Remember When... The 'Supergirl' Movie Made Us Think We'd Never See a Supergirl TV Show?

Remember When... The 'Supergirl' Movie Made Us Think We'd Never See a Supergirl TV Show?

Nov 20, 2015

Comic book fans and regular folk alike have been enjoying Supergirl on CBS this fall, in which Superman's plucky cousin embarks on her own career of superheroism. So far, the show is upbeat and fun, and it has a smart attitude about how it handles the subject of gender.

It's a far cry from Supergirl: The Movie, which opened this week in 1984 to the great embarrassment of everyone involved. And of everyone who saw it. Which wasn't a large group. The misbegotten spinoff of the hugely successful Superman movies made just $14.3 million, a flop worse than this year's Fantastic Four, even adjusting for inflation. The version shown in North American theaters was 20 minutes shorter than the European one, but both were poorly received. It was a disaster.

Supergirl was bad for a number of reasons. Like its immediate predecessor, Superman III, it was overly silly and cartoonish. It also fell into many of the traps that you'd fear a "female version of a male superhero" story might fall into. Supergirl has the same powers as Superman ... plus the ability to create costumes and change her hair color at will. Y'know, like a girl would! The battle between her and the villain, a witch named Selena (Faye Dunaway), boils down to fighting over a man. A love potion is involved. A love potion, people. 

What's surprising from a 2015 standpoint is that the film's cringe-worthy sexism doesn't seem to have been what sank it. The contemporary reviews from Roger Ebert, Variety, and The New York Times, all of them negative, don't mention it. Apparently the movie had so many other flaws that the inherent wrongness of cinema's first superheroine fighting with a witch over a man's love barely registered. America was more conservative then -- Ronald Reagan was hugely popular, and the Equal Rights Amendment had recently died -- so maybe the subject of how women are portrayed in media just wasn't something most people thought about. 

Of course, things are different now. (They'll probably be different still in another 31 years, when the gender politics of 2015 will seem embarrassing.) To launch a Supergirl TV show in the 21st century means addressing all the elephants in the room, starting with the basic one: If she's patterned after Superman, why is she Supergirl and not Superwoman?

The pilot episode of Supergirl had the heroine's alter ego, Kara Danvers, ask this very question of the media mogul (also a woman) who came up with the name. The answer wasn't very satisfying -- and of course the real answer is "because that's been the character's name since 1959, so just go with it" -- but at least the show acknowledged the issue.

The matter of sexy but impractical costumes has also come up. There was even a villain who underestimated Supergirl because he comes from a planet (a different one) where women are subservient to men. And while there are romantic possibilities for Kara, so far it's not dominating her thought process (at least, not any more than it would for any twentysomething living in the big city). 

But gender issues aside, the main reason Supergirl the TV show has fared better than Supergirl: The Movie is that it's not a hot barrel of garbage. We'll forgive a lot of political incorrectness if we're enjoying ourselves. Hardly anyone enjoyed that misfire from Thanksgiving 1984. This year, fans have a lot more to be grateful for.


When Supergirl was released, on Nov. 21, 1984...

- It was the day before Thanksgiving. Supergirl fared poorly, earning $7.7 million for the five-day weekend (about $19 million at today's ticket prices), but it was enough for first place. The only other new release, the Robert De Niro/Meryl Streep drama Falling in Love, did even worse. Also in the multiplexes: The Terminator, Missing in Action, Oh, God! You Devil!, Night of the Comet, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Amadeus, and Places in the Heart

- Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" was the number one song in the land. All over America, people were heeding the call to wake one another up before they went-went. Also high on the charts that week: "Purple Rain," by Prince; "Caribbean Queen," by Billy Ocean; "I Just Called to Say I Love You," by Stevie Wonder; and "Out of Touch," by Hall & Oates. 

- Four days later, a crowd of pop stars calling themselves Band-Aid would record "Do They Know It's Christmas?," a fundraiser for famine in Ethiopia. Though it was a terrible song, it raised millions of dollars in relief aid, so we're giving it a pass.

- President Ronald Reagan had recently won a second term in office, giving Walter Mondale such a sound thrashing that no one ever said his name again until right now. 

- Ted Turner's Cable Music Channel, intended as a competitor to MTV, was on day 27 of what would prove to be a 34-day lifespan. People wanted an alternative to MTV, but CMC apparently was not the alternative they wanted. 

- Elsewhere on TV, Charles in Charge and V were both new. NBC had recently aired the Farrah Fawcett made-for-TV movie The Burning Bed, which turned out to be the most-watched program (not counting news or sports) of the year. Plans for a sequel, I Know What You Burned Last Summer, never materialized. 

- Jena Malone was born on this very day. Scarlett Johansson was born the next day. Katy Perry and Kelly Osbourne were both less than a month old. Francois Truffaut had just died, though, so the flags at all the film schools were at half-mast. 

Categories: Features, Geek, Movie Nostalgia
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