(Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW)

It’s always a joy to watch a TV show hit its stride and it really feels like Supergirl is doing that in its third season. There have been some filler episodes like “Triggers” and “Midvale,” and there’s yet to be a standout outing the way the first season had “Falling” and the second had “The Adventures Of Supergirl.” But overall Supergirl’s third season has felt refreshingly purposeful about its storytelling, a lot of which comes to a head tonight. The first chunk of the season slowly but confidentially built up to Sam Arias’ transformation into Reign, cult-leader Thomas Coville’s obsession with Kryptonian religion, and Mon-El’s return, all of which are central to this mid-season premiere. Most importantly, “Legion Of Superheroes” continues the third season’s greatest strength: the fact that it has a clear, compelling story it wants to tell about Kara.

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Of course, the episode’s most obvious “holy shit!” moment—at least for comic book fans—is the official introduction of the Legion of Superheroes. And there’s plenty of geeky joy to be gotten from watching Mon-El, Imra, and the newly introduced Brainiac 5 unite their flight rings and suit up for battle. But though the episode is named after them, the Legion don’t overtake the story to the detriment of everything else. As with the introduction of Superman last year, Supergirl is careful to use its big-name superhero additions as supporting characters in Kara’s story.

At first, however, I wasn’t so sure that would be the case. Placing Kara in a “mind prison” while she recovers from her Reign-induced coma seems like an easy way to give Melissa Benoist a bit of a break and let Supergirl’s guest cast take center stage. But Kara’s time in her mind loft has a much more important purpose than just giving Benoist a lighter shooting schedule. It’s about continuing season three’s exploration of Kara’s ongoing identity crisis: Is she an outsider alien or an adopted member of the human race? In a fantastically stylish sequence that calls to mind a similar scene in “Red Faced,” Kara first tries to heat vision blast her way out of her mind prison, desperate to prove to herself that she isn’t afraid. She’s thinking like she did in the mid-season finale, in which she tried to put her human instincts aside and become a cold-blooded alien fighter. But this episode is about Kara realizing that being a mild-mannered reporter isn’t just an act she puts on to fool the world.

(Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW)

Here’s where I reiterate that Supergirl’s backstory is so much more interesting than Superman’s. Watching Kara try to process the reality of having grown up on two very different worlds will never not be fascinating for me and that’s epitomized here in a fantastic monologue in which Kara remembers bonding with a cat during her first few weeks on Earth. “He was a stray too,” Kara tells Brainiac 5 before describing how Streaky helped teach her how to be gentle on a world in which she was suddenly and terrifyingly a physical threat to everyone around her. Streaky helped Kara feel like a human. And in a way she is. She is Kara Danvers, but she’s also Supergirl and Kara Zor-El too. And she needs to embrace all those sides of herself in order to defeat Reign.

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If there’s a weakness to “Legion Of Superheroes” it’s that the dramatic world-in-jeopardy stuff is somewhat inelegantly stitched together with some broad comedy. Yet the comedy itself is so fun to watch that the episode almost gets away with it. The James/Lena rom com remains a little awkward (to be fair, at least part of which is intentional), but it’s nice to see Mehcad Brooks get to be funny for once. And the scene of J’onn impersonating a flu-ridden Kara is so hilarious and so perfectly played by Benoist that it’s hard to fault the episode for shoehorning it in.

Thankfully, the comedic element that works the best is also the one that will be sticking around for a while. Brainiac 5 is the sort of character who could become very annoying, very quickly if pitched in the wrong way. But Jesse Rath finds the perfect balance in bringing to life the half-computer, half-organic Coluan life form with a 12th-level intellect. Stuff that could be cringey, creepy, or just painfully unfunny—like Brainy’s obvious crush on Kara—comes across as sweet and endearing. Like Brent Spiner on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Rath smartly plays up the naiveté rather than the arrogance of his hyper-intelligent character. And a strong script by Derek Simon and Eric Carrasco uses Brainiac 5 well without overusing him.

But perhaps the best synthesis of comedy, drama, and action comes when the Legion gets Reign’s attention by blasting Jon Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer.” It’s silly, it’s exhilarating, and it’s even a little bit moving, given that we learn Bon Jovi is one of the few artistic artifacts Mon-El has brought to a 31st century Earth devoid of culture after a third-degree extinct phenomenon in the year 2455. Although the final showdown isn’t as cinematic as the Reign/Supergirl battle in the midseason-finale, it still feels like a fitting way to temporarily resolve some of the season’s dangling threads. The Legion step up to the plate as 21st century heroes, Supergirl learns to embrace her vulnerabilities as strengths, and Kara comes to terms with where things are with Mon-El. Perhaps most importantly, our first Alex/Kara couch hang-out of 2018 is just as great as all the ones that have come before. As Supergirl continues to find new, compelling elements to weave into this season, it’s nice to see the show hold onto the stuff that’s always worked.

(Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW)

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Stray observations

  • Given that Kara’s only been in her coma for two days, is it still the Christmas season in National City?
  • For those grammar nerds out there: It’s styled “Legion of Super-Heroes” in the comics but “Legion of Superheroes” on Supergirl, which is why I went with the latter spelling in this review.
  • I’m usually okay with the DEO tackling things on their own, but this really felt like a crisis in which they should’ve reached out to Superman for an assist.
  • I know people often use imprecise language to describe nebulous romantic situations, but did James and Kara actually used to date? I feel like they were stuck in an awkward unrequited love scenario until deciding to get together and breakup in the span of two episodes. In fact, part of my problem with the show deciding to split up James and Kara is that we never actually got a chance to see what stories about them being a couple would even look like.
  • Comic book Supergirl has had a large collection of super-powered pets over the years, including Krypto the Superdog, Comet the Superhorse, Beppo the Supermonkey, and, yes, Streaky the Supercat.

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