The unfortunate part is that most Supergirl's vulnerabilities extend from being a "kept" woman. In the comic books, most of her storyline conflicts are about keeping her identity secret. At least in the silver age. Superman's got the same problem but her's are a little more crucial because she's "forbidden" from doing any active superheroing. By Superman (fuck that guy).
Then Supergirl's origins changed dramatically, but to the point where she wasn't really Supergirl anymore. She was Matrix or Power Girl or something. Supergirl's best place is as Superman's female counterpart, so how do you do that without writing Superman with boobs?
Step the First: The Themes
Maybe I'm wrong for starting with this, as good writers say that themes develop from story, not the other way around. But it's so easy to fall into trappings of bygone days that you need some ground rules before you start forming a story, because it is so easy to make a terrible female superhero. Movies need to be about something. The trick is to stay conservative with the themes, not go heavy-handed, and know what to avoid.
What you need to avoid is making Supergirl a strong, independent warrior woman. Supergirl is not Red Sonja or Lara Croft or She-Ra. She's not too aloof or "masculine" to form social relationships (see my evaluation of Emma in "Once Upon a Time"). It's an overused stereotype and it's boring.
Nor is she a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because she's a naive alien (more on the alien thing in a bit). The movie made her this effervescent Madonna, wide-eyed and flowery, like Alice in Wonderland. Problem: Alice is a wimp. She's not proactive, she's reactive. And what we really care about is the setting -- the funny things happening around her. I don't give a shit if she gets out of Wonderland (in fact, I'd prefer if she didn't, so more wackiness can ensue). Alice in Wonderland does not fit with a noble warrior persona. You can't force one story into something so totally different in genre and spirit. That's like forcing A Tale of Two Cities into Batman. Wait a minute...
Buffy might be a good place to start. But Buffy has it's flaws too -- she may be the valley girl suddenly granted the power to beat the nasty back, but she's still a valley girl. Arya Stark might be a good model too. The key here is that I want Supergirl to be a role model that girls can look up to, not some sex fantasy like Starfire. She's the one that inspires women to stand up to the bullies, fight the system. Women need all the role models they can get. We're living in a world where our national leaders forbid you from saying the word "vagina" and believe the female body can detect rape and "shut down".
I swear, I'm going somewhere with this. I want to make sure that Supergirl is not portrayed as "female Superman". Nor as a Superman substitute. Nor as a sex object and nor as an idiot. I want to be sure she's her own person, with personality traits and character. Distinct like Iron Man or Wolverine or Robin. She has friends, she has likes and dislikes, she has problems, she has opinions. She should be a protagonist. Protagonists start from one point and change by the end. And from what point do we start?
Step the Second: The Origin Story
Every good hero has a good origin story that involves crisis of character. Most superhero movies are origin stories, because that vehicle has the most character development and struggle. This one should be no different. You could start Supergirl totally different -- it is a reboot after all. But I'd keep her traditional take-off -- living on a chunk of Krypton floating in space after the planet was destroyed. It's a little bizarre, but so is heat vision and freeze breath if you think about it.
Now obviously, we should use this opportunity to show Kryptonian lifestyle. Ask any joe on the street, he can't tell you a thing about Krypton, besides they used a lot of crystals and wobbly hula hoops instead of handcuffs. It's also important because without context or foundation for Supergirl's former life, everything else falls flat. It certainly falls flat for Superman.
How do we get the plot moving? In the movie, the bubble city suddenly explodes because of... reasons. I say this is an excellent opportunity to bring in our villain. A good villain is intrinsically tied to the hero. Joker and Batman, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, Sarah Connor and the Terminator, Cloud and Sephiroth. Seems a no-brainer to make the villain the person who A) starts the plot B) is attached in some way to Supergirl.
Now we come to a problem. When Superman plops to Earth, he's a baby. His parents have some difficulty raising a toddler that can raise them (pun!), but they manage with good, wholesome American values. Supergirl won't have that.
Supergirl is going to be a teenager ripped away from her home, ending up on a strange planet where no one can communicate with her (come on, you think they speak English on Krypton?). She's going to be really confused, really scared, and really not in control of her powers. She's going to scramble and run away from the scary people who speak in pops and clicks. She might end up hurting people in the process. She doesn't know she can fly or how to fly. She might run away, then start floating and panic.
Somehow, she's got to get stopped, probably by accident (a la Cars) since no one's going to have kryptonite handy. I imagine that she's eventually brought inside, maybe by a woman who appeals to her with chocolate chip cookies (they don't have those on Krypton). Smash cut to her in the kitchen table, intensely studying an abridged dictionary (and eating a plateful of chocolate chip cookies). That's how she learns the language. I figure she can do that in a night -- she's part of advanced alien race.
After that, I'm not sure. Who takes care of her? In the comics, I think she's in an orphanage. Maybe she gets adopted? Maybe the head of the orphanage is one of the villains, who sees her as a potential opportunity to seize power (kinda like Hugo Strange). He coerces her to keep her power secret. That's a bit cliche, but I'm brainstorming here. And through all this, when and what happens when she sees Superman and says "hey, that guy's like me!"
Step the Third: The Villain
Two key items here. One, Supergirl and the villain have to know each other. They have to have a personal relationship on some level (or they get to over the course of the story). I hate Lex Luthor as a villain -- he's such a clown. And if you have an "out-there" villain like in Green Lantern, it falls flat. There's nothing personally at stake for the hero. It should be someone Supergirl knows and knows well. Someone she has to stop to save both the planet and herself.
Second key item, the villain has to tie into the themes of the movie. All stories are about overcoming something, and most superhero stories fit a mold of overcoming an intelligent force representing that thing. Joker represents Batman's possible craziness or the element of chaos while Batman is order. Darth Vader is about the guy who took the wrong path, and the hero's possible fate the same way.
I don't care who it is. It could be her former fiancee. Could be her extremist sister who blew up the city to get Kryptonians moving towards progress again (you tend to stagnate when you're just a city). Maybe it's the Hugo Strange pastiche who got too much power and became dictatorial over everyone (good for a "war on women" expy). Could be someone from Earth who's working to exploit Supergirl (a la The Powerpuff Girls Movie). There's lots of good possibilities.
It's not a fucking witch. It's not a manly-man who wants her for his bride. It's not some generic sicko who licks her cheek and tells her she smells like strawberries.
Step the Fourth: Supergirl's Character Development
This will be a big section, because when you're talking about character development, you're pretty much talking about the whole rest of the movie. So I'll condense to bullet points. Large ones, albeit.
· Supergirl is an alien. There's a fundamental difference between Superman and Supergirl that never gets exploited -- Superman was raised on Earth, so he's basically a human with super powers. Kara Zor-El spent her primary developmental years on Krypton. And if you change that up while she's still growing as a person, you can have a lot of conflict. But you don't want her too young, or you just fall into cloning the Superman story again. Thirteen or so is a good age, I think. That way, when she grows up she's not completely clueless about Earth, but she's still an outsider.
This gives us a great opportunity for some humor, something sorely lacking from most female-audience movies, and certainly female superhero movies. You could have lines like:
SUPERGIRL opens a closet and sees a enough shoes to make Carrie Bradshaw jealous.
Why do you need so many shoes? You only have one pair of feet.
You really ARE an alien, aren't you?
· No fucking kryptonite. It was a cop-out then, it's a cop-out now.
· No rape scene. I bet anything the studios would want to add some kind of scene where she's sexually assaulted to add edginess or tension. I want to take sexuality out of this. There's too many female superheroes who are just sex fantasies in the first place. And there's no more cliche or overused way to show that a strong woman is vulnerable than raping her. No. No. No. That's lazy, that's not creative, it's been done to death. Find another way. (See Seanan McGuire's statement about it).
· Superman has a fortress of solitude, way up in the frozen north, containing nothing but trophies and robot butlers. Do you think that's the kind of place a girl would want to be? It's the ultimate man cave. Supergirl would want to be around people. Moreso because she's a stranger in a strange land. Supergirl is an allegory for going to college -- she has to adapt, she has to make new friends, she has to fit in. And there'll be stumbling blocks along the way.
· Speaking of Superman, have her interact with him. In Supergirl stories, you rarely see them together and they're the last two people of their kind! And they're cousins! Yet she's always Superman's back-up, or his "secret weapon". I say fuck that: let her get down and dirty with the bad guys. There's no reason to let her tinker around with college when she can blast an aircraft carrier in two. The problem is that "cousins" have such an ambiguously defined relationship. Do they have a father-daughter thing? Is he a brother figure? Are they fucking? (They are only two of their species, after all.) Superman should act as her mentor -- advising her on her secret identity, how to blend in, the code of conduct.
· Costuming: It's quite possible to be sexy without being all thrusting boobs and rubbery butt. Look at this cover for Jim C. Hines's Codex Reborn.
She's not twisted in some geometric shape. Her clothes aren't stretched, tattered, or contain less than .05 square inches of fabric. In fact, I'd say go further than this -- don't show any midriff at all. No need to make women feel terrible about their bodies. I might keep the skirt -- it's pretty iconic. Or, you could just scrap the whole thing and give her something completely new.
· How does it end? Well, that depends on what kind of villain we end up with. Personally, I'm not concerned about that. I'm sure it'll be a big special effects hoopla with broken buildings, flying debris, and lots of CG. That's fine. I'm more concerned about the denouement which brings up the question: where does Supergirl go from here? She's pigeonholed into the supposedly weaker half of the population, the one that makes a fraction of the income, has little governmental representation, and has less rights and choices. And you have the powers of a God? What do you do?
It's pretty easy to give Supergirl the choice -- do I use this power to shape this society so it's more fair? That road is dangerous -- absolute power corrupts. Superman turned away from that road. But I say, let Supergirl try and tread that line.
Here's what I envision: There's some minor bad guy who's against some women's issue, like Senator Robert Kelly in X-Men. Someone old and pompous. Maybe it could even be the orphanage director (I'm just throwing shit out there). And Supergirl, in her secret identity as Linda Lee with brunette pigtails, has to set up his podium (because she's in the college A/V club or something), and listen to his speech. Maybe he's a Rush Limbaugh character who just says idiotic things for shock value or to drum up money.
She's spent the entire movie being a human woman, the good and the bad, and she's been dealing with trying not to use her powers or her identity to go apeshit on everyone. She knows there's good men and bad men. But she also knows that it's still a really unfair world, where just being female ups the difficulty at life ("You suck at math" vs. "Girls suck at math").
Then she gets fed up with it. Maybe her roommate pleads with her to take this guy out. And she almost wants to, but she remembers what Superman said. Humans have freedom of speech. They have the right to say whatever they want.
Then when he's done talking, amidst the boos and hisses, she lifts off her wig, comes up behind him, and lifts him up, saying "You may have freedom of speech. But you don't have freedom from the consequences of that speech." And then she flies him to an island or flings him in the ocean or something. Then she takes the mic (she comes back at super speed) takes her wig off and gives her spiel.
"I am Kara Zor-El. I came to this planet from Krypton, etc. etc. My cousin is Superman, etc. etc. I have seen such and such. I can lift a two-ton car, and I like to bake. I can fly faster than the speed of light, but I can't get birth control. I like wearing pink and I like wearing blue. I don't understand make-up, but I like pretty dresses. I can set people on fire with my eyes. I can throw three people gang-raping a girl into jail, but I'll cry in my shower later that night. There are even certain commercials that make me tear up. But it doesn't stop me from going out the next night. And I believe that the chocolate chip cookie is the greatest invention in the universe. My cousin fights for truth, justice, and the American Way. I pledge to you I will fight for that too. But I will fight for everyone. Just because something's legal doesn't make it right. I will do everything in my power to defend the defenseless, to right wrongs, and make people feel safe. My name is Supergirl."
And hell, I might even name her "Superwoman" -- why is Superman a man, but Supergirl is a girl?
I guess my philosophy behind this is this is what I would want my daughters to see. Not Electra or Catwoman. Not Rainbow Brite or Sailor Moon. I'd rather they learn about being a woman outside the context of being validated by a man.
Clearly, I'm no screenwriter. I'm barely an amateur writer. On the other hand, if any Hollywood producers see this and want to shoot me an e-mail, my address, the comment box is right there...