An Adult Rewatched 1984’s Supergirl Movie and Still Loves the Heck out of It, So There!
"Supergirl is actually a BETTER movie than any of the Donner era Superman films."
With all the news surrounding CBS’s leaked pilot, Supergirl is getting a lot of coverage in the geekosphere. Even before the leak, every time I saw a new image, or read another another interview with producers from the upcoming series I felt the need to quit hiding my secret, and come clean. I wanted scream from the rooftops:
I love the 1984 Supergirl film.
It was one of my favorites as a kid. I saw it on my fifth birthday, since then I have always loved Supergirl way more than her boring cousin. It’s arguably responsible for my life long love of lady Super Heroes, from Batgirl to Storm to Red Sonja.
I haven’t revisited the film in years, and I was worried that my love couldn’t survive a viewing informed by my grown sensibilities. Upon re-watching this film, not only do I completely understand why it was so formative for me as a young male geek in the 80’s, but I emerged un-ironically loving it even more.
Part of enjoying any historic piece of art is understanding the environment and spirit in which the art was made. When Supergirl first came out, comics were straining with the birth pangs of a new era. The Dark Night Returns and The Watchmen, were only a year or two from igniting the Modern Age of comics. Geeks were tired of goofy and ready for gritty, even if they didn’t know it yet.
Supergirl wasn’t interested in any Modern Age. In fact, it wasn’t interested in the Bronze Age, which had introduced social issues and toned down the really silly elements of 60’s comics.
Supergirl was not afraid to be silly.
It tells the story of Kara Zor-El (played by Helen Slater), Superman’s cousin who lives in Argo City, a Kryptonian settlement that survived the destruction of Krypton by being in “inner-space” instead of “outer-space.” When the Omegahedron, Argo Cities power source, is accidentally sent to earth, Kara-El must go find it.
The Omegahedron is initially found by aspiring evil sorcerer Faye Dunaway. Yes, she has a character name. No, you don’t need to know it. It’s Faye Freakin Dunaway, and with the Omegahedron she becomes the most powerful sorcerer on the planet.
Kara comes to earth and promptly enrolls in an all-girls school, because the whole search for the Omegahedron is a clearly an excuse to get out of stuffy Argo City and see the world.
In the least Bechdel development ever, Supergirl and Faye Dunaway end up fighting over a boy they both like. Supergirl saves the boy with help from Peter O’Toole (don’t ask) and then saves the world and the Omegahedron.
The key to loving Supergirl, is understanding that it’s actually a Silver Age comic. Logic didn’t matter in the Silver age, just imagination. Tropes were there own justification. Why does Kara Zor-El promptly join a school? Because secret identity! Why does Faye Dunaway say goofy stuff every time she uses the Omegahedron? Because magic words! How did Kara Zor-El get a Supergirl costume? Because costumes!
Explaining things with “logic” would distract from the crazy stuff. Like the giant mountain fortress Faye Dunaway creates, or Supergirl killing a shadow demon with lightning that was stored in a lamppost. (Because electricity and metal!)
The whole hearted acceptance of silliness is why Supergirl is actually a BETTER movie than any of the Donner era Superman films.
Starting with Superman in 1978, those films can’t decide what they are. One minute the filmmakers are trying to create a fun but somewhat realistic take on Superman, and the next second Supes is reversing time by making the earth rotate backwards.
That’s the kind of plot device that makes perfect sense in the Silver Age (time reverses because BACKWARDS!) but it is awkwardly out of place in the more modern film that Donner was trying to put together. Supergirl never tries to be realistic, on any level. It is straight up Silver Age nonsense, including the way it treats character.
Why does Supergirl want a boyfriend? Because teenage girl! Why does Faye Dunaway need a boyfriend? Because evil sorcerers love hot dudes!
Let’s talk about that hot dude for a second, and another reason this movie was so important to me as a kid.
Ethan (no last name) is a hunky landscape artist that works at Supergirl’s school. Faye Dunaway catches a glimpse of him while sitting in traffic and later decides to kidnap him. She plans to secure his affection with a love spell. Hijinks ensue, and Ethan falls for Supergirl instead.
Ethan drives a ridiculous amount of the plot of this film. Supergirl rescues him a lot. Like, A. LOT. This guy wins “best dude-sel in distress” hands down. (He held the title until we met Peeta Mellark 30 years later.)
Some people might argue that two women fighting over a pretty man is petty compared to saving the world, and reinforces misogynist stereotypes. They have a point. But as a child I just saw it as two people fighting over their friend.
Stuff like whether or not Lex Luthor blew up California and made money off the deal never mattered to me. But I was an really unpopular child. My only friend was my older brother, who often wanted to spend time with kids his own age. Fighting for the attention and love of a friend was the realest onscreen thing I had ever seen a super hero do. I didn’t matter to me if it made sense with the plot, or was semiotically problematic.
Ethan isn’t just important as a love interest. All my male movie role models in the 80’s were Rambos, or Han Solos. Super tough guys who would bravely go into the carbonite, and couldn’t even say “I love you” when facing death. Ethan showed me that it was okay to let girls be stronger than me. He told me that sometimes it was okay to be weak, okay to be scared.
That goofy himbo taught me a lot.
Strong women in film almost always come with problematic issues, even in todays mass media. Supergirl is no exception. There are shots of teenage girls in their bras, a weird shower scene, and a scene where Supergirl tries on a bra over her shirt, and then stuff it with socks? It all feels shoe horned in, and played for titillation. There are also grown ass men (Ethan and Jimmy Olsen) romantically involved with teenagers. It’s problematic as hell.
[Editor’s Note: Trigger warning for this paragraph.] For good measure throw in a street harassment/attempted rape scene. It’s lacking any real sense of danger since human men are obviously no threat to Supergirl, even if she’s new to Earth and a touch naive. It’s still an unnecessarily triggering scene. On the plus side, Supergirl kicks one of her attackers in the crotch so hard that he flies through the air and lands in a pile of trash.
In my opinion, the zany strengths of the film outweigh the icky factor, but I have to recognize the problematic male gaze stuff might be easier for me (a guy) to ignore. This movie still has more awesome ladies than any 80’s film outside of Steel Magnolias.
And Kara Zor-El is good at math.
Maybe with Supergirl blowing up in the zeitgeist, people will give this film another chance, and enjoy it for what it is.
I know I can’t be the only one who loves this film. So quit hiding and let the world know.
Preferably in the comments section.
Eli Keel is freelance arts and culture journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky. YES WE DO have arts in Kentucky. Honest. He also writes plays and poems. Tweet him @THATeli.
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