“For starters, why wear a mask? Why cover your face when you’re on the up-and-up?”
At the opening of Supergirl’s seventh episode this week, Kara poses the above question in response to National City’s latest hero. The Guardian, having just helped Kara subdue the alien known as Parasite, has begun taking out crooks and robbers. He does so in an armored suit that shields more than just his body. It conceals his face. At first, Kara’s skepticism seems understandable. Why would a hero have something to hide? But what the story of “The Darkest Places” smartly revealed is that the answer to Kara’s question isn’t so clean-cut. Yes, some who take the law in their own hands lurk in shadow because their extremism would rightly be opposed in any civil society. However, others acting outside the law hide their identity because stepping up to protect innocents can carry great risk. Episode 7 gave us four such cases to examine this dynamic. Phillip Karnowsky and Lillian Luthor represent the negative side of the spectrum, while James Olsen (Guardian) and M’gann M’orzz (Miss Martian) exemplify the positive. Below are my reactions. (WARNING: Spoilers Below!)
Karnowsky vs Olsen
The first plot thread is that of Karnowsky (“Barrage” in the comics of Superman). In appearance, he is almost a mirror image of Guardian. In fact, for most of the episode, National City media and police had no idea they were separate figures. Winn even remarked that Guardian had transitioned from hero to “public enemy number 1” in a mere matter of hours. Karnowksy, like James, was clad from head to toe in a protective suit. He was similarly skilled in hand-to-hand combat and equipped with a deadly array of weapons. It would not be long before these dopplegangers crossed paths.
Karnowsky first appeared just on the heels of Guardian catching a mugger in National City . Waiting until James and Winn sped away, he riddled the criminal with rounds from his arm-mounted automatic gun. He later intervened in Guardian’s bust of a drug deal, summarily executing only the buyer. Afterward, Winn began researching the cases of the two crooks-turned-victims. He soon determined the real persona and origin story for the lethal assassin. Karnowsky’s wife had been murdered, with the killer walking free because of mishaps during the trial phase. The anger and grief warped Karnowsky. He soon transformed into a murderer himself, tracking and killing criminals who won their freedom through courtroom and investigative error. With Winn correctly guessing his next target, James confronted Karnowsky for a second and final time. Countering a barrage of gunfire, Guardian stuck his opponent with his grappling hook and flung him overhead and down to the cement floor. The NCPD then arrived at the scene and discovered that there were, indeed, two separate men. Maggie Sawyer allowed Guardian to escape with Karnowsky in custody.
Adapting the villain, Barrage, for this storyline could not have been a better fit. Karnowsky’s history, for me, was an even more credible trajectory to the vigilante life than James’. Yet most importantly, this dichotomy shows how problematic Kara’s initial formulation is about working behind a mask. Barrage must wear a disguise because every civil institution within National City rejects his distorted view on punishment. No matter the crime, they all meet the end of his gun. James, however, wears a mask because fighting National City’s underworld openly could bring harm to those he cares about. As a well-known media CEO (albeit “interim”), any of his employees or friends could find themselves a retaliatory target. His uniform protects lives, not methods.
But perhaps an even more telling example of why motive is more important than mask is the difference between Season 2 “Big Bad” Lillian Luthor and the Martian refugee, M’gann M’orzz.
Luthor vs M’orzz
Luthor’s treachery came back in full force in this latest edition. At the end of last week, we saw one of her henchmen sucker Mon-El into an ambush and abduct him. However, it became immediately apparent that Mon-El was not her ultimate target. Broadcasting a private signal that only Supergirl could hear, Luthor informed Kara of Mon-El’s imprisonment, baiting her with a confrontation to free him. When Supergirl sprung the metaphorical trap, the real Hank Henshaw – rebuilt by Cadmus into “Cyborg Superman” – awaited her arrival. The newly-bionic bigot took her by surprise. Placed into a holding cell with Mon-El, Kara could only watch helplessly as Luthor shot Mon-El with a lead bullet, a poison metal to Daxamites. The Cadmus Director stated she would save Mon-El if Supergirl agreed to temporarily drain her power. Naturally, Kara complied. Luthor’s double-cross, however, was only beginning.
Not only did she renege on her promise to free Mon-El, but Luthor also had Kara immediately restrained so that her blood could be drawn. At the episode’s end, we saw Henshaw take the sample to the Fortress of Solitude and use it as ID to access its Kryptonian database. His final dialogue was an inquiry about a project called “Medusa”. Meanwhile, just as things seemed darkest for both Supergirl and Mon-El, Kara’s long-lost stepfather Jeremiah Danvers arrived at their cell. Having been conscripted into Cadmus’ service (as revealed in Episode 1.17 last year), Jeremiah snuck into their confinement area and helped them escape. He declined to leave with them, instead opting to stay and divert some of the pursuing guards’ attention. Regardless, Luthor has presumably obtained whatever she wanted out of Superman’s Fortress.
As with Karnowsky’s violent crusade, Luthor is a character who has hidden her identity because of the terrifying means she is willing to employ. Luthor’s ultimate goal is the removal, one way or another, of aliens from society. We’ve seen her maim and torture prisoners. Last week, she murdered the thugs she had employed to terrorize National City. The need for her leadership of Cadmus to remain anonymous has nothing to do with protecting anyone. Because she is a public figure, her role would have to be secret. Considering these factors, Supergirl’s initial question at the top of this week’s show (and this column) couldn’t be more appropriate.
In contrast, the mask of Miss Martian – that of a human bartender – is one that is well-justified to wear. M’gann M’orzz is a refugee from the genocidal White Martian race. She turned on her own people, helping as many Green Martians escape their concentration camps as she could. The price for her heroism would be a self-imposed exile on Earth. Her concealment as Megan Morse, the bartender, is to ensure that she can continue living on Earth as an escapee, free from persecution or pursuit. It also means something to her emotionally to take the human form. It is her personal rejection of her homeworld’s violent culture. After J’onn realized that a recent series or tremors and hallucinations were the result of a blood donation from M’gann to him, he confronted and arrested her by force. When he demanded that she change into her original form, she refused. M’gann hoped to make J’onn see that she was different than the rest of her people. Much like James Olsen, her decision not to show her face is about protection and survival.
What I Took Away
The first third of the Supergirl season has been incredible strong. In the eyes of this geek, it’s been the best of the DC shows on network television. Treating its weekly subject matter with subtlety, while also receiving consistently strong performances from its mainstay actors and newest cast members, has made Supergirl soar in its second season. Next week begins The CW’s 4-night crossover event, entitled “Invasion”, where we’ll get to see the Girl of Steel finally interact with her fellow heroes of the multiverse.
Submitted by Jody Money