I Just Want People To Have Fun: Melissa Benoist and the ‘Supergirl’ Team on Finding the Joy in Being a Hero [Interview]
While the the first female-led superhero film to arrive in theaters is still a few years off, the vacuum will be filled this coming Monday in TV land. Yes, Supergirl will soon beat the likes of Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Black Widow and even Jessica Jones to the punch as the first female superhero to get her own live-action starring vehicle this century. DC Comics and Warner Bros. have had some success in the serialized drama arena with Arrow and The Flash, but even from the earliest marketing you could tell Supergirl was carving a different path, and not just because she's on another network.
This week we were given an early look at the upcoming pilot for Supergirl, and it's clear the series will be taking a much lighter approach to its hero's journey than the more gritty street-level action of Arrow or even the sci-fi turmoil of The Flash.
While that's a fresh approach given the recent climate of superhero fare, the first episode isn't without its flaws. After viewing it, we took part in a conversation with producers Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg (both also responsible for Arrow and The Flash), as well as the new Supergirl herself, Melissa Benoist, to discuss the show, where it's headed, and the challenges of making a nigh-invulnerable lead vulnerable.
One of the biggest issues the pilot faces is its incredible pace. What feels like several storylines that should occur across multiple episodes are burned through in just 45 minutes. While that kind of pacing does get Supergirl in her final costume by the halfway point, it makes motivations muddy, doesn't allow for many secondary characters to have personality traits beyond some quippy/cringey dialogue, and doesn't give viewers much time to breathe before moving onto the next scene.
"We are intending to keep up that pace," said producer Greg Berlanti. "We dont know another way to do it. We often talked about the TV landscape and the feature landscape, and how at any given moment there's an Avengers or Dark Knight, and you can get your kick for this stuff really anywhere. You have to provide something special and singular every week to keep people entertained. We think of this as trying to produce a Supergirl movie every single week."
That said, the lighthearted vibe of the show remains constant, even during moments of intense conflict. Supergirl does more than a few things right, but one thing it absolutely nails in this debut is keeping the positive nature of its lead character front and center.
"I think Superman has always been more that just a hero, he's been an inspiration, and a beacon of hope," said producer Andrew Kreisberg. "We're certainly guilty of putting a dark hero on television in Arrow, but there is something in Supergirl that just represents the light and the hope and the goodness in people. I think it's important for our times and our world, and it's tied to our character."
Supergirl is also an action show though, and there has to be a balance between these moments of optimism and putting Kara Danvers (née Zor-El) in danger. Unlike her cousin from a few cities over, Kara has been hiding her powers seemingly her whole life to this point on the show. It isn't until her own adopted sister is put in mortal harm that Supergirl springs into action. Producer Ali Adler explained that Kara not using her powers at every turn is a big part of how they approach the character in the writing room.
"We always talk about this character as if she didn't have superpowers. How would she approach a given situation if she was just like you or me, but she has this bonus skill set? That's really how we look at each villain of the week or problems in her emotional or romantic life... We definitely look at it with the perspective of being powerless, and what her powers then bring to it."
It's worth noting too that since Supergirl is so new on the scene, her powers and strength limits aren't really known, even to her. As such, it's a bit easier for the writers of show to put her in peril. She might be Kryptonian, and have all the benefits of what our planet does for her DNA, but she's inexperienced in the field and admittedly hasn't even flown since she was a kid. Though there will be some bigger bads lurking in the wings with potential threats like Kryptonite, Kara will still have her hands full even if the villain of the week only has a nuclear axe.
"It's a bit of a collective mistake that Kryptonite is the only thing that can hurt a Kryptonian," Kreisberg said. "In the comics and other adaptations, specifically Superman: The Animated Series, you see that Superman himself can be hurt a lot more than just by Kryptonite. On the show, we've shown that fighting certain aliens, or fighting Livewire, who has electrical powers --- she has enough electricity to stop Supergirl's heart. There are other things on the show that are beyond just Kryptonite.
"On the old series, unless you had a rock of Kryptonite, it was pretty much lights out for the bad guy. We certainly don't want that. We always want to feel like our hero is in jeopardy."
In keeping with that theme, the first episode introduces the villain of the week formula based on the idea that when Kara's ship was expunged from the Phantom Zone, a Kryptonian prison escaped with her. It crashed on Earth around the same time she did, releasing all the inmates to run wild. Though some will likely continue to work on their own agendas, there is a bigger force working behind the scenes.
"We always have a traditional big bad for the season, this sort of uber villain who is setting the plan in motion," Kreisberg said. "But just like with the other shows, there'll be villains of the week. We're going to be meeting some of those alien villains, and there'll also be some human villains. We've announced that Toyman is going to be appearing, but additionally we have some major Kryptonian villains who are going to be the big bads of the season."
Currently, Toyman's alter-ego works just a desk away from Kara at Cat Grant's media empire, CatCo, as the resident tech guy. Winslow Schott is just about the worst character on the show, though it's likely not through any fault of actor Jeremy Jordan. Clearly the creative team is setting Schott up to be a villain by the few lines of cringe-worthy dialogue he spouts whenever his advances are inadvertently spurned by Kara. It doesn't help that anyone who isn't Supergirl is barely given time to showcase their personalities, but if that's the extent of Schott's development, I can't wait until Supergirl (hopefully) punches him in the face later this season.
During the 45-minute premiere, one of the few characters to actually get a chance to express herself is Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant. The comparison to Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada is easy to make, only Grant actually tells people how she's feeling instead of trying to murder them with pursed lips and an up-turned nose.
After Grant's media empire dubs Kara "Supergirl" for the first time, Flockhart delivers a speech that attempts to quell any concerns that you can't be super if you're "just" a girl. It's a key moment in the show, as it establishes a clear dynamic that even though these two women disagree about what it means it be a strong woman, both are incredibly powerful in their own right.
"That speech was in the original pitch for the show," Berlanti explained. "One thing I've found in doing this is that sometimes the temptation is there by executives to alter things that are part of the DNA of what was so great about the comic book. We really wanted to be protective of the name of the show. We wanted to have a conversation with our characters that we believed the audience would be having, and that others might be having. That was the origin of it. It was always in existence."
Cat isn't the only positive (in her own way) influence on Kara, who lives with her sister Alex, played by Chyler Leigh. Since departing Gray's Anatomy, Leigh hasn't had the best of luck on television, with the awful Taxi Brooklyn wasting her talents. There's hope Supergirl might see her given some prominence again, as she's not just playing Kara's sister, but is also set up to be a partner of sorts at the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (DEO), led by Hank Henshaw, by the end of the episode.
"I think something that separates Superman from Supergirl is that he's sort of autonomous," producer Ali Adler said. "Something that we're really proud of is our episode two is called 'Stronger Together.' It really is not just about a woman that's readily able to accept help, but Kara really embracing and getting that help from her sister and Hank and other forces at CatCo as well."
Those relationships. both at CatCo and the DEO, will be important, even if it appears as if both places seemingly set out to keep Kara at arm's length during the first episode. Henshaw trusts Supergirl about as much as viewers trust that the DEO is really working out of a cave beneath the city, and Grant can't even pronounce Kara's name right.
"With the DEO and her sister and Hank, she really learns to hone her powers and become an even better superhero," Adler added. "But from her friends at CatCo, she really learns the importance of being Kara Danvers and just being a woman and a human being that's grounded and tied to the people she's sworn to protect."
As such, it's tough for Supergirl to aspire to be the role model the show wants her to become. There's a lot of empowering moments scattered throughout for our hero, but they're surrounded by moments of her being doubted at every turn by others in her life. Perhaps that's what makes the moments of triumph that much more enjoyable as a viewer. For Melissa Benoist, being a role model isn't much of a challenge as long as she's getting to portray Supergirl the right way.
"I approach it every day with the idea that as long as Kara and Supergirl are enjoying themselves and finding the joy in being a hero, and the joy in using her powers, that everything stems from that," Benoist said. "I always keep in mind her bravery, her hope and her positivity and her strength, and I think it will be hard for girls not to look up to that."
It's definitely not hard to see why the showrunners and CBS went with Benoist after watching the whole episode, though you could feel her enthusiasm and presence even in promotional materials. Benoist absolutely exudes every attribute you would want Supergirl to have, and it's a good thing that so much of this show's success is riding on her shoulders.
"This type of show is incredibly grueling from performance to stunts to training, when you're not learning lines, and we can't create a show like this without someone like her carrying the whole show on her back," Berlanti related. "She exemplifies grace under pressure, and I think in some ways --- and I mean this seriously --- when we try to write Kara, we try to capture what we think is so special about Melissa. She just really personifies the qualities of the character and it gives us something to write for every day."
Adler echoed those sentiments saying, "What we've also found is that all the attributes that Melissa has, that Supergirl has, are strength and courage and hope are very genderless, so ultimately we hope to inspire men and women out there."
Supergirl's successes during the trials she faces in the pilot are inspiring, even if they happen so quickly it's hard to take them all in at first. Still, the burdens of being the current potential flag-bearer for female empowerment on network TV don't seem to bother Benoist one bit. "I wouldn't say I think of it as a burden. It's definitely an asset," Benoist said. "I honestly don't tend to focus on it too much because I just want people to have fun watching the show and really enjoy watching Kara's journey as much as I'm enjoying playing it. It truly to me does not matter that she's a girl because she kicks some serious ass."
Starting on Oct. 26 at 8:30PM EST, and running regularly every Monday after that at 8PM, comic book fans will be able to follow along with adventures of Kara Zor-El in Supergirl on CBS.
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