The Flash v. Supergirl
April 27, 2016
Not for real. I would never set Barry and Kara against each other because they are total BFFs. But I want to compare the season 1 finales of each show, because I think they offer a really a great lesson in tension, suspense, and how to maintain those things in fiction.
The lesson: A great way to increase tension in the story is to make sure the main character and the audience are on the same page, pointed in the same direction. A great way to destroy tension is to put the character and audience at odds.
I’ve talked before about the first season finale of The Flash: how an episode that is basically people talking the whole time had me at the edge of my seat, emotionally engaged, and brought enough tension to be nerve-wracking. I think part of how it accomplished this is by keeping Barry and the audience on the same page, asking the same question: Should he travel back in time to save his mother or not? Barry spends the whole episode on that question, and we’re right there with him until he finally pulls the trigger on the action and it all comes to a head and we all learn the answer at the same time.
Now let’s talk about that Supergirl season finale. The big action scene in the last half of the episode had an actual ticking clock, so the tension should have been thick, right? Time’s counting down, only a few minutes left to save the world, yikes! So why were my friends and I yelling at the TV and bored and frustrated? I think it’s because we weren’t on the same page as the characters. We weren’t asking the same questions, we weren’t pointed in the same direction.
The episode: Kara and Alex fight, but Love Conquers All, and Kara goes on TV to tell everyone that Hope saves the day, and Myriad is defeated, except it isn’t because Non and Co. have now set it to destroy the brains of everyone on planet Earth and Kara must dump Non’s HQ into space, which is likely a suicide mission and everyone knows it. So she goes around to tell everyone how much she loves them because she thinks she isn’t coming back, then she fights and kills Non, dumps the thing into space, Alex saves her (yay!), the end, cliffhanger.
Just like The Flash finale, this episode features a whole lot of the main character going around having heartfelt conversations with the most important people in her life. How interesting, I thought, that both these episodes are mostly the main character talking to people. Especially because I think The Flash episode succeeds massively, and the Supergirl episode, well, doesn’t.
The problem? The doomsday clock is already ticking when Supergirl goes around having her heartfelt conversations. This means all I could think about was “Holy shit why are you wasting all this time talking to people, the clock is ticking, Earth is doomed, stop stop stop go fight Non ARGH WHY ARE YOU STILL TALKING.” And then she lies to James about how she really feels again, which is a whole other issue. Then she gets to crashed Fort Roz and it’s the same thing. “Don’t fight Non why are you stopping you have like three minutes left just drop him in a hole and come back for him later ARGH.” This scene that’s supposed to be super tense and exciting was just completely frustrating. Because the character’s goals did not seem to line up with where I thought her goals really should logically have been lined up. She’s wasting time, running down the clock so we can have a nail-biting finish because the plot says she’s supposed to, not because it makes sense.
Why did the Flash episode get away with all the talking? There was no ticking clock. Barry had control of the action, which wouldn’t start until he said so. Him going ahead with the action was the answer to the question we’d been pondering that whole episode, and he could talk as much as he wanted before pulling that trigger and we’d go along with him.
I find it fascinating that the episode with the literal ticking doomsday clock was dull, while the one where the characters spend the whole time talking about whether they should do the thing was so gripping.
I’ve talked about this before, regarding a book I read where the viewpoint character had a Deep Dark Secret that the reader didn’t know about. I believe this was done to increase the tension, to make the reader keep reading in order to find out what the secret is. But this doesn’t actually work, because what really happens is the reader gets so damned frustrated not knowing something that’s a key part of the viewpoint character, that instead of being drawn in, the reader is pushed away. The character has their story — keeping the secret, pursuing goals, doing their thing. And the reader is on a different vector entirely: what’s the secret? The character and reader are at odds. But if the reader just knew what the secret was, then the reader becomes invested in the character’s goal: keeping the secret. Whom can the character trust? Whom will she tell? What will happen if anyone finds out? Those questions will keep us reading much more happily than wondering what the secret is.
I would have been much happier, much more engaged with the story, if Kara had behaved at all logically, and didn’t spend pretty much half of her ticking clock scenario talking while Earth is in danger.
How to fix the pacing on that Supergirl episode: After stopping Myriad (she thinks), she can have those talks with people. “When I thought I’d lost you I felt all these things and want to tell you how much you mean to me,” etc. etc. As these conversations progress, a problem becomes apparent: they all have raging headaches, and they’re getting worse. Kara runs back to HQ, “Something’s very wrong!” Yes, and here’s what it is, we’re all about to explode unless we can get the giant ship into space or something. We have 20 minutes, but our solution might kill you. Doesn’t matter, Kara zooms out to the thing because she only has 18 minutes now. Non and Indigo are there to stop her. She doesn’t immediately confront them — all she has to do is get the thing, right? But they insist on fighting her. So it’s a two-pronged battle, of her trying to get away from them while also trying to get the thing, until she finally stops to kill Non. Clock’s still ticking. Climax and finale ensue. Ta da!
And by the way how is it that Superman is always going into space with no ill effects and for some reason it’s a really big deal whether or not Kara can go into space?