Marvel, which featured superheroes such as Black Widow and Scarlet Witch in their film ensembles, now has a female-led Captain Marvel movie, focusing on the Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel, first seen in print (as Ms Marvel) in 1977. And DC will elevate its ensemble villain, Harley Quinn, to her own film soon after.
But television seemed to square its game a few years ahead of the big screen, with three seasons of Supergirl in the can and a fourth coming. Set in the so-called “Arrowverse”, Supergirl shares a larger continuity with a number of other programs, including Arrow, The Flash and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.
For 29-year-old actress Melissa Benoist, who plays Supergirl – real name Kara Zor-El – the timing for a female-led costume hero narrative is perfect.
“It’s a privilege and sometimes I’ll admit it’s intimidating because I don’t want to influence anyone in a bad way,” she says. “But I think just the character herself speaks so much for what we want to feel. She’s so confident, and wonderful, and great, and joyful, and I think the world needs that these days.”
This telling of the story is largely faithful to tranches of the original comic book: teen-aged Kara Zor-El leaves the exploding Krypton on a ship following her cousin, Kal-El. But a detour via the Phantom Zone – an otherworldly dimensional prison – lands her on earth 24 years later, by which time the infant Kal-El has grown up and become Superman.
What makes this television chapter of the DC Comics canon so fascinating is that it does feature Superman – played here periodically by actor Tyler Hoechlin – while Supergirl remains the centrepiece of the narrative. That’s a big deal for a company such as DC where Superman remains number one on the call sheet.
“I think the writers have handled it beautifully,” Benoist says. “It’s touching: regardless of their sexes, they’re family, and that’s what’s important. I think on our show [we see] how they teach one another and the love between them.”
The two characters are bonded by the fact that they both came from the dying embers of Krypton, and face life alone – but for each other – on Earth. (Notably, Warner Bros has also spun out a Superman prequel, Krypton, though it is not directly connected to the Arrowverse series).
“They’re two surviving members of a dying race,” Benoist adds. “And that is beautiful to me. I think that’s amazing.”
Last season the series also offered a major homage to the actor who played the original television Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter; Carter played US president Olivia Marsdin who visited National City, where Supergirl is set, to sign an “alien amnesty act”.
Benoist says it was “amazing” having Carter on the series, adding that Carter taught her the signature twirl – the spin in which Diana Prince would transform into Wonder Woman. This was then used in the Supergirl series, in a sequence in which Supergirl turned at speed to extinguish a fire.
The best part of the series, Benoist says, is the elegance of human flight, though she does concede the downside is that she is strapped to a complex harness when she is in the air.
“It’s hard work, I am essentially attached to a fork in the air,” she says.
When she took the role, Benoist says she was sent – along with most actors playing heroes in the DC television series – to a boot camp for superheroes.
“It’s almost a superhero physicality school, where the stunt people will teach you how to walk like a superhero,” she says. “And I had to come up with what my heat vision looked like and what freeze breath looked like, and, really, it just looks like a staring contest and [like] I am blowing out my birthday candles.
“They really helped me,” she adds, laughing. “My posture has gotten better because of this job. The suit gives me no other option because it’s a corset and when it zips up … it is pretty rigid, the suit kind of does the work for you.”
Tuesdays, 8.30pm, Fox8
Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter