‘Supergirl’ Boss Talks Surprising Episode 2 Showdown and Kara’s Family Drama

Supergirl season 1 pickup
Courtesy of CBS

Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen episode 2 of CBS’ “Supergirl,” titled “Stronger Together.”

The “Supergirl” premiere soared to the highest ratings of the fall last week in total viewers, but a meteoric rise only increases the pressure to stick the landing when viewers tune back in for episode two. Luckily, exec producers Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg, Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter leapt that hurdle in a single bound, delivering a second episode that doubled-down on the pilot’s action and heart — most notably by bringing our titular heroine Kara (Melissa Benoist) face to face with her villainous aunt Astra (Laura Benanti), instead of delaying gratification on that showdown for multiple episodes just to ratchet up the tension.

Variety spoke to Kreisberg about the many developments of “Stronger Together,” including Kara’s impending interview with Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), how James (Mehcad Brooks) is going to handle hitching his wagon to another Super friend, and what those ominous red eyes mean for DEO boss Hank Henshaw (David Harewood).

I wasn’t expecting a confrontation between Kara and Astra so soon – why was it important to you guys to get that first meeting out of the way so early?

Because we love Laura and that little glimpse of her at the end of the pilot was… we honestly wish we had Astra in more of the pilot, so we wanted to amend that as soon as possible … Originally it was just going to be about the Hellgrammites, then we were like “what can we do in the second episode to make it bigger, grander, more exciting than the pilot?” and then we came up with the idea of “what if the Hellgrammites were working for Astra directly” so that you had that first confrontation. We’ve never gone wrong bringing the big bad up sooner — we’ve obviously been having a great deal of success this season with Neal McDonough on “Arrow” so… as always, we try to make every episode one that you can’t miss. And the other big thing is, your hero is only as good as your villain, and your villain has to have a chance of killing the hero, otherwise there’s no jeopardy. When you have someone like Kara, who’s Kryptonian and can do anything Superman can do, you want her to go up against a true adversary, and having her fight another Kryptonian felt like the best way to do that.

Astra gave us a hint as to her agenda in her confrontation with Kara this week – is it safe to assume she might be planning to make a new home on earth without human interference?

It’s actually not. [Laughs.] She’s not trying to establish a new Krypton, which is something that we’ve seen in movies and TV shows before, and we wanted to do something different. To me, the best villains are the ones that say the same thing in public and in private, they just leave out the part about killing a lot of people when they do it. John Barrowman on “Arrow” in season one, he said he wanted to save the city – he just left out the part about nuking the bad part of town so that all the good people could live crime-free lives. And with Astra, believe what she says in episode two – “I watched one world die, I’m not going to let another one die too.” She really means that, she really believes she’s here to save Earth from the path that humans have set it on, because she saw what happened on Krypton. Obviously, how she’s going to go about it is going to be objectionable to Kara, her friends and most of the audience, but as always, the best villains are the heroes of their own story, and Astra believes what she’s saying. Giving the villain a legitimate point of view — even if it’s dark and twisted and immoral — having them have a point is always what we strive for. And as you find out more and more about Astra’s goals and why she was sent to Fort Rozz and what her connection was to Krypton’s destruction, I think it’ll unfold in a new and different way for people who feel like they’ve seen Krypton die in enough mediums before; that its destruction in our version is something a little bit more relevant to our own morals.

We got another flashback to Krypton in this episode – is that going to be a recurring feature on the show?

We’ll definitely be flashing back to Krypton — obviously not in the way that “Arrow” utilizes the flashback storyline; I think it’s more analogous to “Flash” where we see glimpses of Barry’s childhood when stories pertain to it. In episode five, we actually flash back to Kara as a child on Earth growing up with Alex [Chyler Leigh], which features the return of Helen Slater and Dean Cain. But in this episode, it was especially important to flash back to Krypton because it also helps remind the audience of Alura and the strong bond that this daughter and this mother share. And it also served to remind everybody again that Kara grew up on Krypton, she lived on Krypton – she had a happy childhood there and a family and friends and teachers and cousins, and all of that was ripped away from her, so she remembers this paradise that she was expelled from and that is, for us, what makes her different from Superman and so much more emotionally complex.

The scene with Alura’s hologram was heartbreaking. It seems like through the flashbacks and the AI, Alura can still teach Kara a lot, so how does that relationship inform her journey going forward?

That was Greg’s idea, as always it was the best one. It’s funny, because Laura asked how she should play the hologram and I said “play the hologram like a greeting card – it’s saying all the right things, but you don’t really feel them.” In some ways it’s almost worse. It’s a fun way to tap into the established mythology of Superman and put a Supergirl twist on it. It’s all of those little things that help make the show, and help make it feel like a show about a visitor from Krypton, whether it’s Superman or Supergirl – she should have all the same bells and whistles that he got. We use it in upcoming episodes as a source of information; the AI, knowing what Alura knew, is able to give specialized information on Fort Rozz escapees, what their powers are, how to defeat them. It’s a good, cool, fun way to get out exposition – exposition is hard to get out but when Laura Benanti says it, you’re far more interested in listening to it. And it’s that ongoing emotional thing for Kara where she misses her mom and she lost her mother and her world, and getting that brief glimpse of it is sometimes what she needs to have the strength to keep going, and sometimes it’s the thing that breaks her heart and reminds her of everything she’s lost.

Judging by those glowing red eyes, Hank Henshaw obviously isn’t quite what he seems – what are you prepared to say about his motivations at this point?

I think comic book fans will have a theory about that, and Hank is not all he says he is, and I’m going to leave it at that. [Laughs.] There are some things I’m so happy to spoil and there are other things where it’s that great tension for the audience that certainly worked out so well for us with Tom Cavanagh on “The Flash” in the early going, where he’d do something heroic and then something else that’s slightly sinister and you’re never quite sure what that means or where his loyalties lie, so that when he walks into a room, is he there to help you or is he there to kill you?

James is already being put in an awkward position between his loyalty to Kara and his job at CatCo – is that a struggle that will continue, since Cat is so used to getting her way?

James’ ongoing story is less about losing his job every week because he’s not doing what Cat wants; it’s more, he’s trying to figure out who he is in the same way Kara is. He gives that speech that was so interesting to us, that he was famous because he took pictures of Superman, but Superman was his pal – he even says in the pilot, “I won a Pulitzer, but he posed for it” – and now I’ve moved here to start fresh, but if I’m teaming up with another superhero, am I ever going to find out what makes me special apart from all this? I think that’s really interesting, and then putting on top of that the gender change where a lot of times, Jimmy is the Lois Lane of the show, it’s his own curiosity and brashness – he’s the one who puts himself in danger and she’s the one who has to rescue him. It’s always a dance and I hope Mehcad gets the credit he deserves – he’s a great looking guy and charming and a great actor, but to be the male lead in a female-led show is sometimes a thankless task and he really, for a big, macho guy, really embraces his role on the show and I can’t say enough about him.

We’re already seeing hints of Winn (Jeremy Jordan) being a little jealous and proprietary over Kara now that he knows James knows her secret too. Can we expect a little competitiveness between them, at least from Winn’s side, since James doesn’t have much to be competitive about?

Their relationship is actually kind of hilarious, because Winn is so clearly jealous and James is such a nice guy, he doesn’t even notice. It’s this one-sided competitive thing… Poor Winn. Watching the two of them form their friendship is really exciting as well. There are some things that are very unique to this show, but there are other things and other teams and paradigms that Greg and I and now Ali always gravitate to, that sense of found families. That’s definitely what’s going to happen over the course of this first season as they start going through these adventures together and start learning to trust each other and start being there for each other. In so many ways, with shows like these, it happened on “Arrow” and it happened even more-so on “Flash” — what happens to the cast happens to their characters, and vice-versa. We had the table-read for episode 10 the other day and you’re already starting to see that they really have become this great unit; Melissa and Chyler really love each other like sisters and are looking out for each other, and watching those two guys, this odd-couple, becoming friends in front of and behind the cameras is cool.

It was great to see the focus on Kara and Alex’s relationship this week.

Episode three has them out for breakfast together and the end of episode three is the two sisters in Kara’s apartment, having a night together. It’s a nice part of the show and it’s not something that’s well-represented on television, adult siblings, and certainly adult siblings who are in the same business and care about each other. You see sibling relationships that are fraught with tension and lies and anger and jealousy, and I don’t mean to suggest that Kara and Alex’s lives are drama free — they’ll have their issues and there’s certainly more drama to come between them — but at the heart of it they love each other in the same way that Joe and Barry love each other, and it’s become so mirrored behind the scenes. We were watching a particularly emotional scene for Supergirl that Alex is present for, and Melissa got very emotional, and after they yelled cut, Chyler went over and held Melissa until she could pull it together, and that was almost more moving than the scene itself.

What can we expect from the next episode, since Cat is finally getting her interview with Supergirl?

The interview does not go exactly as Kara planned — shocking – and next episode sees the arrival of Reactron, who is a Superman villain who has fought with Superman over the years and neither has ever been able to beat the other, and now he’s decided that the best way to get Superman is to come to town and kill Kara. And Kara is in no mood to be treated as someone who can be taken out because they think she’s easier to take down than Superman. Reactron’s going to find out that he shouldn’t have messed with the Girl of Steel.

Kara had some trouble blowing out the harbor fire with her ice breath – was that just because she was exhausted from the DEO’s tests, or was it because she has to build up some of her abilities like a muscle?

It’s a little of that – we only really do it in this episode. It’s kind of a classic superhero trope, and we certainly did it on “Flash.,” that episode two is “oh, this isn’t as easy as I thought it was gonna be” … we don’t play too much with the notion that she’s not up to snuff, it was just a fun thing to do in this episode. The one ongoing thing that does happen is Alex training her because for us, that is one of the most interesting aspects of the show, the sense that Kara has all these incredible powers and she’s smart, but Alex really has the empirical knowledge… “Alex Danvers: Kickass Spy” could just as easily have been its own show — it just so happens that her sister’s Supergirl.

How do the logistics of flying fight scenes compare with the stunts we’ve seen on “Arrow” and “Flash” – are you finding ways to cheat or is it pretty much all pulled off on wires?

It’s funny, you see a director’s cut of “Arrow” and it pretty much looks like how it’s going to look on television – it’s all stunts, it’s all there – and with “Flash,” you get a director’s cut and most of it is missing. And we’ve discovered on “Supergirl” that it really is this mixture of everything we’ve learned on “Arrow” combined with everything that we’ve learned on “Flash” – there’s a lot of wirework, there’s a lot of actual stunts, and there’s also obviously a great deal of CG, and far more than we’ve done on “Flash,” it’s been this mixture of old-school people on wires and newfangled high-tech CGI, and somehow, at least for now, we feel like we’ve found this really successful formula of mixing the two and that’s what’s presenting our “style” for having a Kryptonian lead on a show.

“Supergirl” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

What are your theories about Hank’s red eyes? What do you think Astra hopes to accomplish on Earth? Weigh in below.

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  1. Jeff Wyatt says:

    Those red eyes, combined with what appeared to me to be him accessing telepathic powers (when he knew Alex was up to something), the fact that he works at hunting alien criminals and when he said, “I had a family”. Only leaves one choice: J’onn J’onzz, The Manhunter from Mars. I’d stake money on it.

  2. Ricardo says:

    Stunt Tip – Need to put a weight in “the shoe that will touch the ground first” (ex. just behind the ball), so SG will feel which part of foot will touch the ground first without looking (or miss-stepping on touch down). It’s either that or wire operators must always ensure the lower foot is exactly aligned on the CG.

  3. Brian says:

    Hank red eyes might mean he’s the martian

  4. Mabel Ickes says:

    the clunky wirework makes for some awkward action scenes. step it up, showrunners.

  5. Brian says:

    I’d bet good money that Hank will turn out to be the Martian Manhunter – that line about he once had a family cliched it (possibly).

  6. Anton says:

    Fortunately for the non comic book audience, this show holds its’ own. I really like it as something new and refreshing.

  7. nick yun says:

    It is probably martian manhunter.
    1. His martian name is Jon j’onzz but could easily use a different name while under cover.
    2. he can shape shift to any form to look like anyone.
    3. His eyes glowed red like a martian.
    4. Said he used to have a family..which is true because his family died on mars and he is known as mars sole survivor. Although some comics show other Martians.
    5. Healed. From that wound quickly or didn’t show much pain because only real thing that can harm a martian is fire.

  8. twinghost says:

    Max Landis starring Mandy Moore as Lois lane & Elijah Wood as Hank Henshaw: “The Death and Return of Superman” a 17min youtube video under the channel

  9. Seriously? People actually think a guy named “Hank Henshaw” is the martian manhunter? What’s next . . . are you going to say that a character named Jon J’onzz is the Cyborg Superman? READ YOUR COMICS, PEOPLE!

    And if you prefer low budget youtube videos over reading dozens of comics, might i suggest a retelling by Max Landis starring Mandy Moore as Lois lane & Elijah Wood as Hank Henshaw: “The Death and Return of Superman” a 17min youtube video under the channel Adjacent.tv

    Its absolutely hilarious, and covers the origin of Cyborg Superman pretty thoroughly.

    • jarodox says:

      Honestly, I’m also thinking he’s Martian Manhunter and that the name is just meant to give pedantic comic book guys a coronary. So far, the character seems to parallel MM far more than robot Superman, right down to preferring to shape shift into a black guy with law enforcement connections. Plus, when Cyborg thought lost his family/had his villainous origin story… well, not to spoil anyone, but let’s just say his circumstances changed in such a way that covertly inserting himself into the government bureaucracy would be impracticable without substantially changing his early history. Which isn’t to say such a substantial change isn’t possible–it’s just been my observation that in adaptations to different media (and adaptations to different comic continuities) both DC and Marvel have been more liberal with changing names and identities of the guy under the mantle, but much less willing to substantially change the spirit of the heroic identity and its story. And–despite knowing exactly who Hank Henshaw was the moment I heard the name–that character on Supergirl just gives me much more of a Martian Manhunter vibe in his personality and his circumstances. I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong though–it would certainly be an interesting new take on a character that frankly got a bit boring to me after the Death of Superman arc.

  10. Shelton berry says:

    Hank is the Martian man Hunter.

  11. twinghost27 says:

    its smallville, if all 10 seasons where rushed into 2 episodes with no clarity and turning the characters into a joke, its almost as bad as that 90s made for TV movie of the justice league xD

  12. Jim says:

    This show is very formulaic and completely unoriginal….let’s copy this thing we did on Arrow and then let’s copy this other thing we did on Flash and, oh yeah, let’s give her this same thing that Superman has. The show is about as cookie cutter as it gets.

    • First of all, I’m tired of people not understanding the word “decimate.” That means only 10 percent is lost. And this is more of a bridge between hardcore superhero fans (I respected you by not saying ___boys) and the average audience. We don’t need a slow build to the put on the suit moment in ep. 4 – we have lots of children watching who are here to see Supergirl. I think it’s doing well for the first 2 episodes. We don’t need everything to be constant slo-mo tilt-shift super close up then super wide then eyes again, come on – I have things to do.

    • twinghost27 says:

      yeah it was obvious from the pilot this was gona be a pointless show with nothing original, even the pilot was a mess, ruined plenty of characters especially supergirl herself, went from strong confused alien being full of angst to your typical city working girl bumbling her words over jimmy olsen? lol should have been him bumbling over her, but either way, it was just a constant pointing out some character doing or saying something sexist for the sake of it, supergirl looked like a skinny girl at a cosplay event, suit was horrible for TV and the effects where almost on par with superboy lol, she gets upset alot, eats ice cream at home cross legged watching TV like your typical working city girl show, she could basically be any of the cast from friends as a character, i feel sorry for women mostly who wanted a great female superhero show, we have the flash and arrow to an extent although not personally my favourite, they get this horrible show that portrays a badass female superhero acting like your typical 9 to 5 working girl in the city, her superhero beginnings are one of the worst ive ever seen, there was no build no “oh shes gona put on the suit” it was just “lets throw her into it ASAP and be done with it and move on with a silly storyline where superman exists but we never see his face and some kryptonian prison ship thing has crashed on earth, youd have millions of superpowered bad guys all grouping together and decimating the planet xD”

      • Mixx says:

        So let me get this straight. You’re saying they shouldn’t have made the character of Supergirl relatable to modern, young women because, what, it’s boring? Every take on the character of Supergirl in the past has made her the “strong, confused alien” with no personality. Very cut and dry. Thank God you’re not a TV executive, for all our sakes. And ripping on a show after 2 episodes is petty and egotistical. But everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

  13. Don’t have toss words like “ratchet” in a formal publication. Use a real word, please. Let’s not make this segment of the industry seem juvenile, or help them see it that way.

  14. Speedz says:

    Hank = cyborg superman

  15. Tim says:

    I agree about the Martian Manhunter… that is the first thing that I thought of when I say the glowing eyes

  16. jack West says:

    The man is the Martian Manhunter. The character was introduced in the Smallville show played by Philip Morris.

    • Harry says:

      Martian Manhunter has been a character in the comics for decades, he just never made it into movies/TV until smallville. I actually have a Justice League comic from 60s or possibly early 70s with him in it, and he wasn’t a new character then.

    • Tan says:

      Oh! Martian Manhunter! That’s actually way better than the expected Cyborg Superman or even just the Eradicator….

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