On this week’s episode of Supergirl, titled “Man of Steel” (but don’t be fooled, it has nothing to do with Superman), it’s essentially a step-by-step guide on the makings of a murderer. While the writing has definitely been tighter this season and the storyline a bit more nuanced, “Man of Steel” has absolutely no subtlety and, although technically outstanding, plays out like a bad take on why an educated family man would turn to extremist behavior.
Now known as Agent Liberty, he was once simply Ben Lockwood, a college professor. His family owned a steel factory, and one that was being threatened after the alien Nth metal is introduced, making the old way of steel-making seem old-fashioned and behind the times. The Lockwoods have a choice to be progressive or be left behind and they clearly aren’t ones for change and would rather blame aliens for their hardships. Ben’s dad, Peter, already an obvious racist and quick to spit out his anti-alien rhetoric where anyone could hear, is angry and joins in on the attack towards the aliens working at the steel factory near them. It isn’t long before a handful of events–from being accidentally stabbed by an alien being harassed by his dad’s coworkers to his family’s home catching on fire during an alien fight involving Martian Manhunter–turn Ben from an average citizen into an unhinged “Earth First” racist.
What Supergirl clearly fails to do is point out that it isn’t simply the sequence of events that makes Ben so bitter and hateful, but that there is something already there inside him that has already had these thoughts and feelings. After all, his dad is an anti-alien conspiracy theorist and Ben’s only “nice” moment consists of him telling his father that he shouldn’t be saying such nonsense in front of Ben’s son. That isn’t what being an ally looks like, nor does Ben ever give the impression that he doesn’t feel the same as his father. He could’ve been a closeted racist, someone who doesn’t think he thinks this way until something directly affects him. Much like the folks who are more offended being called racist than the act of racism itself, Ben falls into this bubble at first and there isn’t much time spent on painting a clear picture of his views before everything really turns sour.
Furthermore, “Man of Steel” feels like a rehash of all the op-eds following Trump’s election. The episode attempts to explain Ben’s decision-making, which is essentially based in racism and makes Agent Liberty seem sympathetic when, in all actuality, his hardships aren’t really an excuse for becoming a genocidal maniac. It’s all too one-sided and there’s really no one throughout most of the episode who opposes his point of view. Should we feel sorry for someone who is clearly only thinking of himself, comparing himself to Native Americans and using the Founding Fathers’ words of all men being created equal when he should know damn well that they meant white men?
It’s hard to take Supergirl seriously in this instance after giving a platform to their anti-alien villain, one who wants all aliens dead and is essentially a white nationalist, when they’ve never given much of a voice to any of their other alien characters and have treated their characters of color so poorly in the past. Last week, Supergirl handled the rising tension and hate with a bit more balance, but it throws that balance out the window in “Man of Steel.” Before any destruction occurs, Ben’s hate begins to rise following the steel company issues. While it isn’t far-fetched because there are many in this country who blame immigrants for their economic struggles, progress and change happens in industries all the time and hating aliens isn’t going to change that.
Technically, “Man of Steel” excels. The episode is very Kara-lite, but the writers handle it well, going back to two years ago and then looping in everyone from Lena to James, Alex and Kara, all of whom cross paths with Ben in some way. At every turn they shut him down, clearly standing their ground even when they don’t know what he would become. They unknowingly fuel his hatred even more, but such is the case when people stand up for the equality of others. It makes racists even more angry that there are people willing to fight for others who don’t look like them. Props should be given to Sam Witwer, who is the driving force behind this episode. Witwer, who’s always been a good actor, really flexes his muscles here. His face is caring for about 0.2 seconds, but Ben’s unraveling is done well acting-wise because of Witwer’s ability to convey so much with his body language and facial expressions.
Perhaps it’s because the episode paralleled our current world far too closely, but “Man of Steel” provides too much of an unbalanced view, with no one to challenge Ben’s ideology (the dean who fires him ends up apologizing to him for his treatment now that she’s struggling, too). There’s also the fact that Ben’s storyline is written in a way that makes it too easy to sympathize with a murderer without the proper backbone. Don’t tell us Ben’s only reasoning to hate aliens is because of things that have personally happened to him; be realistic and say that he’s always felt this way, that the hatred has just been simmering beneath the surface, much like the many who claim they’re not racist, but… even while believing the things they say aren’t that bad. And when Supergirl hasn’t exactly done its best with inclusion or giving voice to aliens who are not Kara in the past, “Man of Steel” is a hard pill to swallow and is executed with almost no nuance.