Why Supergirl is short-changed in The Flash

Kim Taylor-Foster
Sasha Calle as Supergirl with The Flash 2013 and 2023

Supergirl is in The Flash. Hooray! But wait. They totally balls her up! Director Andy Muschietti – the man behind the two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s It – had the chance, alongside writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee, Birds of Prey), to create a fully rounded character. Instead, they’ve created a Bechdel-test failing aberration. Supergirl is no feminist icon in this movie.

It’s not as if Muschietti can’t craft decent women characters – he translated It’s Beverly Marsh from page to screen sensitively and evocatively. She’d been through the wringer – and gets put through it again when she’s terrorised by Pennywise – but still emerged a three-dimensional character.

Similarly, Christina Hodson developed Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey in a way that resonated with fans and critics and defied, to some degree, becoming an archetype.

The kind of lazy, unimaginative, and unenlightened portrayal of women superheroes as seen in The Flash shouldn’t be happening in 2023. We’ll be going into details now, so FLASH SPOILERS AHEAD

How does Supergirl feature in The Flash?

What do we mean by lazy, unimaginative, and unenlightened? Well, in a nutshell, Supergirl is depicted as a “strong” woman; one that’s great in a fight but has little else. This kind of “strong” woman often fits Hollywood’s narrow definition of beauty. These days, the focus might shift towards powers over sex appeal, seemingly in an effort to tick a box that says there’s more to beautiful women than looks (see, they’re strong, too!) but ultimately, what’s usually lacking is the same. And that boils down to personality. The Flash short-changes Supergirl even more in a move that will make Alison Bechdel bristle, but we’ll get to that.

In The Flash, Supergirl – aka Kara Zor-El – is established in the past timeline as the Kryptonian on Earth in place of Superman. This is the 2013 alternate universe to which Ezra Miller’s modern day Barry Allen travels back in time, as he learns to harness the power of the Speed Force. In the movie, Allen’s dabbling in events in order to prevent his mother’s murder results in a ripple effect through time. As Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne explains in the film, Allen created a “fulcrum” with his tinkering, resulting in retrocausal echoes through time, changing both the future and the past. 

The film adapts the Flashpoint story arc in the comics, where Superman was held captive in a facility and subject to experimentation by the US government. In the film, it’s Sasha Calle’s Supergirl who is imprisoned in a Siberian black site, and in this reality – one devoid of metahumans – The Flash and Keaton’s Batman rescue Supergirl in order to help them stop Zod from actioning his Man of Steel terraforming plan. “I created a world with no metahumans and now there’s no one to defeat Zod,” says our Baz. So that’s the backstory.

Strong woman? Yikes

Now, everything that Kara Zor-El has been through is likely to make her – nay, anyone – angry. If not feel utterly defeated. But the problem with treating Supergirl in the way she is – and this is particularly troublesome because it’s the character’s DC universe debut and therefore sets out the stall for future appearances – is that it means she follows the typical path that so many “strong” interpretations of women characters we’ve seen on screen have traversed. 

The idea of a “strong” woman character is one that’s rejected by figures such as The Crown and The Girl in the Spider’s Web star Claire Foy, who has publicly decried it. The term itself, she says, separates women in a way that men never are. Women Talking director Sarah Polley has also suggested the concept is limited in its interpretation. “A ‘strong female character’ can take a million forms that don’t just look like a stereotypical strong man and a female body,” she told Empire.

This is precisely what The Flash’s Supergirl is. As recently as April, late Star Wars and MCU actor Ray Stevenson made a similar point when I interviewed him at Star Wars Celebration. He called for less warrior women with masculine leanings and more of the Divine-Feminine in the women characters of Star Wars.

Supergirl revolves around Superman

Sasha Calle as Supergirl in The Flash with red eyes.
Supergirl. You won’t like her when she’s angry.

Apart from Supergirl’s depiction being ultimately anti-feminist, it’s kind of one-note. It’s boring. And yes, we know that in the comics the character practices less restraint than Supes in a fight. That’s depicted here. Still boring. Still stereotypical. This resonates especially loudly on screen when it’s so much more vital to craft a compelling, three-dimensional character.

But the worst thing about Supergirl’s characterisation is that she’s all about revenge on Zod for what he did to Superman in her timeline. Meaning her role in this movie is reduced to revolving around a man. She isn’t permitted to exist in this movie as a new superhero addition in her own right – she can only exist if she is contextualised against Superman. He’s the bigger significance here, and he’s not even present.

It was a mistake to swap Supergirl in for Superman in this Flashpoint adaptation. In doing so, they appear simply to have given her bland masculine qualities blended with a motivation that orbits a man – Superman, no less – making her ‘less than’. Making her, and the film, fail the criteria of the Bechdel Test. She’s diminished because of this.

A backward step

The Flash’s Supergirl is a million miles away from Melissa Benoist’s Kara Zor-El in the TV series. Although it’s not strictly speaking fair to compare one supporting appearance in a movie to a series in which a character has had multiple episodes in which to develop. But even comparing her to Helen Slater’s live-action big-screen Supergirl – who gets a cameo in The Flash – from 1984, the depiction is a backward step. 

Slater’s Supergirl is progressive in comparison. The Jeannot Szwarc-directed film revolves around women – and although Slater’s Kara gets a romantic subplot (let’s remember, so does Superman in his story), unnecessarily elevating the status of men in her story, she’s mostly concerned with saving her home planet. By way of discovering the delights of Earth, of course. She’s bold and brave, sure, but she also has a personality that isn’t made up of masculine energy. She’s curious, confident, and resourceful. The film passes the Bechdel Test.

Sasha Calle, who plays Supergirl in The Flash, even describes her character as (yawn), “a badass” which is actually a red flag. It’s shorthand for two-dimensional; a woman warrior with that masculine energy Ray Stevenson referenced. Worse, with none of the elements that men are frequently allowed to exhibit on screen. Humour, silliness, the ability to make a mistake are all vetoed. Even Superman is permitted comedic moments across the Snyderverse movies.

Whether these moments are successful or not, that’s for you to decide – but the point is, he’s allowed to be irreverent; maybe crack out a one-liner. And certainly Batman is. Both Batmans in this universe, despite a general dourness, get to join the laugharama. The Flash himself is a comedic character. Aquaman, too, gets to be funny. Supergirl, meanwhile, is just angry, super-serious – strong, of course – and defined by a man.

Let’s hope when the James Gunn-Peter Safran helmed era of the new DCU kicks in, women characters get better treatment than this. We want the Supergirl we all deserve.

For more on the The Flash, check out the below articles:

The Flash review | | Best Easter Eggs | Where’s Wonder Woman? | Everything we know about The Flash 2 | Who is General Zod? | Full Cast: Characters and Actors | Is Nic Cage in The Flash? | Flashpoint explained | Who are Albert Desmond and Patty Spivot? | Barry Allen x 2 | How many Batmans are in The Flash? | Speed Force guide | Who is Dark Flash? | Story of Superman Lives Secret villain revealed? | Supergirl explained | Who does in The Flash? | Ending explained | Is Aquaman in The Flash? | The Flash budget | Soundtrack and songs | Is Superman in The Flash? | Post-credits scene explained |

About The Author

Kim Taylor-Foster is a film and TV journalist, critic, and author. Her books include Why We Love The Matrix and Why We Love Die Hard.