It took me an embarrassingly long time to understand that people view superheroes as aspirational figures. As a kid I thought of Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman as action heroes like Ethan Hunt or James Bond, not as protagonists with important moral lessons to impart. It actually wasn’t until I watched Captain America: The First Avenger that I personally connected with the idea of a superhero as a moral role model. I’m guessing most people have particular superheroes that resonant with them more than others; I didn’t happen to personally connect to Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, or Clark Kent, but Steve Rogers was my “in” to a whole new way of understanding heroism.
That’s what I’m so glad that Supergirl exists because I think Kara Danvers will be an important “in” to heroism for a lot of people as well. Not only is our current live action superhero landscape lacking in female heroes, it’s specifically lacking in ones that grapple with the concept of heroism. Black Widow, Gamora, Daisy Johnson, and Mystique are all wonderful, relatable characters who are inspiring in their own ways, but their stories tend to be more personal and less interested in larger questions of right and wrong. Jessica Jones and Agent Carter flirt with themes of heroism, but I would argue explore them less explicitly than classic male heroes like Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman. Supergirl, however, is unabashedly interested in exploring what it means to be a hero.
That’s especially true tonight as Kara—still drained from her battle with Red Tornado—has to figure out how to help National City recover from an earthquake without the use of her powers. That gives Supergirl the chance to remind its audience (explicitly and repeatedly, since subtlety has never been this show’s strong suit) that having powers isn’t what makes Kara a hero; her bravery, empathy, and compassion are far more important than her super strength and heat vision.
I would hold up “Human For A Day” as one of the most inspiring pieces of live action superhero storytelling of the year. The sequence in which a depowered Kara, terrified and literally broken, stops a looter using nothing more than her words is a deeply moving celebration of compassion over brute force. Coupled with Cat’s broadcast about how everyone should think of themselves as a superhero in times of trouble, that fantastic sequence serves as Supergirl’s strongest thesis statement yet. Though the show initially tried to set itself apart with frank discussions of gender, its exploration of heroism that just happens to feature a female protagonist winds up being far more impactful.
Even better, there’s nothing Pollyannaish about tonight’s Supergirl. The show isn’t afraid to admit that Kara can’t save everyone. A man dies—leaving his crying daughter fatherless—because Supergirl wasn’t there to fly him to the hospital. Though the episode doesn’t paint that as a failure on Kara’s part (stopping Red Tornado last week was undoubtedly necessary), it’s still emotionally excruciating to watch Kara try and fail to will her X-ray vision to work. But as James reminds her, being a hero doesn’t mean always winning, it means always trying. So Kara dusts herself off and keeps on helping National City in whatever way she can, even when that means putting her life on the line.
Though it was the most engaging part of the episode for me, the story of Kara’s powerless heroism only takes up about half of “Human For A Day,” which splits its time between the Danvers sisters. Both halves are strong (as is the subplot about Cat and Winn trying to get a live broadcast up and running), but it does feel like a lot of story to cram into one episode. And since the Kara and Alex threads aren’t particularly thematically or tonally related, it was a little jarring to switch back and forth between them. I admire the way Supergirl burns through plot so quickly, but I think it could have gotten two excellent episodes out of this material, not just one.
Thankfully, the show brings some much-needed style to the DEO portion of the episode, which basically plays out like a horror movie full of dark corridors and flashing red lights. A psychic alien named Jemm breaks out of his cage during the earthquake, which sends the DEO into lockdown mode and gives Alex a catalyst to confront Henshaw about his involvement in her father’s death.
While everything that happens here roughly tracks, it really would have benefitted from some room to breathe. In particular I found it odd how quickly Alex was able to convince Agent Donovan to join her in disobeying a direct order and how little impact his death seemed to have on her. And while the idea of a villain with mind control powers could easily compliment the horror-movie vibe, Jemm basically comes off as a nonentity.
However, it’s hard to complain about that too much because 1.) It’s a lot of fun to watch Alex be a gun totting badass and 2.) We learn that Hank Henshaw is actually J’onn J’onzz a.k.a. Martian Manhunter!
Granted that reveal will probably mean a lot more to comic readers than non-comic readers, but watching Henshaw transform into an eight-foot-tall Martian is pretty damn cool, even if you don’t know much about his comic book origins. All those hints he’s dropped about his lost family turn out to be even more tragic than I initially imagined: J’onn J’onzz is the last of his race, an alien refugee like Kara, who was almost murdered by the DEO before Jeremiah Danvers sacrificed his life (and potentially killed the real Hank Henshaw?) to save him. J’onzz took Henshaw’s place with plans to reform the DEO from within and with a promise to Jeremiah to look after his daughter.
David Harewood finally gets to do more than just be gruff and authoritative as he sells the hell out of a lengthy expository monologue about J’onnz’s past. This reveal changes the whole dynamic at the DEO and for the first time I’m genuinely looking forward to watching stories unfold there, rather than dreading them.
In fact “Human For A Day” is an all-around fantastic showcase for Supergirl’s cast, as they’re each asked to play new sides of their characters tonight. Calista Flockhart captures how Cat strives, in her own blunt way, to be an inspiring figure during a time of crisis. Chyler Leigh gives Alex a strong sense of military authority. Mehcad Brooks shows a more vulnerable side as he opens up to Kara about his dead father. Jeremy Jordan adds some anger to his affable routine. And Melissa Benoist turns in maybe her best performance yet (which is really saying something considering how great she is every week) as she conveys the self-doubt, fear, and frustration Kara feels over being powerless as well as the immense bravery it takes to stand in front of a loaded gun armed with nothing more than her conviction.
Between the excellence convenience store stand-off and the Martian Manhunter reveal, everything else in this episode can’t help but feel a little underwhelming. In particular the gas line explosion at CatCo felt especially perfunctory, even if it was fun to watch James play the hero and see Kara finally get her powers back (and boy, had she earned them).
Instead if there’s one other moment from this episode that will stay with me it’s the image of Kara smiling proudly at the bus of children that she’s just saved. That quick moment of joy encapsulates everything that makes Supergirl powerful, inspiring, and totally unique amidst our superhero-filled pop culture landscape. Now, let’s hope Evil Twin Astra doesn’t knock the wind out of her sails.
- I’ll be curious to hear if everyone else found this episode as emotionally affecting as I did. Powerless characters—especially female ones—demonstrating bravery is a big emotional button for me, and I basically sobbed through that entire convenience store sequence.
- I probably would’ve changed my clothes after rescuing the man I love from falling down an elevator shaft, but you do you Kara.
- Not only does James get to go full Twilight as he rips off his shirt to tend to a wounded Kara, he also casually pries open a set of elevator doors with his bare hands. In other words, it was a good week for Mehcad Brooks’ arms.
- Winn shaming Kara over her friendship with James is all kinds of messed up as is the fact that she winds up apologizing (!!!) to Winn for hugging James. I’m totally fine with Winn being a selfish character with manipulative tendencies, but I’m still not 100% sure Supergirl realizes how deeply flawed he is.
- “He’s such a nerd.” – Supergirl describing her dorky cousin Superman