Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A chilling Supergirl traces the path of xenophobic radicalization

Illustration for article titled A chilling Supergirl traces the path of xenophobic radicalization
Photo: Bettina Strauss (The CW)

On its surface, the cheekily titled episode “Man Of Steel” seems like a familiar superhero story: A sympathetic guy is turned into a supervillain after our hero accidentally makes his life worse and/or inadvertently leads to the death of a beloved family member. At a glance, it’s easy to see the story of Ben Lockwood (a.k.a. the man behind the Agent Liberty mask) as just another riff on Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight or Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming or Loki in Thor. But I don’t think “Man Of Steel” is actually trying to tell a sympathetic villain origin story. I think it’s trying to tell a wholly unsympathetic story about the terrifyingly swift way people can be radicalized as soon as they start to give into the toxic worldview that sees members of a minority group not as individuals, but as a unified mass. “Man Of Steel” plays slightly differently whether or not you know going in that it’s an origin story for Agent Liberty (the episode tries to play that reveal close to the vest). But regardless, it’s an effective look at the slippery slope from xenophobic rhetoric to outright violence.


Like the opening of Batman V Superman, “Man Of Steel” jumps backwards in time to offer a street-level perspective on what it’s been like for National City residents since Supergirl revealed herself to the public. The episode opens two years ago, shortly after Kara gave her rousing speech to stop Myriad and around the time President Marsdin signed the Alien Amnesty Act. Ben’s dad Peter is an overt alien-hater who spends his days railing against the privileges aliens receive over human beings. Ben, however, is a much more liberal-minded college professor who tries to remind his dad that the past isn’t something to cling to, it’s something to learn from. As Ben starts to find his life personally impacted by aliens, however, it’s not long before he’s parroting his dad’s prejudiced worldview.

While discussing how Supergirl is crafting this analogy-heavy season, it’s worth pointing out that the show’s exploration of anti-alien prejudice isn’t a perfect metaphor for real-world anti-immigrant prejudice. For instance, Ben is harmed by an alien who has an uncontrollable biological defense mechanism that causes him to shoot spikes when he feels threatened. The aliens in Supergirl’s world do have special abilities and strengths for which there’s no parallel in our real world, where hatred of immigrants is solely based on racism, xenophobia, and misinformation. But—as I always have to remind myself—it’s okay for genre storytelling to play around in a metaphorical sandbox without presenting a one-to-one analogy. It only becomes a problem when genre shows don’t realize that’s what they’re doing, and strain to draw imperfect metaphors where they don’t fit. After a string of solid episodes, I’m going to give the Supergirl writers credit that they realize they’ve created a situation related to yet distinct from our own, but that’s definitely something to keep an eye on this season.

That being said, I do think there’s a particular danger of the intentions of this episode being misunderstood. The details about Lockwood Steel going under or Ben’s complaints that the mainstream news isn’t reporting the full story could play into false “economic anxiety” narratives about why people are drawn to far-right hate groups. But there’s nuance in the details of this episode that paint a more complex picture. Peter doesn’t just suffer because of an unlucky job market, he suffers because he actively refuses to adapt his business to fit the times, despite being advised to do so. His economic troubles are a self-fulfilling prophecy brought on by his own inaction. That’s also true of his death, which occurs during Reign’s attack on the city in the third season finale. As Peter tells Ben when his son finds him trapped under a beam, he specifically went to the dangerous abandoned steel factory because he wanted to die in his “home.” Though Ben will later imply that aliens sent his dad to “an early grave,” he elides the fact that Peter played a big part in his own death by once again clinging to the past and refusing to think practically.

In other words, although the episode wants us to understand why Ben thinks his grievances are legitimate, I don’t think it’s ever on his side. And even when Ben is dealing with legitimate concerns—like the fact that his house was destroyed when J’onn was fighting a Daxamite—the episode is critical of the way he takes the actions of a few aliens and turns them into justification for a blanket anti-alien stance. Lena and James push back on Ben’s point of view with reasonable responses, but he isn’t willing to listen to them because he’s already mentally categorized himself as a victim of history. His increasingly unhinged lectures (at one point he compares his plight to the plight of Native Americans being massacred by European settlers) demonstrate Ben’s devolution into radicalism. Yet as a well-educated man with a knack for public speaker, Ben is able to make bad faith arguments that sound like legitimate ones, which is another terrifying parallel for our real world.

I’ve noted many times that Supergirl isn’t a subtle shows and in many ways “Man Of Steel” isn’t a subtle episode (that Ben could start so open-minded and fall into terrorism so quickly does strain belief). But writers Rob Wright and Derek Simon find a huge amount of specificity in Ben’s downfall, and Sam Witwer turns in a fantastic performance that realistically captures Ben’s path to radicalization. The way Ben responds to criticism of his xenophobic lectures by caustically blaming “millenials” who don’t want to listen to other points of view is frighteningly realistic in its language, as is the scene in which Ben confronts his alien student after being fired. (In yet another instance of Ben making his own fate, we learn he was given multiple warnings to stop his radical lectures, yet refused to listen to any of them.) On paper, the line, “Did you tattle on me, snowflake?” might seem like a cheap nod to our current political climate, but the way Witwer snarls it at his alien student taps into a specific vein of male anger in a way I found genuinely terrifying. In his iron mask and body armor, Agent Liberty looks like any other Supergirl villain. But the man behind the mask just might be the scariest villain the show has introduced yet.


Stray observations

  • This Ben-centric episode was a smart way to give the main cast a bit of break while ensuring we see enough of them that it still feels like an episode of Supergirl. We’ll have to see if Supergirl’s new face-hiding anti-Kryptonite suit (which I’m assuming was also a work-around for Melissa Benoist’s busy schedule) is as effective.
  • Oh, yeah, also the ENTIRE EARTH was instantaneously irradiated with Kryptonite at the end of last week’s episode.
  • We get relatively little present-day storytelling in this episode, but there’s great tension in the opening scene in which J’onn saves Kara from falling, as well as in the final scene where Alex calls Lena to help her save Supergirl.
  • It was a lot of fun to watch Supergirl comb through its own history and to get a quick glimpse of Cat Grant. I can’t remember if that’s how her press conference footage originally played out or if that was new (unused?) footage.
  • Another terrifying detail of the episode: The way Ben’s son George parrots his grandpa’s anti-alien slurs and then claims it’s no big deal because he hears them all the time at school.
  • As campier villains, Mercy and Otis feel kind of out of place in this more grounded episode, but I did enjoy Mercy telling Ben that he had a gift for public speaking like “Roosevelt or Mussolini.”

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.