Superhero Movie Guidebook: ‘Supergirl’

Welcome to the Superhero Movie Guidebook! For an introduction to this series, click here. Check here for past entries and future updates most Thursdays.


If you look at the syllabus for this chronological Guidebook, you might notice something missing. Namely, women. While I can certainly hope that brighter days may be ahead for women in these movies, I currently count five (already released) movies on that list with a woman in the leading role. Out of nearly 150. So the track record is … not good.

Supergirl is the first of those rare superheroine offerings, and it, too, is … not good. Made in 1984, Supergirl was also produced the Salkinds, whom I’ve spoken about before in the previous Superman films in less than kind terms. The Salkinds continued their relentless quest to make illogical, flat superhero movies with Supergirl, even paying the full $35 million budget out of pocket. The good news is, when the movie fell extremely flat both at the box office ($14 million gross in the U.S.) and with critics (8% at Rottem Tomatoes), the Salkinds had to sell their movie rights to the entire Superfamily. The bad news is, this movie still got made. So let’s get into it.

Let’s start with Supergirl/Kara herself, played by Helen Slater. Slater’s star burned out by the early 90s, but not before co-starring in City Slickers and the underrated The Secret of My Success. She plays Supergirl with a wide-eyed wonder, trying for the “aw shucks” style of Christopher Reeve’s Superman/Clark Kent but only partially succeeding. Slater does have a certain charm in the role, but it never fully lands; she often looks a little blank, and never tough enough.

The movie begins in Argo City, a Kryptonian community that wikipedia tells me exists in transdimensional space; I honestly missed that or any other explanation was for its existence. But the late, great Peter O’Toole is there as Kara’s mentor, Zaltar, and Mia Farrow has a very brief role as Kara’s mother. But when Kara loses the orb that powers the city, she has to take off in a space ship to find it. We’re told that she’s Superman’s cousin, and that the journey from “inner space” to “outer space” will give her Superman’s powers. That journey basically looks like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without any actual production values.


Upon arriving on Earth, Kara lands in a lake and bursts through the water, already in full Supergirl costume for some unexplained reason. The moment reminded me of the comics debut of Phoenix, which just made me sad about yet another ruined superheroine. (Thanks again, Brett Ratner!)

super phoenix

Then we see Supergirl instantly dry, which I’m going to pretend is a new superpower of hers instead of just another sign of how zero fucks the makers of this movie gave. She uses her new heat vision to make a flower bloom, which I’m almost positive is not an accurate portrayal of what would happen to a flower if bombarded by an intense heat laser powerful enough to cut through metal.

heat vision makes flowers bloom

Before long, she decides she needs a secret identity, though the “why” is completely unknowable; she’s only on Earth to get in, get back the orb her people need, and get out again. But, she does have instant costume change abilities that allow her to disguise herself as the brunette Linda Lee at an all-girls boarding school. (Admittedly, the hair color is a better disguise than glasses.)

magical costume change

Her roommate, of course, has to be Lucy Lane, Lois’s younger sister, because this movie is determined to give us worse versions of everything from Superman.

lois' sister

Does Superman himself show up? Haha fuck you, of course he doesn’t. But Lucy does have a poster of him, and we do hear a radio story telling us that Superman is gone on a peace mission to a faraway galaxy (naturally). So, no Superman and Lois’s annoying little sister instead of Lois; right then, you’re thinking, “damn, I guess no one important wanted to be in this movie.” Then BAM! You were wrong, because guess what, Jimmy Olsen’s schedule was free!

the returning star

The villain for the movie is Selena, played by Faye Dunaway; similar to the first Superman, Dunaway’s star power was deemed important enough that she got cast billing ahead of the title character. Selena is a character who makes no damn sense. We meet her as she talks about wanting to rule the world, and mentions that she needs to become invisible to do so. Questionable logic, right? But no worries, that is literally the last time invisibility is mentioned. Because that’s the genius (cough) of Selena: every time you think the movie is giving her a clear character motivation, it pivots into something new.

magic ball

The orb Supergirl is ostensibly looking for? Selena found it (above), and it gives her super witch powers. Which, ok. So now she’s going to use those powers to take over the world. Except that instead, she sees Ethan, a random hot gardener, and decides to use the powers to make him fall in love with her. When he falls for Kara/Supergirl/Linda (seriously, too many names, girl) instead, Selena tries to use her power to destroy Linda. Then when Supergirl shows up, Selena decides to focus her power on beating her, because she’s an idiot. Then at some point, she gets back around to the world domination thing.

It’s exhaustingly nonsensical, but I have to give Dunaway some credit. She commits to this batshit crazy character and plays her batshit crazy schemes with passion, no matter how batshit crazy they are.

dunaway witch

As for Ethan, he gets to be the movie’s love interest. The film glosses over the fact that he only fell in love with Linda/Supergirl because of a spell, not out of free will. As far as love interests go, he might literally be the most empty, boring one I’ve ever seen on any show or movie. His personality can best be described as human cardboard. Weirdly, that felt vaguely comforting to me. Given the number of female love interests we’ve seen for the male action hero, and how hollow those women almost always are, I think Ethan being worse than any of them might be the most progressive thing in this movie.

Of course, any progressivism doesn’t last long as Supergirl turns into hopeless schoolgirl at the first sight of a boy showing any interest in her. She abandons that whole “helping her people” thing to go be with Ethan (when the orb was nearly within her grasp), and is so taken by him that we see her trying to recreate their kiss in the mirror.

male in distressmirror lesbian.

Ethan recognizes her secret identity when they kiss again while she’s Supergirl, meaning that Sam Raimi might have stolen that whole idea from freaking Supergirl. Then a bunch of shit happens, and somehow, Supergirl gets sent to the Phantom Zone.

phantom zone

The good news is that Zaltar is there, which means more screen time for Peter O’Toole. Bias alert, O’Toole was one of my favorite actors of all time. But he seemed to be phoning it in during the Argo City opening scenes. In the Phantom Zone, he gives us at least a hint of the edge that made him so great, playing Zaltar as half-crazed even as he helps Supergirl escape. It was easily the highlight of the film for me.


So Supergirl goes back and they have the big final battle and plot resolutions and whatever. Fortunately, the movie ends. Unfortunately, the idea begins that a female character can’t carry her own superhero(ine) movie. Obviously, that’s bullshit. The problems of Supergirl were an ADHD plot and boring characters with no discernible personalities. The movie gives us a Supergirl in an impossibly tight shirt and a short skirt that’s never more than an inch from showing too much, and it seems clueless as to why anyone would need more.


I’m pretty sure we’ll never see a superheroine fighting crime in a parka, but hopefully the day is coming where we at least get an actual story structure put around a woman. It’s just not here. Definitely not here.

NEXT TIME: The Toxic Avenger (1984)

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One Comment

  1. Very belatedly commenting on this one! I haven’t seen it, but still, I have mixed feelings. Yeah, maybe Supergirl got the Super-franchise out of the hands of the Salkinds, who’d taken it in some pretty questionable directions (starting with removing Donner from Superman II), but if it had been successful, I think Hollywood would be having a completely different, more positive dialogue over superheroine movies than it’s having today. Sure, you can say the same thing about Elektra and Catwoman, but Supergirl could have nipped this in the bud. I think the upcoming Supergirl TV series is going to make amends for this, though, especially if Geoff Johns is going to be keeping an eye on it.

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