “Myriad” to when Cat and Supergirl are talking on the CatCo balcony. When Cat recognizes Supergirl’s (slightly different than human?) shoulder anatomy is the same as Kara’s, she knows.)

Keep Lena Luthor a flawed but generally reliable ally. Something I haven’t touched on is the happy shining light that has been Kara’s friendship with Lena. Kara having a friend whose relationship isn’t tainted by knowledge she is also Supergirl is precious. I also fervently hope that should the secret be revealed, someday, in the far distant future, that Lena takes it relatively gently. Some fan voices are calling for the character to go evil just like Lex, but that emphasizes what makes for good writing. “Just like Lex” has been done to death, not just in comics but as recently as Smallville. I don’t think we need to put stop lights and corner bodegas on that well-traveled road.

Increase time with both the Danvers sisters and the Super Friends outside of work. The touchstone of season one was the personal, normal pockets of interaction between the characters. While some cast bloat has necessitated less of this, it was curtailed too much in season two. It’s a little tweak but helps make this show click.

Put a little more focus on the Girl of Steel herself. Having gotten the proverbial monkey off her back by defeating Superman, and thus shouldering the mantle of “Champion of Earth”, there should be more mini-arcs that feature her. Because of her experience, and if they keep Guardian on the streets, her appearances globally should start being as wide-reaching as Superman’s — saving villages from the occasional erupting volcanoes and the like.

Please continue Winn’s romance with Lyra. While it still has some legs in terms of plot device, I mostly like the idea that Winn is species-flexible (as is Kara, when you think about it). It’s really much more of a profound idea than has been explored on the show to this point. I mean, Kara really doesn’t have a choice if she doesn’t want to be alone, but Winn’s open-mindedness can serve as a potential social allegory in future stories.

Start letting Martian Manhunter be the hero he’s capable of. Too often the Martian has to be taken out of the picture. I think the most clumsy is “somehow I can’t read his mind”. Too convenient. An extension of this is the show needing a detailed bible (not the comics archives) for all the writers that gives the backstories and power limits and — this is über-important — sticking to it. For example, explain that phasing takes a lot of energy and so after about a handful of times, he’s spent.

Continue the idea that alien-looking aliens still have a hard row to hoe on this planet no matter how many times they help save it.

As Mon-El is likely to return (again, he looms large in Supergirl lore), I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s gotten some graduate training with the Legion of Super-heroes. At least give him a ring so he can fly and a suit so he doesn’t look so rent-a-cop paramilitary. If he does return, I hope his screen time is balanced more to what it was at the end of the season than in the middle. Personally, I’d rather it be for just a guest starring arc. National City is starting to be overwhelmed with super-powered do-gooders. (I understand Star City has openings for some supers for when the weird happens. The Legends also seem to be on the lookout for new interns.)

On a related note, it’s likely that Supergirl is going to be dealing with having let her first love go after killing his mother and unleashing what was essentially a WMD poison gas attack on the planet. My hope is that by the time the season starts she’s mostly over it. I’d expect the prime manifestation would be trying to find solace in Supergirling about — taking that “Earth’s champion” title seriously. If that included some return to her interactions with kids and the public at large — not because they were in danger but just because — it might be cool to see.

I know I’m in a minority on this, but I wouldn’t mind a little less fan-service. While I appreciate that many characters from the comic books have been given updates when they appear, I feel there could be gold to be mined from originality. Yes, it’s riskier, but that sort of makes it more fun.

It is also my fervent hope that no matter who the big bad ends up being, it’s one that isn’t yet another 10/20/100 steps ahead pseudo-omniscient villain the superhero universe seems so full of these days. I loathe those sorts of antagonists. They are boring as all get out. You can’t play chess with them. You can’t play go. There is no proactivity from the hero, only reaction — and that is poor writing and lazy plotting. From the best episodes of the season, we all know the creative team is better than that.

From my writer’s point of view, I’d like all the character arcs to be well considered beforehand and not just vaguely outlined. It never felt like James’ or Mon-El’s character arcs — i.e. the emotional-growth signposts they had to reach at certain episodes before we even consider actual plot elements — were very well thought out. It also didn’t seem like Kara got a ton of that, either, but story needs did help her to stumble through it. It felt like the show was being plot-driven at times instead of character-driven. I’m sure a lot of time was spent in the writer’s room breaking the stories, but it’s my hope that as much if not more time is spent in season 3 with evolving the characters from point A to B, C, D, E, F, and so forth. If that’s done, then the story will tend to present itself. I’m not saying have a lot of exposition scenes, just that character needs should be driving the story instead of plot — that can happen just as well within action sequences as with talking heads.

Lastly, as it won’t be a surprise if the anointed pod baby ends up being Reign — who is not a bad antagonist — I hope its exposure is managed. Season-long villains, even if they click with the audience, get tiresome. The other arrowverse shows have proven that. Most villains are only good for about 8-10 not-necessarily-contiguous episodes, not 22. I’d go more the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. route and make the story more intertwined with other compelling arcs.

Closing Thoughts

Before I wrap this up, I do want to make some more comments about the Alex and Maggie relationship as well as some general thoughts on what has become one of my indulgences following an episode: video reactions (because the two are sort of connected).

It was an honor to see how well the journey that Alex found herself going through was executed. While the writing was excellent, as it had to be, Chyler’s raw honesty during her scenes with Kara in 2×06 “Changing” can only be classed as Emmy-worthy. You see the fear, the hope, the courage, and many other emotions as she lays bare to her sister a truth she only recently realized herself. The phrase that was common among pretty much all the LGBT reactors, all of whom have had to go through that experience themselves, was “That’s so honest!”. In that one episode on a silly little superhero show, for good or for ill, a community was gobsmacked by a personal story that resonated beyond already elevated expectations. I’ve lived a while, and I know how special it was to see that sort of love and appreciation being shared both on- and off-screen. If there was no other positive to take away from this season of Supergirl, that would have been enough.

As I’ve written before, that was my introduction to the world of reaction videos on YouTube. It was interesting to see, as the season progressed, the ebbs and flows of shared sentiments as well as my own personal preferences. I truly appreciate the time and effort it takes for all the reactors to do what they do. Having done television show reviews and recaps in the past, both professionally and as a fan, I know it isn’t always fun or easy. I also know firsthand that it is the power of fandom emerging from characters and stories that resonate that compels fans to want to share their love. I thank you all for doing so.

I’ve learned that I mostly prefer single-person reactions. I don’t doubt that this is in large part due to my Aspie introversion and difficulty in understanding how people can chat and go on extended tangents without pausing the video while a show is playing. It makes me tense to see them miss things. Because this is so common, perhaps they are able to listen and speak at the same time and it’s my inability to do so that causing me to project my stress onto them. Pause buttons — not just for bathroom breaks anymore.

While, as I said, I have preferences, that hasn’t really excluded anyone or anygroup because of that. I find it’s actually more about the personalities I’ve come to enjoy and with whom I want to share the fan experience. The fact is, as I’ve been in some fandom or other for much of my life, I enjoy the diversity of people and views, and I love getting to agree or disagree with the people on the screen. It’s just as Cat outlined to Supergirl in the penultimate episode of the season: it’s all about the human connection, no matter how virtual.

As for the various shippers, I have found that, regardless of their ship, I most enjoy the ones who are in the 1- or 2-sigma range — i.e. not at one of the extremes of anti-shipping. I love the passion of people embracing the parts of the show that click with them. I have a harder time with active anti-shippers whose reactions border on the pathological or pointedly passive-aggressive (e.g. editing out anything that doesn’t conform to their worldview). I get it. There are storylines on shows that will compel me to just not watch some episodes (I will read recaps — have to stay current, after all). It’s all understandable and very human, but sometimes when it’s in public it gets ugly. My request would be to try not to yuck on someone else’s yum.

And that is really what the point of the season was: respecting the human connections that make us happy. Whether it was Alex and Maggie, Winn and James, Kara and Mon-El, Winn and Lyra, J’onn and M’gann, or other combinations. The fact is the show consistently tried to reinforce the core value of Supergirl, the reason for that glyph on the chests of the last children of Krypton: el mayarah (stronger together).

I’m sure I’ll have more things Supergirl to talk about in the not too distant future (according to my edited snippets, at least as much as in this one), but I think I’ve taxed your TL;DR strain gauges far enough. I want to thank everyone connected to the show and its fandom for making a lifelong fangeezer’s heart very happy, and I’ll see the rest of you robot zombies soon.

 

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