Photo: CBS

Supergirl doesn’t want to be compared to Superman. I know that because Kara says so approximately 17 times in “Fight Or Flight.” In the rush to separate Kara from her famous cousin, Supergirl ends up spend a lot of time tonight talking about Superman. In other words: The show doth protest too much.

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To put it frankly, I don’t think Supergirl needed to address Superman as directly as it does tonight. The showrunners clearly think the Man Of Steel looms large over viewers’ expectations of the series, but I’m not actually sure that’s the case. Had the show simply mentioned Superman in the pilot and then moved on I don’t think viewers would have been particularly upset (outside of the usual “Why isn’t the hero from one city helping the hero in another?” complaints that get lodged against every connected universe). But Supergirl clearly wants to clear the air when it comes to Superman, and all things considered I think they do that fairly well. If the concept of bringing Superman into this universe is a little shaky, at least the execution mostly works.

The latest foe stirring up trouble in National City isn’t a Fort Rozz escapee, but a regular humanoid threat who was a thorn in Superman’s side long before Supergirl revealed herself to the world. While preventing a nuclear explosion from killing millions, Superman was unable to save two workers from getting hit with a blast of radiation. Ben Kroll survived the accident and developed the ability to manipulate nuclear energy, but his wife was killed. Kroll—dubbed “Reactron” by James, who clearly needs naming lessons from Cisco—has been seeking revenge for years. When he learns that Supergirl is Superman’s cousin, he decides that the best way to punish the Man Of Steel is to kill someone he loves.

Kara’s determined to do what he cousin never could and stop Reactron once and for all, with words if she can and with her fists if she has to. When Reactron kidnaps tech genius/noted Supergirl-hater Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli doing Tony Stark Lite) Kara seizes the opportunity. Although she manages the rescue operation on her own, Supergirl is nearly defeated in her junkyard showdown with Reactron. That’s when Superman swoops in—with sun glares conveniently blocking his face—to save the day.

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It was a moment that no doubt frustrated a lot of viewers. A swooning female superhero getting saved by a heroic male one isn’t the best choice from an optics perspective. But Superman’s rescue didn’t particularly bother me; the idea of a superhero reaching their nadir in the second act only to save the day in the third is pretty standard superhero stuff. Kara does defeat Reactron by herself in the end (with a nifty little maneuver in which she coats her hand in molten lead and rips the nuclear reactor out of his chest) and as Clark Kent points out (over iChat!), that’s something even he couldn’t do.

But while the choice to focus on Superman is perhaps a little misguided, it’s one of things that’s kept Supergirl from feeling like a generic procedural in its first few episodes. Sure there are villains-of-the-week who need to be taken down, but so far Supergirl has managed to avoid feeling as rote as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. or The Flash did in their early days. Last week’s reveal of Evil Twin Astra and tonight’s unexpected Superman cameo both feel like events that would normally be held off for season finales, not the first few episodes of a new series. Yet the show is also taking its time when it comes to setting up Kara’s support teams. By episode’s end Winn, James, and Kara have created a high-tech “Superfriends” office in the CatCo building and the DEO has agreed to help Supergirl with human threats as well as extraterrestrial ones. So far the James/Winn stuff is far more compelling than the DEO, but it’s nice to see the show taking its time with establishing Kara’s dynamics in both environments.

But most of all, this episode just feels more human than the first two. This week characters actually have conversations that are about more than just conveying plot details or directly stating character motivations. And that goes a long way towards making them feel like real people. Last week I complained that the Alex/Kara relationship didn’t feel lived-in and this episode course corrects in a major way. When Kara’s plan to ask James out goes south, Alex is more than happy to spend the evening eating takeout at her sister’s place. Little moments like Alex saying “I hope you get fat” while begrudgingly handing over the last potsticker or Kara instructing her sister not to watch Homeland until she gets back from crime fighting makes their bond feel far deeper than any of the conversations in which they directly state, “I have faith in you.”

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Cat Grant also gets some much needed shading tonight as she decides to write a cover story on Supergirl. She apparently becomes very particular when she writes—requesting that maintenance check out non-existence humming and that redheads be removed from her line of sight. She’s not exactly insecure about her talent (“Please begin my compliments,” she instructs when Kara comes to her with notes), but those idiosyncrasies let Calista Flockhart add some much-needed comedy to her boss-from-hell routine. Cat also gets to flirt a bit as she takes a spin on the dance floor with Maxwell Lord. It’s the first time we’ve seen her with a peer rather than with a subordinate and it helps humanize her character quite a bit.

I also continue to be impressed with how the show is developing James, who’s confident exterior hides deep insecurities. Last week James admitted he’s worried his success is due to his friendship with Superman, not his innate talents as a photojournalist. Now this week he admits that he’s kind of a coward. Superman became his safety net in Metropolis so James’ first instinct is to crack open his super-watch and call his friend whenever he’s scared. He requests Superman’s help in dealing with Reactron in a misguided attempt to protect Kara, a person he’s come to care about deeply. Thankfully by episode’s end, he’s learned to put the same faith in Kara as he does in Clark. Melissa Benoist and Mechad Brooks continue to have fantastic chemistry and while a visit from James’ ex-fiancée Lucy Lane (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) will complicate things, I’m looking forward to watching the Kara/James relationship play out.

Superman (kind of) makes one last appearance tonight as Kara gets an iChat from Clark Kent. It’s an awkward workaround for the fact that this show doesn’t want to commit to actually showing (or casting) a Superman, but I found the whole thing so ridiculous (and so melodramatically scored) that it somehow spun around to being endearing again. Clark apologizes for overstepping, gives Kara some words of encouragement, and even sends a smiley face. It’s a reminder that right now the best thing about Supergirl is its upbeat, occasionally corny tone. Superheroes iChatting each other about the importance of family is just the kind of weirdly sweet moment I’m looking for on my network TV shows.

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Now that Supergirl has directly addressed the Man Of Steel, let’s hope it actually lets Kara soar out from under his shadow.

Stray Observations

  • Perd Watch: Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson) is back this week to inform National City about Reactron. “This next story is the story of a reactive man named Reactron.”
  • It’s weird to me that Evil Twin Astra goes totally unmentioned this episode. They could have at least had the DEO drop a line about the fact that they’re scanning for her or something.
  • Kara’s point of view is a little hard to track sometimes. Last week she was all about teamwork and this week she refuses to ask Superman for help.
  • I’m glad Kara believes thinkpieces about millennials are as ridiculous as I do.
  • There were most definitely not 1,000 people at Cat’s party. Looks like Kara really dropped the ball on those invites.
  • “Of all the things the S stands for, safety is not one of them.”
  • I don’t personally have a problem with the idea that no one can recognize Kara because the world doesn’t expect Supergirl to have a diminutive alter ego, but I imagine this episode was very trying for those who aren’t onboard with that conceit.
  • Hank Henshaw still has glowing red eyes and potentially the ability to read minds and/or hear really well.
  • For the record, I would totally watch Keeping Up With The Kryptonians.

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