Supergirl is better than Superman
The new Supergirl TV series is currently going well, with the usual first season ups and downs, but as I watched it something occurred to me, you can do more with Supergirl than Superman storywise. Not just in a general “she has better villains” or “she has a better supporting cast” or even “she has better comics” sense that is usually meant when someone talks about a superhero being better than another one. With Supergirl there is a something else going on, she doesn’t have the same expectations that Superman has. That small thing can have amazing potential to allow for story points and character moments that would not be considered for a Superman series.
Superman is a strange beast of a character, not for story reasons but for audience reasons. Superman’s been around for over 75 years, he’s been in many TV shows, cartoons, movies, radio shows, and comics, and over time he became an icon. That iconic status has lead to the audience having certain expectations about the character, and with those expectations come limits. The first is his strength, he is known for being the “strongest being in existence” and thus he is considered boring because “nothing can stand against him” even though that’s not really true. He is strong, but others are shown to be just as strong if not stronger. Superman is just like any fictional protagonist and at the end of the story he overcomes the antagonist. So over time it looks like nothing can stop him, even if lots of things can. Since he has that reputation he’s also been used in team stories, like the Justice League, as the first one to get knocked around by the bad guy to show that the situation is serious. That then triggers the other side of this coin, the audience also doesn’t like seeing Superman beaten up by someone else, because “that can’t happen, he’s Superman.” So if he’s too powerful he’s “boring” but you also can’t have him not be powerful and have someone be able to beat him up.
Then there’s the other aspect of his “boring” persona, that he is “too good” and a “big blue boyscout” and that apparently makes for boring stories. That’s another thing that’s morphed over the years because of his iconic status, he’s as someone who started as a guy who’d smash a man’s car with the man inside it. Something that he’d never do today. But over time that image has been cultivated by the audience and DC, so anything that could move against that “boring” persona is squashed because it deviates from the icon. In the Young Justice cartoon series Superman is cloned without his consent and when he first sees this clone, what’s essentially his rape child, he distances himself. Other people could handle it so he didn’t want to get involved with the clone, which is a perfectly natural response given he doesn’t want a child. He doesn’t have space in his life for one, is still processing all of this, and can rationalise it away with the clone better off being taken care of by others. Now that’s a new, different, and interesting position he’s been put in that pushes away from the “big blue boyscout” idea, but doesn’t muddy it up. So of course fans hated it. There were so many complaints that Superman didn’t let this teenage clone into his life with open arms. This clone was bred to kill and replace him too, but that’s something fans want Superman to get over because he’s Superman. Even in this Supergirl series fans hated the idea that when he found the 12 year old Kara he left her in the care of others rather than raise her himself; even though that’s literally from the comics, entirely in character and in canon from the first Supergirl story. But to fans he can’t be seen as a bad guy, can’t have any complicated character conflicts, can’t have one moral failing.
That is the crux of the problem here, no one can make changes to the character to make him better and more complex without the push back. He has to be that iconic boyscout that’s more powerful than everyone or else the audience will complain and demand their icon back. He’s stuck in a nice safe box and the irony is that some of the ones holding it shut are also ones that would like him more if he got out of that box. So by a cruel twist of fate, despite having the same powers and moral compass as him, it’s Supergirl that is entirely free from that box.
In the new Supergirl TV series the creators are playing with ideas and themes that’d never be considered with Superman. She’s allowed to have doubts, and not just in a one off episode where she realises she was wrong to ever doubt herself and then flys off, but real character exploration that lasts a lot longer than one episode. She doesn’t always have the right answer and doesn’t always solve the problem in the right ways. In episode two she screws up and causes an oil spill, leading to the public getting mad at her. We see her struggle with the hero business, trying to figure things out, and it’s not an easy road for her. We rarely see Superman make simple mistakes, he’s not allowed to be human like that. His first time as a hero is usually about the public seeing how awesome he is, not about how inexperienced he is or showing that he’s got a lot to learn. Recently the writers like to play up the “Space Jesus” angle with Superman, which limits his human moments even more.
There’s a learning curve for her, she tries to tackle too much to fast and figures out she needs to start small. She’s even got people helping her, giving her problem locations and offering advice, such as how much an ambulance weighs so she knows how much force to apply when picking it up. Or reminders that while she may be bulletproof those bullets still ricochet off her and could hurt anyone nearby. When we usually see Superman’s first appearance he knows those things, he’s pretty confident in the hero business and how to do it. His learning curve is usually focused on figuring out how to stop new supervillains and then dealing with Kryptonite. Any mistakes he makes are usually small ones that aren’t dealt with afterwards; like when saving a plane for the first time and accidentally ripping off a wing, it’s a small thing to show he’s not perfect at this and to add some drama, but it has no effect afterwards. There’s no scene of him thinking he could be a better hero, or how to deal with things like saving planes, trains, or automobiles, in the future.
Supergirl’s been shown to have anger issues too, stemming from her being denied a normal life no matter how much she can pretend to have one. We get to see her properly get mad at people and events, and the media openly criticise her for it too. She’s allowed to be angry at her life, to show that even though she has control over her powers she’s not a perfect person. Superman getting mad at something is an “oh shit” moment, because he’s been played as a man who has his life in order and someone who does not get angry. He’s happy and jovial, and not someone who lets things bother him too much. But he also doesn’t really get moments where we see him geeking out over news footage of his first superhero rescue, or being fun and playful with his friends at the end of the day. He gets to angst about things, to brood sometimes, but the smaller human moments aren’t really played with too much.
Part of that problem is the how Clark Kent is written a lot of the time. People like to put Clark as the “mask” Superman wears, so any real character moments can’t really be done because of that mask. Any scene of him hanging out with friends is hard to play as him relaxing with them, as he has to keep up the facade of Clark with them. My personal preference is that Superman be the “mask” and Clark be the real person, as he’s lived the majority of his life as Clark and him putting on an act diminishes that side of him. He’s not allowed to be himself and has to pretend to be someone else 24/7 because Superman is a larger than life persona and Clark is a mask, so we never get a chance to see him as a real person. Sometimes there’s a rare glimpse of it, like if he’s talking to his parents or maybe when he’s alone with people who know his secrets, but most of the time we get Superman the icon and Clark as his “mask.”
With Supergirl we see that Kara is just Kara, no tricks to throw people off the scent of Supergirl or a “mask.” She’s a woman who isn’t really confident in herself, but as the series goes on she’s getting more confident. When she’s out as Supergirl she gains confidence because she’s not hiding her alien past, but also that the mission focuses her so she just does what needs to be done. We also see Kara get more confident as Kara throughout the series because of being able to be Supergirl instead of having to hide that part of her. She’s allowed to express herself as Supergirl in ways she can’t as Kara, but also that she can be Kara and let her hair down from the superheroing.
Supergirl also offers a better take in another way, one that applies to the movie version more than any other Superman, and that’s the fact that she saves people. That’s what makes her choose to be Supergirl in the first place, saving a crashing plane, and we see it constantly throughout the show that saving people is the most important thing to her as Supergirl. There’s even a fight scene where she’s fighting another Kryptonian and she stops building debris from hitting civilians, and that was probably made as a reference to Man of Steel and that film’s criticisms. But it goes beyond just those things, every fight she gets into the first thing she does is to try and talk to them. She tries to actively stop any fight before it even starts. Even if it doesn’t work, because it’s an action show and the creators need to fill in an action quota, it’s still great to see Supergirl trying to resolve things without the need for violence.
Superman’s problem is that he’s been put in a box by both the people who love Superman and those that hate Superman, he’s trapped by being an icon. Even Man of Steel was locked in that box despite all the criticisms about “what the real Superman should do” because him killing doesn’t break away from that box. People have made lists for how many times Superman has killed someone, so that part’s not really a change in Superman like many are claiming it is. The character’s not allowed to be human anymore, he’s a larger than life “Space Jesus” character and that doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.
So characters that don’t have that iconic box can do more and are allowed to explore different things that would never be done with the larger and more iconic characters. There can be great stories told within that box, All Star Superman does an excellent job with that, but more often than not that box and that iconic status is holding characters like Superman and Batman back. Supergirl is better than Superman as a character because her box doesn’t have a lock on it, there’s no fans pushing to keep her iconic image intact to make her a “boring” character. She can be a fully fleshed out character with lots of flaws and faults to explore and overcome, she feels like a real person and not a God-like being that fans seem to expect Superman to be.