In “Changing,” the sixth episode of Supergirl’s second season, James Olsen’s thirst for heroism is finally slaked when he assumes the mantle of Guardian. While the often-neglected photojournalist turned CEO is in need of a well-written multi-episode story arc, this path of vigilantism that he is so eager to sprint down could very well lead to his death.
In the previous episode, “Crossfire,” after learning of James’ desire to don a mask and become a super friend, Winn, being the level-headed genius that he is, made it clear to James that death is an extremely real outcome of crimefighting.
Still, for all of Winn’s initial protests, his words in the first half of “Changing” are incongruous with his actions in the second. Early in the episode, Winn informed an angry James that he isn’t the “assistant” or the “IT guy” and that he wouldn’t allow James to go into battle until the suit is ready. It’s a powerful moment for a guy who, much like James, hasn’t always felt fulfilled in his work or powerful in the company of superheroic aliens. And it showed Winn’s continued discomfort with James’ plan and his dedication to keeping him safe.
Yet, near the episode’s climax, after Supergirl is severely injured by Parasite, James looks over his shoulder and tells Winn, “We can’t wait any longer.” Winn then unveils a fully operational Guardian suit, which was supposedly unfinished just hours earlier. While Winn obviously still has misgivings about James risking his life, it’s equally obvious that the series is intent on turning James into Guardian as quickly as possible.
The question is, why the rush?
Yes, the series has sowed the seeds of James’ insecurity about being a sidekick since the pilot episode. He left Metropolis to “expand his horizons” and to escape the notoriety of being Superman’s pal. In season one’s “World’s Finest,” he seems especially downtrodden not only because he sees Barry as a romantic rival but also because he can’t help Supergirl in ways that The Flash can. So James’ desire to be more than a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist is fairly well-documented.
My whole life I’ve been a sidekick. I have hidden behind my camera while my best friends wear capes and they’re heroes and they save people. And I want to do something good for the world, and I feel like I’ve waited too long already.
But wanting to be more than a sidekick and wanting to be a vigilante aren’t synonymous. And “Crossfire” is the first time James has voiced his desire to be a costumed crimefighter. In that episode, he goes out in a sweatsuit armed with a baseball bat and black belt-level skills in an unspecified martial art. Then, just one week later, he is fully outfitted as Guardian. (This swift progression from civilian to vigilante would surely make the season five #TeamArrow recruits, who are constantly being told that they aren’t skilled enough to fight crime on their own, olive green with envy.)
Supergirl’s desire to accelerate James’ evolution from rookie vigilante to hardened crimefighter is understandable. As Arrow’s Laurel, The Flash’s Iris, and Gotham’s Barbara know well, being the hero’s love interest, or former love interest, can often mean being kept in the dark, receiving little screen time or being mired in muddled, pointless plots.
Fortunately for James, he knew Kara’s secret from the very beginning of her adventures as Supergirl, but, as with the previously mentioned women, he doesn’t often get to play a pivotal role in foiling the bad guys.
With the Queen of All Media on a leave of absence, Winn at the DEO, and Kara walking the beat instead of sitting at a desk, CatCo and its newly appointed CEO could swiftly fade into the background. So James is in dire need of an individual arch in order to stay relevant.
But, again, the speed with which the series is developing him as Guardian suggests that his vigilante persona could be short-lived. In the middle of a massive battle, a rookie mistake by Guardian could easily endanger more lives than he saves, causing him to realize that civilian James might have been more helpful all along. A rookie mistake by Guardian could also lead, as Winn has repeatedly warned, to his death.
As Once Upon a Time’s Rumpelstiltskin is fond of saying, “all magic comes with a price.” And, as Winn has pointed out, the same can be said about heroism. As selfless an act as being a hero might seem, it can be costly.
While James is adamant that he is ready to pay the price, maybe he should have a conversation with Oliver Queen first. In the five years since the Hood’s debut, street-level crime and corruption in Star City hasn’t abated. And terrorism has certainly increased with Big Bads like Slade Wilson and Ra’s al Ghul attacking the city solely for its connection to Oliver.
In his pursuit of vigilante justice, Oliver has lost friends and family, has had to sacrifice relationships, and has been unable to keep a job. His personal investment in the security of the city has offered little return.
Too bad James isn’t likely to meet Oliver in the Arrowverse’s upcoming four-night crossover. It’s also a shame that he can’t have a conversation with Arrow’s Tommy Merlyn, The Flash’s Eddie Thawne, or Legends of Tomorrow’s Leonard Snart, all of whom died sacrificial deaths in the first season of their respective shows.
Unlike the other series in the Arrowverse, Supergirl didn’t sacrifice any main cast members at the end of its first season, and Kara has yet to lose an ally as a direct result of her heroism. (Laura Benanti’s Astra doesn’t count because she was a recurring character and, you know, a villain.) But death is an important part of the superhero genre, in order to impress upon viewers the real stakes that heroes face. (Whether or not those deaths are erased by time travel, alternate realities, magic, or resurrection pits is another story.)
If Supergirl is ready to bury an ally, we can only hope that they give James a heroic death with far-reaching consequences, rather than a senseless death meant to make Kara angsty and emotional for two or three episodes before she forgets about James for the rest of the series. Probably the worse thing the series could do is fridge James to fuel a revenge plot (see Shado, Slade, and Arrow season two).
Of course, my report of James’ imminent death is an exaggeration, and Supergirl could keep the character alive for its entire run. Or maybe Winn, aka Man in the Van, or Alex or Hank is slated for demise this season. But, if we’re honest, with no ties to the DEO, James is perhaps the most expendable character in the cast. We’ll have to see if his rapid development of a vigilante persona will change that.