My World of Flops Superman-Free Case File #115/My Year of Flops II #12 Supergirl (1984)
I don’t know why it has taken this column twelve years and a seemingly infinite number of superhero-based opportunity to finally get around to covering 1984’s Supergirl despite circling it with misfiring Superman projects from the same time period, like Superman III, which I covered for Control Nathan and Clint, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a My World of Flops Case File from back in the day.
I guess I assumed that the movie would be bad in a forgettable, boring way, that it would be a tepid rehash of Superman instead of what it is, a nuttier version of Superman IV that makes a lot of very bold choices, nearly all of them fascinatingly wrong.
Watching Supergirl,I found myself wondering things like
*What’s with all the horniness? I thought this was a family movie.
*What’s with all the product placement?
*What’s with all the attempted sexual assault?
*What’s with all the product placement in the attempted sexual assault?
*Why does this feel like a teen sex comedy?
*Are they really going to devote half the film’s runtime to a love triangle between a brainwashed super-hunk, a sexy older woman with overpowering sexual urges and a big-eyed, outer space teenager? Is this Supergirl or a weird Harlequin romance?
*Does the A&W Root Beer Company really want its products associated with inter-dimensional sexual assault attempts?
*Why is that powerful warlock also employed as a high school computer and math teacher? Oh well. I guess spells and sorcery and evil are all well and good, but at the end of the day you need insurance, dental and 401Ks, and you can’t rely on the literal witch you work for to supply you with those.
Supergirl’s fascinating miscalculations begin with big-eyed waif Helen Slater playing Kara Zor-El, AKA Linda Lee, AKA Supergirl as a ditsy, bumbling, barely legal space hippie. She’s a super-girly lover of beautiful, delicate things. This is no steely, determined Captain Marvel. It’s closer to a Lisa Frank puffy sticker version of Supergirl where the “girl” part matters as much as the “Super” component.
Kara Zor EL leads a peaceful life admiring crystal butterflies and shit on her home terrain of Argo City, where she hangs out with Zaltar (Peter O’Toole), an artist and wizard type who “borrows” an all-powerful doo-hickey/MacGuffin called the Omegahedron that, through a series of errors, ends up on earth in the possession of Selena (Faye Dunaway), a witch who was just talking about her monomaniacal focus on taking over the world.
That’s an ambitious #Squadgoal no matter how powerful you are. Luckily for Selena, a ball of ultimate powerful straight up lands in her laps and immediately gives her what little confidence she needs to give partner Nigel (Peter Cook), the aforementioned warlock/computer teacher the heave-ho.
For this column I once covered an officially branded direct-to-video Thomas Kinkade Christmas movie, Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage in which the Oscar-winning Lawrence of Arabia star committed himself to the role of Kinkade’s mentor, particularly the part about him howling for Kinkade to “Paint the light, Thomas! Paint the LIGHT!” with such misplaced conviction that you’d think O’Toole was performing for God himself rather than an undiscriminating audience of Christians and terrible art enthusiasts. So you better believe O’Toole commits to an unhealthy degree to gibberish dialogue about “six-dimensional geometry” and the “Omegahedron” and clumsy exposition about inner space versus outer space as if it were lost Hamlet monologues.
Dunaway is even more of a campy, theater-chewing delight as a literal witch who lives in what appears to be the vacated lair of a James Bond villain, combining as it does elements of haunted houses, happenings and galleries. Selena is all about taking over the world but she seems equally obsessed with Ethan, a hunky, shirtless groundskeeper played by future Die Hard douchebag Hart Bochner. The bawdy woman of a certain age is intent on getting the sexy gardener to share his hose with her, and yes I am making a crude double entendre.
So in a completely necessary, time-eating plot that obviously could not be cut to make the film shorter than 125 minutes, Selena puts a love spell on the heartthrob so that he’ll fall in love with whoever he sees next. You’d think a vaguely worded spell like that couldn’t possibly backfire or turn out wrong but, amazingly, it does, and results in Ethan falling madly in love with Linda Lee/Supergirl rather than Selena.
Under Selena’s love spell Ethan brings the possibly underaged supergirl he’s courting chocolate and flowers and recites poetry to her extensively. That’s just the kind of hard-hitting, on-brand action comic book fans know and love and angrily demand from their tentpole blockbusters.
More or less as soon as she arrives on the planet Earth, this adorable sky-dancing, high-flying teen innocent from outer space is of course the subject of an attempted sexual assault at the grubby, sweaty hands of a pair of degenerates, Eddie (future Max Headroom star Matt Frewer) and Billy (Bill McAlister).
The adorably naive Supergirl, mistaking these two sex criminals for good samaritans rather than rapists, tries to explain that she’s looking for a powerful energy source that powers her home planet, and these gents assure her they’ve got a powerful energy source for her—in their pants: their dicks.
Billy leeringly tells Supergirl, “Eddie and me here, we’re on a secret mission also. We’re out looking for a good time and you just won the brass ring, baby.”
By “brass ring” he means “the aroused penises of me and my friend, whether you want them or not” but this is a superhero movie for babies so they have to imply a lot of the sexual threat rather than spelling it out explicitly.
But when Eddie glares at Supergirl with a look of pure rage-filled lust and sneers of their proclivity for wanting to manhandle anyone they find sexually desirable, even super-powered underage aliens who could rip their dicks off and then throw them into outer space, “It’s just the way we are” there’s no mistaking what he means: earth men are disgusting fuck-pigs who cannot control their violent, sexual urges even when confronted with real wonder, with beauty and grace from another world. Especially after that.
Annoyed, Supergirl blows Eddie back with her super-breath but Billy, fucking Billy, thinks he can intimidate someone with Superman-like or near-Superman level powers with a modest switchblade, taunting, “Oh, I see. You really want to play games, eh, sweetheart? Come on. Come on.”
God give me the confidence of a sub-mediocre white man who thinks Supergirl is no match for pocket knife or grubby caveman advances.
“You’re Superman’s best friend, huh?” Eddie sneers at one point with pure sleaze bag sinister intention confusing her, understandably, with Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, who is awkwardly shoe-horned into the action in a way that made me wish the filmmakers hadn’t surrounded Supergirl with such second stringers as Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lang’s sister but rather more colorful characters like Killer Croc, Bizarro or Brainiac.
Why can’t Bizarro work security at the girl’s school Supergirl matriculates at? For that matter, why can’t Brainiac be its headmaster and Mr. Mxyzptlk’s Supergirl’s chemistry teacher? That couldn’t be any more awkward or unintentionally hilarious than the way Olsen and a lesser Lane are shoe-horned in here.
But for sheer transcendent half-assedness nothing can compare with the way the movie just barely bothers to explain away Superman’s glaring absence. As a seeming aside, we hear over the radio, “The president confirmed reports that Superman has embarked on a special peace-seeking mission to a galaxy scientists estimate may be several hundred billion light years away.”
If Superman were only a single billion light year away he might pop up in to say hello and maybe have coffee with his cousin. But gosh darnit, the peace-keeping mission is really important and super far away so no can do. No hard feelings of course. Just super-business. Very narratively convenient super-business.
Oh sure, that’s what Superman wants the world, or more specifically his cousin, to believe. I bet he’s actually hanging out in the epic Man Cave known as the Fortress of Solitude playing video games and avoiding an unwanted family reunion with his annoying cousin.
Supergirl sending Superman off to other galaxies in order to avoid a Christopher Reeves cameo is the “Poochie died on the way back to his home planet” of super-hero flounces only it’s real and canon for the Salkind Superman movies, of which this is quite literally a poor if wildly entertaining relation.
Like Superman III, Supergirl seems to be the work of someone who neither understands nor cares for comic books or superheroes, and has made a motion picture that expresses that profound ambivalence/hostility. There are so many great villains in the Superman and Supergirl universe. Of the franchise’s many charismatic, signature villains who did Superman III and Supergirl chose to pit their heroes against? Richard Pryor with a computer and a grudge and a freaking witch assisted by a warlock/high school teacher who come across a fantastical contraption that gives them exactly how much power they need at any given moment.
I went into Supergirl expecting a typical superhero origin story, only a little more inept. Instead I got a batshit crazy boondoggle that alternately suggests Desperate Housewives, Private School for Girls and a hippie science fiction fantasy that predicts that the future will be groovy/psychedelic except for the bad vibes and super-villains and whatnot.
Supergirl is something close to pure camp in no small part thanks to Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford-as-super-witch star turn as a figure of ridiculous glamour who is always filmed in the most flattering possible light even when that means she’s lit in an entirely different, softer fashion than everybody else in the film. You know what? She deserves it. She’s fucking Faye Dunaway. Supergirl is lucky to have her. They’re lucky to have Peter O’Toole as well. Yet these two world-class performers, giving their all in a project perhaps unworthy of their gifts and their feverish intensity were singled out for Golden Raspberry nominations despite being the one element of the film that is legitimately great, and not just a lot of fun.
It does not need to be 125 minutes. It really does not need to be over two hours long but Supergirl surprised and delighted me. I can’t say that about too many superhero movies these days. True, Supergirl surprised and delighted me by being so astonishingly, uniquely stupid and providing a steady stream of unintentional laughs, but at this point I’ll take pleasure any way I can get it.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
I make my living primarily through crowd-funding so I sure would appreciate it if you would head over to https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace and consider pledging as little as a dollar a month. Every little bit helps.