Melissa Benoist as ‘Supergirl’ has some fight in her

26 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Behind the scenes with ‘Supergirl’.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. Kara (Melissa Benoist) is originally from the planet Krypton, and she is burdened and blessed with the same superpowers as her cousin, Kal-El, also known as Superman.

But for his latest glorification of the genre, executive producer Greg Berlanti has moved to CBS, the galaxy ruled by Mark Harmon and Jim Parsons — the stoic and the geek — to give its viewers a featherweight tale of female empowerment called “Supergirl.” Here’s the setup: Kara Zor-El escaped the doomed planet Krypton with her parents’ help at the same time as the infant Kal-El, who grew up to be Superman (her cousin).Viewers expecting the title character in “Supergirl” to spend her shift treating the Justice League of America as a dating service and transforming the Fortress of Solitude into an appletini bar are about to have their sexist stereotypes shattered into a million pieces of Kryptonite.That’s the vibe in the dark, cave-like Department of Extra-Normal Operations, where a weakened Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) pushes back when her alter ego’s adoptive sister, Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), tells her to get some rest in an upcoming episode of the latest DC Comics TV series, Supergirl (CBS, Monday, 8:30 p.m.

— On Friday in Tuned In I wrote about CBS’s “Supergirl” (8:30 tonight, KDKA-TV), which begins with a strong pilot episode that introduces an optimistic title character and plays up “girl power” bonafides as it addresses the fact that’s she’s Supergirl (Melissa Benoist, above) and not Superwoman in a speech by Kara’s boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). “Sometimes there’ a temptation there by executives to alter things that I think is part of the DNA of what was so great about the comic book,” Berlanti said in a teleconference with reporters last week. “We wanted to be protective of the name of the show and have a conversation with out characters that we believe the audience would be having as well. But she has chosen to hide her formidable light — being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound — under a bushel and pass as human. Protected by her foster family, the Danvers (played by Helen Slater, star the 1984 film “Supergirl,” and Dean Cain, star of the ’90s series “Lois & Clark”), Kara learned to conceal her phenomenal powers — she can fly, see through walls and has superhuman strength (like her famous cousin) in order to keep her identity a secret. ET/PT). “We don’t have time for you to big-sister me,” Supergirl says, inserting a bit of sibling tension into a battle with aliens that could decide the fate of their home, National City. She’s an adult woman, why isn’t this called ‘Superwoman’?” “One of the things I love about this show is it’s a real celebration of girl power,” Flockhart said at an August press conference. “ And I was really attracted to this show because I think it’s a great show for moms and daughters to watch together.

She’s a timid 24-year-old who, like many women in the world of TV superheroes, and in the world of human beings, too, have excluded themselves from typically male power roles. “After all,” Kara says, “Earth doesn’t need another hero.” And so “Supergirl,” which premieres on Monday at 8:30 p.m., sets its path as not just a show about a female superhero, but a show that knows it’s about a female superhero. The script, by Berlanti, Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg, is a by-the-numbers affair that offers the character’s origin story up front, introduces the villain at just the right moment, throws in the requisite unexpected complication at the three-quarter mark and saves one twist for the final moment. But as Krypton explodes, Kara’s rocket ship is knocked off course into the Phantom Zone, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind (and slightly irresponsible) interdimensional prison for Krypton’s greatest criminals.

Any temptations to turn the drama into a platform for feminism issues are dealt with swiftly and smartly in a scene in which Benoist’s alter ego, a mild-mannered personal assistant, questions the term “supergirl” to her boss (a delicious Calista Flockhart), who dismisses such frivolous matters like Ally McBeal would shoo away an extra slab of pecan pie. At one point in the first episode, Kara, who finally decides to use her powers to fight evildoers in National City and not languish in her cousin’s shadow, stresses over the fact that she has been dubbed by the media “Supergirl” rather than “Superwoman.” At another point, a waitress expresses her excitement about the appearance of Supergirl: “Can you believe it?” she says. “A female hero. Because of a warping of the space-time continuum that might not make sense even to the ubiquitous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kara arrives on Earth years after Kal. There’s a galaxy to save — and Benoist does it with believable inner and outer strength without ever abandoning the plucky, wholesome nature of a grown-up Laura Ingalls.

Supergirl will feature plenty of DC Comics characters, including Reactron, Livewire and Red Tornado, and it mixes genres, says executive producer Ali Adler. “It’s very much an action-adventure series. The Berlanti team makes the most of Flockhart, which is to say she appears only a few times in the premiere, so the character’s plush snootiness retains its comic sting. Perhaps it’s because the show comes from Greg Berlanti, who has proven with CW’s The Flash and Arrow that he knows a secret to making these kind of series that has yet to be revealed to the folks behind Heroes Reborn or Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In Kara’s earthbound life, she is the much put-upon assistant of Cat Grant, a media mogul played by Calista Flockhart with more than a dollop of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada.” She’s cold and stiff as she tosses insults and demands at Kara. “Cancel sushi with my mother,” she orders, “and cancel my therapist.

The special effects are less than special and it’s never properly explained why cousin Superman hasn’t at least stopped by with a housewarming gift. Or perhaps it’s simply that Supergirl’s mix of optimism and adventure — laced with messages of self-discovery and female empowerment and held together by a completely winning performance from Melissa Benoist — is simply a nearly irresistible combination.

Supergirl is designed to fill a feminine niche that has been too long ignored, as it makes clear with everything from a diner waitress thrilled that her daughter finally has someone like Supergirl to admire, to a spirited let’s-get-this-out-of-the-way defense from Calista Flockhart (as media mogul Cat Grant) of the word “girl.” But just as Flash does not exclude female viewers, Supergirl does not exclude their male counterparts: it’s a family show, designed to be watched by all members of any family. And, it’s an amazing visual-effects spectacular.” During a break on the DEO set — a blend of technological future and geological past that features computer banks, stalactites and the spaceship that transported Kara Zor-El, as she was known on Krypton — Benoist says she’s playing two characters in very different environments. “You see Kara kicking ass as Supergirl.

She was sent to Earth by her mother (Broadway great Laura Benanti) to protect her baby cousin, but her ship got waylaid, and by the time she reached Earth, he had grown into Superman and she felt she no longer had a mission. The tension is amusing, and it helps “Supergirl” avoid the dark, overwrought, and now clichéd atmosphere of too many superhero movies and TV shows. In the course of the story, we learn that Kara’s arrival on Earth coincided with the release of the scariest aliens in the galaxy from a Kryptonite prison (are you still with me?). If we call her ‘Supergirl,’ something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?” But when a hulking bad guy starts punching her in the face, it’s hard not to think of that terrible video of Ray Rice beating his then-fiancee in an elevator.

So she tries to fit in, working for Cat Grant while ignoring the romantic longings of her friend Winn (Jeremy Jordan), and possibly crushing herself on her boss’s latest hire, famous photographer James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks). Because it’s on CBS and not the CW, this new super-series will need to find a more sizable audience than “The Flash” or “Arrow.” But, judging from the pilot, “Supergirl” has a decent chance at learning to fly. On the highway of life, I’ve zoomed past that billboard that reads, “Your childhood heroes don’t look anything like you.” Judging by the reactions of people on TV and social media, I might be handling our current pop cultural shifts a little better than others. Yet she’s always felt the need to help people, and when her sister (Chyler Leigh) faces disaster, Kara seizes her chance to be who she was meant to be.

What could undermine the show’s likability is too much emphasis on the crime plots, as Kara goes up against a population of alien criminals who’ve come to our planet to take over. One of them — a tall, strapping fellow named Vartox (Owain Yeoman) — goes mano-a girl-o with Kara and she kicks his butt, despite his glaring physical advantages.

There are some heavy messages entangled there, but the pilot treads lightly and moves swiftly, quickly establishing the evil force Kara will have to fight and the team she’ll have by her side. Those special-effects battles, and some of the mythology involving Kara’s past and her parents, need to stay peripheral for “Supergirl” to continue to fly so effortlessly.

The cast (which includes myth-appropriate cameos from Dean Cain and Helen Slater) is good throughout, with Brooks and Jordan suitably supportive and Flockhart seemingly relishing her Devil Wears Prada role. Though many may roll their eyes at the thought of yet another superhero TV show or movie — especially one featuring Superman’s Kryptonian cousin — “Supergirl” is better than it has any right to be. But obviously, the show could not work if the blend of joy, shyness and hesitant self-assertion Benoist brings to her role did not seem just about perfect.

Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in “Fantastic Four” and Laurence Fishburne was cast as Perry White in “Man of Steel.” That sort of bellyaching reached a new low last week when Disney released the trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Under the social media hashtag #boycottstarwars, people complained there were few white characters in the new film, which is due in U.S. theaters Dec. 18. The movement may have been an elaborate joke by Internet trolls, but it didn’t stop people from talking about it. “Sam Wilson: Captain America” has the African-American hero formerly known as the Falcon picking up Cap’s shield and using his newfound status to talk about the problems in this country, racism chief among them. In response, Fox News posted commentary from a writer for “The Right Scoop”: “This is obviously a response to Donald Trump making illegal immigration a huge issue in this election campaign. … Geez, it’s getting harder and harder to give anything Marvel Comics does the time of day.” In the original “Star Wars,” when Obi-Wan and Luke walk into that wretched hive of scum and villainy, the Mos Eisley cantina, they’re told the droids have to stay outside. Our parents’ black-and-white “The Adventures of Superman” becomes our children’s “Supergirl.” And Luke Skywalker gives way to a young woman named Rey.

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