[Review] Supergirl Episode 4×03: “Man of Steel”

written by Cara Russell and Dayna Abel


I had some high hopes for this episode that have been fully dashed. Within, we find Ben Lockwood – a college professor and son of a steelworks owner named Peter – slide from struggling with balancing his white-collar educated “liberal” life with that of his father’s labor works becoming antiquated in the march of technology towards Nth metal/steel polymers. Peter, like so many others in such lines of work, refuses to consider adapting and instead blames anyone introducing advances in technology – in this case, off-worlders, who staff the Nth metal production facility literally across the street from his own mill.

We’re treated to a number of flashbacks covering the previous two years, tying Ben’s subsequent misfortunes since President Marsdin’s Alien Amnesty Act (which naturalized all off-worlders, giving them American citizenship). This includes the destruction of his home after Martian Manhunter’s fight crash-lands through the roof; appealing to Lena Luthor, who refuses to foot the cost of upgrading Peter Lockwood’s steel mill; meeting with James Olsen over the perceived lack of sympathetic coverage towards humans harmed by superpowered threats; and losing his job due to the stresses coming out in his lectures as the same nationalist rhetoric we see regularly. Ben is deliberately xenophobic towards an alien student, whom he then confronts in a bar only to be rebuffed by Kara, who he treats far differently as a human-passing alien.

Soon afterwards, another aerial spaceship fight over National City causes the family steel mill to catch fire, while Peter intentionally traps himself inside. After he and Ben share some painful last words, where Peter encourages Ben to be the man he “was raised to be”, Ben takes an even sharper turn towards anti-alien hatred. He burns down the Nth metal factory, beats an employee, and becomes a street hawker handing out pamphlets for his particular brand of propaganda.

Ben is approached by his previous university employer, who gives him an apology for firing him, as she now faces some of the same difficulties Ben ran into due to the super-powered issues he had faced. To drive it on home, Ben is then approached by Mercy Graves, who offers him the Agent Liberty armor and an opportunity to further his cause. She instructs Ben to capture local alien bartender Fiona, who we see him murder earlier in the season. A few more flashbacks pass by, showing the “Earth First” rally and the atmospheric Kryptonite infuser which poisons Supergirl, and brings us back into the present.

Alex and Brainiac 5 fail to find a solution for Supergirl, so Alex calls for help from Lena Luthor. Much as Lena and Supergirl tend to be on the outs, Lena comes through with a high-tech suit of armor which protects against further radiation poisoning and looks pretty cool. Meanwhile, in the Lair of Evil, Mercy Graves moves to kill the DEO guard who helped her and Otis escape their lockup. Ben flips out to show he’s the good guy in this situation, insisting that they don’t harm “their own” (other humans), and recruits the guard into helping them infiltrate the DEO headquarters.

I feel like this is a season that needs to be binged once it’s fully over, as this whole thing hurts, and I don’t see it ending in Ben Lockwood suddenly de-radicalizing himself even if he has a moral code. I don’t even know what the message we’re supposed to take away is. I’d also like to know where Ben’s wife and son currently are, especially as his wife discouraged his father and their son from showing anti-alien sentiments. I’m also pretty disappointed this episode is titled “Man of Steel” without any Tyler Hoechlin, though it’s still accurate in the technical sense. A little Superman action would’ve taken the edge off of this unsettling chapter.


* * *

Cara and I had such a great conversation about this week’s Supergirl that I’m going to simply reprint it as my half of the review, with her kind permission, slightly edited for length and proofread.


DAYNA: Well. That was an episode.

CARA: I fucking know, right?

DAYNA: It was exceptionally well-written; I even sympathized with Ben up until he started hurting others. But you start to understand how people can become radicalized.

CARA: Hah, well, I already knew because old fart biker gangs have been doing it in my backyard for decades and it’s been A Thing, but seriously though.

DAYNA: That line about “progress didn’t benefit the Native Americans” hit hard, but he left out the context of “and it was our fault because we almost wiped them out rather than working with them”.

DAYNA: Which is also his point because he only ever sees the pain aliens cause rather than the good because the pain personally affects him and his family.

CARA: Oh for sure, the bit about “who pays for progress?” is amazing, but it got left in the dust fast.

DAYNA: The problem is when people like Ben pass on that pain to others.

DAYNA: I think the scariest part about this episode is how easily you can sympathize with him.

CARA: Yeah, it’s a tale as old as time, and it went hard because Supergirl writers never do anything halfway. It’s just that I can’t empathize with him.

DAYNA: Of course not, but sympathy? Definitely.

CARA: I can’t even sympathize, dipshits who do the whole “us vs. them” thing murder people so lol no.

DAYNA: True, but it forces you to think about where he crossed the line, what you would have done differently, how can we help people like Ben without demonizing and hurting entire races.

CARA: This is a dude I’d curbstomp and the writers are trying to make me have a very different feeling from the audience.

CARA: Er, a very different feeling than what I am capable of.

DAYNA: I think it’s a design flaw of humanity that it’s so hard for us to feel things that don’t personally impact us.

DAYNA: Because of your personal experiences, you have a perspective that I don’t.

CARA: Yeah, but here’s the big flaw in this show’s presentation – there seems to be a setup for a payoff somewhere, and it’s a long-ass season.

DAYNA: That’s all well and good, but the season going meta like this means it’s forgetting it’s fiction. You can only metaphor so hard before you come up against that wall of reality.

DAYNA: It feels like it’s trying to present allegory as literal solution.

CARA: Definite, definite concern.

DAYNA: Like it’s great that you’re trying here, CW, but you can’t say “this is just like reality” when you’re fiction by default.

CARA: I do appreciate that they did show that the constant stream of superpowered issues causes collateral damage.

CARA: And the huge lapse in coverage for the recovery.

DAYNA: But it’s also like “…okay, but what are you offering for answers, because we don’t have Supergirl IRL.”

CARA: Yeah, Lena dropped the ball friggin’ hard. It would’ve been fairly easy for her to help convert the steel mill.

DAYNA: Yeah, L-Corp could definitely incentivize the steel mill, but that’s a business side I’m not familiar with to see how it could be done and retain profit and be cost-effective.

DAYNA: It’s like retraining coal miners to work with solar and wind power, you know?

DAYNA: And I’m not qualified to weigh in on that.

CARA: Yeah, but even if she didn’t cover the costs herself, she could’ve helped with lawyering and lobbying for government grants. Anything besides “it’s your problem that I made my company pivot to a tech that was introduced literally yesterday.”

DAYNA: But the mill was a contractor; it’s not like they were L-Corp employees. Lena would have had a business obligation if she’d owned the mill, but…*shrug* I don’t know.

CARA: It was said LuthorCorp had a long history with them, so it does get extra messy with Lena wanting to distance herself from Lex and his own relationships.

DAYNA: There is no “correct” solution which benefits everyone and I think that’s what’s going to bite this season in the ass.

CARA: Makes me nostalgic for Mon-El dating Kara, and while I appreciate that jerk, I appreciate him more married to Imra.

DAYNA: Nah, I’d rather be thinking too hard than deal with Shitty Boyfriend Drama because come on.

DAYNA: Any show can do that.

CARA: It’s true, but it’s rare when I actually like the boyfriend in any sense!

DAYNA: Season Four looks to be “this is not going to end like you think it will” but I’m still glad they’re digging deep instead of being shallow shit.

DAYNA: “I’m proud that you tried”

CARA: I think we got a glimpse of heel-face-turn; Mercy is definitely going down.

CARA: But it’s also strange the straight-up villain is so…shallow.

DAYNA: To be fair, reality’s bad guys are also cartoonishly evil at the moment.

CARA: Yeah, but they still have clear motives, if just “$profit$”. Mercy’s just got “well I’m evil, here we go, being evil alla’time.”

DAYNA: Nah, Mercy’s just a redhat nativist. Lex is as well, don’t forget. That’s his entire beef with Superman.

DAYNA: Massive egotism mixed with genuine brilliance plus a streak of xenophobia and oh yeah a predilection for murder and sociopathy = Lex Luthor.

DAYNA: I’m not surprised Mercy picked up those traits.

CARA: Or maybe just attracted her to Lex’s side. Sounded like she was violent towards Otis as a kid too.

DAYNA: No wonder she and Lex were bangin’.

DAYNA: I think this is a great season so far, but it’s also severely underqualified for what it’s trying to do.

CARA: For real, and the timing is awful.

DAYNA: Disagree – I think the timing is exactly right. Life influences art influences life, etc.

DAYNA: This wouldn’t have worked ten years ago.

CARA: If the season had started a few weeks earlier, we’d be nearly onto or coming off of a climax instead of this buildup.

CARA: Or a few weeks later, we’d be blissfully unaware of what’s coming up.

DAYNA: I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Either way, at least we’re invested in watching, right?

CARA: I still wish we could just binge it. Fast-forward to the payoff so there’s a little less “OMG the world is awful” tension going on.

DAYNA: You just proved my point. :)

DAYNA: It’s like we all want to fast-forward to 2020 down here. XD

CARA: Ain’t that the truth.

Supergirl airs Sunday nights at 8 Eastern/7 Central on the CW. Cara can be found on Twitter @virtualcara.

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