The Legacy of Supergirl, and Why We Need Optimistic Superhero Stories More Than Ever

TV Features Supergirl
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The Legacy of <i>Supergirl</i>, and Why We Need Optimistic Superhero Stories More Than Ever

Nowadays, superhero stories seem like they’re a dime a dozen. From speculative Marvel cartoons (What If…?) and feature film continuations (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) to DC Comics classics (Superman and Lois), gritty dramas (Titans) and… well, whatever Doom Patrol technically is, costumed crime fighters have thoroughly broken into the mainstream entertainment world. Who could have guessed that when Arrow first launched on The CW way back in 2012 that virtually every TV and streaming network would be fighting to have some sort of superhero or comic book-style story on its air within the next decade? Truly, what a time to be alive. 

But as new superhero series arrive, others depart. After six seasons, The CW’s Supergirl is hanging up its cape, concluding after a run of over 125 episodes and leaving behind a rather remarkable and groundbreaking legacy. The series made history as the first superhero show to feature a solo female lead and went on to break ground in other important areas of representation, from explicitly depicting its aliens as immigrants and refugees to featuring multiple prominent LGBT characters and relationships onscreen, as well as introducing Nicole Maines’ Dreamer as the DC TV franchise’s first transgender superhero. 

It’s hard to imagine the comic book television landscape without the brightness that Supergirl has come to represent—both literally and figuratively—especially because there are so few series that are capable of stepping into the particular void it will leave behind. 

Throughout its run, Supergirl has embraced the absolute best of what the superhero genre can be and do, offering the sort of bright, sunny tone and optimistic feel that too many series these days seem to view as twee or childish, as though it is the worldview of a brand of television whose moment has passed us by. Yes, Superman and Lois is out here doing its heartfelt best to tell the story of a good man rather than an all-powerful godlike being, and Legends of Tomorrow’s bonkers adventure plots explore complex emotional truths using everything from anthropomorphic children’s toys to James Taylor tracks. 

But many (possibly most?) superhero programs on-air today are uncomfortably bleak. Dark and gritty isn’t just a thing found in prestige cable dramas anymore. These shows usually feature broody, tortured heroes looking for revenge or some ancillary form of redemption, who exist on canvases that are often so poorly lit you have to start wondering if all the literal darkness is some kind of clunky metaphor for the state of their souls. 

Many of these new sorts of heroes openly resent that they have special abilities or a calling to help those in need, and the shows on which they star seek to subvert the traditional stories this genre was initially built to tell. Even a series like The Flash, ostensibly created by The CW as the light to Arrow’s darkness, has stumbled in recent years, losing much of the joy and fun that made its earliest seasons so special. 

Not Supergirl, though. 

Bright, sunny, and hopeful until the end, Supergirl is the sort of show that wears its heart—and frequently its politics—on its proverbial sleeve. Unafraid to tackle complex issues of prejudice, fear, and discrimination, the show succeeds by grounding its story in a core group of characters whose empathy, compassion, and forgiveness are as likely to save the day as Kara’s heat vision.

Yes, Supergirl has certainly gone through its share of rough patches (and the extended Season 5 stretch that was painfully obsessed with Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor was certainly a very dark period), but it has also never forgotten its central tenants: Light, in all its forms; Justice, for anyone that needs it; Hope, for all of us. 

And maybe now, more than ever before, that’s a story that we all really need to hear. 

At their best, superhero narratives are supposed to be aspirational, examples of the best and brightest that humanity is capable of. (Or Kryptonians in this case, but you get the point.) And Supergirl is certainly that, from its optimistic, big-hearted heroine to its larger philosophical framework. This is a show that explicitly rejects the rampant tendency in our modern-day pop culture to conflate darkness with realism and to assume that cynicism is somehow the same thing as honesty. There’s no place on this canvas for grimdark pronouncements about the failures of humanity or the doomed nature of the world we live in. 

Instead, Supergirl fully leans into its own earnestness, without angst or apology, and expects its viewers to embrace it in that same spirit. Kara is a hero that believes in the best of everyone and the worldview she espouses is one that is open-hearted and inclusive enough to provide space for everyone. These days we could probably use more television that exhorts us to become our best selves rather than revels in our worst natures, and that encourages us to welcome the stranger and open our hearts to those who are different from us. 

Since Supergirl is a show about a female superhero, it’s naturally featured many plots focusing on sexism, misogyny, and the struggle women often face trying to be taken seriously in a man’s world. But it has told also stories touching on other marginalized and too-often silenced groups, including immigration policy, LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, transphobia, and more, encouraging its viewers to educate themselves and speak out about these issues in the world outside of its screen. Because at the end of the day Supergirl isn’t just a story of one young woman’s attempt to push back against the darkness and evil of the world: It’s one that wants the rest of us to learn how to do it, too. 

The real lesson at the heart of Supergirl is one that too many superhero properties have forgotten: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. One hero, no matter how incredible they are, is never going to be enough to solve the myriad problems facing the city they live in, let alone the entire planet. But we can. And Supergirl is doing its best to show its viewers a model for how to do so—to be heroes offscreen, in their own lives. Maybe that’s a lot of pressure to put on a CW show, and maybe the message can occasionally feel clunkier than we’d like, but there’s no other show out there doing what Supergirl does—and it’s why it’ll be so missed when it’s gone.

Supergirl is currently wrapping up its final season Tuesday nights on The CW.

Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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