Greg Berlanti on 'Supergirl': 'People Want a Female Superhero'

Showrunner on bringing the comic-book character to TV and 'Arrow/Flash' crossover potential

Melissa Benoist in 'Supergirl.' Credit: Darren Michaels/CBS

Debuting October 26th on CBS, Supergirl is the first bona fide female superhero show to hit primetime TV since Wonder Woman went off the air in 1979. (No, Buffy doesn't quite count) So showrunner Greg Berlanti felt a considerable responsibility to make it fly. It helps, of course, that Melissa Benoist, formerly of Glee, is an effervescent, unexpectedly amusing presence as Superman's cousin, Kara Zor-El – think Annie Hall in a cape.

Berlanti mastered teen-friendly humanistic drama as a writer for Dawson's Creek (where both Chris Pratt and Emily VanCamp got their starts) and the creator of Everwood, and later became DC Comics' go-to TV guy with the CW hits Arrow and The Flash – the latter show's bright, anti-Man of Steel tone in particular seems to be a model for Supergirl. Berlanti took a break from his various writers' rooms long enough to explain how this new show came together.

How did your connection with DC Comics begin?
Green Lantern: I pitched them a bunch of stories, [for] a series of films for Green Lantern, and they liked that very much. I wrote a draft with one of the writers that I do Arrow with, Mark Guggenheim, and another writer that has since gone off to do a bunch of other super hero stuff, named Michael Green — all three worked on it together. It was subsequently re-written and what they used for the movie was different than our version, but from there I developed a relationship with DC. So when I came back to my deal here at Warner Brothers four or five years ago, they said, "Which of the characters do you think would make a good TV show?" And I said, "I'd like to do an origin story of Green Arrow." It unfurled from there.

To what extent did you grow up as a DC fan?
I was a DC fan; The Flash was always my favorite character. He was sort of the most average guy amongst all of these icons, even though he had super speed, you know? And he sort of felt the way I did about those other people, like, "Wow! Isn't it really cool to hang out with Superman and Batman?"

When you were working on Everwood, and before that, Dawson's Creek, were you itching to get at some genre stuff?
We did a show at the time called Jack and Bobby, and a lot of writers on that liked comic books. In a way, that show was an origin story of the president; I was realizing, "Oh, I like to use heart and emotion, but put it into these kind of stories, and I'd love to return to my roots." So I went and met on a bunch of those films that everybody was trying to get off the ground at the time — before there was, you know, the super hero-palooza that's happening now.

How did Supergirl appear on your radar?
We had a general state of the union meeting with the studio, and mentioned a couple of other DC properties. Susan Rovner, who's the executive vice president and president of Warner Horizon Scripted Television, just kept saying, "Supergirl, Supergirl, Supergirl — how would you do it?" I said, "Well, I wouldn't do it small, and I wouldn't do it just for young people. I would try to do it for everyone." That "S" was the most famous letter in the superhero alphabet, you know?

In my mind, it had a lot of possibility to be a big, broad show. So we added the workplace element and the adult sibling relationships. We made her not 17 but 24, and really just took a lot of the Superman/Supergirl mythology and lore, and put it into a show – what we thought would work for today's audience.

How did you feel when you saw the Black Widow parody on Saturday Night Live, which might have superficially resembled where you were going?
I always laugh because we specifically constructed a story where we paid no attention to gender. You could cut a version of The Flash trailer that was the same thing [as the SNL sketch]. One thing I kind of got from watching the spoof was: People want a female superhero. I hear it even more than I thought I would have. So there's going to be a lot of talk about, are we focusing too much on romance or not enough on action? Or whatever, because it's a woman. But the truth is we have just as much action in this show, if not more, than we have on any of our male superhero shows. It's an action show that happens to have a female lead.

As with The Flash, you seem to be pushing the possibilities of movie-style visual effects on TV.
With a lot of preplanning — and blood, sweat, and tears — you can do it. Armen Kevorkian is our visual effects supervisor across all the shows, and we have a system in place where we start talking about the sequences months in advance – even before we write the episodes sometimes. We built Grodd [The Flash's talking CGI gorilla] for an entire year, and we have a character like that we're building for Supergirl that we're starting well in advance? I mean, that plane sequence in the pilot? We worked on that months before we had our Kara locked down.

Before you even cast Melissa, how did you get a sense who this person was?
We just sat in a room and talked a lot about what would be Kara's journey, what would we like to see her struggling with over the course of the season and the series. I think one of the real essential things that we boiled down is that she knew and remembered what Krypton was like. She was there. She lost the whole planet. The other thing that really came up a lot that was the idea that young women feel as though they have to hide some part of themselves in the world. Why can't they be as encouraged as young boys are to be everything that they can be? To be strong?

And we knew we wanted to have someone that really represented Supergirl very much in the same way that Christopher Reeve represented Superman to us back in the day. The original Richard Donner Superman films were a touchstone for us – this sense of optimism and hope, that you could have a hero with a smile and charm without necessarily that meaning the show had to feel soft or that there weren't stakes.

Seeing Melissa interact with Girl Scouts, you must have realized…
What it means to people, yeah. That's probably also why we feel even more pressure, and that there's going to be a certain amount of scrutiny. But when we decide what Kara's going to do, or when she gets punched or punches back, it's the same as Arrow or Flash. We don't change it, we don't switch it based on gender ever. And it's going to be just as rewarding when dads come up and tell me that they watch Supergirl with their sons and that they're just as excited by it as when they watch The Flash.

Melissa did say she went through 10 auditions.
That's quite possible [laughs]. I think there was a real vetting process on everybody's part, because the most important thing on a show like this is the actress playing it. But since we called her and said, "You got the part," everyone's been like, "Oh my god, thank God we all made that decision." During her first audition, I just found myself giggling uncontrollably. And that's how I still feel about Melissa when I watch her perform; it just makes me smile, you know.

How did you get the idea of having Superman as a sort off-stage presence?
Thank god for a show like Veep because in the pitches, we told everybody, yeah, it's just like Veep right? You know, where's the president? You realize you're more interested in her story. But Supergirl existed in the universe where Superman existed, so we wanted to honor that.

And why Jimmy Olsen as a potential love interest?
We like that he invokes Superman in his own way. If Jimmy Olsen ever grew up, well, of course he'd grow up to be like Clark Kent — the same kindness, same heart, and same affability, but the same strength too.

In your mind, is this its own universe, unconnected to anything else?
Right now it has to be. In our heads, we're not going to connect the movies, because our Superman has done different things than what's been established in the films, so we're not thinking about it that way. In terms of Arrow and Flash...you know, we've never mentioned that there was a Superman in that world. And obviously he exists on this show so, I don't know. We'd kind of figure ways to get around that. It's very much it's own universe.

How do you make sure you don't fall into the monster-of-the-week trap?
We do have close-ended stories based around villains. There are ongoing mythologies weaved through. And then sometimes, yeah, there's going to be the monster-of-the-week case and I do think that that helps in terms of people being able to jump in as viewers. But the bigger overarching stories for the characters – their own personal mythologies and the mythologies of the universe that we're building – are ultimately the things that interest people the most.