Wednesday, March 21, 2012

(Super)girl trouble

Between Target ditching some DVD inventory on clearance racks and Amazon’s ever-fluctuating prices on their back stock, I managed to pick up the box sets of Smallville seasons 7, 8 and 9 recently, and last week I dove into S7. You may recall when I was watching the sixth season last fall I explained how much of the show that year ended up devoted to Green Arrow. The seventh season (four episodes in, at any rate) opts to do much the same for Supergirl, completing the sidekick cycle from ersatz Batman to distaff Superman. (Note: “sidekick cycle” may or may not actually be a thing.)

Supergirl-as-fictional-construct is an interesting thing to me. At a certain point (roughly the 1950’s) Superman was a character so beloved and so popular that it not only made perfect sense to expand the brand but probably looked to the Corporate Publishing Overlords like they’d be throwing money away if they didn’t capitalize on the craze in every possible way, and the inevitable end-point was the Superman Family. The comic book creators looked at all these kids going crazy for an adventurer who could fly and was superstrong and bulletproof (and could basically invent new powers at will, it seemed) and came up with a deep bench of near-knockoffs. They gave Superman a female cousin from Krypton who had all his powers, and a dog from Krypton who had all his powers, and a shrunken Kryptonian city in a bottle essentially full of people with all his powers (but who were all very very tiny and were only let loose on Earth in case of emergency) and so on and so on. As disposable entertainment for children goes, it was a success on every level; today one of the easiest ways to evoke those Silver Age sensibilities in a new fictional character is to give him (or her) a “family” of associates, human and/or pet, who embody all the same traits as the hero. It practically screams classic old-school Superman.

But then came the 1980’s and a desire amongst comics creators to tell stories with a little more meat on their bones, stories with relevance and emotional heft and more thematic aspiration and less embarrassing goofiness. And that applied not only to brand new stories but to the ongoing adventures of the cornerstones of superhero universes, up to and including Supes. With 50 years of historical hindsight, it seemed appropriate to go back to basics. Superman needed to be an alien who chooses to embrace his adoptive humanity, in part because he’s the very last of his kind. No exceptions for dogs or victims of shrinkrays, and especially not for cousins who dilute the Superman concept by basically being him with blond hair and a skirt. So no more Supergirl.

Except comics are always cyclical and no sooner will one writer clear the decks to get satisfyingly back to key elements than another writer responds to fanboy outcry to bring back a beloved character. So this led to some really weird stories in the 1990’s where Supergirl was reintroduced … but Superman was still the Last Son of Krypton, because Supergirl was a strange shapeshifting alien consciousness who modeled herself on Superman despite being no relation. Because she wasn’t from earth, and also wasn’t from Krypton’s advanced society, this new Supergirl was naïve and easy to manipulate, which made her easy prey for Lex Luthor, and she even ended up in a romantic relationship with him. Edgy! Then later the amorphous protoplasm (called Matrix) bonded with an Earth girl as well as some kind of hand-to-God angel, and was reborn … I don’t know, it got really complicated. And, cyclically, got wiped away eventually and then yet another writer had a for-real-and-true blonde girl Kryptonian survivor show up and take on the Supergirl mantle, sometime in the early 21st century, which was all well and good until they rebooted the whole universe six or seven months ago. Got all that?

If not, that’s kind of my point: Superman is more or less constant, and has been since 1939 (there are some glaring exceptions but let’s just assume they prove the rule) which is pretty impressive. Supergirl wasn’t there from the beginning, isn’t considered a sacred part of the mythology, and she comes and goes and gets reworked and reinvented in ways that more or less mirror the trends and trials of the comics industry as a whole. Like I said, interesting, as meditations on four-colored intellectual property go.

It's a tough look to pull off.
Anyway – the Smallville supergirl, coming along in 2007 or so, presents an opportunity for the show’s writers to riff off of any and all of the character’s many incarnations, as on some level that’s what Smallville is dedicated to. (On another level it’s a teen soap which actively punishes thinking about too deeply, but still.) And they got off to a decent start! Season 7’s premier has to resolve a ton of storylines from 6’s cliffhanger ending, including: Lois Lane and Chloe Sullivan being trapped in a collapsing hydroelectric dam/secret laboratory; Lex Luthor being arrested for murdering Lana Lang, cuffed in the back of a police cruiser, which is then washed away in the flood after the dam collapse; and Clark Kent fighting a Bizarro clone of himself accidentally created in the secret lab, kinda (Bizarro being another subject for a whole ‘nother post). Between trading blows with Bizarro and rescuing Lois and Chloe, Clark actually doesn’t have time to save Lex’s life. Enter Supergirl, whose own rocketship was submerged near the dam but dislodged in the flood, allowing her to emerge from suspended animation and appear luminously to avert Lex’s death. So right off the bat, that’s a lot of references to the source material crammed into her introduction. The Smallville Supergirl, Kara, is Kryptonian (and we find out later her father and Kal-El’s were brothers, so she’s restored to full biological cousin status) but the imagery when she saves Lex is pure angel-from-heaven stuff, which is a cute nod to the last non-Kryptonian version in the comics. Plus Lex immediately becomes smitten/obsessed with her, which hearkens back to the Luthor-Matrix romance. And there’s a hint of “is she friend or foe?” which evokes some of the 21st century re-introduction of the character as well. If you’re inclined to be a Smallville apologist and be extra-appreciative on the occasions when it seems like they get it and they’re having fun playing mythos-mashup (as I clearly am and tend to be) then it’s pretty solid.

So of course this inexorably leads to the third episode, wherein Kara has decided to live on the Kent farm with her cousin Clark and try to blend into human society, and the first opportunity she gets comes in the form of a local harvest festival which includes a beauty pageant, complete with swimsuit competition, a strange and unfamiliar human ritual which Kara has to practice for at home, so basically like a third of the episode is gratuitous shots of Kara in a red bikini and high heels. Sigh. Smallville, Smallville, Smallville. There’s a reason why just the other day I was talking to one of my buddies about appropriate ages for introducing our kids to various geek-entertainments like Star Wars and Spider-Man, and my response to when my kids could watch Smallville was “never”.

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