Supergirl producers on the politics of making a female superhero

26 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

CBS’ ‘Supergirl’ Struggles To Get Off The Ground.

Supergirl, premiering tonight on CBS, follows in the same path of other prime-time DC Comics superheroes established on the CW by Arrow and The Flash. With Supergirl taking flight on CBS tonight, we spoke with executive producers Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash) and Ali Adler (Glee, Chuck) in separate interviews to ask some of our burning questions, particularly about the politics of making broadcast’s first female-driven costumed superhero show on a Big 4 network in decades.Last spring, SNL aired a spoof of Avengers: Age of Ultron that roundly mocked how Marvel — and, by extension, much of Hollywood — might approach stories about female superheroes.

This isn’t some easy mash-up of “Ally McBeal” meets “Smallville,” despite the presence of the former show’s Calista Flockhart and the nods to Krypton. Well, there’s The Flash and Arrow over at the CW, Gotham on Fox, Heroes: Reborn on NBC, Marvel’s Agents of Shield on ABC, and Daredevil, Jessica Jones and three other shows in the works on Netflix, so the short answer to your question is: a lot. So it didn’t help at all when the first trailer for CBS’s Supergirl seemed to indicate that the show would make all the same limiting assumptions about what audiences wanted from the property. The Superman family franchise is as reliable, and family-friendly, as it gets: The Adventures of Superman was TV’s first superhero hit show in the ’50s, and more recent times have given us such successful variations as Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville, which, respectively, were a prequel and a pre-prequel to the Man of Steel story.

In his other superhero-TV productions, Berlanti typically likes to slow-roll the build to his crimefighter’s full assumption of the cape, if not the new identity. It looked like DC Comics meets The Devil Wears Prada, with Supergirl schlepping coffee for her cruel,exceedingly fashionable boss while falling in love with her hot coworker.

Melissa Benoist, from Glee, plays Kara, whose space capsule from the doomed planet Krypton takes a time-warp detour on her way to protect her younger cousin, who was headed for Earth. Supergirl, which premieres tonight, opens by intentionally checking off each of those “chick-flick” beats in the first 10 minutes — and then proceeds to turn the tropes upside-down. That’s good news for Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), the head of her own media empire, who spends the first episode being offended by the cheap pants of assistant Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) — hello, “Devil Wears Prada” — while reveling in the fact that her city now has a Kryptonian of its own to splash on the front pages of her newspapers and websites. There’s a leaked email from a Marvel executive a few years ago essentially saying, “This is why female superheroes don’t work,” and it listed three examples of ones that didn’t work over a long history of time.

Cat doesn’t realize, of course, that the young woman she sends out for lettuce wraps is the same person who she has, by the series premiere, famously named Supergirl. And that’s where this Supergirl show provides its biggest, and only, spark — because that media titan, named Cat Grant, is played by Calista Flockhart.

Almost since the show’s title was announced, the series has drawn sidelong glances and tsk-tsks because a 20something woman is named “SuperGIRL.” The show is smart to address this from the get-go, in meta-fashion. Supergirl stars Melissa Benoist as Kara Zor-El, the older cousin of Superman who, in a more modern take on the character, was originally tasked with watching over him moments before Krypton’s destruction. When Kara herself complains about the name, Cat — who has splashed the headline-friendly “Supergirl” across her pages — contends that anyone who doesn’t like it might be the one who’s got the real problem. He gives her a foster home with a California couple (played by former Supergirl Helen Slater and former Superman Dean Cain) who have a daughter about the same age named Alex (Chyler Leigh). When she finally makes it to Earth, stripped of her original purpose, Kara sets out to do what any normal, Midwestern girl from space would do: try to make it in the big city as a personal assistant.

It’s okay for supervillains to be more interesting than the comic-book heroes — that’s been true, especially in DC Comics, every since the first appearances of The Joker and Catwoman. If “Supergirl” is going to be another hit for Berlanti — no small task on a bigger network than the CW, and in a time slot that already has a DC Comics property (Fox’s “Gotham”) — Benoist is going to have to be equal parts captivating when in the cape and boots, and when the Danvers glasses are on in civilian life. It’s like watching Perry White steal every scene from Clark Kent — and even when Cat Grant uses her media platform to christen the new flying hero Supergirl, Kara, though she hates the name, doesn’t put up much of a fight. Also the non-powered crush objects, both Jimmy and co-worker Winn (Jeremy Jordan), have little agency in the story, a role usually reserved for sidelined female characters.

In tonight’s premiere episode, little of this series gels — especially not the idea that Kara and her equally super cousin, because they live in different cities, seldom make contact with one another. She blushes uncontrollably when first meeting her potential love interest, James “Don’t call me Jimmy unless you’re my mom or Superman” Olsen (Mehcad Brooks).

There were moments where Supergirl gets a thrashing in the pilot, where if a man in the Flash or Arrow pilot got beat up, people didn’t visibly wince. Then there is the whole sister dynamic between Kara and Alex, who just happens to work for the DEO, the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, which is sort of like the CIA for alien stuff.

However, one of the best moments of the pilot is when Kara takes offence at the “girl” in Supergirl, saying it diminishes the character and is anti-feminist. But this show is silly, so much so that it’s hard not to roll your eyes or groan at the action onscreen. (Some slipshod CG here and there doesn’t help either.) Whether or not that’s a strength or a weakness, however, is something that will be decided by fans. Kara’s boss Cat demonstrates that there is a lot of power in the label “girl” so if anyone has a problem with it, maybe that’s their own issue. For instance, during a montage of Kara developing her costume, the scene shifts to her walking through a hail of bullets to the tune of Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mama Jama.” It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and my eyes rolled right out of my head, but I couldn’t help but be swayed by the moment’s hyper-earnest charm. Not every show can sell its campy side so deftly, but Benoist and her supporting cast, all so full of determined smiles and a willingness to chew a little scenery, make it work throughout.

Apparently when her spacecraft came out of the Phantom Zone it brought Fort Ross, an intergalactic prison full of alien baddies, with it. (Also cheesy, I know.) So all the convicts are now on Earth and planning some sort of revenge on the planet. You’re a part of a larger thing, and so we already kind of feel that kind of pressure of making sure that it’s really good and that it can live within the really esteemed kind of canon of these stories. Kelley’s recent Wonder Woman project, for example, was marred by a horribly designed, fanboy-derided suit, and that production swung and missed. “Supergirl,” fortunately, has all-world Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”), and she’s now batting 1.000 when creating suits for superheroes — after designing the looks on “Arrow” and “The Flash.” This Supergirl could walk off the CBS lot and straight into “Batman v. Yes, the special effects are top-notch and there are a number of great action sequences that feature Supergirl saving a crashing plane and fighting the first in what is sure to be a long line of extraterrestrial villains. ALI ADLER: If we had a female president, I don’t think we’d be going, “There’s our female president,” we’d just go, “There’s our president.” Maybe the first day in office we’ll talk about that, and after that, she just needs to prove her worth.

Unlike Gotham, which is taking a bit of a different approach with the “Batman as a kid” angle, most of these shows are stuck in very familiar formats. Kara’s sister is a secret government agent who helps protect the world against aliens — an interesting job, considering that Kara is an alien herself. Most other shows are about a dark brooding hero who is so tortured he has to help others (Arrow) or a do-gooder just learning about his powers (The Flash). It takes a little bit of time to figure out what works best, and all our shows have a learning curve to them, and all the shows we do hopefully get better as we go along.

So because Kara has friends, and this wider range of emotion, she has a different origin story, and grew up on Krypton, she knows two worlds, she’s just got a wider range of emotions we get to use. There must be something involving the image rights to the character at play, because they don’t even utter his name and we only see him as a baby and in silhouette. BERLANTI: It wasn’t so much a hesitation as much as it was everyone wanting to… When we do this audition process on our end—just so you know, because I think nobody realizes this — we see a thousand people. But then we only submit to the studio and the network the people that we like out of those people, because you don’t want to submit someone you don’t want, because you could get stuck with them. They have these pictures in the comics of a massive wave of a blonde mane, and she’s been drawn different throughout the years, with an emphasis on her chest, or legs.

If Whereas if you’re casting Superman, everyone’s going to go like, “How much does he remind you of Christopher Reeve?” But we had an idea, just from the storytelling in the script, of who inspired us and who we wanted to write for. The version that leaked on BitTorrent was, from what I’m told, a higher resolution than anyone peripherally involved in the show actually had access to, leading some to think that it must have been deliberately leaked as a way of generating interest in the show since The Flash did so well after that pilot leaked.

And then at some point over the next couple of days, I kind of relax about it and just kind of let the chips fall where they may, because there’s nothing I can do about it. I thought, “Oh gosh, maybe there really is a need for something like this if they’re already making a skit about it.” Clearly people are wanting to talk about why there’s not more female heroes represented.

BERLANTI: What I’ll say about the network element crossover is what I always say, which is, “Never say never.” And then in terms of the connection to the feature side, we are writing a Superman who is not the same as the one that’s represented in the film. So we have nothing to do with them, because we reference him quite a bit on our show in different ways, and my sense of it doesn’t line up with that film.

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