This Month In The Arrowverse: June 2018: “Future’s Gonna Be A Steep Learning Curve”

Supergirl 3×21, 3×22, and 3×23: “Not Kansas”, “Make It Reign”, and “Battles Lost and Won” (SEASON FINALE) reviews

 

Seems like every This/Last Week In The Arrowverse post I make lately begins with me apologizing for being so late, and this one is a lot later than most. But believe it or not, this time it wasn’t because I was so busy. I was all ready to post my review of “Not Kansas” a week after the episode aired.

However, looking over what I’d written, I noticed just how many times I used some variation of the phrase “we’ll see how this plays out”. Almost every piece of plot analysis I did had to be tempered with the knowledge that whether what happened was a good choice or a bad choice wouldn’t be clear for a couple more weeks. And eventually I decided, with Supergirl’s third season almost over, and the other Arrowverse shows already wrapped up, why not wait a couple more weeks and review all of these last three episodes at once, once I know how this whole season shakes out?

I realize this means striking when the iron has gone from being hot to cold to somewhere in the liquid oxygen range, but I do hope you’ll bear with me.

With that out of the way . . .

Supergirl 3×21: “Not Kansas” review

Supergirl has always had its feet in two worlds. It’s obviously a very outlandish sci-fi story about a superpowered alien fighting other aliens, killer robots, toy-themed supervillains, and now actual witches. But it’s also a show that wants to ground itself in reality, having its characters’ emotional struggles come from relatable, real world places, and dealing with real life issues like sexism, xenophobia, and gun control.

This can make for a powerful combination, the out-there superhero adventure drawing people in and keeping them excited, while the down-to-earth aspects let viewers relate to the characters more easily.

However, it’s no easy task to make such contradictory elements mesh well together. Dealing with real world problems can fall flat if the over-the-top superheroics make those concerns seem petty by comparison, or if it stops making sense that such problems would even exist in a world where anything can be solved with superscience. Conversely, when the story’s focus is solidly on relatable, real life issues, the worldbuilding of the sci-fi and fantasy can suffer, existing only as a backdrop for more mundane stories.

There are three plots running through “Not Kansas”, each of them striving to balance the show’s relatable elements with its sci-fi superheroics. One plot successfully balances these contradictions to create a powerful story, while the other two falter, one by putting too much of the mundane into its science fiction, the other by putting too much sci-fi into its realism, with neither plot living up to its full potential.

Let’s start with Kara’s return to Argo. In my last column, I went on a bit of a tirade about how the show utterly failed to make Kara’s discovery of her mother and her home city, both still alive, the emotionally staggering event it should have been. Having seen the episodes that follow, it’s now clear that the underwhelming presentation of this reveal was at least partly intentional, as they’re building to Kara realizing that going back to Argo hasn’t given her the sense of belonging she was looking for, and that her real home is on Earth with the family she’s built for herself there.

That’s certainly a valid trajectory for Kara’s character, and showing how Kara now feels out of place in her old home could have made for an interesting episode. But in constructing this story, little thought seems to have been paid to what experiences Kara Zor-El, a refugee who grew to adulthood on alien world, believing herself to be all but the last of her kind, would have upon rediscovering and re-immersing herself in her old home, now a precarious group of survivors still recovering from their planet’s apocalypse.

Once again, while Kara and Alura are clearly glad to see each other, they’re not acting like a mother and daughter who had believed each other dead for decades. Kara stays at Alura’s house and they have a couple nice talks, but seem to feel little need to spend much time together, barely sharing any screen time this episode.

Kara does do something I wanted to see last episode, meeting an old childhood friend who survived Krypton’s destruction. And when Kara and Thara catch up, they briefly touch on the monumental changes they’ve gone through since they were kids: Thara’s family all died in Krypton’s destruction, Kara’s been living on an alien planet where she has superpowers, they both thought the other one was dead.

But all of that is breezed past in thirty seconds. Instead, when it’s time for Kara to realize she has little in common with this woman anymore, it’s because Thara, now married with kids, is the sort of upper-middle class woman who thinks having a poorly constructed gazebo in her backyard is the height of tragedy, and will bore others incessantly about it at dinner.

This story is trying so hard to make what’s happening relatable, it tips over into ridiculous. The core idea of discovering that someone you were once close to is now almost a different person, that’s a universal theme that anyone above a certain age can relate to. It wasn’t necessary to have 90% of Kara and Thara’s dialogue feel like it could have been lifted verbatim from a couple of ordinary women on Earth meeting up at their high school reunion. Doing so doesn’t simply ignore more interesting routes the story could have gone, it does a disservice to the characters, taking all the tragedy and earthshattering events of their lives, and reducing them to unimportance in favor of banality.

Exploring how Kara has changed since her childhood on Krypton, having assimilated so thoroughly into the culture of Earth, and exploring how Argo has changed since her departure, its culture bearing the lasting scars of Krypton’s destruction: that promises a fascinating story. But to get that fascinating story, you’d need writers who are willing to invest in worldbuilding for their sci-fi civilization, and who are able to see the dramatic potential in a story that, while speaking to universal truths about the passage of time, is not exactly the same as the experiences of your average 21st Century American.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, we have the exact opposite problem with the DEO’s search for a crazed gunman. A law enforcement organization discovering that one of the high powered weapons they’ve purchased has fallen into the hands of a criminal, and could be used to kill lots of innocent people? That’s a pretty grounded story, touching on some very topical issues. And for most of its runtime, the episode handles the story well, even giving the situation nuance, which is rare on Supergirl.

But then the climax arrives, and our very grounded story about gun proliferation is undone by the fact that it’s set in a world of sci-fi gadgets and superpowered aliens. J’onn confronts the shooter, refusing to attack him, but instead peacefully talking him down even as he points his gun at J’onn’s head. If this had happened on a regular cop show, this could have made for a tense and thematically powerful climax, showing a man willing to risk his own life to solve a problem non-violently, rather than responding to a man with a gun by pulling out a bigger gun.

But Supergirl is not a regular cop show, and J’onn J’onnz is not a regular cop. He’s a superstrong and nigh-invulnerable alien; he was never in any danger from the gunman’s bullets, and could have effortlessly and humanely restrained him the moment he entered the room. There’s thus no tension to the confrontation, and any statement this moment was trying to make about gun violence is undermined by centering it around a man whose powers make guns little more than toys.

This problem is compounded when J’onn announces that, in light of this story’s events, he will be phasing out all of the DEO’s firearms in favor of non-lethal weaponry. The solution to gun violence, this episode tells us, is to simply replace guns with weapons that can incapacitate people just as well without killing them.

And in Supergirl’s universe, this makes sense; if anyone can cook up that sort of tech, it’s Winslow Schott. But for a story that has, until now, been trying to ground itself hard in the realities of the gun control debate in America, it’s a complete copout. It’s trying to say something important about a real world issue, but then resolves the issue with a sci-fi solution that won’t work in real life. Unlike the Argo story, which ruined a potentially powerful science fiction story by grounding it too hard in our mundane world, the DEO story takes a potentially powerful realistic story, but undercuts everything it’s trying to do because of its sci-fi elements.

It’s a tricky balance, but there is one story this episode that gets it right.

M’yrnn’s decaying mental state has, so far, been drawing one-to-one parallels with dementia suffered by the elderly. But this episode introduces a new wrinkle, as M’yrrn seems to be regaining his faculties, but rather than a cause for rejoicing, he recognizes this as the brief recovery that happens right before the end. With M’yrnn’s death approaching, J’onn must now absorb all of his father’s memories, as M’yrnn absorbed the memories of the Martian priest before him, and as that priest absorbed the memories of the priest before him, in an unbroken succession going back to the birth of their civilization. If they don’t, all of their people’s knowledge will be lost forever.

That is a bizarre sci-fi concept, sure enough. No one in real life has ever been asked to be a psychic receptacle for generations worth of memories. But the emotions involved still resonate, because if J’onn agrees to do this, it means acknowledging that his father’s end is at hand, that there is no recovery for his illness. The knowledge that the people we love will one day die, and the urge to deny this fact, even as we must prepare for the inevitable: no matter how strange the circumstances might be, these truths will always speak to us.

M’yrnn and J’onn’s story is a slight one this episode, scarcely even a C-plot, but of the three plots, it alone knows how to tell an emotionally relatable story even as it embraces the sci-fi weirdness of its setting. The balancing act can be done; Supergirl just needs to manage it more often.

Stray Observations:

  • While everything with Kara on Argo is still a complete bust, her scenes on Earth, talking about how she has to go back, saying goodbye to everyone, assuring them she won’t be gone forever . . . there were a couple misty eyes on my end, I’ll admit. It does help sell us on Kara’s eventual conclusion that Earth is where she really belongs, not Argo, but that still doesn’t make going from Kara’s lovely chat with Alex to her rote conversations with Alura or Thara any less disappointing.
  • Speaking of Kara saying goodbye, we also get a glimpse of her having a goodbye party at CatCo and hugging Lena. Which has me wondering what excuse she gave Lena for why she’s quitting her job and leaving town, since she’s really the only person in Kara’s life who doesn’t know her secret.
  • Kara’s other plot on Argo, where she thinks someone is trying to kill her, uses one of my least favorite tropes: a character makes a rash assumption based on little to no evidence, but their rash assumption eventually gets proven right, which is supposed to make us believe their assumption wasn’t so rash after all, when really it just means that they got lucky/the writer is on their side.
  • Alex was weirdly absent from the DEO plot this episode. This series has an actual running gag about how giddy Alex gets whenever she’s handed a new, more deadly kind of firearm. You’d think she’d want to weigh in on this whole DEO weapons policy thing, but browsing adoption company websites has apparently absorbed all her attention.

Supergirl 3×22: “Make It Reign” review

What we have here is a textbook transitional episode. It’s the penultimate episode of the season, lots of plotlines need to come to a head in the finale, and this episode does the heavy work of setting us up so we can get there.

Despite that, what we have is a largely fun and engaging episode. The “Dark Kryptonians” attacking the DEO makes for a number of great action scenes. The effects and fight choreography aren’t anything we haven’t seen before, but with all our heavy hitters MIA for most of the battle, it’s thrilling to watch squishy humans like Winn, Alex, and Ruby pull out every gadget and piece of strategy they can to stay ahead of such an unstoppable onslaught. Even when Supergirl arrives to save the day, her arrival depends on a clever bit of trickery and bringing back a piece of hologram technology established way back in Season 1.

And the ending of the episode, with the Kryptonian witches bringing Reign back in a new body, and giving her a sword that can wipe out all life on Earth . . . it does throw a lot of new techno/magical jargon at us pretty quickly, and it maybe happens a bit too early (more on that when I discuss “Battles Lost and Won”), but it does its job well. National City falling apart as world destroying earthquakes begin is a suitably apocalyptic moment to send us into the finale on.

However, while “Make It Reign” is an enjoyable episode to watch, on its own, it unfortunately serves to badly derail the season’s story arc right before it reaches its climax.

Early in the season, I called Reign easily the best villain Supergirl has ever had. Her savage beating of Kara in a straight up fight made her intimidating, but it was her dual personality with Sam, and her warped sense of justice, that made her truly interesting. This episode ups Reign’s physical menace, giving her the power to destroy the world, but it takes away everything else.

By giving Reign her own body, she no longer serves as a dark outgrowth or corruption of Sam. She’s now simply a villain who needs to be beaten down, not one our heroes need to heal or redeem so they can save the good woman inside of her.

Reign’s role is further reduced by the arrival of the Kryptonian witches. They take over as the chief antagonists, with Reign now merely being their muscle. And with the witches making it clear that they have no interest in helping humanity, choosing to remake the world only to benefit themselves, all of Reign’s earlier talk about justice is rendered moot. Reign’s version of justice was always warped and extreme, but the idea that there was a kernel of noble intent at the core of all the rampant murder, that made her interesting, not just as a threat but as a character in her own right. Now, with her a mindlessly obedient henchman for a trio of one-dimensional, moustache twirling villains, all that interest is gone.

This season’s story arc has been built around Reign. Going into the finale, I should be more excited to see her and Supergirl slug it out than ever before. Instead, it’s hard to muster up much enthusiasm for our main villain, as you could now replace her with a superpowerful robot under the witches’ command, and nothing would really change.

This diminishing of Reign also hurts Sam’s character arc. She’s going to be important in the finale, the key to finally defeating Reign, but with all the Reign developments currently happening independent of her (she can’t even serve as a voice of conscience in Reign’s head anymore), she’s left with little to do. For such a crucial character, she spends this penultimate episode in a thoroughly passive role, being looked at and worried over, but contributing nothing.

I don’t want to sound too negative right here. As I said, taken on its own, this was a fun episode. But the developments it adds to the season’s story arc are going to bear bitter fruit in the finale.

Stray Observations:

  • I assume Dimos (is that how you spell his name?) has been in episodes before this. But as I can’t remember him at all, the slow-mo angst over his death felt a little overdone.
  • We’ve had a couple episodes talking about how having kryptonite around is bad, and one talking about how guns are bad. Now this episode has Alex using a gun loaded with kryptonite bullets. I’m not sure if this was intended to add complexity to those earlier discussions, or if the writers just didn’t think about how that moment relates to what they’ve done before.
  • We do get our first look at the DEO’s new, non-lethal weapons, and the personal forcefield and energy-net are pretty cool. Gotta wonder if the show’s effects budget will support seeing those used regularly, though.
  • Y’know, Kara, you could have just crushed the vial of blood in your own fist. You didn’t have to go for a dramatic mid-air heat vision blast fakeout. Just sayin’.

Supergirl 3×23: “Battles Lost and Won” (SEASON FINALE) review

“Battles Lost and Won” has most of the ingredients needed to be a great finale. It would still be hampered by some of the poor decisions made in setting up this story, but you can see how all the pieces here could be arranged into something amazing.

We have an apocalyptic threat, delivering large scale spectacle. We have a couple characters making their triumphant return, some other characters bidding the show a tear-filled farewell, and one character who sacrifices his life to save the world. We have almost everyone’s character arcs coming to a head, in a way that promises some serious shakeups to the status quo. And, of course, we end on a teaser for next season that will provoke endless speculation over the summer.

The pieces are there, but the way they’re put together in this episode is a mess.

The most obvious problem is that the episode begins with Reign already in the process of destroying the world. That made for an exciting cliffhanger last episode, but it puts this episode in the unenviable position of having to foil the villain’s plan in the first five minutes, otherwise it kinda kills the show. We get a few minutes of our heroes saving people from apocalyptic earthquakes and tidal waves, then M’yrrn sacrifices himself to put the Worldkiller back in her bottle, all before the first commercial break.

The finale can’t end there, of course, so Reign and the witches have to begin re-starting the apocalypse, only now with enough delays that it won’t peak until an appropriate place in the third act. The plot has literally moved backwards. This weakens the whole episode, not just because it’s such an obvious stalling tactic on the part of the writers, but because, when it’s finally time for the real climactic battle, it feels like a lesser retread of what we’ve already seen. At least the first time the good guys stopped Reign from destroying the world, it was accompanied by lots of natural disaster spectacle; “Stopping the Apocalypse (Take 2)” just has a lot of slugging it out in a cave.

Beyond the poor pacing and structure of the main plot, though, this episode also suffers from cramming in far too many tangential subplots. J’onn making some life changes in light of his father’s death? That flows naturally from the events of the episode. But Jimmy deciding to publically announce he’s Guardian, and Alex rethinking her career so that she can pursue having a child? Those seem to be in the episode simply because it’s the season finale, and that’s when characters are supposed to reach pivotal moments in their lives, whether or not those developments fit in, tonally or structurally, with anything else that’s going on.

But at least those were developments added to storylines already in progress. A substantial amount of time in this finale is devoted to setting up a brand new storyline, involving a threat in the 31st Century that will require Winn and Mon-El to leave for the future and Brainy to stay behind in the present day. I have sympathy for the writers on this one. This plot development was clearly put in to explain some casting changes that will be taking place for Season 4. Still, it doesn’t do this season’s story arc any favors that so much of its conclusion is hijacked by this brand new story.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with this episode (not necessarily the biggest, but the one that stands out the most) is  . . . that scene. If you’ve watched the episode, you probably know the one I mean.

Kara kills Reign, who, in her death throws, kills Sam, Alura, and Mon-El with a flurry of heat vision. Then Kara, distraught at what she’s done, has Winn find her a time/space disruption she can fly into, letting her turn back time and re-do the final battle over again, this time beating Reign in a (technically) less violent way and saving everyone’s lives

It’s just . . . such an out of place moment. Not only does it use the time disruptions in a way we’ve never even had it hinted they could be used before, it’s not even necessary to tell the story. Kara’s plan to defeat Reign the second go-around is something she could have easily thought of in the first place; there was no need to have her try something more disastrous first before hitting the Reset Button.

The only reason this moment seems to exist (beyond doing an homage to Superman: The Movie) is to have Kara realize that trying to kill the bad guy is a mistake. The way it’s staged, the emphasis put on it, it feels like this is supposed to be the culmination of Kara’s character arc. But the season we’ve been watching until now doesn’t really support that.

They could have made that question a big part of Kara’s arc this season. There was that one episode where Kara and Imra debated killing Pestilence. And with Reign initially presenting herself as a vigilante who kills anyone she deems evil, there was definitely potential in the idea of Kara becoming like Reign in her efforts to stop her. But there just hasn’t been enough focus on that idea to make us believe that this is what Kara’s journey has been building to, that it’s worth inserting such an out of place scene into the middle of the final battle just to address this point.

And if this was supposed to be Kara’s story arc this season . . . someone really should’ve told that to the people who made “Far From the Tree”. Y’know, the episode this season where Kara casually disintegrates a couple White Martians, and absolutely no one seems to care?

I’ve been coming down hard on this finale, and on the episodes preceding it. And I’m probably being a little unfair. These haven’t been bad episodes. They’ve been entertaining, had some very nice action scenes, a few good jokes, and one or two genuinely heartfelt moments. But it’s so hard not to be frustrated while watching them. You can see the potential for a great story, something at once epic and deeply personal, yet again and again the writers whiff the ball, undermining their own narrative, until all you’re left with is something decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Still, that potential was there. And if the writers can look back on these episodes, learn from them . . . call me a sucker, but I’m holding out my hopes for Season 4.

Stray Observations:

  • There were a lot of goodbye scenes this episode. Winn’s goodbye was very touching and well staged, but my favorite would have to be Mon-El’s goodbye to Kara. Chris Wood’s performance in that scene is amazing, letting just the right amount of sorrow slip out of Mon-El as he’s trying to be restrained.
  • While Winn’s departure is sad, it might have hit a little harder if, outside of that one episode with his mother, he’d had anything at all to do this season beyond generic tech guy stuff.
  • Alura also heads back to Argo, but with the implication that she and Kara will still see plenty of each other. If a city full of Kryptonians is just going to be a background element of this show from now on . . . yeah, I’ll say it again: that feels like it should be a much bigger deal than the show is treating it as.
  • Given how much importance has been placed on Ruby this season, she doesn’t end up doing anything in the finale. She’s not even around when her mom confronts her evil doppelganger.
  • I will say, kudos for not going the predictable Sam-dies-and-Alex-adopts-Ruby route.
  • I don’t quite get why Sam is left completely human at the end, but I guess they don’t want a second good-aligned Kryptonian flying around National City.
  • Lena’s beef with Supergirl is one of the few ongoing plot threads that didn’t get touched on this episode, but based on that second-to-last scene, it looks like that’s gonna be something for next season.

 

MVP of the Month: Sam Arias.

She may have been sidelined for most of the leadup to the finale, but her Dark Valley talk with her mother and final defeat of Reign were quite satisfying.

 

Question of the Month: What’s your favorite season of each of the Arrowverse shows?

 

Well, this marks the end of This/Last Week/Month In The Arrowverse for this season. I am planning to do a post looking back at this entire season of the Arrowverse, but that may not be till the end of summer.

 

Y’know, I started this series simply to create a place for talking about the Arrowverse shows outside of the live chat threads. My plan was to begin each thread by posting a few thoughts I had about each series, just to get the ball rolling. As the months have gone by, it turns out I had more to say about each of these shows than I ever realized, and I’d like to thank everyone who has read these reviews, and has let me known I haven’t just been throwing words at a wall that no one will see.

 

It’s been a lot of fun talking about these goofy little superhero shows with all of you, and while it could be a lot of work at times, I really am going to miss it. Good luck to you all, and may Beebo bless us, everyone.