The Discount Spinner Rack: SUPERGIRL (1984)

Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…

Until they end up here.

The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). This time ‘round the Rack, we’re gonna take a glance at the very FIRST superhero movie to be headlined by a woman, thereby setting female-led superhero movies back DECADES: the 1984 oddity that is Supergirl!

CONTENT WARNING: This review is going to contain frank discussion of a plethora of mature sexual themes, including potentially disturbing topics such as homophobia, lesbophobia, transphobia, and sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

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Since the very beginning of her comic-book career, Supergirl has had something of an identity crisis.

Created by Otto Binder1 and Al Plastino in 1959 (following several precursor characters, including a version Jimmy Olsen wished into existence from a magic lamp2), the original Supergirl was conceived of as exactly what she sounds like: a simple distaff counterpart to Superman, the Minnie to his Mickey. Christened Kara Zor-El3, she is revealed to be Kal-El’s long-lost cousin raised in Argo City—a fragment of Krypton that managed to survive the planet’s destruction, until a freak meteor shower forces Zor-El to send his daughter off to Earth to save her life. When she arrives and makes herself known to Superman, he warmly greets her… by taking her to the nearest orphanage, forcing her to adopt the human identity of Linda Lee (complete with a brunette, pig-tailed wig), and forbidding her from revealing her powers to the world OR from getting adopted until he says she can. So Supergirl’s early adventures were largely about being a sad, neglected orphan, turning down the chance to live in loving homes and hiding her very existence from mankind so that Superman could use her as his “secret weapon”.

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“You can save people if you want, I suppose, but NO BEING A ROLE MODEL for little girls!”

But the thing is, outside of the gimmick of the character being a “female Superman”… no one writing the books could seem to settle on who, exactly, Supergirl WAS.

Unlike Clark Kent—who’s had the same name, the same job, and the same basic characterization since 1938—Kara Zor-El has been through a whole litany of characterizations, identities, and day jobs over the course of her existence. After her “weeping orphan” period, Kara would eventually be adopted by rocket scientist Fred Danvers and his wife Edna, going through high school and eventually college as Linda Lee Danvers. Linda pursued graduate studies in acting, before moving out to San Francisco to become a television camera operator; then she switched her focus to being a student advisor, before moving all the way to New York and managing to land a lead acting gig on a daytime soap opera. But she wasn’t done yet; at the start of her new ongoing series in 1982, Linda suddenly moved to Chicago and went BACK to college to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology4! Finally, DC editorial became fed up with the convoluted attempts to give Supergirl a clear identity—so in the 1985 miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, Supergirl was killed off by the Anti-Monitor, and Superman’s history was subsequently re-written to make him the sole survivor from the planet Krypton5.

But that wasn’t the end for Supergirl. Oooooh, no.

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DEATH WAS ONLY THE BEGINNING.

Writer/artist John Byrne decided to revive the character at the tail end of his run on the Superman comics in the late ‘80s, but with a twist: HIS Supergirl was actually a shape-shifting artificial life-form known as Matrix, which had simply assumed the form and abilities of a female Superman (along with telekinesis and invisibility), but wasn’t actually a Kryptonian. And after a few years’ worth of adventures as a supporting character6, Matrix-Supergirl would get her own solo comic, written by Peter David… wherein she fused together with a college student named Linda Danvers and began to battle supernatural forces and demonic threats while exploring her own newfound humanity. (It’s also eventually revealed that she’s become something called the Earth Angel of Fire, and can summon flaming wings for herself and has supernatural fire powers or some-such nonsense.) So in their efforts to distinguish this Supergirl from the Man of Steel, DC ended up with a character who was a cross between Lt. Commander Data and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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… It got weird.

But it wasn’t long at all before Kara Zor-El officially returned to continuity (arriving in the post-Crisis universe in 2003), so once again writers were tasked with brainstorming ways to make her distinct from her cousin—and they seemed to land on two big ideas7. First of all, the modern Supergirl is angry. For some reason, Jeph Loeb and every writer who followed him decided that Kara should have a hair-trigger temper, and that she should be holding on to… like, a worrying amount of rage. She’s pissed that she’s expected to be a goody-goody like her cousin, and it takes surprisingly little manipulation to turn her into a homicidal maniac (seriously, she even ended up in the Red Lantern Corps for a stretch there). And secondly, she doesn’t really care about humankind. She does the hero thing, sure… but since her entire childhood and upbringing were on Krypton, she’s surprisingly disconnected from humanity, and she’s been occasionally tricked into pursuing pro-Kryptonian/anti-mankind plans by supervillains with REALLY obvious supervillain names, like “H’El”. Sooo… she’s kind of a Kryptonian supremacist.

Sounds like a really likeable character, doesn’t it?8

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Honestly, the best Supergirl we’ve gotten in ANY medium was Melissa Benoist on the CW’s Supergirl series—and she’s basically just playing a gender-flipped Superman! Oh, sweet irony…

So with all of this conceptual confusion floating around the character, it really should come as no surprise that THIS is the feature film we got for the Girl of Steel:

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Also: her LAST great adventure.

Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind—who’d bought the film rights to Superman and all his ancillary characters way back in 1974 (for more information about THESE two, check out my earlier review of Superman III)—announced the production of a Supergirl movie in April of 19829 after getting burned out on making movies about the Man of Steel himself. Initially the producers wanted Richard Lester (Superman II and III) to helm the spin-off, but he refused—likely because he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as “that guy who directed all those blue-spandex kiddie movies10. Apparently they also tried to snare legendary director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting), to no avail. Finally, they settled on French filmmaker Jeannot Szwarc—the director of Jaws 2, who’d later go on to direct the Salkind’s oddball masterpiece Santa Claus: The Movie—at the recommendation of none other than Christopher Reeve, who’d worked with him on Somewhere in Time11.

A wide net was cast to find the right young actress to portray the Maid of Might. Hundreds of young actresses were considered, including stars Brooke Shields and Demi Moore (only known at the time for being on General Hospital)—but the Salkinds, determined to recreate the success they had in discovering Christopher Reeve, insisted on casting a complete unknown; so the two actresses were rejected. (Demi Moore actually DID score a role in the film, though—that of Lucy Lane, Lois’s younger sister. Ultimately, however, she dropped out of the film to appear in an ensemble comedy called Blame it on Rio12, and the role of Lucy passed to Maureen Teefy.) In the end, the role of Kara Zor-El/Linda Lee/Supergirl went to 19-year-old Helen Slater, recently graduated from New York’s High School of Performing Arts and about as fresh-faced as they come.

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She also had to do her screen test in a mock-up of Supergirl’s then-current costume, complete with sweet ‘80s headband! … That doesn’t really add anything to the story, but I just really wanted to post this picture!

Keeping true to the formula that made Superman: The Movie a success, the Salkinds stacked the supporting cast with established stars to bolster their young ingenue. Playing the main villain—the evil witch Selena, an original character created by the filmmakers—would be Oscar-winning powerhouse Faye Dunaway (star of Network, Chinatown, and Bonnie & Clyde), who was just coming off her iconic performance as Joan Crawford in 1981’s Mommie Dearest13.14 Also cast was Oscar-nominee Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) as Kara’s Kryptonian mentor, Zaltar (which is possibly one of the most generic sci-fi names ever, and doesn’t even conform to basic Kryptonian naming schemes—shouldn’t it be Zal-Tar?)15. Oh, and Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby) is also crammed into the ensemble as Alura, Kara’s Kryptonian mother… but despite her fairly high billing in the credits, she’s only actually in the film for a single scene, and the extent of her participation boils down to fretting about Kara’s safety and the fate of Argo City alongside her husband Zor-El (Simon Ward).

The script by David Odell (The Dark Crystal, Masters of the Universe) was repeatedly re-written as story concepts changed around—most notably, when Christopher Reeve decided that he didn’t want to be a part of the film.

Originally, the script called for Superman himself to greet Kara once she arrived on Earth, and to go flying with her as she figures out how to use her powers; later, Selena’s magical shenanigans would turn Supes into a powerless old man, forcing Kara to defeat the evil witch herself in order to save her cousin’s life (and the world). But at the last minute, Reeve decided that he didn’t feel right doing a cameo, so he bowed out of the film—forcing the screenwriter to slap a news report into the script explaining that Superman was spending the film on a peacekeeping mission in a galaxy “several hundred trillion light years from our own16. With the filmmakers no longer able to use the Man of Steel himself, Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen was written into the script to connect it to the Superman films.

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All things being equal, though… this would have been AMAZING.

Response to the film was, ah… not great. Domestically, it only made $14.3 million on a $35 million budget (it DID get an overseas release as well, but those gross figures are lost to the sands of time, apparently). The reviews, while not vicious, were definitely derogatory—calling out the film for its overly winking camp tone and its patchwork script. Years after its release, it was used as a popular scapegoat (alongside future failures Catwoman and Elektra) by sexist film executives (like Marvel C.E.O. Ike Perlmutter) to support the argument that female-led superhero movies just couldn’t work (which—as Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and now Black Widow have proven—is complete bullsh*t). But even today, the dominant reaction to the film tends to be sheer bafflement; people can’t make heads or tails of it, as if the movie were some Technicolor fever dream of abstract imagery and completely disconnected ideas.

… Well, I think I have this movie all figured out, folks. And believe me: this one’s a doozy.

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Put on your tinfoil hats, everybody…

IN THIS ISSUE: A misogynist, Freudian fairytale all about the dangers of unchecked female sexuality—buried beneath a mountain of incoherent rambling.17

Let’s start with the surface-level stuff: as a narrative, going from scene to scene, much of this film is just… nonsense. We open on Argo City—a Kryptonian city that somehow survived the destruction of its home planet and now exists in “inner space”, a quantum scale of reality, as a whitish plastic stalagmite attached to a chunk of rock floating through a black void. How did it get here? Why didn’t ALL of Krypton adopt such an escape plan when the planet became unstable? Who knows! But apparently they can’t leave now, because “the pressure” of transitioning back to regular space through “the binary chute” would supposedly kill them.

… Okay.

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It’s rarely a good sign when the first few minutes of a movie raise THIS many questions.

So we meet Kara Zor-El, a teenage, wide-eyed citizen of Argo City, and her mentor Zaltar (the city’s founder… I think?), who shows her the OMEGAHEDRON: the first of two major power sources of Argo City18, which is a little hand-held spinning light ball that’s full of science bullsh*t. Zaltar lets Kara toy around with the Omegahedron… and wouldn’t you know it, she accidentally BLOWS A HOLE through the city’s protective dome, sending the Omegahedron hurling out into regular space. Without the Omegahedron, we’re told, Argo City will slowly lose power and its citizens will die in a matter of days (which kinda makes you wonder why it wasn’t more well-guarded, since it apparently wasn’t a problem for Zaltar, a sweater-clad space hippy, to grab the thing on the sly). Kara goes after the ball by using Zaltar’s one-of-a-kind experimental “binary-chute” pod-ship, and—after passing through a montage of underwater macro-photography—she emerges from the other side in full Supergirl costume and with her hair styled differently.

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Which makes me wonder… if Zaltar had used the ship instead, would he TOO have emerged in a skin-tight leotard with a red miniskirt?

The Omegahedron blasts out of inner space on the shore of Lake Michigan19, arcing through the air and landing in a bowl of cheese dip20 at a picnic. The dip belongs to Selena, a wannabe witch who’s schmoozing with an older British man, Nigel (Peter Cook), to learn all that he knows about magic and witchcraft. After a moment of shock, Selena picks up the Omegahedron, and it starts to glow and spin… and instantly she just knows that this thing is a source of immense power… and, uh, magic?

This is the first HUGE schism with the film’s logic. The Omegahedron is introduced to us as a piece of super-scientific technology, a power source for Argo City… but from this point forward, it’s depicted as some kind of demonically-possessed magic talisman—acting of its own will, altering the shape of its container to look more evil, and channeling eldritch powers with simple invocations. And while, yes, I’m familiar with the notion that sufficiently-advanced technology would seem indistinguishable from magic… this movie tries to conflate its glowing technological McGuffin with spell books, Tarot cards, and wooden wands. They’re just incompatible concepts—it’s like expecting a Duracell battery to be able to summon dark forces because it, too, contains “power”.

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“I have harnessed the ultimate eldrich forces of the universe with this spinning twinkle-light paperweight!”

But the biggest WTF comes when Supergirl arrives on our world. Because she came here to find the Omegahedron, right? Like, the entire city she came from is going to DIE if she doesn’t get it back as quickly as possible? So given that, I guess it makes sense that the first thing she does…

… is to fly around aimlessly and make no effort whatsoever to find the damned thing.

Now, sure, Kara has this tracker-bracelet thing, which is supposed to beep and blink whenever she’s close to the ball21. In the International Cut, we learn before too long that the reason the tracker only works SOME times is because Selena put the Omegahedron in a lead box once she got it home22—so whenever the lid’s on, Kara can’t get a reading. But she’s still SUPERGIRL. She has X-ray and telescopic vision, super-hearing, and super-speed. And because she’s a Kryptonian, she also needs very little sleep or rest, and no food; theoretically, she could search for DAYS ON END without needing to stop.

But rather than dedicating 100% of her time to finding the ball that will save the lives of everyone she knows, including her parents, Kara stumbles across an all-girl prep school and decides “what the hell? I might as well create a secret identity for myself and take some classes while I’m here!

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“It’s not like there’s a rush or anything!”

Taking on the name “Linda Lee” (a last name she gleans from a poster of Robert E. Lee on the principal’s wall—ugh), Kara, er, shape-shifts into a school uniform and changes her hair to brunette, in another example of these films having NO idea what kinds of powers Kryptonians actually have23. She gains admittance to the school by faking a letter of recommendation from her cousin, CLARK KENT… and this is where my brain just about explodes with the inconsistency of it all. Because Kara apparently has no knowledge of any Earth culture, technology, or life-forms—she starts out not knowing what a tree is, nor a train, nor a million other little things—but not only does she know that her cousin Kal-El escaped to Earth, but that he took the name Superman when he got here, and that his civilian identity is Clark Kent, a reporter for the Daily Planet. HOW DOES SHE KNOW ALL THAT? And how does she know how to forge a letter of recommendation well enough to cheat her way into school?! Would she even read and write in English?!?

… So here, we’re gonna have to dig a little deeper. Because Kara Zor-El in this film is fairly emblematic of a crappy trope that’s pervasive in science fiction cinema, referred to by YouTube producer Pop Culture Detective as “Born Sexy Yesterday” (check out the video here). Kara, while clearly close to adulthood (Helen Slater was only 19 when she got the part), behaves with the wide-eyed naïveté of a child, and the film repeatedly infantilizes her by illustrating her ignorance of the world and her wonder at even its most basic customs. This somewhat undercuts Supergirl as a powerful, heroic figure since she’s also a child-like dipsh*t 90% of the time. But somehow it gets even WORSE when it’s factored in to the inevitable romantic subplot, and in the context of the overall theme of the movie…

… because Supergirl, the very first female-led superhero movie in cinema history, is all about “appropriate” expressions of female sexuality.

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… as conceived of by a bunch of sweaty, exploitative male filmmakers.

There’s a subplot which emerges halfway through the movie when Selena becomes convinced that, in order to conquer the world, she has to first seduce a meathead landscaper named Ethan… for some reason24. Selena—who is, I remind you, played by Faye Dunaway, one of the most beautiful actresses in ‘80s Hollywood—feels the need to concoct an infallible love potion to snare the slovenly, muscle-bound dumbass; but Ethan wanders away after taking the potion, and after a protracted action scene (involving a magically-controlled construction digger that Selena uses to try to get him back), he takes one look at Supergirl as Linda Lee and falls in love. And then the rest of the movie essentially becomes about Supergirl and Selena… (sigh)… fighting over a guy.

And it certainly doesn’t make it any less disappointing that the guy in question is played by Hart Bochner, a.k.a. Ellis, the coke-snorting executive from Die Hard.

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“… Linda! BUBBE! I’m your white knight!”

But there’s something interesting at play here when you look at the way the two characters approach their relationships with Ethan.

See, Supergirl didn’t SEEK OUT Ethan; instead, after the love potion takes effect he doggedly pursues her—giving her a kiss at their first meeting, and bringing her flowers and chocolates shortly thereafter (while stalking her from the shadows, which… is less than charming). And while Kara INITIALLY resists his attentions (because she still has to, y’know, SAVE EVERYONE IN ARGO CITY), she’s soon won over by his trite overtures of love and his simplistic gestures of affection. Because Kara has had virtually no experience with relationships, romance, or sex—remember, she was Born Sexy Yesterday—and therefore all of the basic, stale, clichéd things that Ethan does to win her over are all totally new and exciting to her. Hell, when she gets home after Ethan first kisses her, she starts practicing kissing in a mirror like a twelve-year-old. Kara’s innocence about romance—and her passivity and receptiveness in the face of male attention—reinforce a patriarchal perspective on female “purity” that is valorized by the film.

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Flowers and chocolates are Kara’s OTHER Kryptonite, apparently.

Selena, on the other hand, is experienced. She’s a gorgeous, mature woman who dresses provocatively and goes after what she wants. But she’s also a manipulator. She knows that she can use her femininity and sexuality to manipulate men into giving her things—like Nigel, the experienced warlock that she’s buttering up at the start of the film. She’ll use whatever form of trickery, glamour, or deceit she needs to reach her ends; the film deliberately conflates the love potion with alcohol (she dumps it in a can of Schlitt’s), and the kind of elaborate clothes and make-up she wears is used in Hollywood as shorthand for hiding the signs of aging (Dunaway was only 42 at the time, but Hollywood is notoriously ageist). But in the end, she’s only interested in stealing power from her conquests—there’s literally a moment when she kisses Nigel to distract him so she can steal a magic wand from him. The symbolism of a woman using sex to rob a man of a powerful phallic symbol is SO on-the-nose that it feels like a parody!

But that’s not the end of things with Selena. Ohhh, no no no. Because Selena isn’t JUST a man-eating seductress.

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She’s also a fashionista!

See, Selena has a good friend named Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro): a husky-voiced woman with short hair who smokes and makes wisecracks throughout the film. Bianca and Selena live together in an abandoned amusement park (… because why not?) on the outskirts of Midvale2526, and Bianca is apparently Selena’s one and only personal relationship—the one person she talks to frankly, and whom she never tries to manipulate. And at the end of the film, when Selena is confronted with her demonic, corrupted magical “shadow” and condemned to the Phantom Zone (… I think…), Bianca is pulled in and sent off to eternal purgatory WITH her. But… why? What did she do that was so evil, besides drinking martinis and making dumb jokes?

Simple. She and Selena are coded as lovers, and this movie is DEEPLY homophobic.

To wit: the ONLY reason Selena wants Ethan so badly is because she thinks the magic ball wants her to seduce him. She literally sees him as an objective to check off a list—seduce this guy, and you can seduce the world—but outside of this, she has no romantic interest in him whatsoever. And once she HAS him (he falls under her sway at the end of act two), she constantly rebuffs his sycophantic advances and treats him like an annoying little puppy dog. The only person Selena keeps around her who ISN’T a mind-controlled lackey at that point is… Bianca. It’s all subtext, but it’s really hard to ignore once you see it.27

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To be fair, they DO make a cute couple…!

So what does Selena being gay have to do with magic Christmas tree ornaments and demonic forces of doom? Well, it all comes into focus if you look at the movie’s plot symbolically… at which point, it also reveals itself to be batsh*t insane.

To start with, the Omegahedron itself is symbolic of female sexuality (again, as conceived of by a bunch of men). It’s incredibly powerful, but it’s also tempestuous and unpredictable (acting up at random intervals and being generally inscrutable), and can be wielded in different ways. When it’s safely kept in the womb-like, conservative Argo City, it’s a wellspring of life that ensures the survival of a species. But when it’s used as a weapon, it can subjugate the wills of men and manipulate the physical world in unnatural ways. It can be constructive or destructive, dependent entirely on one’s moral values. Yeechh.

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Also, the Omegahedron causes the lead box it’s stored in to grow boobs.

Furthermore, to reach the Omegahedron’s full potential, it needs to be coupled with a wand of some sort—Zaltar and Kara use one in Argo City, and Nigel brings an evil wand to Selena to help her kidnap Ethan. Now, given that wands are a super obvious phallic symbol, then putting it together with the Omegahedron plays as an affirmation of traditional binary sexuality as the most powerful force in the universe… or at least, the film’s universe. And when Selena steals Nigel’s wand and uses it to make herself Queen of Midvale, Illinois, it reads subtextually as Selena emasculating Nigel and perverting the natural order of the universe… which is reinforced by the big honkin’ Baphomet statue we see in Selena’s castle lair. So by this film’s metric, a woman taking power away from a man is equated with Satanism28.

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You know– for kids!

Or… is it MORE than that? We already know that Selena is heavily coded as being in a lesbian relationship with Bianca… but her clothing, hair, and make-up are ALSO very much in the vein of a camp drag performance. And at the end of the film, Selena confronts Supergirl with both the power of the Omegahedron AND wielding a wand in her hands… so is… is this honest-to-God transphobia in this silly little superhero romp?

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(They didn’t need to use backlights or a wind machine for this shot. Faye Dunaway can just do this whenever she wants.)

… Look, I didn’t go LOOKING for all this stuff, alright? I honestly thought this was just a cheap cash-in attempt by the Salkinds, with an incoherent story and no subtext underlying it. But once I noticed the pervasive themes of sex, orientation, and gender expression… holy crap, I started to see symbols and motifs EVERYWHERE in this damn movie.

Like, there are TWO moments of birth-canal and birthing imagery in the film: 1.) when Kara rides in Zaltar’s weird little bubble vessel through the “binary chute” out of Argo City (emerging on Earth by exploding out of a body of water, a clichéd symbol for birth or rebirth), and 2.) when Kara escapes the Phantom Zone by flying out of a craggy tunnel with a light at the end of it, and exploding out of Selena’s mirror. And speaking of Selena’s mirror, not only is it designed with sculpted naked women on either side of it (reinforcing both Selena’s decadent sensuality and her subtextual interest in girls), but… the naked women bracket a vaguely oval-shaped, tall mirror in a way that’s distinctly yonic (as in, the opposite of phallic):

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And that’s not the only yonic imagery in the film! Because the scene where Kara loses the Omegahedron—which begins with her experimenting with the little glowy sphere and a wand at the same time, naïvely unaware of how powerful a force she’s toying with—features Kara tearing a hole in a thin membrane covering a yonic window, at which point all hell breaks loose:

… Why would such a scientifically advanced society use such flimsy plastic sheeting as the sole barrier between their entire city and the merciless vacuum of space?

And… wait, did Supergirl just stop this invisible monster by zapping it with an electrically-charged phallus?

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Gives a whole new meaning to the term “lightning rod”.

And can we just not talk about how creepy Peter O’Toole’s Zaltar is in light of all of this, as the older man who helps Kara find her power, keeps creepily touching her face, and gave her the intensely-symbolic Omegahedron to play around with in the first place?

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… Please stop touching her face, Zaltar.

It just keeps going… like, how the film features these two random bullies at Kara/Linda’s school—one’s a slightly overweight redhead, and the other’s a spindly nerd. They are always at each other’s side (LITERALLY, they’re always super close to each other), and seem to hate all the other students—clearly, they’re bullies because they’re social outcasts. And while this might be a fairly benign subplot in any other children’s entertainment (they’re practically a female Bulk and Skull, albeit with none of the charm), their inclusion here surely has to tie into the theme somehow (because they eat up a bunch of screen time and have nothing to do with the plot)—and then it hit me: the bullies are ALSO coded as lesbians, to further hammer home the messaging that lesbians are evil.

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And I haven’t even gotten to talking about the single most horrifying scene in the entire movie.

There is a moment, cut from the theatrical version but restored in the International Cut, which immediately follows Supergirl’s arrival on Earth. After flying over Chicago for a bit in the dead of night, she lands in the middle of the main drag of Midvale… and then this big rig truck pulls up right in front of her, and two truckers (played by Bill Mitchell and, of all people, Matt Frewer—a.k.a. Max Headroom) step out and start creepily advancing on her. Yes, this family-friendly superhero fantasy adventure has its heroine’s first encounter with human beings be when two truckers try to sexually assault her.

They fail, of course. After a disturbing amount of ogling and slimy, lecherous dialogue, Supergirl easily knocks both of them through a wooden fence and flies away (though pointedly, the two are NEVER ARRESTED or reported to the authorities; their punishment just seems to be left at… I dunno, humiliation?). According to director Jeannot Szwarc, this is the scene where Kara learns that Earth isn’t as utopian and safe as Krypton, and that she needs to be cautious about how she goes about her mission (because apparently SHE was in the wrong for walking down the street in a provocative Supergirl outfit, right?)29—which is gross enough in its own right. But there’s a single dialogue exchange in this scene, just before Supergirl blasts the first of them onto his ass, that really, really sticks in my craw:

SUPERGIRL: Why are you doing this?

MATT FREWER: (grinning sinisterly) … It’s just the way we are!

And amazingly, that line sums up the whole moral philosophy of the film.

Thankfully, the scene at least ENDS the way it should: with Supergirl kicking the last guy in the nuts so hard that he goes sailing a dozen feet through the air.

Rather than being structured like a superhero movie, Supergirl is structured and styled much like a fairy tale. Kara is essentially an innocent waif like Snow White or Cinderella who travels to a strange land, meets charming and silly friends along the way (Lucy Lane, Jimmy Olsen), is empowered by an older “fairy godmother”-type benefactor (Zaltar), falls in love with a handsome prince (Ethan, technically), and has to stave off the cruel machinations of an evil witch (Selena) in order to find a happy ending. There are definite SUBVERSIONS of these themes, yeah—most obviously, Kara is her own champion, rather than having her Prince Charming fight for her (he more often plays the damsel in distress). But the biggest fairy tale trait the film possesses is moral essentialism.

See, in most fairy tales, characters don’t really grow or change. Their circumstances may be different at the end of the story than the beginning, but the characters themselves are static—and usually, each character represents some personality type that the narrative judges as either being “good” or “bad”, by rewarding the good characters and punishing the bad. And Supergirl fits this schema to a T.

The movie paints Kara as an intrinsically good person because she’s chaste, naïve, whimsical, and bubbly (all characteristics she has from the start of the film); her actual heroics are almost secondary. And Selena is painted as intrinsically evil because she’s manipulative, willful, promiscuous, greedy, and ambitious; she doesn’t really even DO much that’s genuinely villainous until the halfway point. The film argues that certain kinds of people are just good or bad by nature… and when you look at the subtextual layers of lesbianism and trans/drag metaphor the film applies to Selena, the ugliness of that message becomes crystal clear.

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… Oh, God, I didn’t even MENTION the blood-red doom-tornado that keeps people from escaping through the one tunnel that leads out of the Phantom Zone, and ends up killing Zaltar. Whatever could THAT represent…?

So for the climax of the movie, Selena—in full Evil Queen mode—summons the embodiment of her own twisted, perverse nature (a demonic being called the “Power of Shadow”) to battle Supergirl. But with the help of Ethan, Nigel, and even the friggin’ ghost of Zaltar30, Supergirl overcomes the demon and defeats Selena by confronting her with her own warped, wicked dark side, then sending her and Bianca to eternal exile in the Phantom Zone by funneling her through the magical, vaginal mirror that she herself escaped from31. Looks like Selena’s going to be doing a lot of self-reflection in the eons to come, isn’t she?

Ha! Ha ha! … Eh.

Finally, Supergirl claims the Omegahedron for her own32, and after some heart-felt goodbyes, she flies off—plunging back into Lack Michigan and, somehow, back into inner space. The final shot of the film shows her fly towards a darkened Argo City, where we see all the lights come up and the technology whir back to life as the credits role triumphantly. But… given that Argo City only had a few days of power left, and that Kara took something like a WEEK to retrieve the Omegahedron, I always imagine the lights coming up inside to reveal the desiccated corpses of all the residents of the city—who all suffocated to death while Kara was attending trigonometry classes that she was VASTLY overqualified for, and hanging out with her friends at Popeye’s Chicken. And now she’s stuck down there with them all. FOREVER.

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In inner space, no one can hear you scream.

IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Mostly, no. There is a turn-off-your-brain charm to the thing, definitely; Helen Slater is winningly earnest in the title role, and Dunaway is having a ball as the decadent Selena. But at best, this only works as a so-bad-it’s-good target of ridicule… and at worst, it’s a reactionary polemic insidiously disguised as children’s entertainment. Maybe it’s a good thing that it flopped so spectacularly.

SUPERGIRL, Faye Dunaway, Helen Slater, 1984, © Warner Bros. / Courtesy: Everett Collection
Now these two can open a nightclub double-act in Vegas!

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FAVORITE BITS:

  1. First Flight: Once Kara arrives on Earth, we get this wonderfully charming scene of her figuring out her powers and playing around with them—and inevitably, it culminates with a flight sequence. We see Kara soaring over trees, rivers, and mountains, keeping pace with a stampeding team of wild horses and landing just in time to watch the sun set. Now, after three previous movies worth of development, the flying effects here are the best we would ever see in the series (prior to the advent of C.G.), and the sweeping music gives the scene a wonderful grandeur and energy that just sucks you right in… so that you almost don’t even notice that Kara has completely forgotten about finding the Omegahedron.
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  2. Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself: Halfway through the movie, when Supergirl and Selena finally come face-to-face, Kara demands that her flame-haired opponent identify herself. And Selena—who we already know is a complete wannabe, a huckster who once read tea leaves in Lake Tahoe and consults Tarot cards for life advice—responds with:

    I am Selena. Diadanus of Catania. Priestess of Sechnid. I am the ultimate Siren of Endor, and you, little lady, are trespassing on private property.”

    … Where the hell did THAT come from? Is this left over from an earlier draft where Selena was, like, an ancient and powerful witch or something? Or did she just pull all of these elaborate titles out of her ass to intimidate the superpowered cheerleader she saw standing before her?33

  3. The Poster: When Kara (as Linda) first gets introduced to Lucy Lane, there’s a moment that wraps up the scene where Linda spots a poster of Superman up on her new roommate’s wall. Now, Linda already knows all about Superman. She’s his cousin, she has all of his powers… hell, she even has the same basic costume. But for some reason, at the sight of this poster, she becomes absolutely spellbound—even reaching out slowly to touch the logo on his chest. And it’s bizarrely romantic, the way it’s played; Lucy is going on about how much of a hunk he is while Linda looks on, speechless. I suppose that they wanted to remind the audience of the prior Superman movies and establish a mythic connection between the films… but man, they WAY overshot the mark.
  4. Are There No Bras on Krypton?: So Linda and Lucy are hanging out in their dorm room, and they start talking about what they’re going to do on their upcoming three day weekend. Linda absent-mindedly picks up a piece of clothing from the table next to her; it’s a bra. After staring at it like it’s a scrambled-up Rubix Cube, Linda starts to put it on over her school blazer and clothes. Then she grabs another article of clothing and stuffs it into one side… and, like, balls up her fist to fill in the other… and then she closes up her blazer’s lapels and holds ‘em together with her chin… and then Lucy turns around and sees… this:
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    … The savior of the planet, ladies and gentlemen.
  5. That Sweet Jerry Goldsmith Score: An interesting fact about the first Superman movie is that Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Total Recall, Planet of the Apes) was originally hired to do the music for it, before the film got delayed and John Williams ended up taking over the job. So when the time came to do the music for Supergirl, Goldsmith got a second chance of sorts—and boy, he makes the most of it! His themes for the film are energizing and adventurous, but also flowing and lyrical; they’re much more fantasy themes than superhero And even if you hate everything else about the movie, the main title track is beyond reproach!:

NEXT ISSUE: Whew! That… was a LOT. After such an exhaustingly deep dive into such a shaggy mess of a movie, I’m about ready for something… slick. Stylish. And shallow. So join me next time when I take a look at the Keanu Reeves supernatural-horror detective flick, Constantine!