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Sharing the Skies: Why the Presence of Superman on SUPERGIRL is a Warning Signal

By on October 7, 2016
Supergirl

Supergirl | Photo © CW Network

Supergirl’s premiere marked a major first for modern comic-to-TV adaptations.

With Kara Danvers arrival at CBS, the Kryptonian cousin to Clark Kent became the first DC heroine to headline her own series. In an ever-expanding crime fighter spread that has largely been dominated by men, her presence was eagerly welcomed.

However, it seems that after a mildly successful first season featuring a powerful and emotionally complicated heroine, a slathering of female guest and recurring roles, and dramatically dynamic female relationships, The CW is looking to take the focus of Supergirl’s second season in a distinctly different direction. That direction points to Kara sharing the spotlight with her more famous (and male) Kryptonian family member, Superman.

Adding Clark Kent to Supergirl’s universe is an inevitable development choice that under different circumstances would feel entirely organic. But the launch of Superman into the skies of National City is, at this point in Kara’s storyline, a questionable move. Especially for a network that has only recently acquired the female-driven series, but has seemingly featured the prolific male hero in almost every one of Supergirl’s season two promos. Especially also for a network that after debuting three of its own superhero shows since 2012, failed to develop a single one around a female lead. The soaking masculinity of The CW’s DC TV universe, as well as Clark’s consistent presence in season two’s promotional material, is raising some red flags about the introduction of one of DC’s golden trio and more importantly, Kara’s series going forward.

Pictured left to right: Chyler Leigh and Melissa Benoist Photo: Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Pictured left to right: Chyler Leigh as Alex and Melissa Benoist as Kara | Photo: Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Greg Berlanti series is that it has, from the start, been quite intentionally female-oriented. But despite Supergirl’s roster of bad girls (Live Wire, Siobhan Smythe, Indigo and more), and its good ones (Cat Grant, Alex Danvers and Lucy Lane), and its decision to tackle — perhaps not perfectly — the language of gender discrimination (What’s wrong with the word girl?), Supergirl’s most central, complex, and investing relationship ultimately lies between Kara and her sister, Alex. From Alex supporting Kara through the devastating Astra reveal through Kara fighting bitterly with Alex after becoming infected by red kryptonite, these two aren’t just compelling characters; their relationship helps drive both their personal development and the show’s larger plots.

But with the many 30-second clips and promo photos showing Kara and Clark constantly side-by-side on a show that should feature Kara front and center regardless of how famous her cousin is, it’s hard not to find his sudden constant presence off-putting. Or worse, erasing.

So why would Clark’s relationship to Kara ultimately be a threat to Kara’s story? The answer to that lies in the connection we already know Clark has established with her.

Despite the hype about Clark’s arrival, season two isn’t our first introduction to the man of steel. In fact, he made several text-message appearances during Supergirl’s first season, in addition to appearing as a shadowy figure in episode three, “Fight or Flight” as as nothing more than a pair of red boots in a later episode. There’s no doubt the series has worked to establish Kent as an influential force in Kara’s life. In almost every instance he “appears,” he’s offering aid and guidance to his younger cousin. It’s the kind of guidance that Alex offers to Kara on a more human and less heroic level.

But rather cleverly, season one kept Clark in the shadows. Unlike her relationship with Alex, Clark’s type of mentor-ship presents a patronizing possibility a la  the independent character on her own journey suddenly attains a male mentor who doesn’t just want to share the skies with her, but worse case scenario, he fights them with her or for her. Fortunately, common sense, and good writing meant the physical distance between these two characters ultimately forced Kara to learn how to survive and get better, without the help of her more well known cousin, and the show was the better for it.

Pictured (L-R): Tyler Hoechlin as Clark/Superman and Melissa Benoist Kara/Supergirl -- Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW

Pictured (L-R): Tyler Hoechlin as Clark/Superman and Melissa Benoist Kara/Supergirl — Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW

There’s also the fact that as one of DC’s most well known heroes, Clark naturally overshadows Kara, and just about any other hero. As a result, he has the potential to turn her narrative into his own. When it comes to Supergirl season one, the story was unapologetically about Kara, her womanhood and her potential power. From the show’s color palette and settings to its comedic tone and the largely non objectifying gaze of its cameras, Supergirl is a clear and refreshing deviation from the norm.

It not only centralized a female character, but reveled in her layers, playing with concepts of romance, strength, femininity, power, agency, and identity in relation to gender. In fact, critics of the show often slammed it for dealing too heavily with what they deemed “gender politics.” While they may not have liked the series’ choice to explore how Kara’s gender permeates not just her perception of her own heroism but every aspect of her existence, it helped the series stand out from its counterparts and elevate Kara out of “Clark’s cousin” territory. That’s no easy feat when you consider the level of leading man Clark Kent is.

Clark’s presence has always been distinctly commanding and instantly distinguishable. It’s a fact reinforced by his origins as one of our culture’s first major superheroes, his long running comics series, and its numerous adaptations (Man of Steel, Superman Returns, Smallville and Lois and Clark). Kara, too, is a distinctive character, but has received significantly less exposure. It’s a result of the amount of time she’s existed relative to her cousin, but also her gender.

A major part as to why we’ve seen fewer iterations of Kara versus her cousin is that historically we’ve seen fewer iterations of female superheroes. In fact, of all the many superheroes now on our TV and movie screens, she is only one of six female leads given a shot at headlining their own franchise. That’s right, six. In a market believed to be over-saturated with superheroes by 2018. Supergirl exists in a very small bubble of female-led comic adaptations along with the likes of Agent Carter, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Jessica Jones, and arguably Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Daisy Johnson. But as we mentioned, Clark’s story has been told more times than probably anyone asked for. We don’t need another side plot or variation of who Clark Kent will become or has become. We need more stories about Kara.

Pictured (L_R) Tyler Hoechlin as Clark and Melissa Benoist Kara -- Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

Pictured (L_R) Tyler Hoechlin as Clark and Melissa Benoist as Kara — Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

None of this is to say that Clark’s presence should be avoided. They are cousins after all with similar or shared experiences. Not to mention, Kara made an appearance in The CW’s now defunct Superman origins series Smallville. It’s a completely natural crossover that could yield some interesting drama. But Kara showed up in season seven of Clark’s story. The CW had Supergirl for three seconds before it readied Clark to take to the skies… in season two.

The reality that so few female characters are considered to headline their own show, or that superhero shows would allow themselves to be so steeped in sharing a facet of the female experience — from friendships to the workplace to personal identity — makes me shrink from the prospect of her sharing major screen time with a character like Clark. Our male heroes aren’t sharing the spotlight with their female counterparts, so why should women like Kara have to make room for them? National City’s skies never belonged to Superman, but if you saw The CW’s season two promos for Supergirl, you’d never know.

And frankly, that’s a warning signal for one of our only female-driven superhero shows.