Thursday, 9 June 2016

Heroine Fix: Supergirl: Women of Steel

This month's Heroine Fix is less about the version of the character I originally met, which would be Helen Slater in the 1984 movie Supergirl, and more about the latest one, who has inspired me in my writing.

To be fair, Supergirl has always felt a little bit like an after-thought in DC's character development.  "Eh, we need a girl.  Throw an S on her chest and call it a day."

 I'm not sure if Superman's look of dismay is more because she's a girl, because he's never heard of her before or wondering if she's going to take over his comic run.  I like the subtle emphasis that she has all his powers.  Although I suspect it has it's roots in the need to quickly develop the character, it also implies that she is the absolute equal of the most powerful man in the universe.

I watched the 1984 movie so often that I wore out the VHS tape.  Except, I have to admit that it wasn't for Helen Slater's title character.  It was Faye Dunaway's world-altering magical abilities which captured my attention.  She was one of the first female villains I'd seen who wasn't the least bit repentant or ashamed of her powers.  She eagerly sought the opportunity to be more powerful and had no compunctions about using it to improve her life and status.  

 Dunaway's presence was so commanding that she stole the show (at least in my mind) from Supergirl.  I did like how Helen Slater ended up coming to Earth because she inadvertently put what was left of the entire civilization of Krypton at risk because she was fooling around with something she wasn't supposed to.  As a kid who frequently got caught messing around with stuff I wasn't supposed to, I could relate to that.

But that seemed to be her last human moment.  After that, she had the same challenges as her male alter-ego: too much perfection to connect with.

 I gave up on the House of El and headed on over to the Marvel side of the street, where characters are deeply, sometimes tragically flawed, giving me lots of depth for my writer's brain to play with.

When the new Supergirl TV series was announced, I had some mixed feelings.  On the one hand, yay!  Supporting Y-chromosome-challenged heroes!  On the other, why did they have to pick Supergirl?  Why not Wonder Woman or Catwoman or Huntress or... just about anyone else other than Supergirl?

Still, I watched.  I told myself it couldn't possibly be as bad as I was afraid it was.  When the pilot was horrible, I made myself give it another chance.  And to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying it.

Some of that I put squarely on Melissa Benoist's shoulders.  She brings a vulnerability to the role, regardless of whether she's playing Supergirl or Cara Danvers.  She's not certain what she should be as a grown up or a superhero and she's struggling to figure it all out.  (Learning she needs a cape for aerodynamic cornering was hilarious.)  She's determined to get there, refusing to run to Superman for rescue even when she isn't sure she can defeat her enemies on her own.  She wants to learn, even when it means getting it wrong.  It's the exact opposite of the perfectionism which I hated in 1984.

The part which really caught me was the play between the different female characters.  They are all strongly developed with unique, three dimensional personalities.  Cara's boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) initially comes off as a Devil Wears Prada clone, but didn't stay that way.  She's demanding because she's constantly fighting for recognition and to improve her company.  She's hard because she's had enough of being trampled on, which makes her rare moments of softness poignant and moving.  Then there's Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), Cara's adoptive sister, who works for a secret government agency which monitors aliens on Earth (sadly, not the Men in Black).  She's strong and smart, but has that niggling insecurity which has to happen when your adoptive sister can punch the fridge through the wall and down the street.  The sisterly relationship between Cara and Alex is frought with rivalry and affection and is the highlight of the series.

Even the female villains have depth.  I've never once gotten the impression that Supergirl is being given the runt of the evil litters.  These are foes who could challenge any cape-wearer.

I've been inspired by the way that Supergirl has interwoven the challenges of being a woman and then challenges of being a superhero and the challenges of being adopted, an outsider and hiding a secret.  There's a complexity and depth which I hadn't realized I was missing until I found it.

Cara and Supergirl have encouraged me to look at the female friendships and mentorships in my own stories and work on increasing the depth and complexity.  They've shown me a new aspect of stories that I want to write and at this stage of the game, that's a rare thing for a comic book adaptation to do.

So I'll be back with my popcorn and cheering when Season 2 starts, notebook in hand and ready to fly.

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