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Supergirl and Waging the War Against Cynicism With Idealized Superheroes

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The allegories weren’t exactly subtle in last week’s episode of Supergirl. “Strange Visitor from Another Planet,” an episode that was guaranteed to make us cry, dipped into the origin story of J’onn J’onzz (AKA Hank Henshaw), revealing that his family was murdered in a genocidal purge at the hands of the White Martians. It doesn’t take a critical studies major to connect the dots to the Holocaust or any bigoted society: flashes of Green Martian bodies sprawled in ditches, the systematic destruction of an entire ethnicity, and—back to Earth—public rhetoric and propaganda against immigr—I mean, aliens. I mean, extra-terrestrials. Sorry, is this a superhero show or a GOP debate?

The J’onn J’onzz backstory hits so hard because it feels so unfortunately real. He tearfully recounts the murder of his wife and daughters, and the combination of the Mars flashbacks, David Harewood’s searing performance, and the immediately recognizable historical context lends the story a very touching—and very human—sense of gravity.

At the end of the episode (spoiler alert), after a brief (but epic) mid-air tag-team fight against the murderous White Martian alongside Supergirl, Hank incapacitates Supergirl and goes in for the kill. Who can blame him for going all Inglourious Basterds on the distinctly Nazi-ish White Martian?

But before J’onn can deliver the cathartic coup de grace, Motivational Speaker Kara Danvers intervenes with characteristic empathy. “I lost everything—everyone! It makes a hole in your heart, but you can’t fall into it. You have to fill it. You have to fight! Do not throw away your shot who you are.”

Perhaps it’s an indication of how emotionally strong the storytelling is in this episode that I felt a vague sense of disappointment when (as we find out in the subsequent scene) Hank stays his hand. In response to all of Kara’s words of wisdom, I thought of a dozen bitter rebuttals. Every time a character accepted Kara’s help and assurance (often with teary-eyed admiration), my smile felt a bit strained. That’s not how it would happen in real life, I thought. No one would have mercy on a genocidal embodiment of evil. No one would actually take Kara’s shtick to heart.

But should we?

This tension is precisely what makes a show like Supergirl so, well, super. Supergirl is the perfect example of how superhero stories can inspire a better world. Realistic? Maybe not. But idealistic? Always.

“With great power comes great responsibility” has become overused to the point of parody (and represents only one of many permutations of the original phrase, which was uttered long before Stan Lee put pen to paper), but it provides a guideline to endowing superhero characters with innate goodness while the lesser of us succumb to fear, anger, hate, and (ahem) the dark side. In fact, it’s all reminiscent of Professor X’s insistence in X-Men: Days of Future Past that the mutants must show us regular humans “a better path.” He ends the conversation with his younger self by appealing to “the most human part of us: hope.” It may sound cheesy, but that’s what makes it so important. We must embrace the cheese to realize the moral messages at play here.

This is not to say that darker superhero shows don’t have satisfying, redemptive, and even moralistic merit. On the contrary, I swear by the importance of Daredevil and Jessica Jones as much as the next fan. But there is also something to be said for striking out for that hopeful, “better path.” It may be riddled with p(l)otholes—it may feel contrived—but that’ll force us to pay attention to the messages all the more. They may not reflect the world we see every day; rather, they give us something to strive for.

Nowadays, it’s cool to be cynical and existentially appropriate to feel angsty. “Sentimental,” a term defined as “emotional tenderness,” is generally used in a derogatory fashion. Sunny positivity rings hollow in a world that gets more goddamn depressing by the day. Though Don Draper, Walter White, and Tony Soprano have since departed our small screens, we are still entrenched in the age of the anti-hero. (Constantine didn’t attract audiences as planned, but Lucifer has emerged from the shadows to take its place, inviting us to literally sympathize with the devil.)

This larger trend towards cynicism sets off all sorts of alarm bells in my mind, because we seem to have sacrificed “sentimental” things such as wonder, hope, empathy kindness in order to get there. Giving and receiving kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor explain in their book on the subject matter, makes us feel vulnerable—it can allow someone to be easily exploited. Seems like we’d all be much stronger if we remained cold and guarded, right? Perhaps, but might does not make right. On The Flash, Barry Allen’s tendency to see the good in people leads him to trust some unsavory characters, leading to lots of trouble—but when he despairs over his “flaw,” Joe West steps in to reassure him. “I have been a cop for 25 years,” Joe says. “All I can see is the flaws, the lies, the dark thoughts that people think that I don’t see. I wish I could be you. As fast as you are, that is your real power.”

When I first started watching Doctor Who a few years ago, the show’s espousal of kindness in the face of hardship is precisely what attracted me to the show. (Which is why I’ve been so put off by Peter Capaldi’s rude, cantankerous iteration, but that’s a rant for another time.) Here was a character—the Doctor—who’d seen things, done things, and witnessed things, yet approached the universe with a sense of wide-eyed optimism that proved to be nothing short of infectious. As Amy Pond once put it: “All that pain and misery. And loneliness. And it just made [him] kind.” On Supergirl, this same narrative pertains to Kara: she, like the Doctor, lost her entire home world, and she, too, struggles to fill that hole in her heart rather than letting it consume her. Kara is the embodiment of kindness.

Then we have shows like Syfy’s The Magicians and movies like Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, which take something beloved—Harry Potter, in the case of The Magicians, and everything that was ever good and true and beautiful about Superman, in the case of Man of Steel—and completely undermine their positive messages. The Magicians favors a “realistic” magic-filled universe rather than an idealistic one; The Magicians shows us the way the world is, while Harry Potter teaches us to imagine better.

Man of Steel, meanwhile, has proven to be one of the most contentious superhero movies of late, with many believing that the film’s violent ending subverts the very essence of the character of Superman. In fact, comic book writer Mark Millar was so traumatized by Man of Steel that he set out to create a new hero whose superpower is simply that he does one good deed every day.

So, perhaps there is hope.

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(via DC Comics)

One of my all-time favorite comics is 2001’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Truth, Justice & the American Way?” a story written largely in response to the dark Authority series (which ironically counted Mark Millar as a member of its writing team). In this issue, Superman goes up against a team of anti-heroes called “The Elite” who use their superpowers to violently kill villains. Though they gain worldwide popularity, Superman holds the moral high ground.

This is the superhero tradition that stories like X-Men, Supergirl, and The Flash are perpetuating. Anger and fear are natural reactions, but they represent the easy way out. We must rely on heroes like these—the ones that dare to be kind and dare to have optimism—to show us a better path.

(featured image via CBS)

Allyson Gronowitz (@AllysonGrono) is an entertainment writer living in LA, still anxiously awaiting her Hogwarts letter. She is the resident geek culture writer for Ampersand LA, as she pursues her master’s degree in Arts Journalism from USC Annenberg. Allyson has previously written for Bustle, and can also be found ranting about Doctor Who, women’s hockey, and movies on her blog. She watches too much TV and would love to tell you all about it.

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