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“Arrow-versity”- A Look at Inclusivity & Diversity in the CW Superhero TV Shows: Part 2

Check out Part 1 here.

Part 2: The Blue and The Gold

SUPERGIRL

Jumping straight in, “Supergirl” became the third series in the ever-expanding “Arrowverse” that debuted on CBS (then on CW from season 2 onward) in October of 2015, starring the perpetually delightful Melissa Benoist as the Maiden of Might. When it premiered, its emphasis on the personal and professional struggles of one starry-eyed Kara Danvers – helped in no small way by Melissa’s adorable and lovable performance – were not dissimilar from the premise of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (1993-97) but with a millennial flair.

One aspect that separates “Supergirl” from “Arrow” and “The Flash” is the focus on the shifting romantic relationships between and among its main and secondary cast members; not to mention it’s predominantly feminine cast. Also of note, in its last two seasons in particular “Supergirl” has looked at the topic of alienation (both literal and figurative), and the prejudices, bigotry and social issues surrounding contemporary race relations and sexual discrimination in America (with extraterrestrials acting as surrogates for real-world allegories of the victims). At times, these episodes and themes can come off a bit heavy-handed and overtly political.

Nevertheless, Supergirl continues the trend of the Arrowverse shows in being a bastion of diversity and inclusivity.

Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen/Guardian. Photo credit The CW Network.

James Olsen / Guardian

Much like Iris West on “The Flash”, the role of ginger-haired #1 Superman fanboy and Daily Planet ace photographer, James “Jimmy” Olsen, was given to seasoned African American actor Mehcad Brooks. James began as a viable love interest for Kara in the first two seasons, but later dated Lena Luthor. Mehcad’s honest-hearted character wasn’t a man of a particular set of skills, but remained a series regular. He eventually adopted the heroic persona of “Guardian” (another DC character entirely), a sort of a refurbished version of Shaq’s “Steel”, but with a shield. Unsurprisingly, Guardian seemed like a character out of place on Supergirl (amongst his other super-powered and highly trained peers), and more one suited for “Arrow” (*note at the time Supergirl operated in a completely separate universe to Arrow and Flash). Overall, James Olsen can be summed up as mediocre, not particularly extraordinary nor underwhelming. His utility quickly dwindled with every new season, with other suitors coming into Kara’s life; and Mehcad’s character eventually moved out of the city and left the show in season 5.

On a side note, you can look forward to seeing Mehcad Brooks play the role of gruff special forces operative Jackson “Jax” Briggs in the upcoming live-action reboot of “Mortal Kombat”.

David Harewood as Hank Henshaw. Photo credit The CW Network.

J’onn J’onzz / Martian Manhunter & Hank Henshaw / Cyborg-Superman

Portrayed by British-born actor David Harewood (*the son of a Barbadian couple who immigrated to England), “Hank Henshaw” was the head of the M.I.B.-esque government branch of extraterrestrial affairs, the D.E.O. The hardboiled superior to Alex Danvers (Supergirl’s adopted sister) and reluctant co-worker for Supergirl, David’s multi-layered character came off as more of a father-figure with a tough façade to the two sisters. This was initially awkward, as “Hank Henshaw” (an evil Superman archenemy who also went by “Cyborg-Superman”) has a vehement distain for all things Kryptonian. It was only later revealed that “Hank” merely stole the real one’s identity, and was in actuality a shapeshifting alien refugee from Mars. Unlike James/Mechad, J’onn/David had tremendous character development and growth throughout the series, paralleling Supergirl’s. J’onn’s personal journey continues to be a harrowing one; coping with the loss and near extinction of his people and family, having to come to terms with his own bigotry towards his species, the estranged relationship with his long lost father, and his tumultuous and nigh-irresponsible relationship with his brother, not to mention being dragged back into the racial infighting still happening on Mars. There was also his romantic relationship with Miss Martian/M’gann M’orzz – but more on her later. Much like Joe West on “The Flash”, David’s role on the show is stalwart surrogate patriarch for our main heroine.

Just to add, the character of the Martian Manhunter’s modern popularity can be attributed to his appearance on the famous and beloved Bruce Timm’s “Justice League” animated series back in the early 2000s, where he was voiced by African-American actor Carl Lumbly – who also plays J’onn’s father on “Supergirl” as a wink and a nod. J’onn J’onzz has essentially a Swiss-army-knife repertoire of superpowers that places him on par with Superman himself as an almost indomitable combatant and versatile powerhouse. In action on the show however, J’onzz is always careful not to overshadow Supergirl (or Alex for that matter).

Sharon Ann Leal as M’gann M’orzz. Photo credit The CW Network.

Miss Martian / M’gann M’orzz

Sharon Ann Leal (who is half-Filipino) portrays M’gann M’orzz, a “white” Martian defector who not only disguises herself as a Black woman, but also poses as a “green” Martian (their version of people of African descent on Mars). M’gann’s side-arc in Supergirl is often centered around the race wars of her/J’onn’s people still raging on after so many centuries; a grim reflection of society today. Sharon’s character represents a struggle certain people have, who renounce their own race/ethnicity out of moral indignation for the atrocities perpetrated onto a particularly suppressed or oppressed race/ethnicity, for which they now identify with. She starts a romantic relationship with J’onn that is briefly threated when her true identity is revealed. Sharon’s character, who had genuine affection for J’onn, knew initially he would not accept her for being “white”; but at the same time J’onn had to learn to let go of his own prejudices towards “white” Martians in general if he was going to grow as a person. While not as important to the grander narrative of “Supergirl” to warrant her being a series regular, her frequent enough appearances (and Sharon’s well-acted performance) are always welcomed.

Azie Tesfai as Kelly Olsen. Photo credit CW Network.

Kelly Olsen

Appearing in season 4 as a recurring character, the relatively new and original character Kelly Olsen (Azie Tesfai) is the overprotective but well-meaning sister of James Olsen. Both Black and a lesbian, Kelly became the romantic interest of Alex Danvers, after the latter’s breakup with Detective Maggie Sawyer. The two hit it off fairly well, and they both seemed to be a nice fit and complement to each other. Unfortunately, following the “rebirth” of the “Arrowverse” after the crossover event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” there has been little to no downtime to address Kelly or her relationship with Alex in this new continuity.

David Ajala as Manchester Black. Photo credit CW Network.

Manchester Black

If Professor Charles Xavier was a cynical, misanthropic Briton wanker, you’d have a good idea who Manchester Black is from the comics. But you wouldn’t get that from the interpretation portrayed in Supergirl, which was a significant departure from the source material. This version of Manchester Black is played by British actor David Ajala, who was essentially J’onn J’onzz’s personal nemesis. Driven by revenge, Manchester is a well-trained and resourceful amoral vigilant on a crusade. The two would often clash, solidifying their intense rivalry. Despite J’onn’s best efforts for a pacifist resolution to their conflict, he was forced to kill Manchester midway in season 4 to ending their feud and save the city. It was interesting to give J’onn his own real arch-nemesis, and a surprisingly good one at that. Though brief, David’s performance left a lasting impression, much like Michael Jai White as “Bronze Tiger” on “Arrow”.

Phillip LaMarr as Malefic J’onzz. Photo credit CW Network.

Malefic J’onzz

Phillip LaMarr is a prolific voice actor with many accolades for his works on such memorable shows as Justice League (voice of John Stewart/Green Lantern), Futurama (Hermes Conrad), Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (Wilt) and the titular Static Shock and Samurai Jack, among others.  He plays Malefic, brother to J’onn J’onzz, the “black sheep” of the J’onzz family. Needless to say that lack of familial love did no favors for Malefic’s already fragile psyche. His hatred was so strong, it led him to betraying his race to the white Martians and the near-genocide of the species. Overwhelmed by shame and disgrace, Malefic was erased from the collective memories of his people by his own brother. Once freed from the Phantom Zone, he took it upon himself to seek his revenge on his own brother. Much like Manchester Black, Malefic was a recurring villain with a connection to J’onn specifically, rather than Supergirl as an adversary. The conflict between the siblings forced J’onn to confront his own culpability for the atrocities perpetrated on his own brother that led to his dark path and feelings. The brothers were eventually permitted to reconcile, leading to Malefic joining the resistance movement on Mars to quell the conflict between white and green Martians. As with M’gann, it is perhaps only a matter of time before Malefic returns to the show in a few future episodes.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION

Oddly lacking in ethnic diversity, “Supergirl” still manages to have at least two strong and consistent representations of the LGBTQ community; those being Supergirl’s own adopted sister Alexander “Alex” Danvers, and the more recent superhero Dreamer.

Alexander (played by Chyler Leigh) began life growing up feeling shackled to Kara. Coming into her own when she joined the D.E.O. Alex has been a series regular since inception, and has enjoyed her own character arcs and development, alongside her sister and J’onn. It was only in season 2 (2016-17) that she confronted the issue of her own sexuality, and identified as a lesbian. Being an adult and having a loving support group, it was easier for her to “come out” to her close friends and family. While relatively a non-issue for the show, it was used to explore her very realistic relationship with Detective Maggie Sawyer at the time to the point of planning to marry. Unfortunately, their union ultimately dissolved before the nuptials when the two had different ideals about their relationship’s future. Alex would later be romantically involved with James’ sister, Kelly. But as mentioned previously, Alex has been in a state of identity crisis following the refurbished reality after “Crisis on Infinite Earth”. This left little room to really examine whether Kelly is still a part of her life or not (her sexuality still intact). The whole issue of Alex’s sexuality was treated with utmost respect and level-headedness, that more writers need to take note of how such characters should be written. After coming out, Alex was still the same person as she was before. The clarity afforded to her by her own self-revelation simply served as an avenue for her character to grow and develop further naturally and in a unique way.

Ironically, Chyler Leigh herself came out just last month in June 2020 as a member of the LGBTQ community, when she posted a personal letter on Create Change (a site she helped co-found) about her own realizations that mirrored her character and how that affected those around her. One would wonder where Chyler would be right now if it wasn’t for her character on “Supergirl” coming out first and allowing her that subconscious outlet.

In a similar vein, Nicole Maines, who plays the precog crime-fighter “Dreamer” identifies as transgendered. Only recently introduced in season 4, Dreamer can be seen as almost a self-insert character, as Nicole and Nia Nal are pretty much the same person (like Chyer and Alex). Bred from the lack of transgendered representation on TV, executive producer Greg Berlanti made it his mission to fill that void on Supergirl, and to go the extra mile to have a real-life transgendered person play the character. Described as “a confident, wunderkind of a fashionista” the aptly named Dreamer became the first transgendered superhero on TV. It therefore came as no surprise that Dreamer would be a staunch defender of those who were “different” in National City and became their personal protector and advocate. And on a side, much like everyone else on the “Supergirl”, Nia Nal is in a tumultuous relationship with the awkward super-intelligent alien from the future, Brainiac 5/Brainy.

Of significant note, Nicole’s real-world battle with transgendered discrimination became the topic of the landmark case “Doe v. Regional School Unit 26” in 2013, which went all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

It is interesting how art imitates life.

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