REVIEW: Supergirl, S4E3 – Man of Steel

Before writing this review of Supergirl‘s latest episode, “Man of Steel,” I decided to take the “fair and balanced” approach of reading positive reactions to the hour lest my thoughts be nothing but an unfiltered barrage of accusations. It didn’t exactly make me see the episode, but it did help to take some of the more technical aspects into consideration. But first things first: the plot. While Kara (Melissa Benoist) lies unconscious after being rescued from a nearly-fatal fall thanks to J’onn (David Harewood), Alex (Chyler Leigh) and Brainy (Jesse Rath) struggle to find a way to protect Kara from the currently Kryptonite-infested atmosphere before finally realizing that Lena (Katie McGrath) is just the deus ex machina they need. And while that’s happening mostly off-screen, Supergirl takes advantage of Benoist’s Broadway stint to show its audience how genocidal maniacs are made.

Kara, you were sorely missed.

Sam Witwer was indisputably the star of “Man of Steel” and, to his credit, he plays the role with passion and gusto. It’s very easy to follow his journey from passive college professor who would like his father to stop calling aliens roaches because it’s not polite to hate-mongering cult leader spreading a violent Humans First message, mostly because Witwer commits to every scene and executes the transitions very naturally. And those transitions, punctuated by conversations with the Supergirl cast which only serve to make him more sure that his straight white masculinity humanity is being threatened, are woven very skillfully into the events of the show’s first three seasons.

Audiences were shown Benjamin Lockwood mildly accepting of Supergirl’s impassioned pleas for unity a few years ago, shushing his xenophobic father for his son’s sake and eventually trying to keep an alien worker from being attacked by his father’s steel company employees. But when he heard that the DEO was working with Supergirl and refused to back down from inalienable alien rights, he started questioning their commitment to human rights. He even began invoking the suffering of Native Americans and the slave-owning Founding Fathers’ love of equality as parallels to his current struggles as a cis white man human being whose business was going under because aliens could provide more technological advancements.

His vitriolic nativism caused him to lose his teaching job, and matters were only made worse by a series of unfortunate events relating to aliens which befell him and his family. L-Corp stopped buying good old American steel from his father’s business because Nth metal was the way of progress, Martian Manhunter accidentally set his house on fire while battling another alien, Kara wouldn’t let him harass his alien student, and James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) didn’t take his demand for more sensationalized stories of white panic economic insecurity seriously. To top it all off, his father died in the wreckage of Supergirl’s fight with Reign, which cemented the man’s burning hatred for aliens of any kind.

Say “economic insecurity” one more time.

“Man of Steel” wound up playing out like a play-by-play of how Trump won the American election, or more recently Bolsonaro won the Brazilian one, which is impressive in its timeliness. But it lacked the nuance of last week’s Supergirl episode, which already acknowledged that seeing “both sides” can be dangerous when lives and rights are at stake. In fact, this week felt very much like a renewed request to “see the other side” and sympathize with kind, hard-working Americans who just don’t want to see their jobs stolen by immigrants. But not every human being who experiences personal and financial loss would become a militant advocate for genocide, and it’s disingenuous to portray Benjamin Lockwood as an innocent spirit at first. The fact that the woman who fired him for racism later apologized once she lost her house suggests that the writers didn’t quite grasp that the recipe for violence isn’t just misfortune + immigrants, there had to be a seed of hatred that was already planted and a tendency towards discrimination.

A few additional notes here and there: if “Man of Steel” taught the heroes of Supergirl anything, it’s that destruction of public (and private!) property will only give racists more ammunition.  Hopefully next time, Kara and J’onn can direct their alien battles to large open fields without any buildings or civilians. More intriguingly, the space suit from early promos was revealed to be a tool for Kara to be able to breathe amidst all the Kryptonite, which means that the other Kara from last season’s finale is still in the wind with no explanation. And finally: while previous weeks gave the impression that Agent Liberty was running the show while the Graves siblings were his allies, this episode confirmed that it was Mercy who recruited Ben after seeing his alien-murdering potential smooth fascist vocals. So that was one interesting surprise, at least.

Supergirl airs Sundays at 8/7c on the CW.