Who is Supergirl in the DC Universe? Kara Zor-El’s origin, explained

Images via DC Studios, The CW, and Warner Bros. Pictures

Superman’s origin as a tragic orphan turned symbol of hope has passed beyond comic books to broader popular culture. It’s a story that’s too big to be changed — too definitive, memorable, and emotional. But while core parts of Superman’s history are encased in Kryptonian crystal, it’s bad news for his extended super-family.

Over the years, DC has struggled to balance the expanded soap opera of Clark Kent and his alter-ego’s status as the Last Son of Krypton. DC Crises have continually reset the Man of Steel’s universe around him over the decades, but few members of his family have suffered like Supergirl.

The Maiden of Might is always a significant loss when she’s out of the limelight, impersonated, or even wiped from continuity. She is Superman’s cousin but far more than a gender-swapped carbon copy. Kara Zor-El’s story is undeniably more complicated, sadder, and engaging than Kal-El’s. Having won over the Arrowverse and returning to DC live-action movies for the first time in four decades, we might be entering the Age of Supergirl. 

So, who is she, and why is she far more than just another Kryptonian?

Supergirl’s disposable cousin?

Image via The CW

Like many DC characters, Supergirl’s history has continually changed since her introduction in 1959 (following several prototype superwomen). DC’s massive multiversal resets have taken it out on many characters, but Supergirl was a major casualty of one of the first — 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. When the Antimonitor shot her in the back with a devastating blast of anti-matter, her death launched a thousand tributes thanks to the iconic cover of the event’s seventh issue. But it served a more practical purpose too. 

DC was looking to simplify nearly 50 years of continuity, and a big part of that was trimming down Superman’s extended family to make him unique. Over the years, the Man of Steel had been joined by Superboy, the Legion of Super-Pets, including Krypto the Superdog, and relatives, including Van-Zee and supergirl Kara Zor-El. After Kara’s cruel dispatch, she didn’t return for nearly 20 years until she was reintroduced in Superman/Batman in 2004.

Once upon a time on Krypton

Supergirl in 'Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow'
Image via DC Comics

Supergirl had a barely sketched, preposterous origin when she first appeared in Action Comics #252. Luck led to a small part of Argo City being thrown into space in an air bubble during the explosion of Krypton, and Kara was born to Zor-El and her unnamed mother a decade later. When she was a girl, Argo’s protective dome was damaged by meteors, and her parents dispatched their daughter to Earth when they realized their nephew Kal-El was safely living there. She was trained by Superman and took the name Linda Lee Danvers from her adoptive parents.

The idea of Supergirl was kept alive following her death, but an arm’s length from Superman. Her identity was picked up by a synthetic shapeshifter called Matrix, who had an approximation of Superman’s powers. Matrix later merged with a human female, Linda Danvers, to save her life, becoming an “angel” version of Supergirl until the real deal returned.

It took until 2008 for Supergirl to get a definite origin following her full reappearance. In the new continuity, Kara was already 15 when Krypton exploded, and her father Zor-El, saved Argo City using advanced technology taken from Brainiac. The tech turned against the citizens and to protect their daughter, Zor-El and her mother, Allura, dispatched Kara to Earth in a rocket to follow her infant cousin to Earth and look after him. Unfortunately, Kara’s rocket encountered a kryptonite asteroid field, and she was kept in suspended animation for decades. After 30 years, her rocket made it to Earth, where she found her cousin grown up, trained with Wonder Woman, and was abducted by Darkseid before choosing the title of Supergirl. 

The Flashpoint event added another and possibly most disturbing spin on her origins. In this continuity, Zor-El dispatched Kara to Earth just before Krypton’s destruction, only for her pod to be stuck in orbit around Earth’s yellow sun for decades as the pod fuelled its occupant’s cells. When she finally crashed in Russia, she struggled to believe Superman was her infant cousin, and news of Krypton’s destruction consumed her with grief and anger she took a while to overcome. 

Fans encouraged to read Tom King and Bilquis Evely’s Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow after the movie was announced as part of DCU’s first chapter, will see a twist on the middle origin. Kara was forced from Argo when the planet shard entered the influence of yellow suns and turned to kryptonite which poisoned its population. This horrific twist — the hope of surviving Kryptonian ripped away — is heartbreaking but spells out Kara’s incredible bravery and a strength of will that might even exceed her cousin’s.

Powered by a yellow sun

Sasha Calle as Supergirl in The Flash
Screengrab via Warner Bros.

Supergirl has all the powers of Superman, including flight, durability, heat vision, and ice breath. She has also manifested a few unique abilities over the years. One was her ability to grow sunstone crystals from her body when under extreme stress. They are variously explained as something her father had implanted to protect her in the Phantom Zone or a by-product of surviving near kryptonite for so long. In Woman of Tomorrow, Supergirl’s grasp of her powers is evident when she pops some red kryptonite to fuel up after being weakened by a red sun, enabling her to generate the aura of a giant fire serpent to defeat a space dragon. All in a day’s work.

A bit of confusion comes in the form of Power Girl, a DC superheroine with similar powers to Supergirl. That’s because she is: a variant from Earth-2 named Kara Zor-L. A bonafide Supergirl of another reality, the Infinite Crisis event confirmed her origin in modern comics. 

The story of how Supergirl came to be has darkened over the years. Still, it highlights how brightly she shines as a beacon of hope — easily a match for her cousin and one of DC’s outstanding examples of heroes defined by overcoming adversity.

Mixed media

Supergirl’s career in live-action adaptations has been quite a ride. She’s had notable cameos in shows like Smallville, led her own film, series and now it looks like we’re entering a new phase of her movie career.

The attempt to spin the successful Christopher Reeve-starring Superman movies into the adventures of his younger cousin in the mid-1980s was a failure. When plans for an intergalactic third movie featuring Big Blue and his cousin fell through, Kara appeared in a self-titled film in 1984. In this version, Kara left Argo City to retrieve the Omegahedron that had fallen to Earth, only to be picked up by a coven of witches. Further proof that Kryptonians and magic don’t mix well, Supergirl quietly retired from the screen.

CBS commissioned a series of Supergirl in 2015, following the success of the CW’s formative Arrowverse. Within a year, the show had been retooled and downsized, but Melissa Benoist’s superhero kept her cape as she shifted networks to join the Arrowverse. Despite a rocky start, this interpretation, which saw Supergirl’s pod caught in the Phantom Zone for 24 years, ran for six years, enhancing the character’s standing in pop culture. Former movie Supergirl Helen Slater even had a cameo as Kara’s adoptive mother.

Supergirl’s silver screen future

Supergirl’s resurgence on the big screen will be in the form of Sasha Calle, the first Latina Kryptonian, in 2023’s The Flash. Suggestions are that the film will strand Barry Allen in a parallel reality where superhumans don’t exist to repel General Zod, so he calls on an alternative Batman and the stranded Kryptonian Supergirl. 

Supergirl’s cinematic future is assured no matter how The Flash reconciles with the new-look DCU. It was a surprise when the co-Chair of DC Studios, James Gunn, announced an adaptation of Supergirl: The Woman of Tomorrow in early 2023. However, the True Grit-inspired story is unlike any other DC property that’s reached the screen before. It will undoubtedly bring lesser-known facets of the Maiden of Might to widespread attention and show how different she is from her cousin. It’s no mistake the limited series was called Woman of Tomorrow. Superman may be regarded as the Man of Steel, but his cousin is on another level.