Superheroes in a Dangerous Time, or Fear and Loathing in the Arrowverse

Supergirl: Love, Loathing, and Luthors

Where we start to say “Au revoir, M. Metaphor.”
Image: CW

The Plot

Two years ago, President Marsdin (Lynda Carter) passed the Alien Amnesty Act, allowing aliens to live publicly as Americans. But take a look around. Every act of social progress causes a backlash from bitter (mostly) white men trying to push back the clock. Maybe you’ve heard of a few dozen examples the last three years. And it doesn’t help that since this show started, Kryptonians tried to conquer the world, Daxamites tried to conquer the world, and other Kryptonians tried to terraform Earth and kill all the humans on it.

As such, Supergirl and friends soon uncover an organization called the Children of Liberty, human-first extremists out to “solve” the “alien problem,” led by the masked Agent Liberty.

The Children of Liberty are a problem Kara can’t punch away. They’re average people twisted by hate and fear, and when President Marsdin is exposed as a secret alien herself, anti-alien voices (such as Agent Liberty’s alter ego, disgraced history professor Ben Lockwood) only get louder and more popular.

Also ex-Soviet republic Kaznia has a clone of Supergirl thanks to events from season three. That can’t be going anywhere good.

And let me tell you, Lex Luthor getting involved doesn’t help anybody.

The Metaphor

I think this one’s pretty obvious. The alien population is repeatedly referred to as immigrants and refugees. In the opening speech, Kara calls herself a refugee. Sure they’re aliens but come on, this one is right there. This show has never been subtle in its fierce liberalism. They named their second season finale “Nevertheless She Persisted.” And I love them for it.

There are a couple of holes… “They’re stealing our jobs” concerns are a touch more accurate given that most alien races turn out to have powers and abilities far beyond etc. etc., making them a bit more hireable, and there were those three global threats from hostile aliens I mentioned. There aren’t really parallels to any that. Syrians can’t lift cars or breathe fire like some aliens, and the other stuff is equivalent to two world-wide 9/11s and a very short world war.

More on message, though… the new member of Team Supergirl is Nia Nal, an alien by heritage but American by birth (and the show/franchise’s first trans character) who becomes the hero Dreamer. She’s an ancestor of Legion of Superheroes member Dream Girl (which Brainiac Five, working for the DEO while on forced sabbatical from the far future, knows quite well), so it took me a while to notice how very on-the-nose it was to name the child of an immigrant “Dreamer.” Anyway, she’s great, and why NOT make a hero out of the marginalized people that groups like the Children of Liberty trample, and her interview with Kara where she shares her truth with the world was one of the season’s most moving scenes.

But overall, sure, this one speaks to the growing threat of nationalism pretty perfectly.

The Villain

So the real villain behind everything turns out to be Lex Luthor, but our primary nemesis for most of the season in Agent Liberty.

Agent Liberty, head of the Sons* of Liberty, was not a villain in the comics he was in the Justice League for pity’s sake why do they DO this…

(*The comics version of the Children of Liberty was more phallocentric.)

Okay, get it together, he was in the Justice League for like five minutes and accomplished literally nothing, and the Sons of Liberty were totes assholes, so we can let this one go…

The episode “Man of Steel” is right up there with Amazon Prime’s Jack Ryan for walking us through just how a decent man can be radicalized by hate and tragedy. Ben Lockwood was a liberal and a college history professor three years earlier, a husband and father and overall decent and soft-spoken guy, but his father Peter spouted bitter anti-alien rhetoric at every opening. The Lockwood family steel plant was in trouble, you see, largely thanks to Lena Luthor moving her business to a rival who, unlike Lockwood Sr., was willing to combine steel with the extra-terrestrial Nth metal. Which is a highly volatile, unpredictable, and dangerous substance, Lena, maybe you shouldn’t be making whiteboard frames out of it. Not that Peter Lockwood knows any of that, he just knows that the Lockwoods have been using “Good old fashioned American steel” for generations and he’s not going to stop just to stay competitive or something.

Anyway. Months or years of his father complaining about aliens, calling them “roaches,” and then the problems start… Ben’s plea to Lena fails, and Peter Lockwood’s refusal to adapt to the times closes the plant. The Lockwood home is burned down in a fight during the Daxamite invasion that ended season two, and his insurance company wouldn’t pay because they don’t cover alien invasions. When the Kryptonian cult tried to terraform Earth in season three, earthquakes hit the steel mill, and Peter Lockwood was crushed to death, his last words encouraging Ben to strike back.

As another DC property put it… That’s how it starts. The fever. The rage. The sense of powerlessness that turns good men… cruel.

Ben Lockwood was a good man, but he loses that. Resentment and anger twist him into something dark and evil. But however sympathetic his plight sometimes was, at the centre of his tragic transformation there was always his father… a bitter old white man, blaming outsiders and crying “this is how it’s always been” instead of adapting to the times, pouring poison in the ear of anyone who’d listen. His son, his grandson, his employees… and eventually they start lashing out.

Additional props… they make it clear that Lockwood cannot simply be debated into defeat. Kara gives that a go at one point, but the debate merely gives him an audience for his anti-alien speaking points, and makes the worth of alien life something that needs to be proven. Yes, they also argue that some Children of Liberty can be saved… James befriends one, Lockwood’s son realizes he’s on the wrong side… but they never excuse hatred, even if they want us to see where it comes from.

And in the end, Lockwood’s hate costs him more than aliens ever did. There’s our lesson.

(They also did an arc with Manchester Black and the Elite, who like their comics inspirations took a more permanent approach with the Children of Liberty… and man but making time for “anti-fa can be just as bad” rubbed me the wrong way…)

The Solution

Supergirl did “Love is the answer” last year. This year, knowledge is power. Specifically, knowledge passed on to the public through the media. Hatred of aliens isn’t a fight Supergirl can win, but reporter Kara Danvers can take it on. Kara works to show the world that aliens are just people and nothing to be afraid of or hate, while also working to expose Lex and Agent Liberty for who they are. It takes a lot of work and doesn’t happen overnight, but eventually she begins to win the public over.

Random Thoughts

  • It’s hard to picture someone watching the first few episodes and saying “You know who was great, Otis Graves, we should absolutely bring him back from the dead and make him the new Metallo,” yet somehow that happened.
  • Agent Liberty’s origin episode happened relatively early in the season, probably because they started filming before Melissa Benoist was done starring in Beautiful: the Carole King Musical on Broadway, so they needed some Kara-light episodes up front.
  • Which also explains her face-covering spacesuit costume. Great for disguising that someone isn’t played by Melissa Benoist.
  • Legacy guest star Jon Cryer made a surprisingly good Lex Luthor.
  • I call him a legacy guest star because Jon Cryer played Lex’s bumbling nephew Lenny Luthor in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The name of the season finale? “The Quest for Peace.” Nice.
  • Lex made for a better secret-mastermind plot than Daredevil, because we didn’t even know we were in one until they revealed how many of Supergirl’s recent problems were Lex’s machinations. And the reveal that James Olsen’s ditzy assistant, Eve Teschmacher, was secretly in league with Lex the whole time was a great three-season long-con. If slightly foreshadowed by naming her after Lex’s girl Friday from Superman: The Motion Picture.
  • Sci-fi vet Bruce Boxleitner played the new president, President Baker. I knew right away that eventually he’d be more adversarial than Marsdin, because of course he would be, but I was a little disappointed he went full dark side. If he couldn’t be the last, best hope for peace, I at least hoped he might attempt to fight for the users.
  • They did a great job of showing us how important Kara and Lena Luthor’s friendship was in the last few episodes, before potentially destroying it forever in the finale.
  • Speaking of the finale, they sure set a lot of stuff in motion for next season. Mostly because of the Monitor. What’s your game here, Monitor? You are not being helpful.

Okay. That’s probably me and nerd TV done for a bit until this year’s rankings (which have to wait for another 11th-hour Netflix drop, as Jessica Jones hits on June 14th), but get ready for a return to travel adventures, as we are just over a week out from the long-awaited (by me) sequel to Dan and Ian Wander Europe!

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