Welcome to 1984: The Greatest Year Part II – Electric Boogaloo, the Geek League of America’s 30th anniversary tribute to the iconic geek culture films of 1984. This series of in-depth, analytical, fun, and nostalgic essays on the year that brought us instant classics like Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Gremlins, and others serves as a sequel to our 1982: The Greatest Year articles. Like 1982, 1984 was a game-changing year for genre cinema, loaded with popcorn blockbusters, cult hits, and genre-defining masterpieces. Join Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America for a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental year in nerd culture history.
Supergirl was one of the many films released in 1984 that could be considered geeky. Based on the DC Comics character—and in an attempt to profit off of the success of the Christopher Reeves’ Superman continuity—Helen Slater took on the titular role of Kara Zor-El to…not much celebration. In fact, the movie was, and is, wildly reviled, being nominated for a number of Razzies, and ultimately leading to the rights to Superman being sold to another movie studio.
However, the movie is not all bad. While it relies on some big clichés (the witchy villain Selena, played by an uneven-at-best Faye Dunaway, is trying to take over the world…until she’s sidetracked by the fact that a handsome man has spurned her advances and fallen in love with Supergirl), has some gaping plot holes and deus ex machine (the Omegahedron, the one thing that can power Argo is a tiny ball; that seems wise for an advanced alien race), and is overall a tonally uneven movie, there are moments that feel right for a movie about a super-powered teen girl, and the movie handles nods to canon beautifully.
Kara comes to Earth on a mission to save her home, Argo City. Initially, she becomes distracted by her own abilities. This scene resonates because of the sheer joy that Supergirl displays when she first discovers her amazing new powers. The perspective of the camera, the almost voyeuristic shots, watching Kara gracefully float through the woods, sets it apart from the rest of the film, and offers a look at the pure joy and celebration that should be a part of both Superman and, by extension, Supergirl. Having superpowers is fun for these characters, and the scene gives it an otherworldly, almost balletic, feel that just makes you happy.
After running into some men who harass and try to assault her—a “girl power” filled scene in which she easily defends herself, showing not only that she is not afraid of the men, but also that she can protect herself quite handily—Kara quickly infiltrates an all-girls’ school, taking up the guise of Linda Lee, cousin of Clark Kent (because she is aware that Superman, her actual cousin, is in fact Clark Kent). In a show of bizarre knowledgeability for someone who’s only been on the planet for a few hours, she manages to use super speed to type up a fake a letter of introduction that gets her into the school, and leads to her meeting her roommate, Lucy Lane (played by an adorable Maureen Teefy), the younger sister of Lois Lane. The girls have an instant connection (their relatives being coworkers, after all), and Lucy offers Linda use of her clothes and sets up on double dates for Linda with her and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure in the only role reprised from the other Superman movies). This fast friendship is a beautiful rarity for superhero films, where women, if there is more than one in a movie, barely talk to each other, unless it’s about how they are both in love with the male lead.
Through some plot shenanigans, the school’s love potion-drugged groundskeeper Ethan (an attempt at turning Hart Bochner into a big name heart throb) falls in love with Supergirl’s Linda guise (kind of a creepy plotline, considering their implied ages), while Supergirl struggles with her own attraction to him. Then, all her friends get kidnapped and Kara gets transported to the Phantom Zone, but she manages to escape, aided by her mentor Zaltar (who was exiled earlier in the film—in place of her—for losing the Omegahedron), and eventually Kara is able to banish Selena and her minion into a mirror-based vortex, breaking all her evil spells, and reuniting with the handsome, un-drugged Ethan. The movie ends on a bittersweet note, with Ethan professing his love for Linda/Supergirl, while simultaneously accepting that she has a greater mission, and that they may never see one another again. This scene rejects the traditional “man saves the world” motif, and allows Supergirl to become fully realized as a heroic figure.
At its heart, Supergirl is a ludicrously hokey movie, but it has something that its modern counterparts lack: joy. Supergirl is a story of love and friendship, and protecting what you treasure.
It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but even without the glasses of nostalgia (I wasn’t alive in 1984, and this viewing of the movie was my first), Supergirl has a lot of what I want to see in a superhero movie: a female-led superhero movie (possibly the first of its kind) where the star has female friends, a sense of happiness (as opposed to constant grit and grimness), and brightly colored costumes. I think author John Grant said it best in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, saying Supergirl was an “exceptionally charming [character, and the movie had] excellent—and excellently realized—flights of imagination.” Supergirl is less about the movie as a whole, and more about the parts of it that are truly unusual and good.