Friday 11 October 2019

On the difficulty of having powered best friends.

I was strong way before I gave a shit. And you gave a shit long before you were even strong. But we figured it out. 
I’ve been thinking about the friendship fault lines in the competing universes of Marvel’s Jessica Jones and DC’s Supergirl, and how weird it is to watch the two stories unfold at the same time (since I’m catching up with Jessica Jones’ third and final season a bit late in the game). They are interesting to consider together because they are visually, tonally, as different as can be: Supergirl, along with its companion shows, earnest in how much it centres all of its relationships, and thrives on Kara’s goodness and optimism, and Jessica Jones, entirely separate from Runaways and Cloak and Dagger (the only two other Marvel shows I watch), thriving on conflict, darkness, people who begin good but then inevitably become spoilt, and Jessica’s own eternal pessimism. And yet, they are currently, in their respective seasons, driven by a rift in a central relationship that is connected to superpowers. And in both cases, the way the shows toy with the idea of a central friendship between women being more than friendship, feels a lot like this would have all played out in the late Nineties and the early 2000s (again, conversely, this is very much not true of Runaways, or even more so, Legends of Tomorrow, where everything is always possible). 

In Jessica Jones, this idea of a romantic friendship goes far enough that for a good part at the beginning of a story, the viewer wouldn’t be wrong in reading what is unfolding as a lovers’ spat between exes. Jessica and Trish have a whole lifetime of history, and in the end, it’s more or less inconsequential that this history is as stepsisters rather than as lovers – because the end-result is the same. They are endlessly capable of hurting each other because they know each other so intimately, and the central conflict between them – that Trish considers the way in which Jessica deals with having superpowers as irresponsible – will always stand between them like an unscalable obstacle. And yet, they try to scale it. Trish does so to the extent that she risks her own life to obtain powers – if only to prove that with great power comes great responsibility, that those who have powers to save are destined to become heroes. Jessica, on the other hand, considers her powers a burden, and has a perspective of the world dramatically different from Trish’s. She sees darkness, she sees what people are capable of doing to each other, she uses her power to make a meagre living and to finance her drinking. In Jessica Jones, there is nothing glamorous or heroic about superpowers – given to imperfect people, more often than not they only serve to accentuate personal shortcomings and struggles, rather than help even the people who have them. In some cases, they border on the ridiculous, the self-crippling (a character in the third season gets headaches when he is around people who have done bad things). As Alice may say – How can it be superpowers if all they do is make you lonely and corrupt?
Enter Trish, who insists that powers should dignify and exalt us, and who attempts to become proof of concept, even more so when her attempts to obtain powers the same way Jessica did end up with a very mediocre ability to have slightly sharpened senses and cat-like reflexes (like landing on her feet, occasionally). Where Jessica squanders her powers, which she gained without any choice in the matter, Trish hones her. She makes herself into a superhero like a regular Batwoman, through strict and stubborn and painful training. But because Jessica has never known Trish as a hero, and because she takes her own powers for granted, it takes her forever to take Trish even half-serious, and this obstacle just adds to the already overbearing burden of Trish having killed her mother. As much as Jessica refuses to be a hero, Trish insists that being a hero is the only meaningful thing that can be created from being powered. And because these two have decades of history together, and circle each other forever, obviously, deep down, Jessica tries to live up to this ideal as much as she can, even though she does it as grumpily and secretly as possible. 
I should note here that I haven’t finished the season yet, and for all I know, this could very possibly end in darkness and death. It took these two forever to figure out to coexist enough to chase a serial killer together, and the path there has been strewn with mutual accusations, distrust and sniping. 

Trish Walker would appreciate how National City’s Kara Zor-El deals with having superpowers, or rather, alien powers on Earth. Apart from Marvel’s Captain America and maybe Wonder Woman, there aren’t many examples of character who so whole-heartedly embrace the responsibility that comes with being powered, and who see so much of the world’s darkness and yet respond to it by always believing that a better outcome can be achieved if only they try hard enough. When Trish blames Jessica for not living up to her powers (while still perceiving what a burden they are to her so much that she wishes to lift that burden by becoming powered), it is almost as if she is measuring her against an ideal like Supergirl. When she shapes herself into a hero, through hard work, her main stumbling point is when she finds out that a masked and anonymous heroine never received the thanks that she deserves. 
Kara struggle is different. She is balancing being a public figure, a well-known and relied on superhero, with living a normal existence under the guise of being a reporter. It is a precarious balance which has had the unfortunate side-effect that through years of her friendship with Lena Luthor (a friendship forged both between Lena and Supergirl and Lena and Kara), she has never been able to bring herself to come out to her best friend. It’s like a classical dilemma of those in the closet: at first, she didn’t tell her because they weren’t that close, and then, when they became close, the moment where it was still appropriate to tell her slipped away from her, up to the point where the friendship between Supergirl and Lena shattered, but the one between Lena and Kara grew even stronger. It’s a terrible situation mostly because so many other people know that Kara is Supergirl, but not one of the most important ones in her life. And it is a situation made even worse by the fact that Lena has been betrayed so many times in her life that the idea of counting among those who have continuously lied to her and gone behind her back weighs on Kara even heavier. 
This conflict that arrives late into the show (which almost lost me during the season in which Kara’s central relationship was meant to be with a romantic interest) feels even more dramatic because the idea of Kara being deceitful and lying about her identity feels so detrimental to who she is as a person otherwise: genuine, honest, loyal. These are also the qualities that Lena loves about her, and why when she realises the betrayal, it becomes so hard for her to forgive it: not just the fact that Kara has done to her what so many other have, but that she may have been wrong about what she loved about her in the first place. 
I find it interesting that the show has taken so long to get to the point where this conflict that has always been in the background of the relationship takes centre-stage. It’s like a build-up, or maybe a newly found focus on a dynamic that provides so much room for interesting stories and character development. It feels like that moment in Warehouse 13 when the show almost realised what it had with Myka and H.G. (only to then pull back, trying to play both sides), or when Halt and Catch Fire admitted that its most interesting relationship was between two women who had been side-lined for most of its first seasons. So in a show that has imagined a fascist United States in which racist mobs terrorise aliens, a show that has found itself again in creating a mirror image of Trump’s America, the most dramatic question asked becomes whether Lena Luthor can forgive Kara Danvers for betraying her, and if she can overcome once again the expectations that her family name raises. I don’t think that Katie McGrath’s performance in the opening episode of the season leaves the option open that she has made up her mind, and is merely toying with Kara now – I think that deep down, finding out that Kara has always been Supergirl has just made her love greater, as much as the secret is hurting her. What if the kindest, truest person you knew was also the person who has saved humanity again and again?

Jessica Jones (2015-2019), created by Melissa Rosenberg, starring Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss. 

Supergirl (2015-), crated by Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti, starring Melissa Benoist, Chyler Leigh, Mehcad Brooks, David Harewood, Katie McGrath, Nicole Maines, Jesse Rath.

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