On first watch, My Super Ex-Girlfriend seems like it’s building to a subtle visual punchline. Each time mild-mannered art curator Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman) transforms into all-powerful New York City superhero G-Girl, she wears a different high-fashion ensemble branded with her signature logo. The potential for social commentary is rich: While famous men can wear the same suit all the time, famous women are expected to be non-stop fashionistas. G-Girl has to do everything Superman does backwards and in (literal) heels. Only it turns out it isn’t a joke at all. As the film’s production notes explain:
[Screenwriter Don] Payne at first envisioned outfitting G-Girl with one iconic outfit, like the classic superheroes. Always with an eye to realism, [director] Ivan Reitman suggested that Jenny have many designer outfits. After all, Reitman points out, “She’s a woman and would want to mix it up a bit.”
Forget “With great power comes great responsibility”; My Super Ex-Girlfriend believes “Women be shopping.”
If superheroes are power fantasies, then the past two decades of non-stop live-action superhero content reveals a whole lot about who our culture wants to see empowered. It wasn’t until 2017 that Patty Jenkins finally delivered our first successful big screen female superhero power fantasy with Wonder Woman. Tellingly, however, a decade earlier 20th Century Fox had been more than happy to green-light a romantic comedy about how terrifying it would be if a woman had Superman’s abilities. When My Super Ex-Girlfriend debuted in 2006, the only prior female-led, major-studio solo superhero films were 1984’s Supergirl, 2004’s Catwoman, and 2005’s Elektra, all of which had been critical and commercial flops. At a time when big-screen female superheroes were already considered laughing stocks, My Super Ex-Girlfriend’s comedy didn’t exactly punch up.
If you haven’t seen My Super Ex-Girlfriend, don’t. And if you have, I’m sorry. The film stars Luke Wilson as Matt Saunders, a dweeby architect who lives the dream of dating a gorgeous female superhero before experiencing the nightmare of having an all-powerful woman as his vengeful ex. The film establishes its comedic sensibility early, with a scene in which Matt’s horndog sidekick Vaughn (Rainn Wilson) muses that if he could have any superpower, it would be the ability to give himself a blowjob. Somehow things only get worse from there. The mid-’00s were a rough time for both superhero movies and romantic comedies, so it’s not totally surprising that combining the two led to such disastrous results. But even grading on that curve, it’s astounding just how much My Super Ex-Girlfriend, well, blows.
What’s especially frustrating is that there’s so much potential in its premise. My Super Ex-Girlfriend could’ve poked fun at male insecurities about powerful women, or deconstructed sexist tropes, like The CW’s brilliant musical comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did. But screenwriter and longtime Simpsons staffer Don Payne has no idea how to expand his engaging pitch into a full-length feature. And director Ivan Reitman—the one-time Ghostbusters helmer struggling in the late period of his career—doesn’t seem to understand either of the genres he’s spoofing.
It’s remarkable how little effort My Super Ex-Girlfriend puts into fleshing out its female lead. Though teenage Jenny got her powers from a meteorite that also transformed her from high school outcast to popular hottie, she’s for some reason grown up to be an insecure, maladjusted adult. Given her cruel, possessive, hot-tempered personality, it’s baffling that Jenny has devoted her life to superheroism—an inconsistency the film alternately writes off as “Hey, it’s just a comedy!” and “Women, am I right?” Apparently more of Jenny’s backstory wound up on the cutting room floor, which leaves the final version of the character especially choppy. We never even learn what the “G” in G-Girl stands for, although “G-spot” is tossed out as a potential answer. We do, however, get a close-up of her teenage breasts expanding several sizes when she gets her powers. Priorities!
Matt, meanwhile, is exactly the sort of blank, self-insert character who fits the “Mary Sue” archetype better than the female leads typically saddled with that pejorative. Not even Luke Wilson’s Herculean charms can salvage the material. Asked about his first date with Jenny, Matt condescendingly notes, “Well, she’s a talker.” Yet rather than hold the character accountable for his own flaws in a way that might make his comedic comeuppance funnier to watch, My Super Ex-Girlfriend presents Matt as a blameless hero who unfairly suffers under the wrath of a “crazy” woman. After the titular break-up finally occurs 52 minutes into this 96-minute movie, Jenny launches Matt’s car into space, burns the word “dick” onto his forehead, and tosses a live shark into his bedroom—all of which is more disturbing than comedic. Especially for the poor shark.
Asked in an interview whether My Super Ex-Girlfriend takes a “pro-male” point of view, Thurman responded, “That’s a really good question because I don’t know the answer. Think about it this way—it’s written by a man and directed by a man, produced by a bunch of men and then there was me. So is it a male nightmare? Or is it a female cathartic revolution to sort of go completely crazy and let him have it?” Facing a similar question, Luke Wilson went with the simpler, “I would say it’s kind of for men.” My Super Ex-Girlfriend was part of a mid-’00s trend that saw the romantic comedy genre—a longtime haven for women’s stories—overtaken by crasser male-centric comedies like Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend occasionally delivers a funny superhero gag, like the scene where Jenny starts to undress in front of Matt only to realize she’s still wearing her G-Girl costume underneath her clothes. But given that the superhero genre has always embraced its fair share of rom-com tropes anyway (Superman and Spider-Man are basically classic romantic leads trying to “have it all” as they balance careers and relationships), there’s not much here that feels particularly new. The film’s biggest innovation is depicting superhero sex in action, although its PG-13 rating prevents Reitman and Payne from delivering the level of raunch they clearly want. Instead we get what amounts to a mid-air rape scene played for laughs because the woman is the instigator.
Among the many elements of My Super Ex-Girlfriend that have aged poorly, two others stand out. One is a running joke about how ridiculous it is that Matt’s boss (Wanda Sykes) adamantly defends her female employees against potential sexual harassment—a truly wild thing to watch in 2020. The other is the fact that Jenny ultimately ends up with her evil archnemesis, Professor Bedlam (Eddie Izzard), who turns out to be the nerdy high school bestie she left behind when she got popular. Bedlam’s years-long attempt to stalk and de-power Jenny is recontextualized as the ultimate romantic gesture—which could potentially work as a satire of problematic rom-com tropes, but My Super Ex-Girlfriend plays it for earnestness rather than laughs. It’s like incel fanfic brought to life. (Matt, of course, gets to end up with his dream “cool girl” love interest, played by Anna Faris.)
My Super Ex-Girlfriend was a creative low point for pretty much everyone involved. Payne would go on to co-write Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer and the first two Thor movies—imperfect superhero films I could mount a far more impassioned defense of. (Sadly, Payne passed away from bone cancer in 2013.) Reitman would next make the Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached, another flawed film I have a lot of affection for. Luke Wilson atoned for his Super Ex sins earlier this year by playing the ultimate male ally on DC’s Stargirl series.
Thurman has probably had the rockiest career since the film’s release. My Super Ex-Girlfriend was part of her post-Kill Bill focus on comedy, something that also gave us her turn in The Producers and several other lackluster rom-coms. One has to wonder if things might’ve turned out differently if My Super Ex-Girlfriend had positioned Jenny as a full-on supervillain, allowing Thurman to hit some of the deliciously campy notes she’d previously played as Poison Ivy in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. That at least would’ve eliminated the moral inconsistency that makes Jenny such a sexist stereotype.
Though My Super Ex-Girlfriend was a box office bomb and a critical failure, contemporary reviews pulled their punches in strange ways. In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum described the film as a “tolerable comedy” and noted that “[t]he movie’s too slapdash to keep its characters consistent, but this has its moments.” Even the negative notices extend a certain generosity that’s not always afforded to more traditional romantic comedies—and especially wasn’t during the ’00s. My Super Ex-Girlfriend has roughly the same Rotten Tomatoes score as Maid In Manhattan and How To Lose Guy In 10 Days—putting it well above the worst rom-coms I’ve covered for this column, even though it should absolutely be considered among them.
Looking back, My Super Ex-Girlfriend stands as both a time-capsule curio and a bit of warning sign. The canon of big screen superhero films starring women is still embarrassingly sparse (and noticeably white), and it’s doubtful we’ll reach anything close to gender parity anytime soon, even with Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow on the horizon. G-Girl certainly isn’t the hero anyone needs or deserves. Yet her existence reveals a whole lot about our culture’s ongoing existential anxiety about powerful women, fictional or otherwise.
Next time: Dirty Dancing gave us all the time of our lives.