Three different superhero trajectories, represented by their accessories, resonate with me. The first, the essential human superhero. The second, the hero that could have been – the hero who could have indicted the system. The last: unexpectedly, the one who did. Rather astonishingly, it’s by far the sunniest of them, the CW’s Supergirl, who most thoughtfully and deeply engages with the current dark moment of our reality. Her metonym – her cape – symbolizes both her protective role and the inclusion the last season of her show espouses.
Superheroes have been the idiom of entertainment for at least a decade, after all: movie, network TV and streaming franchises generated billions of dollars and whirls of sometimes conflicting continuities. They supposedly fight for right in a world that is ultimately binary: good confronts evil reduced to and personified by a couple of arch-villains, defeated in the final minutes. A part of their outfits – each a vital accessory – serves as a shorthand for their respective personae and their relations to our current dark historical moment.
Batman, of course, is the first. His utility belt makes him the definitive #iGent superhero: he has an accessory that prepares him for every occasion, the endless control over every variable that requires endless wealth, the same wealth that protects him from discovery and accountability. Also appealing to the #iGentry is the playboy pose he adopts in his civilian identity to deflect identification with the hardened crimefighter of the dark streets. That is what Batman is: he fights crime, the symptoms of a problematic system, and external threats to that system (the Joker, Ra’s al-Ghul, Bane), but no amount of Wayne Foundation charity can resolve the problems inherent to that system, exploitative as it may be.
Green Arrow has often been treated as the poor man’s Batman (Batman when TV execs can’t get the rights to use him) in various superhero narratives. Similarly wealthy, similarly profligate in his public persona, wielding instead of a belt a bow, an offensive weapon firing a collection of arrows as diverse as the contents of Batman’s belt. But in the 1970s Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams leaned into and updated the Robin Hood association of this green-attired and goateed figure. They made Arrow raise, if not always satisfactorily address, the structural issues that give rise to lawlessness and inequality. If Batman’s drive is vengeance for the murder of his parents in a mugging, Green Arrow’s became rage at a system that exploited the most vulnerable, a system that created the crime that plagued 1970s cities and that reinforced divisions between rich and poor – even if the narratives sometimes foundered in 1970s clumsiness.
This social conscience manifested early and briefly in Arrow, the CW network’s version of Green Arrow, where the hero returns to eliminate the powerful establishment figures he believes responsible for exploiting his city and its most vulnerable. Debuting in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the first season liberally throws around terms like “one-percenters.” Over the ensuing six or so meandering seasons, that social sensibility, already weak, sublimates. Like in the comic books, the CW Green Arrow loses his fortune, but only in a rich person’s version of poverty: still able to travel to the ends of the earth at the drop of a hat to battle evildoers; able to build a nuke-proof state-of-the-art bunker; able to pay for boarding school for his son. Seasonal plots and archenemies have afforded but squandered ample opportunity for the CW Green Arrow to face if not address systemic societal crimes. The most recent season raises but then recontains issues of prison abuse and decarceration, and has Green Arrow battle a terrorist financier played by Highlander great Adrian Paul. The headlines of the last decade prove that this figure could just as easily have been a mainstream international banker rather than an illicit off-the-books marginal figure. He never again attacks crime at a societal level, meaning that his vigilantism, like that of Batman, is inherently fascistic, the more so as Green Arrow actually becomes a police deputy (in costume), in other words an instrument of structural repression.
If Superman’s symbol is his shield, the “S” on his chest, that of his cousin Supergirl (at least in her current TV incarnation) must be her cape. His shield and its symbol are personal (in canon a heraldic device of Superman’s family). Supergirl’s cape is protective against all weapons, and over the course of the series also becomes her secret weapon. Multifunctional, both drapey and inflexibly solid when needed. Capacious: like her heart and her mission it contains millions.
Supergirl is an alien, unlike Batman and Green Arrow. They are the ultimate insiders in their secret identities. Their wealth means they have power and access within the system. Supergirl has neither in her civilian persona, only physical – not political -- invulnerability as Supergirl. The writers of Supergirl the show have leaned into that alienness over its seasons, culminating in the season just ended that with surprising thoughtfulness raises issues of alienness, xenophobia and institutionalized bigotry.
Aliens in Supergirl are literal extraterrestrials from all over the galaxy, often refugees fleeing persecution, some better able to pass as human than others, some better behaved than others. Destruction caused by the superpowered aliens like Supergirl and many of her alien enemies have turned some humans against aliens. Other humans have never lacked for good old-fashioned racism, or opportunistic grifting. Drawing on all three motivations, perhaps, is the galvanizing Agent Liberty, a charismatic erstwhile academic turned masked rabble-rouser and, later, chickenhawk member of the government: in short, a lightly fictionalized version of certain pretentious scoundrels from the current administration.
Various other characters set out different approaches to confronting Agent Liberty’s state-sponsored pogroms: J’onn J’onzz (Martian Manhunter) is haunted by his own escape from genocide but tries (and fails) to peacefully oppose this; the human vigilante Manchester Black readily, nihilistically, engages in the same sadism as Agent Liberty’s followers to try to defeat them.
Agent Liberty’s rise turns out to be a smokescreen for corrupt members of the government, and those corrupting them, to divert attention from their other activities and neutralize alien superheroes at the same time. Supergirl, with her superpowers, and her reporter alter ego Kara Danvers, with access to the media, ultimately triumphs, with the support of a diverse network of alien and human friends: her adoptive human sister; the transsexual alien superhero Dreamer (whose name can’t be coincidental); the time-travelling alien android and reformed supervillain Brainiac 5; and a human friend energized with alien superpowers.
Of course, the conventions of a network superhero show, at least a CW network show, require a neat resolution. As soon as Supergirl and her friends publicly expose the corruption of those in power, it appears all government has been cleansed of these hatemongers and evildoers. And the crimes whose exposure drove the villains, up to the President of the United States, from power were not so much espousing xenophobia and putting aliens in concentration camps, but conspiring with American’s enemies. As we know, even evidence of that leading to actual repercussions is wishful thinking in the real world today. It is hard to say, as Supergirl does, that “[t]he fourth estate saved the day” when it in fact got us to this place. With Arrow, a dream of social engagement disappeared. Supergirl reminded us of a hope as distant as the fragments of a fictional Krypton.