Batman and Superman aren’t only doing battle on movie screens next summer. In the relative calm before the computer-generated storm that will be Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, they are already fighting by proxy on television as their B-teams (for the latter, his fair-haired, similarly-powered, older cousin and assorted cross-overs/hangers-on; for the former, no less than the collected origin stories of the caped crusader, police commissioner Jim Gordon, and the top two to three tiers of his infamous “rogue’s gallery” of enemies) take a field that a, scant few years ago, contained the barest trace of superhero DNA and no horizon to speak of, but today boasts no fewer than six separate shows (and even more if you count streaming services). “Batman vs. Superman” has been a passionate and evergreen alpha-hero debate among comic book fans for more than twice as long as I’ve been alive, but this latest round, willed into existence and shoehorned clumsily into place by the rivalry between two of the biggest networks on broadcast television, just doesn’t have a consequential feel to it yet. The two shows involved, FOX’s Gotham and CBS’ Supergirl, have serious but hardly boundless potential. They will likely always shoot for marks they can’t quite hit. The peppy, earnest Supergirl was positioned as the great new hope of what’s been a monumentally underwhelming 2015 fall season, a grand heroic yarn with the hook and pedigree to become a breakout hit. Despite its comparatively dark tone and sprawling canvas, Gotham was essentially the 2014 version of the same ideal. That neither has thus far achieved its goals is understandable. Supergirl projects an excess of confidence, only some of which is tangible, and is still noticeably finding its footing. Gotham’s first season was a widely-derided, occasionally unwatchable waste of materials, but its second has largely been a course-correcting improvement. Both shows, as currently constituted, are more entertaining than not, though neither succeeds by a wide margin. Both have lower ceilings than they’d prefer to believe. Both still have substantial room to grow.
Tale of the Tape
Any trouble thus far with achieving dependable lift-off is reflected in, if not entirely dictated by, the series’ respective premises, each of which provides an impressive yard in which to play, surrounded by eye-level electric fencing practically engineered/doomed to constrain it. I’ve been on the ground floor with both shows since episode one – even during the loyalty-straining doldrums of Gotham’s debut midseason stretch, which saw viewers abandoning ship left and right – and can remember having conversations with friends in the days leading up to their respective premieres. Though the Gotham camp was excited, I couldn’t help but counsel caution. A “Batman” series without Batman just seemed an iffy premise to me, one bound to exhaust itself in fairly short order, whereas initial discussions about Supergirl tended to break hard along gender lines, with my female friends excited to at least check it out and their significant others dismissive at best. That isn’t a coincidence, unfortunately, though hopefully the show will see and use it as an opportunity.
Supergirl follows the stirring but convoluted journey of Kara Zor-El, the twelve-year-old cousin of infant Kal-El (Superman), who is sent on her own parallel mercy mission to Earth in the wake of home planet Krypton’s destruction. After an unscheduled detour in The Phantom Zone, Krypton’s equivalent of Alcatraz or Azkaban – in a time-bending collision that throws the celestial prison off its axis or whatever and sends it also careening towards Earth – Kara finally arrives years after her younger cousin has already grown up and become a worldwide phenomenon, leaving her with a fundamental identity crisis one hopes she’ll eventually outgrow. Young Kara is adopted by the suspiciously “super” Danvers family (married doctors should already make a formidable pair without actually having to be cinematic 1984 Supergirl Helen Slater and 1993 Clark Kent, of Lois & Clark fame, Dean Cain) and works toward piecing together a normal life. When the flashbacks recede, the show tracks an adult Kara (a buoyant, engaging Melissa Benoist) in her day-to-day routine working as a paid intern/coffee gopher at certainly-not-The Daily Planet (CATCO Media Group), under the yoke of opportunistic not-particularly-Perry White (Cat Grant, played by a truly irrepressible Calista Flockhart) in definitely-not-Metropolis (neighboring National City, which I instinctively think is a bank every time it’s mentioned). After years of hiding her powers, Kara is thrust into action to save a wounded, free-falling airliner with her adopted sister (Chyler Leigh) onboard, and, in its aftermath, finds herself an overnight sensation. Determined to seize the opportunity to make a difference, Kara embraces the Supergirl persona and family colors, setting off a week-to-week struggle to adjust to and thrive within the spotlight, consulting along the way with a shadowy anti-actual-aliens government agency her sister happens to work for, and battling the throng of disgruntled Kryptonian prisoners freed when The Phantom Zone crashed to Earth. Just the surplus of words necessary to relate its basic premise, plus its uncomfortable perpetual proximity to the legit Man of Steel (seriously, he’s just a couple towns over, and famous, and an impossible example to follow…plus here’s his friend Jimmy Olsen as a potential love interest!) earmarks Supergirl as an inherently bumpy enterprise. Against the odds, that’s proven to be something of a strength rather than a weakness.
Still and all, we’re only four episodes in. Not that we’ve seen him or her yet, but can anyone except an ardent fan even name Supergirl’s biggest rival? The Phantom Zone prison break may be a clever and convenient concept, but so far it hasn’t produced much in the way of memorable enemies, so much so that Kara has already begun predominantly fighting superpowered humans. Conversely, villains have always been the name of the game in Batman’s world, and their at times hilarious proliferation is the only major advantage Gotham has enjoyed on its heroic competition from the start. Gotham City, as ever, is a veritable Play-Doh Fun Factory of evildoing, spitting out cartoonish thugs and kingpins like newspapers off a press. Into this crucible of crime and corruption walks the last honest cop ever, Jim Gordon, oozing uncomplicated determination to protect the innocent and clean up the city. There’s also the theoretical fun of watching unseasoned villains like The Riddler and The Penguin – the former a socially paralyzed forensics specialist for the GCPD, evolving Dexter-like right under Gordon’s nose, and the latter a conniving, low level organized crime functionary forever jumping the fence separating mob families in search of leverage or a better cut – as they strive, stumble and build up their chops. This has edged into actual fun over time, as the show has simultaneously relaxed, recalibrated, and periodically unleashed hell on its photogenic, unsuspecting burgh. Jim also has a grizzled, ethically flexible partner, memorably played by Terriers’ Donal Logue, a stereotypical tough-as-nails captain, played by The Shield’s Michael Chiklis in a way that feels autobiographical, or at least referential, towards Vic Mackey, a level-headed new girlfriend, capably played by Firefly/Homeland’s Morena Baccarin, and, for good measure, an insane ex-girlfriend (Erin Richards, often hard to watch in the best way) lately keeping company with an enigmatic foe (James Frain) back for complicated, large scale revenge against both the city and the privileged family – the indispensable Waynes – that once shamed and exiled his own. Speaking of the Waynes, because someone always seems to be, if I’ve given fifteen-year-old non-entity Bruce Wayne short shrift here, it’s because the show often appears as unconvinced of his value as a character as I am.
Spotlight Round: Supergirl – “Livewire” – Season 1, Ep. 4 (CBS)
Supergirl’s fourth episode is a mixed bag, making room for Helen Slater’s return as Mama Danvers and all the attendant fights, frustration, and forgiveness that can reasonably be packed into a long Thanksgiving holiday with the fam, a frankly ludicrous villain – the titular “Livewire” is an unreformed, grudge-carrying shock DJ (Shock! I get it!) turned by a timely lightning strike into a malevolent creature of pure electricity that looks outwardly like True Blood’s Brit Morgan yet shoots bolts from her fingers like Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and jumps directly onto TV screens and hopskotches between power outlets like Horace Pinker in Shocker – flashbacks to Cain as the mysterious, benevolent, sadly late Papa Danvers, designated, long-awaited room to grow for Cat Grant – who had been an annoyingly one-note obstruction, no matter how clearly Flockhart might relish playing the role of an entitled, boundary-free media baron – and yet more fresh romantic overtures from two legs of the most hastily assembled romantic triangle in recent memory. It all adds up to a mouthful, yet “Livewire” moves at a brisk pace, with something always just around the corner to distract viewers from the bit they just got finished not quite believing. The action tends to lurch rather than glide, and while the visual effects perhaps already represent the best to be found on broadcast TV, they still at times have a clunky, handmade feel to them. The personal and emotional content, normally the B-side in any superhero equation, is rounding into far better shape. At the eighth-mile pole, Benoist is making impressive strides, shifting Kara’s early wide-eyed incredulity to the back burner while she slowly but surely acclimates to the role. The performances in general, with the hopelessly hamstrung exception of Morgan’s preening, cackling electro-bitch, are all beyond decent, with special notice to Leigh, who labors to make her own sacrifices in the service of protecting her sister not merely known by her disapproving mother but understood and felt, and Flockhart, who finally breaks through the ineffectual wall she’d spent the prior three weeks erecting, and effectively humanizes her stone-hearted character without fundamentally changing her.
Spotlight Round: Gotham – “A Bitter Pill to Swallow” – Season 2, Ep. 9 (FOX)
Jim Gordon is in appreciable and immediate need of some downtime, stat. Last week, his psychotic ex-girlfriend baited him into a deadly ambush, kidnapped and attempted to coerce him at gunpoint into marrying her, then fell to her (only) apparent death from Gotham cathedral’s attic window. The GCPD, acting on intelligence gathered during the dramatic rescue of the kidnapped former mayor, uses it to formally arrest the current mayor, his jailer, though its case is anything but airtight. Recognizing this, Gordon and Captain Barnes rifle through Mayor Galavan’s luxury apartment looking for additional evidence while Galavan’s vengeful sister looses hitmen on them. Indicative of the advances made during this second season, which was officially subtitled Rise of the Villains as a statement of purpose, “Bitter Pill” does a fine job of not only ably juggling its A, B, and C stories – the extended siege at Galavan’s apartment, the grieving Penguin’s ragged convalescence in the care of an unstable, mid-metamorphosis Riddler, young Bruce Wayne’s dogged, continually frustrated attempts to uncover the identity of his parents’ killer – but making them each interesting. Though the hitman incursions will be the most traditionally satisfying to Gotham’s core action audience – taut, sometimes graphic, impressively physical cat-and-mouse games that play out almost like a procession of short films – it is the tense interplay between Penguin and Riddler, the former defeated and at a personal crossroads, the latter ascendant and finally flowering into a true sense of purpose, that demonstrates what the show has grown into and hints at what it still might become. Through thirty episodes, we’ve witnessed one failed criminal alliance after another, but never between two headliners. As Penguin, Robin Lord Taylor does a tremendous job making the show’s most eccentric character painfully relatable, even as Cory Michael Smith, having been imprisoned in Edward Nygma’s demure insecurity for entirely too long, presents as something truly unsettling for this character: the very story of studied self-confidence. Gotham’s winter break is fast approaching, and the Galavan arc seems to be living on borrowed time. I imagine it’ll be shown the door by that murderous clan of robe-clad hoodlums that arrived in the final scene, looking like a weird cross between Shaolin and Benedictine monks. More than ever, I’m invested in what happens next.
There’s little point in comparing Supergirl and Gotham in anything other than a purely instructive way. The direct competition angle is pretty much a non-factor in the age of DVR and video on demand, yet there are similarities. Though improving, neither show is consistently well-written. Each compensates for lulls and moments of discomfort by running a full sprint in the opposite direction. Supergirl’s focus is always tight on Kara and her inner circle, which is reasonable for a show still in its formative stages. It treats its villains like contractual obligations at best, which is also smart, since, on the whole, they’ve run the gamut from unmemorable to outright terrible. On Gotham, the villains are an onrushing torrent, front and center regardless of their own wildly varying levels of quality and notoriety, not to mention, perversely, the only characters that really stand a chance at growth (if only to see what they’ll grow into). Both shows seem to have stumbled onto something real in terms of their leads. As Jim Gordon, Ben McKenzie’s straight-arrow cop crusader treats every development with steely resolve and crushing gravity. This has the effect of heightening and sharpening Gotham’s dramatic stakes, and making the all too occasional rank stupidity seem merely silly. Both extremes are, of course, abundant, given the show’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” writing approach. As Kara Jor-El, Melissa Benoist presents something unseen on television in my memory, recent or otherwise. Her Supergirl is fresh-faced and vibrant, innocent and gutsy, already surprisingly credible both as a befuddled but determined twenty-something and as a font of otherworldly strength.
Each show has already essentially chosen its path, and each is going in a direction that I think is worth paying attention to for those folks – comic book and movie fans, lovers of gut-level, noir-tinged action, fantasists and beyond excited at the prospect of a superhero with any degree of a feminist bent, folks still bummed Tim Burton didn’t direct Batman Forever – already predisposed to do so. Viewers that quit Gotham in a huff last season would do well to give Rise of the Villains a fresh look. Viewers that come to Supergirl for entrenched or purely philosophical reasons are altogether likely to find it lacking, because what could possibly stand up to such scrutiny, or bear the burden of wanting to be all things to all people, or at least most to many? From an objective standpoint, Supergirl is a more important show than a potboiler about Gotham City’s rotten and twisted family tree could ever be, both for what it offers at the moment and what it promises for the future. What I can say from, we’ll call it, tangential experience is that male viewers inclined to tune in to Supergirl solely because Benoist is a fantastically attractive heroine are well advised to bring along an open mind. They might just come away impressed by something more.