Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Inevitable "Powerless Superhero Episode" Comes To Supergirl When Kara Is "Human For A Day"

The Good: B-plot is pretty good, Moments of acting and direction
The Bad: Utterly familiar plots, Schott character is mis-used in the episode
The Basics: Supergirl becomes "Human For A Day" like every other super hero.

One of the issues with the super hero genre exploding in popularity is that many of the works in the genre start using the same tropes. One of the most familiar conceits of the genre is the "super hero loses their power" episode. It is a pretty familiar story; the seemingly indestructible hero rather abruptly loses their exceptional abilities for a short time before they return in the nick of time to allow the hero to return to rise to a new height. In the DC Television Universe, The Flash went to that place fairly early on with "Power Outage" (reviewed here!). Supergirl's first season gets to that conceit even earlier with "Human For A Day."

"Human For A Day" picks up immediately after "Red Faced" (reviewed here!) and it is impossible to discuss the follow-up episode without some references to where the episode before it went. "Red Faced" climaxed with Kara losing her extraordinary abilities due to her fight with the military prototype Red Tornado. "Human For A Day" explores the heroine without her powers and mixes that trope with the "protagonist has to rely upon an enemy for survival" plot trope in the Alex Danvers b-plot. Alex has recently learned that her DEO boss, Hank Henshaw, was probably responsible for her father's death and that her father was an agent working for the DEO at one time. Since then, she has had a crisis of confidence in working for Henshaw - whom the viewer knows is something other than human. "Human For A Day" finally reveals Henshaw's true nature when Alex is able to take the direct approach in confronting her boss.

Opening with Kara at the DEO, being told by the medical hologram of her mother, Supergirl is informed that she is simply drained of her powers by the Red Tornado. Kara is relieved at work when she sneezes and she heads out into the world powerless. At the DEO, Henshaw and Alex Danvers interrogate Jemm, a powerful alien with psychic abilities that the organization has captured. Kara's mundane day off comes to an abrupt end when earthquakes rock National City (and she breaks her arm) and Jemm breaks out of the DEO.

When Max Lord begins to exploit the disaster in National City as an anti-Supergirl propaganda opportunity, Kara and James Olsen meet privately with him. Meanwhile, Alex Danvers finds herself locked into the DEO with limited weapons that can be used against Jemm. Alex begins to turn her co-workers against Hank Henshaw when he is the only survivor of a team scouring the building for the psychic alien. After Kara experiences helplessness in watching an accident victim die, Olsen comforts her. While Alex confronts Jemm and learns the truth about Hank Henshaw, Kara learns how to be heroic without her powers.

"Human For A Day" is a completely formulaic story and the unfortunate aspect of the episode is its missed character opportunities. Kara is realistically distraught over how having her powers and Melissa Benoist plays that new set of emotions for the character fairly well. Benoist manages to play Supergirl as uncertain in a way that feels very different from Kara's shy nervousness. Kara traverses the familiar super hero without powers arc well-enough to be watchable.

But Supergirl is comparatively young and new to the super hero game. As such, in the prior episodes, Supergirl has relied heavily upon Alex Danvers and Winn Schott for tactical guidance. That makes sense; Kara's skill set has not had to rely much on quick-thinking as brute force, eye beams and flying have managed to get her out of almost every situation she has been in. So, when Supergirl loses her powers, an accurate arc would have been for Kara to rely upon Winn for tactical guidance, as opposed to her reliance on Alex (which is cut off in "Human For A Day") and the moral guidance provided by James Olsen. Olsen's moral guidance is a weird thing as Kara's moral compass ought not to have been effected by losing her super powers. But, in "Human For A Day," Schott's plotline is relegate to pining for Kara and jealous of her relationship with Olsen and finally appearing on Cat Grant's radar - which is, sadly, an under-developed plotline in the episode.

In a similar fashion, "Human For A Day" misses out on an opportunity to make Max Lord a distinct character in his own right. Supergirl's writers put into Lord's mouth almost the exact lines of the best bits of dialogue from Lex Luthor in the comic books. Rather than being his own, distinct, character, Max Lord is Lex Luthor in "Human For A Day;" he has surprisingly altruistic motives for his implied sinister actions. Max Lord just wants to keep Earth safe from depending on aliens to save humans, which is not the worst goal ever. It is, however, the exact characterization of Lex Luthor in the modern Superman vernacular.

At the other end of the spectrum, "Human For A Day" manages to make the revelation of Hank Henshaw's true nature quite satisfying. While the "protagonist has to rely upon an adversary" plot might be a genre trope, "Human For A Day" uses it well to pay off the long-seeded reversal Hank Henshaw's glowing eyes have insinuated.

The direction in "Human For A Day" is as erratic as the storyline, though. Director Lary Teng does a good job of focusing on Kara's shaking hand when Supergirl has to bluff and talk down a looter. In fact, Teng does an impressive job of showing the audience the information needed to express Kara's internal fear, then putting nitpickers in their place by reframing the context so that the looter does not have the same information as the viewer. But in the DEO scenes, Teng uses close to realistic lighting, which is fine on one level, but not visually entertaining for the combat scenes. The fights are not particularly interesting to watch as a result of the lighting.

Ultimately, "Human For A Day" uses the familiar and banal tropes of the super hero genre and throws in a disappointing melodrama for Schott's character, which undermines Supergirl going where virtually every other super hero work has gone before.

For other "super heroes lose their powers" episodes, please visit my reviews of:
"Doomworld" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Extremis" - Doctor Who
"Blowin' Up The Spot" - Luke Cage


For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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