By Jess Plummer
DC recently announced plans for a film adaptation of Tom King and Bilquis Evely’s miniseries Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow. Supergirl is my favorite superhero, but I wasn’t thrilled by this news. While Woman of Tomorrow is visually stunning, I felt like it fundamentally misunderstood the core of who Supergirl is, and what audience she’s intended to appeal to.
To explain what I mean, let’s take a look at one of her early appearances: “The Three Magic Wishes!” by Otto Binder and Jim Mooney, from Action Comics #257 (October 1959), which came out just five months after her debut.
At the time, Kara Zor-El was living in an orphanage under the alias “Linda Lee,” avoiding adoption because it would be too hard to hide her superpowers from parents. This setup – the eternal orphan whose life can be magically transformed at will – is of course a classic superhero one, but also extremely evocative of fairy tales, and this story makes gleeful hay of the latter.
It begins with Linda reading fairy tales to the younger children when another orphan, Tom, jeers at them for believing in the stories. Linda is determined that the orphans retain their sense of wonder, so she creates a fairy godmother costume for herself and flies back into the orphanage. A skeptical Tom insists that she prove herself by granting them three wishes.
Anyone familiar with Silver Age Superman comics will be able to guess how this goes: Supergirl performs a series of extremely implausible “scientific” stunts with her powers to create a magic mirror (she uses “super-pressure” to turn a windowpane into magnifying glass), transform a rabbit into a horse (she lassos a random horse from miles away and yanks him onto the orphanage property), and presents the kids with an unbreakable “magic” string (made from her own super-hair).
She then teaches Tom a lesson by molding bread dough onto his nose and making it grow by heating it with her X-ray vision, Pinocchio-style. Finally, she hypnotizes all the children into thinking it was all just a dream.
Now, Silver Age Superman comics are infamously full of gaslighting and manipulation, and though this is a relatively gentle one, it’s all still there: the mass hypnotism; “teaching Tom a lesson” for his mildly antisocial behavior by terrorizing him unnecessarily; traumatizing that poor horse. But with the Silver Age you kind of have to take the “oh my god what is wrong with you” of superhero behavior as read and move on. Clark was doing much worse to Lois and Jimmy six times a month, after all.
But there’s two things about this story that I love with all my heart:
- It is determinedly joyful.
- It is incredibly girly.
When I was a little girl, I had no interest in superheroes. My heroes were Disney princesses and basically any character Shirley Temple ever played: plucky, optimistic orphans who spent their time bringing light to other people’s lives. Kara fits seamlessly into that mold, and nowhere is that more evident than in “The Three Magic Wishes!” This version of Kara has lost her parents and her planet, her only living relative has dumped her in an orphanage, and she can’t even let herself be adopted by the succession of nice couples who try over the first year or so of Supergirl appearances.
But she still cares about ensuring that children younger than her believe in magic. She still wants their lives to be filled with wonder. If the medium of comics allowed her to break into an uplifting song, I’m sure she would. Probably accompanied by cartoon bluebirds.
The optimism and unrepentant girliness of “The Three Magic Wishes!” – and Silver Age Supergirl stories in general – was absolutely by design. Despite revisionist history stating that girls didn’t read comics until [insert recent year of your choice here], most little girls in the 1950s absolutely did, and Superman editor Mort Weisinger wanted their dimes. (See also: Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane.)
And so along came Supergirl, with her stories about romance, friendship, and fashion. She has four boyfriends! She has a flying horse! (Girls love horses, right?) In the 70s, there was even a contest where readers could redesign her costume, and she spent the next year or so rotating through various reader-submitted looks. You know what other book had reader-submitted outfits? Betty and Veronica – incidentally, the only comic book I actually read as a child.
Now, not every little girl wants girly stories. As a child I thought horses and fashion were just okay – but I also understood that a story with horses and fashion was meant for me. And knowing a story is for you is important.
I was born a few decades too late to read Silver Age Supergirl comics, but if I had encountered them, I would have loved them. A hero as strong as Superman, but she’s a girl, just like me? In a world where there are half a dozen superhero movies a year but almost none of them star a woman; where Black Widow is infamously left off of Avengers merchandise; and where She-Ra not being sexy enough unleashes a storm of controversy, a character like Supergirl is still rare and precious. Bring on the horses and fashion!
Supergirl retained her cheery demeanor and girly accoutrements for several decades, all the way up to her death in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. But when the character returned in 2004, DC was much more interested in making her edgy and sexy, to appeal to male readers. Though Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow doesn’t try to titillate, it does fully embrace the idea that Supergirl can’t be an interesting character unless she is angry and violent and miserable.
Meanwhile, the CW’s Supergirl ran for a successful six seasons starring an upbeat, friendly heroine who was firmly in the vein of her Silver Age roots. It also catered unashamedly to a female audience and whilst it’s not a perfect show by any means, it understood who Supergirl was, and who she was meant for. And I’ll never forget all the pictures of Melissa Benoist in costume meeting little girls who are looking at her like she hung the moon.
Little girls won’t be able to see Woman of Tomorrow. If it’s a faithful adaptation, it’ll have to be rated PG-13, if not R.
I’m not saying that Supergirl comics should be exactly like “The Three Magic Wishes!” forever. This story is 64 years old, after all. But there is a way to modernize Supergirl without drastically overhauling the core of the character – the show did it just fine, and so have plenty of comic book writers, including Mariko Tamaki, Sterling Gates, Mark Waid, and more. “Edgifying” Superman for a mainstream audience with Man of Steel didn’t work in the slightest and I suspect it won’t work with Supergirl either. It leaves her original audience of little girls out in the cold – the same way that, oh, almost every piece of superhero media besides Ms. Marvel and DC Super Hero Girls does.
I’ll be honest: I don’t think Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow will actually ever be filmed. WB has announced and cancelled too many grandiose plans over the years for me to trust them, especially when it comes to female characters. Hell, they cancelled a Supergirl movie just last year!
But if they do make it, I won’t be seeing it, because that’s not my Supergirl. Maybe someday they will make a movie with my Supergirl – but until then, there’s always “The Three Magic Wishes!”
Action Comics 257: The Three Magic Wishes!
Writer: Otto Binder
Penciller: Jim Mooney
Jessica Plummer is a contributing editor at BookRiot.com and co-host of Flights and Tights: A Superman Movie Podcast. You can find her on Twitter here!
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