It’s difficult to use “campy” to critique a superhero show. The 1966 Batman TV series, which for the record I adore, ruined “camp” in genre criticism because it implies you can’t take the art seriously. Campy implies colorful tights and the Batusi. Campy means bad. Supergirl is campy. This week’s episode, “Falling” is campy. But Supergirl nor “Falling” are bad, and you should take both seriously.
After exposure to synthetic red kryptonite, Kara’s repressed negative emotions and aggressive traits are amplified umpteen degrees, turning her into a pissed off bull in the china shop called National City. Kara does pretty much what Ben Affleck fears Henry Cavill will do in Dawn of Justice: She abuses power and comes close to dominating puny Earthlings. (Although it wouldn’t work since Superman could stop her madness, but he’s technically not supposed to do anything so the stakes make sense.)
The first half “Falling” is hysterical in absurdity, like a 30-minute version of the Spider-Man 3 scenes of a Symbiotic Peter Parker dressing in black and acting like a douche canoe. But Melissa Benoist’s Kara, who also participates in cartoonish dickery, walks a fine line between comical and real sex appeal. Benoist knows what works with Kara’s bad side — and no surprise, it’s Kara acting like Cat Grant — and “Falling” was a sandbox she could play in.
And narratively, there’s actual damage left in Kara’s path. She gets Siobhan fired (which will set up Silver Banshee, no doubt), ruins her friendship with James (their timing may never be right), and threatens Cat and ruins her reputation as the city’s savior.
Supergirl appears to go off the rails when it reopens old wounds just stitched between Alex and her murder of Astra. But on just a fraction of Man of Steel’s budget and with better competency in bringing out the emotional honesty, Supergirl has the fight of the year pitting Kara against J’onn — revealing his Martian identity — and the heartbreaking fallout, emphasizing the cost of superhero responsibility.
(Also, for the first time since he was introduced, Martian Manhunter wasn’t all CGI. Whoever decided to put David Harewood in prosthetics should be commended. It looks cheesy but authentic, like Alan Rickman’s Dr. Lazarus in Galaxy Quest. I was cheering so hard when I realized it wasn’t CGI.)
While Supergirl is campy and, in a somewhat condescending cute way even when it tries to be serious, “Falling” is Supergirl showing a powerful understanding of what is really at stake for Kara Zor-El. Supergirl runs circles around Zack Snyder’s big-budget interpretation of similar ideas, and Kara didn’t have to mope around in dark blue for twenty minutes to achieve it. Bad isn’t a good look on Supergirl, but it really brought out the best for the entire show.