Amidst complaints in the wake of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow actress Scarlett Johansson and SNL broke the Internet in early May with the release of a hilarious short, Black Widow: Age of Me. Making fun of both Marvel’s unwillingness to make a movie for its now most-visible heroine and the much maligned Widow/Hulk romance, the cynical parody put Black Widow in an archetypal “chick flick” plot, with scenes of the superheroine struggling to walk in heels, juggling a romance between two guys, eating ice cream while watching television and working at a fashion magazine.
Yet while Marvel was on the receiving end of the joke, it didn’t go so well for DC either. A week later a teaser for CBS’ upcoming Supergirl show featured the titular heroine in a love triangle and working at a fashion magazine. Some people scoffed at the similarities. Others pointed out that, well, Kara Zor-El isn’t Natasha Romanoff. One’s an ex-villainess, sometimes anti-heroine. The other’s an unequivocal good gal whose stories have usually been light-hearted fare.
I thought about those two trailers a lot while reading Showcase Presents: Supergirl Vol. 1. Made up mostly of Action Comics back-up stories, the collection covers Kara Zor-El’s early adventures performing heroic feats as Supergirl in secret while maintaining her dual identity, “Linda Lee,” amidst the sometimes prying-eyes of the other children at the Midvale Orphanage.
Unlike Batman, and by extension the Batman family, Superman’s circle doesn’t have a wide and formidable rogues gallery. Kara does join Kal-El and Krypto in fighting the Bizarros (including a surprisingly never-seen-again Bizarro Supergirl), and Lex Luthor shows up in the collection’s final stories along with Lesla-Lar of Kandor, a rarely-seen-in-comics female mad scientist who I humbly submit is due for a revival as soon as possible. Yet to me the Silver Age Superman has always played like a sitcom. To a certain extent it doesn’t matter that he, and by extension Supergirl, aren’t punching the biggest, baddest threats in the universe because it’s not what matters. The real tension is how they’re going to do their jobs and keep their identities secret at the same time, and all the wacky hijinks that ensue as a result.
Supergirl has a lot to prove in her early years. Not only does she have the disaster-of-the-month to deal with, but she has to fix it in a way that both doesn’t reveal her existence and shows her cousin Clark that she’s ready to step out of the shadows. This leads to some “Superdickery” moments, particularly in an issue where Superman exiles Supergirl into space because she introduces herself to Krypto. Even when Superman reveals it was all a test to make sure Supergirl could protect her secret identity under scrutiny, it comes across as kind of a jerk move. Yet it makes sense as a part of the ongoing drama of the central premise. A girl is super. She can’t let anyone know. With that level of pressure, who needs an arch-enemy?
Plus, there’s a level of sweetness that balances out the parts of the comic that have made Internet commentators unleash the snark for the last couple of decades. In one of my favorite stories, Action Comics #270’s “Supergirl’s Busiest Day,” the Maid of Might has to help Krypto, Superman’s mermaid ex-girlfriend Lori Lemaris, and even Batman and Robin in quick succession. At the end of it all, Superman calls her to the Fortress of Solitude where everyone she helped is waiting for her, because all of those disasters were just a ruse for Supergirl’s birthday party. Again, extreme and possibly awful move by Superman, and yet not only did it make me smile, but when I told other people about it on Twitter they were happy, too.
Lots of the “Linda Lee” Supergirl stories don’t involve world-shattering stakes. There are multiple stories where she surreptitiously uses her powers to entertain her fellow orphans, where her cat gets super-powers, or where she meets an alternate Supergirl (including a “Marvel Maid” who seems to be either DC thumbing its nose at its biggest competitor or DC thumbing its nose at the British superhero of the future Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman revival). I couldn’t help but keep reading, even through the sameness and the artifice, any more than I could resist the latest Parks and Recreation marathon. Sometimes you want to read a story where a heroine gives up her life to save the multiverse, but that same heroine can be great in smaller, more innocent stories as well.
So, by that token, do I think the new Supergirl show will be successful? Can it be a great superhero show with a lighter, almost humorous touch?
Honestly…I don’t know. As much as I do think Supergirl, and most of the DC Universe that isn’t Batman, works better without the darkness that DC has thrust upon its film adaptations, there’s still a touch of this that feels pandering (Tumblr, I’m sorry to rain on your Meryl Streep gifsets, but The Devil Wears Prada was a terrible book and that franchise and everything it spawned can generally eat it). Also, some of the casting choices are a bit confusing (I don’t mind casting Mechad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen, but since when is he the suave, cool choice in a love triangle?) and I haven’t been too impressed by DC’s non-animated small-screen adaptations in the past. As popular as it is, The Flash reminded me less of Barry Allen and more of those milquetoast Amazing Spider-Man films I hate.
Still, a lighter, happier Supergirl has worked in the past and could work in the future. Whether it will work on the small screen in CBS’ upcoming adaptation remains to be seen, but after reading Kara Zor-El’s stories I’m curious, if not completely optimistic.