It’s Friday morning as I write this and I’ve just watched the pilot episode of Supergirl, from The Flash executive producer Greg Berlanti. Like The Flash, Supergirl is more than a little silly. It suffers from the same clunky exposition that American genre TV writers have pretty much surrendered to, especially for pilot episodes. Its message is unsubtle, its agendas unhidden. And I loved it.
For all its faults (and I can forgive a great many in a pilot), Supergirl is unashamedly earnest. It’s about a girl who isn’t learning how to fly – she always could – but she’s finally letting herself fly. Letting herself be as incredible and impossible as she can be. If the target audience for this show loves it as much as I do, it’s going to do well. I hope it does. I think it’s needed, and not only that, I’m hoping it’s at the forefront of a sea change in pop culture. The long night is over – we’re done being depressed.
The current crop of writers and consumers have had a pretty rough time of it culturally. We came up when millenarianism was rampant, the end of the world was round the corner and some people were honestly stocking up on canned goods for the turn of the millennium. The world didn’t end, of course, it just went to hell. 9/11 happened and suddenly American news stations ran “threat levels” at the bottom of the screen on 24 hour news. Surveillance in the UK has gotten ludicrously invasive and violatory. But that’s OK because some people are terrorists and they’re probably your neighbour, so just let the government look at your e-mails, all right?
As a fan of superhero comics, I got to see the impact of this on pop culture up close. Superhero books have always been reactionary to social events and at the sharp end of pop cultural shifts. Superman first appeared in 1938, fighting slum lords, wife beaters, conscienceless businessmen. The creation of two Jewish kids, one of whom had a murdered parent, a totemic force for good calling himself Superman came around when Hitler was coming to power. Superman comics were mentioned by Hitler himself as something sinister. WWII breaks out and superhero comics change into patriotic propaganda. (Sometimes horribly racist propaganda. I said the comics reacted with the times, I didn’t say it was always a good thing.)
By the time you get to 2015, superhero movies are the Big Thing in Hollywood, due in no small part to their massive history, which must seem like a treasure trove of story ideas. But superheroes have transformed again in a culture that believed itself to be under siege. The Avengers were brought together by a military unit, Superman executed his enemy in Man of Steel, Batman employed super-surveillance techniques to defeat the Joker in The Dark Knight. Superheroes joined the military, and it wasn’t pretty.
But there’s change in the air. I think. I hope. Pop culture seems to be warming to the idea that we can finish a story with a smile again. Sense8, a romantic, fantastical adventure story gives us psychic karaoke. The Flash gives us a smiling scientist hero and Supergirl gives us a young woman doing her best, doing the right thing, because she can. She thinks everything is going to be OK.
In a previous post I called this trend post-cynicism. We’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t actually the train we were expecting. Pop culture is changing, and superhero stories are evolving again to do what they do best – show us what we’re capable of. Remind us that the day really can be saved. They’re looking up in the sky again. It’s time we did the same.