Two new super hero shows have released this season and rather than review each individually I thought I’d go at it in typical geek fashion and compare who would win in a fight…if the shows fought that is. I’ve watched both shows, Jessica Jones in its entirety, and Supergirl up until the last couple of episodes so far. Overall they are two entirely different themes, which take the mood and style from the characters they portray. Both of them deliver these themes well, Jessica Jones being dark and brooding while dealing with topics of the same nature, and Supergirl being optimistic and upbeat. It is one of the few things that both shows share as a success, delivering the atmosphere of the story’s world in a way that’s immediately recognizable.
A failure they share is in characters, but they both fail differently. Supergirl’s failing here is that none of the characters seem at all real. They all come off as parodies of people that are just a bit over the top. Kara is unrecognizable from any other 20 something TV/Movie character often known as the pretty girl pretending to be a nerd. In this case it is close to the original material, because she is pretending to be this human persona to hide her true identity, but so far we haven’t seen anything that makes Kara unique from any other character on any other show. The only character that was even memorable, and kind of entertaining on screen is Cat, played by Calista Flockhart. She’s still an over-the-top parody, but at least the moments of the show she’s on are better than the rest. The rest of the characters are immediately forgettable…the love-struck geek who doesn’t have a chance with the pretty girl, the endearing hunk to be Supergirl’s unrequited love interest, the tough and protective sister, none of them struck a chord or were at all relatable. It reminds me of all the bad highschool movies with a cast of 20 year old actors playing teens trying to start a dance troupe while the angsty girl in glasses, who’s drop-dead gorgeous but a social pariah, really, really wants to join the cheer squad so she can land a date with the hunky quarterback who hasn’t noticed she’s actually the prettiest girl in school.
Jessica Jones delivers some very real characters, with a lot of personality, flaws, quirks, and variations. I liked that a lot, and it made the show about people with super powers seem more real and less fantasy. Where they fell a bit short is that all the main characters are so much the same. With a few exceptions in places, the main cast were all brooding, dark, tortured souls that don’t really like anyone except for their closest friends. While this helped promote the feel of the show, and the dark nature of the story, it also made it hard to care about any of them. The only reason I really wanted Jessica to win was because I really hated Killgrave, who was, honestly, the most engaging character in the entire series. That’s awful to say, since he’s a horrible character, person-wise, but he is the most charming and entertaining character in the show. The neighbors in Jessica’s building, and her junkie friend Malcolm were often far more sympathetic characters, who I cared more about overall throughout the show. At least with JJ the characters weren’t all bad, it just seemed like they were all the same. Sometimes the facade cracked and you’d seem some moments of variation, but not often.
Advantage: Jessica Jones
Making Super Believable
Super hero shows have the difficult job of delivering a fantasy element, usually set in the real world, to an audience that isn’t always familiar with the source material. They have to showcase powers, insert them into a world that doesn’t make them gods, and provide challenges that keep the show interesting. When it’s done right the show is a success, people love it, and a lot of people who’ve never read comics start craving that super hero fix, that modern mythos that feeds our craving for legends and grand tales. When it’s done poorly the show just seems corny, childish, and uninteresting.
Supergirl already has a high bar to leap with this one. Like Superman, Supergirl has all the powers of a Kryptonian under a yellow sun. Super strong, flight, heat vision, cold breath, speed, and indestructibility, with very limited weaknesses. Finding challenges for Supergirl, something that will actually make the viewer wonder if she’ll be able to overcome it, will be hard, and harder still because of the show’s story format which we’ll touch on later. The show writers are doing a fairly decent job of overcoming that however, by showing her lack of experience. In the show’s timeline Kara has just revealed herself as Supergirl and started protecting National City. She doesn’t have any training, doesn’t know how to fight, and isn’t even sure of some of her powers. All the super strength in the world isn’t going to do you much good if you can’t throw a punch. As the show progresses, and she gains these skills, it will be more difficult for the writers to come up with believable challenges, in much the same way it’s hard to read or watch Superman with any sense of foreboding or tension.
Jessica Jones has the advantage of source material that has a character with more distinct flaws that run counter to her powers. While Jessica Jones is extremely strong, and can fly (sort of), she’s not indestructible. She can heal fast, but she can be hurt, break bones, and even be killed by relatively mundane means. This gives the writers a much easier time of presenting challenges to her powers, and gave them more time to focus on better story. The challenges presented to her not only target her weaknesses, but also focus on the people around her. Like the story it’s based on, the first season shows Killgrave’s penchant for hurting the people Jessica cares about, rather than targeting her directly. She doesn’t have a secret identity to protect them, so it’s a major weakness to balance the character’s power. In all, the show presented a very believable powered character that the viewer knew could be stopped, and even killed, which helped build tension.
Advantage: Tie…for now
Supergirl’s sets, costuming, and practical effects are very good. They give a sense of the optimistic world she lives in, the bright and hopeful setting that people expect from the story. Supergirl’s costume is very well done, being a faithful, but updated homage to the original, which is nice. It remains tasteful, and incorporates the traditional elements of the comic book imagery. Even the special effects are good, which is a surprise coming from a network TV show about super heroes. Often shows skimp in this area, or gloss over things in order to save money or hide bad effects and it hurts the show. In this case my only real complaint is with the fight choreography. Initially it could have been chalked up as intentional, since Supergirl isn’t experienced when the show starts, but even the characters who are supposed to be trained federal agents tend to be a little halting and not as graceful as you’d expect. The cinematography doesn’t help either, as some shots are at odd angles clearly showing punches failing to land while the bad guy looks like he just got hit by a truck. This could improve as the show goes on, but unfortunately out of the gate this is an area where Supergirl pales in comparison to shows like Agents of Shield or Daredevil.
Jessica Jones also delivers great sets, costuming, and practical effects. They manage to give you a dark view of the city, without going as depressing as a Chris Nolan Batman movie. The use of colors and shots put you right into the story. As for special effects, Jessica Jones goes with a minimalist approach that works. None of the characters have flashy powers anyway, but they avoid bad wire-guided jumps, or ridiculously destructive fight scenes (except for a couple of minor exceptions). The realism of the show is clearly important so you don’t have these earth-shaking battles destroying entire city blocks, which you could with some of the characters involved. Jessica Jones also leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to the fight scenes, much of which involve Jessica tossing people against walls and knocking them out with body blows. Part of me thinks this is intentional, since she is mostly fighting normal people who would be killed easily by her strength. When fighting Luke, or her couple of physical interactions with Killgrave she doesn’t hold back as much as she does against Human Goon #5 in her apartment.
Advantage: Tie – They both fail in the same area and unsure if it’s intentional
It All Boils Down to Story
Supergirl disappointed right out of the gate with its story. I get that a pilot is basically how a show is sold to the production company, so it’s rarely as good as the regular season shows, but the flaws of the pilot carried over to the rest. Right away the first episode was too fast. Too much going on, too quick to get her in costume, too much of too much. In one hour we get her backstory, her growing up, new job, new life, then boom, it’s Supergirl, she gets a costume montage, and bam, onto the first bad guy of the season. TOO MUCH! I don’t necessarily think a show should take an entire season to get the hero into costume like Daredevil did (or all the seasons like Smallville), but damn…can’t we have a little character development before she puts on the ‘S’? My other beef with the show is it’s already coming off as a ‘villain of the week’ show. There’s no drawn out conflict, or build up, we don’t see the bad guys as anything except something for Kara to beat up. I think this will lead to issues down the road, as Supergirl gets better at being a hero the writers are going to have a harder time coming up with ways to challenge her. There are only so many villains in the DC universe that the Kryptonians can’t wipe the floor with. If they don’t slow down with the parade of bad guys we’re looking at 30 to 40 villains worthy of fighting Supergirl by the time season two is over.
Another thing I didn’t care for is the insinuation that Supergirl is the only female super hero in this universe. I get the impression her and Superman are supposed to be the only heroes period, or maybe only male heroes up until this point, I’m not sure. There’s no mention of Arrow or Flash, so I’m not even sure the two TV universes are the same. We all know licensing issues crop up and cause problems, but going by the basic history of the DC universe there should be a plethora of female heroes that girls have been looking up to years before Supergirl came onto the scene. It just threw me, thinking she got started before any of the others. All in all it really feels like they are trying to create a show with a Smallville feel but along the lines of the new DC shows, and not really hitting the mark with either. Story is also where the show, not just the characters, feels like a parody. I have a hard time knowing if they are making fun of, or getting their dialogue from popular socio-political themes on Tumblr and Twitter. Every once in awhile a character opens his or her mouth and says something that just breaks all sense of reality. I’ve seen people write those things, reblog those things and tweet those things, but really most people don’t talk like that in real life, and it makes it hard to get into the show and take it seriously.
Jessica Jones, on the other hand, followed in the path of its Netflix predecessor by giving us a drawn-out story arc involving one villain and the plot to take them down. It also avoided the preachy political issues, making them part of the story when needed, or when it is part of the character’s personality or story, but not a constant element of dialogue. I did find Jessica Jones a little slow to get into, though. I think it wasn’t until episode 3 or 4 that we were sure we were going to enjoy the show. It just had a slow start, and neither my wife or I are fans of the actress playing the lead, not sure why, just one of those actors that just doesn’t click for us. As the story started to pick up, though, and the entire package came together we got into it and being turned off by the actress didn’t matter all that much. Guess that’s a testament to the team behind the show. They took their time with character development, which I like, especially for a show that can be binge-watched. I liked the theme of the story, and thought it touched on a lot of the dark issues of humanity, and explored those awful things people are capable of, but also showing the good things that people can do.
The struggle to catch Killgrave, try to prove what he had done, and make sure he paid for his crimes was dramatic and gave a real sense of frustration to the viewer. For me it wasn’t frustration that it was taking so long, but the frustration felt by the main character that she couldn’t just go in and end it physically without hurting a lot of innocents. It also made the end of the season extremely satisfying. What I wish we’d seen an inkling of was a reference, a link, or some connection to the Daredevil story, even if it was a commercial for a law office in town. I knew the events of Jessica Jones happened about the same time as Daredevil but leaving them so completely separate was a bit disappointing. Anyway, I felt the story for Jessica Jones was much better written, and definitely keeping up the bar set its Netflix predecessor. It makes me look forward to the upcoming releases and when they all come together.
Advantage: Jessica Jones
At the end of the day it’s no contest who wins in this fight. Even if I was a DC guy rather than a Marvel fan, I’d have to admit that Jessica Jones has a much better story, writing, cast, and delivery. The shorter season, and ability to watch it at once allowed the writers to deliver a heavy hitting story, focus on characters over the span of the entire series, and build up to a great show. Supergirl isn’t a complete loss, it just isn’t good enough to be a stand-out show and that’s a shame. Good super hero shows are still hard to come by, and it’s a market we’re going to see tapped for the foreseeable future, so I hate to see anyone half-ass it. There’s potential with the DC show, but I’m not sure if they can pull it off before it loses in the ratings to better shows.