Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: to hear the marketing tell it, you'd think that Wonder Woman was the very first major comic book movie headlined by a woman. Not hardly! "The first one that isn't utterly terrible", now there you've got a point.

Once upon a time, when movie studios made a superhero film and it was a great big hit, they did everything in their power to keep flogging the brand name until it went shitty and everybody hated it. In 1978, that film was Superman, produced by father and son Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and distributed by Warner Bros. (which did not yet own DC Comics, the company which ultimately owned the character). It was great, and everyone loved it, and even before it left theaters, the Salkinds had already planted the seeds of their own destruction.

Superman was initially conceived of as a massive two-part production, the film and its sequel made in one big push (a model the Salkinds had pioneered with The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers in 1973-'74), but eventually Superman II was put on hold to wrap up Superman. In the interim, for reasons that remain unsatisfactorily clear, director Richard Donner was fired and replaced by Richard Lester, who took the series in a decisively bad direction, towards frivolous dipshit comedy. Enough remained of Donner's work that when Superman II was released in 1980, it still held up as a strong movie, but this stay of execution only lasted until the all-Lester Superman III came out in 1983. That film just barely managed to turn a profit, and it was critically lambasted, but the major problem with it was that it left series star Christopher Reeve itching to get out of the tights and cape and maybe not be Superman anymore.

That being said, even with Superman III underperforming, the brand name still had some value to it, and so Ilya Salkind turned to the question of how to make a Superman movie without Superman. The answer was sitting right in the large corpus of DC Comics characters: Superman, you see, had a cousin, Kara Zor-El AKA Linda Lee AKA Supergirl. And so it was that production began on a spin-off built on her character, with Reeve agreeing to a cameo to help seal the continuity between the Superman trilogy and this new Supergirl.

Or not. By the time Supergirl entered production, Reeve had thought better of it, and the filmmakers needed to scramble to replace him (while the character was barely seen, he was central to the story). This they signally failed to do, and when Supergirl opened in July 1984 in the UK and November 1984 in the USA, it was to hostile indifference. The film, which cost only a hair less than Superman III, lost a considerable sum of money, and the chastened Salkinds sold the rights off to Cannon Films. There, perhaps eager to prove that a worse film than Supergirl could yet be made, they crapped out the appalling Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Now's hardly the time to go into that movie, but I will say that it's excellent for Supergirl that Superman IV should exist; it's just about the only thing that makes Supergirl look even halfway decent.

It is, to start with, an unapologetic Superman knockoff: somewhere on an alien planet that looks like Star Wars concept art, a legendary actor isn't trying very hard, and some bit of alien tech goes all corkscrew shaped, forcing one individual to flee the planet before it's destroyed. This time, the legendary actor is Peter O'Toole as Zaltar, who has "borrowed" an extremely powerful object called the Omegahedron, the central power source for Argo City, an outpost of survivors from the destruction of Krypton hiding in a pocket universe. I do love it when movies adapt all the worst parts of comic book canon. Anyway, Zaltar matters only insofar as he loses the Omegahedron and condemns Argo City to destruction; the only person who can save the day is Kara (Helen Slater), cousin of Kal-El, the lone Krytponian who traveled to Earth where he was raised as Clark Kent and taught to do good in the world.Β  And wouldn't you know, but Earth is where the Omegehedron ended up, meaning that Kara has to jump into a convenient space-travel orb and follow it, much over the objection of her parents (Mia Farrow, for some reason, plays her mom, for all of 90 seconds). Along the way, Kara becomes Supergirl. I don't know how else to put it. Like, the Supergirl outfit just magics its way onto her body.

Speaking of magic, the Omegehedron, on Earth, has ended up in the hands of Selena (Faye Dunaway, who was indeed at that point of her career by now), an aspiring witch under the thumb of sarcastic warlock Nigel (Peter Cook). Realising that this strange device can give her all the powers of the universe, Selena and her tart-tongued gal pal Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro, prefiguring the blunt sarcasm of '90s Carrie Fisher, and emerging as the only cast member who's at all fun to watch) break away from Nigel and start practicing using the Omegehedron's unpredictable powers. Meanwhile, Kara arrives at a girls' school and presents herself as the cousin of famed newspaper reporter Clark Kent named Linda Lee, somehow managing to get set up as the roommate of Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy), the little sister of none other than Lois Lane. Who will, of course, not be showing up, Margot Kidder being possibly the only person more fucking done with this franchise after Superman III than Christopher Reeve was. But you know who does show up? That beloved fan favorite Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), whose arrival in the story is explained little if at all, and who exists to give Lucy somebody to coo over in defiance of all taste and, presumably, statutory rape laws.

So we've got all our players lined up: Supergirl and her plucky sidekick Lucy versus techno-witch Selena, and her eager desire to take over the whole world with magic. Naturally, then, it's time for the film to spend a whole goddamn hour depicting the feud between Kara and Selena over the school groundskeeper Ethan (Hart Bochner). Yes, this is what screenwriter David Odell and the rest of the filmmakers came up with for the very first movie staring a female superhero movie: high-school level sexual jealousy between Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway. Over a simpering nobody, no less.

Eventually, the plot does actually become consequential, but wasting so much time on such a tepid love story speaks to the far, far greater problem with Supergirl: its triviality. That's the big problem with all of the '80s Superman films, really. Not that Superman was all grit and suffering and seriousness, of course. Part of why it still holds up almost 40 years later is that Donner captured the essence of silly, bright-toned Silver Age comics, filtered through the can-do spirit of Reeve's boyish Clark. But Donner managed to do that while still taking the plot, the conflict, and the emotions of the story seriously. None of the three mainline sequels managed anything nearly that delicate: they're all varying degrees of frivolous camp, and Supergirl out-camps them all. Odell and director Jeannot Szwarc (who got the job because Reeve recommended him after a good on-set experience with Somewhere in Time, though the first thing I'll always think of when I hear Szwarc's name is the powerfully mediocre Jaws 2) seem completely allergic to taking their material seriously even for an instant. Selena is presented as a dopey incompetent, an impression Dunaway embraces and augments, played so entirely for laughs that when she (apparently by accident) does manage to become the dictator of whatever town this takes place in, it's entirely impossible to view her as a real threat. It's possible that a stronger actor playing Kara might have at least redeemed that character, but Slater is all wooden, staring aimlessly with giant eyes and a one-size-fits-all upbeat expression that's no replacement at all for Reeve's easygoing grin.

Besides which, the thing looks damn cheap. The opening credits, costing a mindblowing $1 million, are no more impressive than the psychadelia of any random 1960s Roger Corman picture; the flying effects look astonishingly horrible, six years after Superman. Numerous times throughout the film, thick black lines surround the actors where they've been composited in front of a background, or stuck in front of a rear projection screen. The film cost $35 million in 1984 dollars; it doesn't even seem like it should have cost that much in 2017 dollars, based on the reedy results. The only thing about the film that feels even a little bit polished is Jerry Goldsmith's score, and even that skews more towards generically triumphant horns that feel like a calculated John Williams homage than anything with the inventiveness of even mid-level Goldsmith. Outside of that (and I guess Vaccaro, though I think I enjoy her more for the "blowing up the movie from inside" quality of her work, rather than her performance per se), Supergirl is nothing: stupid as hell, confusing as hell - I even know this material, and the backstory of Argo City was hard to follow - too cheap to come anywhere close to working as mindless spectacle, and bereft of appealing heroes or villains. Even with more than thirty years of subsequent comic book movies, plenty of them just so terrible, this one still stands out for being particularly awful.