Please note: this article contains some spoilers for Batman v Superman as well as the first season of Supergirl.
Some time ago I read an article by Devin Faraci of Birth.Movies.Death., entitled “Superman And The Damage Done”. It had come out after Batman v Superman’s loud, obnoxious drone of an opening weekend, reflecting on what the film had done to Superman as a cultural / historical icon. The article declared Superman as dead; not just literally (as the body of the Man of Steel lay unmoving following the climactic battle of the film) but more importantly figuratively, outlining that the things that made Superman important — his heroism, his earnest nature, his inspirational actions and attitude — had been subverted and dismantled by a team who sought to undermine those very values due to their lack of relevance in modern society. And since the ideals Superman had come to represent were no longer applicable to the present day, he thus had to be destroyed, with Snyder and his crew being the ones to take that task due to their hatred of the character.
To be fair, while I don’t disagree that Zack Snyder and Warner Bros have effectively murdered the Man of Steel (literally, figuratively, whatever), I don’t agree with the notion that Snyder hates Superman. I think if anything, Snyder is the kind of person who goes to a museum, sees a Jackson Pollock painting and thinks, “wow, this is so cool! I want to do my own version of this!” He then proceeds to throw paint at a canvas to make something that looks vaguely similar; not being the kind of person who takes any time or care to understand what it was Pollock was trying to do or what abstract expressionism even is as a concept, Snyder likes looking at the shapes the paint make on canvas — and to him that’s the end of it.
So it’s not just “a Superman thing” with him, or potentially even Warner Bros. You can see a similarly vapid approach in the way that Batman was written, something that was discussed ad naueseum post-film release as well. But this is the same for Snyder in Watchmen, in 300, in Dawn of the Dead: Snyder is a visual storyteller, one who stops at the surface due to his love of style over substance, and Warner Bros. matches his enthusiasm on this level. It’s that vapid approach to storytelling that’s more the culprit for Superman’s death, if anything: he dies because it makes for a cool CGI visual to see torn asunder.
Superman as an idea being killed by modern apathy is a valid postulate, though — at least in the context that the Superman we see on display in these films is at the end of an ideological rope, suffocating in an era that no longer has room for who he was. For example, in Man of Steel, when inquired about the symbol on his chest Superman remarks that it’s a symbol for hope; yet both in-universe and out, as an entity this Superman is nearly the antithesis. While some characters in the film look up to him as a God-like figure who may save them on a whim, for the most part his idea of hope is met with cynicism and disbelief. Nobody wants the hope he offers, not because the world is hopeless but rather because his iteration of it is not applicable to their lives.
Furthermore, the Superman we meet is one who is not even sure that his job of selling hope is worth doing. Hope is something that holds little meaning to him, despite its historical importance to his family; the power and responsibility bestowed upon on him seem more of a burden rather than a set of morals given down to him from his Kryptonian parents. Heck, his Earth-born parents barely even want him to do the job he’s lucked into, and constantly remind him of that; his father chooses death over seeing Clark act with the gifts he was born with. His mother later tells him, “you’re not responsible for them, Clark,” thus undermining the entire purpose of Superman growing up in Kansas with the Kents in a single line.Continued below
So when we look at the death of Superman as both a figure and an idea, who he was against what is being presented, it’s easy to see that who he was has little to no current value beyond that which nostalgia provides us. We can revisit the stories that used to inspire, but we can not rely on him to hold us up anymore.
But should this posit be valid, that Superman is no longer our hero, then it stands to reason that, just like in the 90’s, we are in need of someone to rise to the occasion and take his place.
And to steal a line from Empire Strikes Back: there is another.
While it’s given as an afterthought in Faraci’s article, an excellent point is brought up that I’ve consistently mulled over: if we are looking for a character that represents the ideals Superman used to embody, it’s worth noting that (formerly CBS) CW’s Supergirl does exactly what Superman used to, and in spades.
From my discussions with others about the show, I’ve quickly found that Supergirl tends to be hit or miss for people. This is fine; those who love it (like me) really love it and those who don’t, don’t — just like Superman. But the one thing that most of these conversations tend to agree upon is that Supergirl as a character on the show is great. This iteration of the character, at her very core, is a fantastic representation of what we have been missing from the Man of Steel; as it turns out, what we needed all this time was the Maid of Might.
This wasn’t achieved in an overly complex or fundamentally radical fashion, either. A young heroine who is still learning about the responsibility and consequences of her power and actions, the show depicts young Kara Danvers on a journey of self-discovery in a very earnest fashion. The show is not looking to reinvent the wheel, but rather capitalize on what works about this scenario; Kara succeeds as Supergirl but also frequently makes mistakes, ones that she then has to own up to and learn from. Supergirl is not here to be perfect, but as she learns so do we.
What’s more important, though, and what makes Supergirl a tremendous success in my eyes, is that as the first season progresses she remains a constant source of inspiration for those around her first and foremost. Her job is not to fight aliens; it’s to inspire the hope her counterpart does not. Her cape and ability to fly ultimately become a very small aspect of what makes her Supergirl to those around her, and instead the characters and viewers rally around the ideas she presents, or the people she inspires us to want to become. I mean this both literally and as a metaphor: she inspires her sister to come into her own; she inspires J’onn J’onz to stop hiding from who he is; she inspires Winn to move past his father’s legacy; she inspires Jimmy to take new risks and chances after years of relying on a super-safety net; she inspires Cat Grant to open up to her own repressed feelings. All of these things can be taken at face value individually, but have a deeper importance when transposed over overlapping scenarios.
And this is just a small sampling of those in her immediate vicinity.When you look at her potential to inspire the residents of the city she protects, you can see constant representations of those who have been moved by her heroism, both from young girls that aspire to be her to common city workers and inhabitants who step up when the opportunity is given. Residents of National City want to be Supergirl not for the power she possesses, but because when they see her trying to always do better, they want to as well. Heck, The Flash knows her for all of a few days in the crossover episode, and the impression they have on one another is immediate and impactful.
Supergirl’s inspirational nature is shown even further in the Season 1 finale, “Better Angels.” In the finale, Supergirl saves the day not just with fists (I mean, there’s a bit of that, sure), but with actual hope; she saves the planet simply by broadcasting a speech to its residents, insisting quite literally that hope is what they need for themselves rather than her swooping in to save them all — because she can’t. By that point she’s aware that this is above her scope; that as much as she would like to punch everyone’s problems away, there is more to be gained by individuals seeing the hero in themselves, to rise up against that which holds them back and take ownership of their circumstance. She rallies the city, and even Superman himself, not through the power of ionic blasts or super-powered brawls — Supergirl uses her words to truly save the day.Continued below
The sheer audacity of such a defense mechanism is almost unheard of these days in super-narratives, where spectacle is lorded over every other viable aspect of story (style over substance, to call back an earlier point). Yet in this fairly moving sequence, Supergirl teams up with her arch-nemesis and insists that the true way to overcome the obstacles together is through the power of inspiration. She puts herself and whatever petty behaviors or notions she had learned previously aside — and not only is her hope so infectious as to win over the the potentially genocidal Max Lord, but it’s powerful enough to actually work.
There’s a reason this is so important, especially when we look at this in conjunction with the finale to Man of Steel. To bring back a tired argument: a lot can be said as to whether or not Superman would “actually” defeat Zod the way in which we did; in reality, the writers of the film would not have written Superman into that kind of a corner if it wasn’t always their intention to have that action performed. This is a thing they wanted to happen, and thus it was written. The inverse of that, however, is Supergirl’s “Better Angels”: the writing team behind the show were well aware that it’s not just about being able to shoot lasers out of your eyes better than the other person can shoot lasers out of their eyes, but true heroism is about overcoming obstacles by inspiring others around you. Superman was put in a situation where his only choice was abhorrent hypocritical violence, because that was the best solution provided to him; Supergirl was put in a situation where her only choice was to inspire others with a message of hope, because this was the best solution for her.
If this does not translate the landmark differences in approach and intent, I’m not sure what else will.
All this considered, I see Supergirl as the new hero to become our bastion of hope. This is what Supergirl does: she leads by example, putting others before herself, sacrificing herself for them (figuratively and literally) when required, and she does all of this in a way that at this point is patently enviable. A lot of this comes down to Melissa Benoist’s genuine and empathetic performance, maintaining optimism in the face of insurmountable odds while allowing the character to emote on a vast scale (I could write another essay about the importance of having a female superhero cry on screen; for another day, perhaps), but the fact of the matter is that we were given a character specifically designed to inspire, to lead, and to save. Whether it’s through the relationships she fosters or the positive message she provides for young girls to look up to, the CW’s Supergirl is here to do the exact opposite of what WB’s Superman has done, and in that way replace him.
In fact, I find this to be rather fundamentally appropriate for our era. After all, if we are to surmount that Superman represents the past, the ways in which we used to look for this kind of hope or inspiration in from the late 30s to at least the early 80s, but then acknowledge that both it and he are dead due to the modern era’s insistence we cater to darker and more serious narratives born out of a culture of fear and cynicism, how appropriate then is it that the person to take on his former tasks to be the representative of hope and change for a new era is a young woman instead? Someone who can speak to the young minds of today in the same way that Superman used to yesterday?
Perhaps the fact that Supergirl is not a typical straight white male hero is what allows this story to be that much more impactful. We’ve had so many films and superhero shows of origin stories, none of which have starred a woman at the center of it (yet), that this allows Supergirl to fundamentally approach every aspect of the narrative from a unique perspective that the other shows can not. And yet, despite all that is afforded to be different, there rings a truth in that which stays the same; things are not that different from how they used to be, but where the differences count a change for the better can truly be made.Continued below
A central tenant of the show is that Supergirl was always supposed to be Clark’s protector, but she arrived too late — so she instead had to learn to succeed from the shadow he casts, and overcome that legacy to be a new hero.
And as the first season wraps up, Clark tells Kara that she is his hero. Of course she is; she’s ours as well.
Matthew Meylikhov is a former writer about comics. Supergirl Season 1 Episode 16 “Falling” made him cry. Like, a lot. We’re not kidding. It’s almost ridiculous how much he cried during that episode. Ask him about it and he’ll probably start crying again.