When people discuss Supergirl within the framework of the superhero genre, it’s hard to applaud the show when the clear absence of James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) hovers over it like a shadow. James, who has been on Supergirl since its first season, has been neglected throughout the series’ second season. He began as a photojournalist, friend, and love interest to Melissa Benoist’s title character, but as Supergirl moved to The CW from CBS, there was a noticeable shift. As soon as James was cast aside from being Kara’s primary love interest, his character began to slowly fade into obscurity to the point where he barely ever appears anymore. James’ neglect speaks to a larger problem in Supergirl’s sophomore season and his absence has created an issue in its treatment of a sincere, good-natured, and non-superpowered black male character on a show that has struggled this season with its ideas of heroism, diversity, and healthy relationships.
When Supergirl began, it slowly built up the romantic relationship between James and Kara, but initially went the friends route first. Kara showed romantic interest in James first and, as the title character, rightly put her in the driver’s seat of her own potential love story. The pair’s interactions were sweet and genuine; they were always happy to see each other and James was always there to lend an ear, offer advice, and be supportive of Kara as a hero and, more importantly, as a person. For example, in the episode “Bizzaro,” James says that he loves Kara “because of who she is. Because she’s kind and she always tries to do the right thing.”
Throughout all the crazy happenings in National City, James was one of characters who helped keep Kara grounded. In the episode “You Make Me Better,” Kara thanks James for “pushing” her to “do the right thing” and tells him that he makes her “a better hero.” It was obvious the show was laying the groundwork for a romantic relationship to happen later on, with Kara overtly smitten with James and him also taken with her. The buildup wasn’t perfect (it almost never is), but it was easy to see that their friendship was at its core. Besides being one of two romantic leads, James served as a connection to the outside world and to Kara’s absent cousin, Clark Kent.
However, in the final moments of the season two premiere, and merely one day after James and Kara shared their first real kiss and were to go on their first date, Kara decided they should just be friends and that she wanted to simply focus on developing herself. The decision was abrupt and made no sense given that the first season was spent building up their relationship. James, kindly and without question, agrees to not move forward with their relationship and it’s never brought up again. Not long after, the introduction of Mon-El (Chris Wood), an alien from Krypton’s neighboring planet, would go on to prove the show wasn’t really interested in developing Kara at all, and so began James’ descent into the sidelines.
Stripped of his title as the romantic male lead, Supergirl tried to make up for the lack of romance with James by giving him his own superhero story. By becoming the Guardian (and the new boss at CatCo, a place which has also been neglected), James suddenly felt like he had a purpose. He became National City’s very own vigilante, complete with a suit and Winn (Jeremy Jordan) as a sidekick. It wasn’t the most inspired storyline the show could have given him knowing the journalistic possibilities, but it was something. However, what the writers have done by turning James–a regular, normal human being–into a vigilante, is strip Supergirl of the very human factor that it possessed throughout its first season. The Guardian storyline wasn’t a problem because James wanted it, but because the writers (and later Kara herself) made clear that if you weren’t in a suit or possessed superpowers, then you weren’t really a hero. Despite the storyline’s issues, it had a lot of potential for James, but it was packed away, rarely to be mentioned.
Mon-El’s introduction and subsequent hijacking of the show’s time and energy has been a big part of James’ decreased presence, and it’s not hard to see why. Supergirl, by poorly writing off the James/Kara relationship and then quickly jumping into a Kara/Mon-El romance, made this statement: that the show values an arrogant, former slave-owning, pretentious white man over a kind-hearted, well-meaning, black man. Kara dropping James for a man who constantly disrespects her goes against her character and some of the ideals the show’s creators tried to build. For example, when Kara tells Mon-El to keep their relationship a secret for the time being, he immediately goes against her wishes and tells everyone anyway. He encourages her to not be a hero, to stay out of trouble and he uses his feelings for Kara as an excuse for his bad behavior (see: the entire “Mr. Mxyzptlk” episode) and says she isn’t “selfless” and is only a hero for the attention.
Executive producer Andrew Kreisberg promised that the focus would be more on Kara and not Supergirl, but that hasn’t been the case. “We realized that the best scenes between [Kara and James] were just the nice, sweet scenes where they were being friends,” Kreisberg says, but we’ve been sadly deprived of this friendship despite the promise to carry on with that aspect of their relationship. I would argue that had the show continued with Kara and James’ romance, it would have truly allowed Kara to separate her dual identities, while continuing to grow as a woman learning to balance work, love, and her extracurricular activities as Supergirl. Aside from being a love interest, James was also Kara’s friend, always rooting for her, and the writers could have kept their friendship afloat. It would have also maintained James’ role as the lead supporting character, photojournalist, and connection to daily life in National City.
James is an important character because he is one of the characters who represents a non-superpowered hero of the show. As a photojournalist, he put his life on the line in a different way than Kara does. Even as the Guardian, he does the same thing and has the best of intentions, which is to help people. He also represented one-half of a potential biracial relationship that would have been based on a healthy friendship. Not once does he demean Kara, talk down to her, or make her feel bad for being Supergirl and his character is also not built upon a stereotype. But Supergirl’s second season has done a complete three-sixty and has practically erased all of these qualities, the friendship, the romance, and the hope that a superhero show could write a male character without falling back into outdated alpha male behavior.
One article declared Supergirl as the most progressive show on TV right now and cited its diversity as one of its strengths. But diversity isn’t just making sure you have enough minority characters hanging out in the background; it doesn’t mean anything if characters like James don’t have anything substantial to work with in order to grow and develop. The writers completely ignoring James’ existence doesn’t speak well to this so-called progressiveness. How can one take the over-arching alien storyline seriously if the show overlooks one of its main characters and doesn’t make better use of its other resident alien, J’onn J’onzz (David Harewood), who serves as a part of two minorities, an alien and a black man? How can the show be a part of the conversation about diversity if it continues to favor a recurring white male character over the leading black male character?
And while Mon-El’s presence plays a big part in James’ diminished screen time, there are also other factors at play. For one, it doesn’t seem like the writers even care about including him in anything that is happening, whether at Kara’s former place of employment, at the DEO, or as part of the larger season two plot. It’s most concerning that they can’t be imaginative enough to include him in group scenes. Even between James and Winn, who have both been there for Kara from the beginning, it’s not hard to see who the writers favor and care for. In comparison, Winn is given a position with the DEO, has a role as James’ tech-savvy sidekick, and has even been given his own love interest in the second half of season two. Meanwhile, James has been noticeably absent for several episodes, never appears in the DEO scenes, and when the gang hangs out at the bar, he’s either barely there or barely speaks. He has appeared briefly as of late, but only to offer love advice to Winn and to play a board game in Kara’s apartment. This is appalling given that even guest stars, like Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima), have been developed more this season than he has.
Another problem is how the show, specifically in the episode “We Can Be Heroes,” has handled the storyline regarding what it means and takes to be a hero. For Kara, it means helping people, doing what’s right, seeking justice and protecting the citizens of National City. To her, this is what it means to be a hero. Unsurprisingly, James believes in these same things, but after Kara finds out he’s the Guardian, she becomes angry. Being angry for being lied to is a good and justified reason, and James lied to her about his identity, yes. However, Kara is more upset that he’s risking his life and thinks that not having superpowers means he’ll always be in harm’s way. She basically says that Mon-El can be a hero because he’s got powers (which makes no sense given that Supergirl has battled with non-superpowered people before in the crossover episode, “Invasion!”), even though her and James’ motivations are far more aligned.
“You are never going to be strong enough for this,” Kara tells James. This episode further alienated James and cut holes into his friendship with Kara. They get back on track later, but instead of Kara supporting James, like he’s done for her so many times in the past, she looks down on the motivations behind his heroism. Kara, and Supergirl by extension, are saying that James isn’t good enough to be a hero despite his genuine desire to help people. He’s not good enough as a hero, or as a friend, and not as a romantic partner. James is given a stern talking to for trying to help, but Mon-El is excused for his recklessness, his terrible motives, and flippant behavior. There is a double standard in the treatment of James and Mon-El and it’s especially glaring in situations such as this and it continues to be a problem on the show.
James may be a casualty of a season that started off strong enough, but has since lost its way. However, it’s disheartening and extremely concerning that a character who had such a great presence in season one has been left behind and not spared a single thought. Would it be difficult to include him in scenes with the rest of the cast? When Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) was the head of CatCo in Supergirl’s first season, she appeared in every episode and always interacted with Kara. James, who has since taken her place as the head of the media organization, can’t be offered the same treatment?
Just because he is no longer a romantic interest doesn’t mean that the show should have scaled back on his and Kara’s friendship. James’ absence has been a hard pill to swallow and one that says a lot about which characters Supergirl really cares about. As it stands, the writers and showrunners have played their cards and the result is that they would rather have Kara interacting with someone toxic like Mon-El, while James sits on the sidelines, his Guardian helmet weighed down by dust from misuse and his chances at regaining his status on the show practically lost to the echoes of a not so distant past.