Or, Why The Guardian Leaves Me Cold. And Frustrated.
When the news first leaked that James Olsen would be taking up a superhero mantle, I was excited. There was so much narrative potential. Kara and James teaming up as a way to work through any lingering frustration over the breakup, or a renewed kindling of their relationship seemed likely trajectories. That and James getting a chance to be more than a sidekick while also keeping his day job at CatCo. He and Kara could talk about work-life balance; they would use their superhero identities to fight crime both the streets and in the media. Epic Team Up. A literal Super-Power(ed) Couple. I was so ready.
But what we got paled in comparison to my expectations. James hid his identity from the one person who might understand. He lies to her face and roped in one of her best friends to aid him. He is more concerned with his own ego than using his new job at CatCo for good. And somehow we’re supposed to be cheering for him. At least I think we are. But why?
As the Guardian, James perpetuates the kinds of stereotypes that his one-time girlfriend Lucy’s Dad, general lane, hated most about alien superheroes: they work outside the law, are unpredictable, and play on an unequal playing field with non-powered up humans. Aliens are superweapons, in Lane’s mentality, and one ought to either control them or destroy them before they destroy you.
James has become the thing the show has consistently avoided with Kara: the lone wolf vigilante. Winn is the Alfred to Jame’s vigilante facade, but that does not make him any less of a Batman or Superman type hero. The family motto Kara turned into her superhero creed—”Stronger Together”—has been left by the wayside. By making himself a vigilante working outside the law—something Kara has consistently chosen to avoid, even if she has her moment of backsliding with Lord—James has become what General Lane, and Kara herself, dislike most about lone wolf superheroes. Kara has chided her cousin for working outside the law when she chose to work with it. James knows Kara’s distaste for working outside the law yet he insistently believes she will accept his choice without protest. Even after she’s expressed her dislike for what the Guardian is doing to his face.
His arrogance this season astounds me. Heroes don’t proclaim themselves, and you’re not a hero because you put on a suit and kick ass. Cat Grant made that crystal clear last season as it was a central part of the show’s early messaging. Despite my concern for Alex’s drinking in the Thanksgiving episode, I was grateful for her taking James and Winn to task for their choices. Because the Guardian is not an improvement, to me. It’s a betrayal of everything Kara, and the show itself, has stood for since she first took up cape and boots to help people.
Kara consciously chose to create a team rather than go it alone; The Guardian, on the other hand, flies solo with only his guy in a van to help him. From their conversations, we know James brought Winn on board because he needs his help rather than because he has an inherent sense of teamwork. James also seems far more concerned with making a name for himself than actually helping people. He chose to go after big name baddies right off the bat, and this is after he helped Kara learn how to become a hero herself. He helped her start from the bottom as a hero last season, so the choice to have him begin his hero journey taking out the big fish implies, intentionally or not, that James is above such things as saving pet
kittens snakes and stopping fires.
His choice to go after Cadmus put people in danger. Yes, he helped take out Parasite, but he also caused a building to partially collapse and almost got the people inside killed. Instead of questioning his choices or going for smaller targets to help him get his bearings, he continues to go after the high risk (and therefore high reward in marketing himself) targets. With his lack of experience and overall diminished power, he is more of a risk than a help to Supergirl, as we’ve already seen.
The Guardian’s Toxic Masculinity
Yet even if he were more of an equal in power and ability, it would not erase the damage to James’ character that The Guardian subplot has created. I assume we’re meant to perceive The Guardian as James Olsen’s reaction to a new job and the girl he spent all of season 1 pining over breaking up with him after they’d been together for five minutes. Oh, and losing the artifact of his career path that’s also the last piece of connection to his father that he had. He’s had a hell of a life transition, just like Kara has this season.
Kara has thrown herself into the DEO: taking out Cadmus and trying to save Jeremiah and National City. Her reporter job has taken a back seat the past several episodes, but we can assume she’s taking that seriously as well. She has gone through a lot of trauma since she first graced our screens in season 1 and her coping mechanism has been helping people and punching things too. James’ reaction, therefore, is not entirely different. They’re coping. As my friend and fellow Supergirl reviewer puts it Elizabeth puts it,
“Conquering cognitive dissonance is hard and time consuming: punching things is fast and easy.”
One of the main differences is that Kara has an already established trajectory as a hero prior to her trauma. She became a hero because she was born with a specific set of skills that became apparent once she landed on Earth. She has an innate desire to help others and her hero turn is framed as a recognition of a preexisting ‘condition’ (i.e., being a superpowered alien) rather than a response to trauma or stress. You can be a hero without superpowers, as Kara continually insists to others. She just happens to have superpowers and is going to use them to serve humanity.
James, on the other hand, while he has a desire to help others—hence his work in investigative journalism—was neither born with superpower nor has he manifested a desire to become a superhero himself prior to his life spiraling in a new direction. Kara talks about him already being a hero. He is a good person who cares about others, which is what makes a true hero. And in S1, this was all James needed. But instead of tackling his emotional turmoil head on or focusing on the new, potentially life changing, opportunity he’s been handed to him as head of the most influential media company in National City, he’s punching things.
James’ Wasted Potential
I’m not saying that someone who doesn’t have superpowers can’t be a hero. Just look at Alex, or Maggie, or Cat. Yes, let’s look at Cat Grant, the woman whose main arc in season 1 was that you can be a hero without punching things. Heading up an influential media company that influences the way people navigate their environment and think about themselves and others made her a hero. Kara even tells her so in the finale.
James was handed this exact same platform. He was given the chance to become the hero Cat Grant was. And as a man of color. He took one look at it and balked. When it got hard to navigate, he ran away. Rather than face down Snapper’s bids for control over him and prove himself to be capable, he let Snapper take over and chose to become the Guardian instead.
He could be spearheading a media campaign via CatCo to root out Lillian Luthor as head of Cadmus. He could be encouraging the frightened people of National City after Lillian’s failed attempt at alien genocide. (Red dust raining from the sky? You bet people would be concerned). He could be championing alien amnesty and rights. He’s the head of CatCo after all. Even if Snapper questions his neutrality so what? Cat wasn’t neutral. He could have Snapper in his place and done his goddamn job to help like Cat did. Instead, James has sacrificed real influence, real power, and the opportunity to become a true hero.
And for what? A lead suit and the ability to punch people really hard. This is neither a fair trade nor a compelling character arc. Hell, it’s not even character development. It’s avoidance. James is avoiding the emotional turmoil that getting a promotion, being broken up, and losing his dad’s camera with stirred up by hitting people. Sure, they’re bad guys, but he’s still externalizing his struggles rather than actually facing them, and I think it’s a waste of a potentially fascinating story line and a waste of his character.
It’s also a confirmation of the toxically masculine idea that men choose violence to cope with emotion because feeling things makes them weak. Perhaps this was an unintentional side effect of the new plot direction. On a Doylist level, I understand the desire not to sideline James. The plot this season has increasingly focused on the DEO and Cadmus rather than on CatCo, so perhaps all the writers wanted was to make sure James stayed in on the action and wasn’t left behind. I get that. I appreciate that.
The Guardian ≠ James Olsen
But I cannot ignore the unfortunate implications of the Guardian plotline on the Watsonian level. James is avoiding his feelings. James is buying into the toxic idea that being a lone wolf and hitting people is what makes you a hero. He’s lying to Kara and betraying the ideals she stands for, yet only the first part is depicted as in any way problematic by the narrative thus far.
Gone is the James Olsen who talked openly with Kara about the need to sublimate his anger to save face in a society that is prejudiced against and fearful of the Angry Black Male. Gone is the James who sought to help people with his camera and his mind rather than use his physicality to intimidate. One of the things I loved most about season 1 James is the contrast between his obviously strong musculature and the gentleness with which he interacted with everyone. He had his flaws, don’t get me wrong. I’m still upset about him asking Kara if he could out her secret to Lucy (especially because of the LGBT coded nature of being a superhero on this show).
He’s not a perfect person by any means, but he’s also not a violent one. He was subversive in so many ways in season 1 and he’s lost almost every facet of that this season. Being the center of a love triangle that includes the female protagonist (who is white) is exceedingly rare for a black man. Now he’s not a love interest at all. (I don’t even want to talk about how angry I am that Mon El, generic white bread CW male character, has supplanted him and all it’s Problematic ImplicationsTM. I mean, I do, but that’s a whole other article. Suffice to say, I’m not happy.) He was a strong, physically dominant man who did not use his physicality to hurt or intimidate people, but now he does both. He was a sensitive, thoughtful person more concerned with using his mind and artistic skills to help people; now, he dons a suit of armor and fights baddies. Last season, he was a ground breaking character; this season, he’s a stereotype.
These aren’t inherently bad choices for a character to make (though a bit tired and potentially problematic based on how the toxic masculinity is handled). My point is that they’re poor choices for James Olsen to make. The Guardian undermines everything subversive about James from the first season of Supegirl without any sign that this is supposed to be problematic. Other than him lying to Kara, we’re supposed to be cheering for him. We’re supposed to be rooting for him to tell her and them to team up.
And I can’t do that. Because this is not the James Olsen I grew to love and cheer for in season 1. This is not the James Olsen I wanted to see dating Kara. This is someone else who uses his name and face, but is actually a much diminished echo of his former self.
I love James Olsen, and I want him back please. He deserves better than The Guardian.