How Supergirl delivered a memorable villain origin story

This week, Supergirl showed Agent Liberty’s rise to power in a timely, haunting hour of television. We delve into “Man of Steel.”

Don’t look now, but Supergirl might be great again. Since moving from CBS to The CW after its first season, the DC superhero series has struggled to find its footing, perpetually mired in tonal confusion and melodramatic contrivances. Granted, with roughly 20 episodes still to go, season 4 has plenty of time to fall off a cliff. Right now, though, it’s firing on all cylinders, brimming with confidence as it sets up perhaps the series’ most ambitious arc yet.

Sunday’s installment is a prime example. On the surface, “Man of Steel” might seem like filler, interrupting Kara’s adventures to tell the story of Ben Lockwood’s transformation into Agent Liberty. But under the direction of Jesse Warn and a script by Rob Wright and Derek Simon, the episode feels vital, a deep-dive into the politics that inform the season’s central conflict and a welcome reminder of the allegorical potential of superheroes.

Here are three reasons “Man of Steel” pulls off its risky villain origin story.

It has a worthy villain

Villains aren’t Supergirl’s forte. With a handful of exceptions, most notably season 1’s Maxwell Lord, they veer toward the cartoonish side, so patently nefarious they cease to be intimidating at all. Despite what Hollywood appears to think, the end of the world doesn’t constitute meaningful stakes. By contrast, Agent Liberty has a modest agenda, and it proves to be a more compelling one, driven not by blind greed or petty resentment but ideology.

“Fallout” provided a sensational introduction, climaxing with Agent Liberty lecturing an excited crowd on the dangers that aliens pose to humans. His diatribe is disturbing, of course, because it’s real, drawn from the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has dominated American political discourse since Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. If the “Earth first” chant doesn’t make your blood run cold, well, I can’t say the same.

In “Man of Steel,” we learn how that ideology took root. Ben doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of a stereotypical Trump supporter: he’s middle-class and college-educated — a history professor, in fact. During one class, he cautions his students against glorifying progress, citing the genocide of Native Americans by European explorers. From the beginning, though, the seeds of prejudice are planted. When Ben rebukes his father for calling aliens “roaches,” he acts less out of genuine indignation than a desire for decorum, like a parent telling a child not to curse.

His father’s influence is just one of the factors that led to Ben’s extremism. “Man of Steel” takes care to show the specific effect each event has on its subject, from an alien encounter in which he gets accidentally injured, raising his guard, to his firing from the university, which fuels his sense of grievance. The result is a surprisingly nuanced depiction of how legitimate feelings and ideas can be distorted into and used to justify irrational beliefs.

It’s expertly constructed

Supergirl could have used any number of techniques to explain Agent Liberty, from expositional dialogue to a cold-open prologue. This time, it dispenses with economy, unraveling the masked agitator’s past in a continuous episode-long flashback. Only the barest bones of a framing device connect it to the ongoing plot.

The risk pays off. Free from clutter, “Man of Steel” has room to breathe and develop. It’s filled with details that a more traditionally structured episode probably would’ve ignored: Ben arguing about the Industrial Revolution with his father in the car; the exchange with James, including the realization that CatCo Magazine has ties to a giant corporation; Ben quoting Winston Churchill at his father’s funeral. Such details help immerse viewers in Ben’s world, lending credibility to his arc.

At the same time, the episode has an unrelenting sense of focus, moving seamlessly between plot points. Not a single scene feels aimless or misplaced. Credit goes to the writers and editor Imelda Betiong for condensing two years into a coherent, streamlined narrative.

It works on multiple levels

“Man of Steel” doesn’t just offer insight into a villain; it also sheds new light on our heroes. In a particularly harrowing sequence, it revisits season 2, staging the Daxamite invasion from Ben’s perspective. Here, we witness up close the destruction that battles between super-powered beings can wreak, and it’s hard not to wonder whether Ben has a point. (This is where the real-life parallels fall short; human immigrants, after all, aren’t capable of leveling entire cities with their bodies.)

Watching the sequence, I couldn’t help but think of Batman V. Superman. Zack Snyder’s much-derided action extravaganza displayed a similar interest in deconstructing superheroes, exploring their fraught relationship with civilians. The difference between the two, other than their overall quality, is that “Man of Steel” presents a clear point of view.

Any story that asks viewers to identify with a morally suspect character runs the risk of eliciting unwarranted sympathy, but Warn, Wright, and Simon are savvy about manipulating the distance between the audience and their subject.

When Ben starts to use class lectures as a platform for his politics, for example, they emphasize the discomfort of his students. And when he murders an alien for the first time, the camera shifts to the victim’s perspective.  Far from diluting the episode’s impact, this self-awareness makes it all the more harrowing.

Urgent and thoughtful in equal measure, “Man of Steel” is superhero storytelling at its finest.

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Supergirl airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.

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