The Confused History of Supergirl

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For a super-powered alien in spandex, Supergirl has attracted a lot of controversy lately. The trailers for CBS’s new live-action series have landed to a very mixed reception. Some people like Supergirl’s secret identity as a PA for a fashion magazine, while others accuse the showrunners of trying to turn a superhero series into The Devil Wears Prada. It’s been called the perfect distillation of the character and a slap in the face to everything she stands for. So, which is it?

Honestly… neither. What everyone seems to have forgotten is that Supergirl – the character – has a very confused history. It’s hard to say what she stands for, because it’s never been that clear to begin with.

To start with, there have been at least eight comic book characters called Supergirl. Not counting the alternate universe versions, there’s been a schizophrenic teenager, a brainwashed assassin, Superman’s cousin, Superman’s love interest, Superman’s daughter, a refugee from the future, a kryptonian, a modified human, a magical construct, an angel and a shapeshifting blob; several of these at the same time.

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The most well-known version was introduced to DC comics in 1959 as the teenage sidekick of Superman. The second survivor of Krypton, Kara Zor-El was sent to Earth by her dying parents to be raised by her cousin – who promptly put her in an orphanage, proving that 1950’s Superman was kind of a jerk. Despite this, she was sweet and kind, and eager to live up to Superman’s example, frequently helping out on his adventures.

It wasn’t until her first solo title in 1972 that the problem manifested. Before then, she’d been more or less defined by Superman, much like Robin was by Batman. But, like Robin, it wasn’t really clear who she was, in and of herself. Most of her peers had their core themes; Superman represented the very best qualities of humanity, Batman was about channeling your pain into a worthy cause, and Wonder Woman became a voice for women’s rights. But Supergirl’s writers struggled to develop a coherent mission statement for her. Even her civilian identity seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis, cycling through love interests and careers like they were going out of fashion.

All you could really say for certain was that she was the female counterpart of Superman. She had the same origin, uniform and superpowers. Superman’s other sidekick, Superboy, had existential cloning angst to differentiate himself from his predecessor, but all Supergirl had was her gender, which simply wasn’t enough. Somewhere around 1985, DC executives shrugged their shoulders and gave in. The comic book version of Kara Zor-El was killed off and erased from the timeline; a move explicitly attributed to restoring Superman’s status as ‘the sole survivor of Krypton’.

Before you say anything, the comics weren’t the only place this happened. This is simply one part of a larger pattern. There have been several different versions of Kara Zor-El in film and television over the past thirty years, and not one has developed any lasting sense of identity. In fact, whenever it looks like she is about to do so, she gets killed off or exiled from continuity.

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This depressing cycle started with Supergirl, the 1984 movie spin-off from Richard Donner’s popular Superman franchise. It followed the fish-out-of-water troubles of a young, inexperienced Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater) as she attempted to retrieve a power source from Earth that could save her people. This was the character’s first outing on the big screen and no one can say the filmmakers didn’t try to give her a proper character arc. In fact, they gave her too many. The film couldn’t seem to decide whether it was Kara’s quest for redemption, her tragic love story, or coming of age saga. Ticket sales dwindled and this confused incarnation of Kara Zor-El departed Earth for the alternate dimension ‘Inner Space’, never to return.

Later interpretations of Supergirl were more streamlined, but hit similar roadblocks. The popular cartoon Superman: The Animated Series (1996) reverted to the teenage sidekick, a dynamic they at least knew worked. This time Supergirl originated on a ‘sister’ world to Krypton that was also destroyed and became Superman’s cousin through adoption (thereby bending backwards to preserve Superman’s ‘sole survivor’ status). She had a bit more personality than her predecessors, being headstrong and overly reckless. The series even delved into the relationship between herself and Superman, presenting a father-daughter style affection that hadn’t been really explored before.

However, like the comics, this Kara was not allowed to grow beyond her role as teenage sidekick, not even in the sequel series Justice League Unlimited (2004). Once she got old enough that calling her ‘girl’ was getting a bit ridiculous, she was killed off. True, ‘killed off’ in this context means ‘sent to the thirty-first century and reported as KIA’, but the point remains. For all intents and purposes she was gone and the writers didn’t have to spend effort on character development.

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Worse was yet to come, with the live-action TV show Smallville. Kara Zor-El was introduced in the seventh season as Clark’s biological cousin. Initially, all seemed promising. She was fairly close to Clark’s age this time, resulting in more equal footing and a bickering sibling dynamic. But her strong opening arc inevitably devolved into Smallville’s characteristically muddled storytelling and she became a recurring character that only seemed to reappear to be written out again. The final indignity came when she was sent to the thirty-first century by Kal-El’s dead dad (don’t think too hard about that one) because ‘This is Kal-El’s battle and he must fight it alone’. Apparently being Clark’s only living blood relative didn’t warrant more than a last minute cop-out.

So to summarise, Supergirl has been killed, erased by the timeline, exiled to Inner Space once and sent to the future – and that’s not counting all the ways Smallville got rid of her between story arcs. I know it’s difficult to know what to do with a sidekick once they’re no longer a sidekick, but seriously. Giving her a personality can’t be harder than coming up with fresh new ways to kill her off.

That’s why you shouldn’t get too worked up over the new Supergirl trailers just yet. While it is an opportunity for the character to shine in her own right, it’s also not defiling anything that came before. Because in all honesty, what came before, structurally, was a mess. There’s plenty of good in there, but also a lot of confusion and spontaneous timeline erasure. And if the show’s not what you want straight away, relax; there’s a whole season for them work out the kinks. Just be happy that because Supergirl’s name is in the title, there’s almost zero percent chance she’ll die.

Though for her fans’ peace of mind, she should avoid any kind of time or inter-dimensional travel.



V.J.

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