Supergirl: “…and I must ask you all something — “
Jimmy Olson: “It’s alright, Supergirl. We never saw you.”
Lucy Lane: “We never even heard of you.”
If only I could say the same.
Helen Slater (City Slickers, Ruthless People) stars as Kara, a young woman who lives in the peaceful inner-dimensional (“inner space” they call it) place called Argo City, where additional surviving Kryptonians reside for reasons the film mostly ignores. Her friend Zaltar (O’Toole, My Favorite Year) allows her to utilize the powerful orb called the Omegahedron, which the city needs in order to continue to survive (not that you’d know its critical value to all life among the populace from the way no one knows it is missing, and also how Zaltar kicks it around willy-nilly), but an accident sees it break through the surface of the contained city, and shoot out into space.
Kara decides upon herself to go after the Omegahedron, using her artist uncle Zaltar’s homemade escape pod to shuttle her to Earth (specifically Midvale, Illinois, where a Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits restaurant is the hottest spot in town), where she fits in among the people by changing her appearance and assuming an alter ego of an American prep-school student, Linda Lee (thankfully, the people of Argo City must all know English, as Kara speaks it to others on Earth fluently), until she can locate the orb using the locator device on her bracelet. She also discovers that she has superpowers akin to her cousin, Superman, which allow her to fly, shoot beams of heat with her eyes, and see through most objects.
Meanwhile, the Omegahedron ends up in the hands of a fledgling sorceress in America named Selena (Dunaway, The First Deadly Sin), who uses the device for her own selfish purposes. However, Kara, as both Linda and Supergirl, keeps getting in Selena’s way to becoming the powerful witch she desperately wants to be. With Selena’s power growing, and not much time before Argo City dies, Kara must find a way to get back the Omegahedron and restore it to its proper place before Selena grows too powerful to stop.
Set up as the first film in what would turn out to be a failed attempt to jump start a dying series into an offshoot franchise, Supergirl, the first major superhero film with a woman n the lead role, would fall victim to the same thinking that marred the series it spun off from, Superman. Superman III was released the year before, and the taste in many fans’ mouths would already be bad enough by the time this less-than-stellar superhero treatment had been released. The first intended cut proved to be a trial of endurance for preview audiences, eventually gutted down due to poor test screenings from an original 2 1/2 hours just before it hit theaters, with international audiences seeing a 124-minute cut, and US audiences witnessing even more severe rollbacks with a 105-minute version that jettisons a good deal of the Argo City, Supergirl’s graceful early flying sequences, and some Midvale High scenes that many who witnessed them claimed to be uninteresting. French director Jeannot Szwarc, who got the gig on Christopher Reeve’s recommendation (they worked together on Somewhere in Time) after the Salkinds’ initial choices of Richard Lester and Robert Wise declined, had the unenviable task of complying with the demands. Despite gutting his film, the Salkinds did enjoy working with Szwarc enough to do so again on their next film, 1985’s Santa Claus: The Movie.
The practice of studio trimming often wipes away all sense of a movie’s explanations and pacing, but given what was remnant, it would appear that the folks at Warner Bros’ may have been a bit merciful on wasting any more time for the audiences that had paid to see it in 1984. Subsequent releases on DVD beef up the run time to get it nearly back up to the original length, and while it does fill in a few important character details here and there, the film’s biggest liability, the script, still inhibits Supergirl from soaring to the heights of Superman’s debut in 1978.
As is often common for projects built with making money in mind, the makers of Supergirl have little authentic love or caring for the character at the center of the movie, or for the character’s fans from her appearances in comic book form. The original intent was for Christopher Reeve to reprise playing Superman in a small role to introduce his cousin to Earth and how to harness her new powers, but, when push came to shove, Reeve eventually declined to appear, having felt that he already closed the book on the character, and this resulted in a lack of proper exposition on Kara’s “coming out” as Supergirl. Much of the back story of Argo City (which appears to be in space at the beginning of the film, then accessed under a body of water on Earth toward the end), the nature of Supergirl’s powers, and the origin of her and her traditional costume are left mostly to our imagination, with an abbreviated setup that we just are left to assume must conform somehow to that of Kal-El, as told in the original Superman film. It certainly didn’t do the film’s chances of success any good that the script underwent a plethora of rewrites, many of them occurring on a daily basis during the film’s shoot.
The lack of adequate character development and a rock-solid origin are shameful when you actually see what they deem to put into the story in their place. Extended scenes of trivial matters, such as Selena going full cougar by trying to get the studly school groundkeeper, Ethan (Bochner, Breaking Away), to fall for her through a spell, or Kara’s moments of heroism at the boarding school against conniving bullies, do little to enhance the story at large.
Other than its gorgeous score from Jerry Goldsmith, who was Richard Donner’s first choice when he was considering composers for his original Superman film, if there is anything that keeps this film from bogging down to intolerable levels, it’s due to good casting in the important roles. Nineteen-year-old Helen Slater, a relative newcomer who beat out well known actresses like Brooke Shields, Melanie Griffith, and Demi Moore (who was also considered for Lucy Lane) for the role, proves to have the looks, grace and character to play the goody-goody neophyte. Slater followed in Christopher Reeve’s footsteps by signing a three-picture option with the Salkinds, though the lack of success for the first entry didn’t pan out for her continuation in the role on the big screen. Top-billed consummate scenery chewer Faye Dunaway (who scored the role after turn-downs from the likes of Dolly Parton, Goldie Hawn and Jane Fonda) is quite charismatic in her high camp role as Selena, the scheming side-show sorceress (literally living in the haunted house attraction in a run-down amusement park until she wills herself a castle on a mountain) whose pettiness drivers her to make silly blunders. Unfortunately for Dunaway, her performance wasn’t lauded at the time, earning a Razzie nomination, as did Peter O’Toole for his flamboyantly pained portrayal of Zaltan.
Unfortunately, despite having a game cast to make a good film, the contrived situations and dialogue are also a disappointment. In one of the most forced examples of economy of characters, Supergirl, Clark Kent’s cousin, not only happens to attend the same school as Lois Lane’s cousin, Lucy (Teefy, Grease 2), but they are also roommates. Furthermore, Selena’s partner in sorcery, Nigel, is one of Linda Lee’s teachers at her school, while Jimmy Olson, played once again by Superman‘s Marc McClure (Superman II, Superman IV), is also in town, apparently dating the teenage sister of his coworker, despite living a thousand miles away.
The effects, even by the standards of 1984, seem a bit antiquated. Phony backdrops, matting, and plenty of magical doohickeys that look battery operated are used as special effects, with sets primarily located at Pinewood Studios, where the Superman films were also filmed. They do a pretty decent job in convincing us that Supergirl can fly, though, with Szwarc insisting that the style of slight for Supergirl should be graceful and elegant, in contrast to the urgent and determined mechanics employed by her cousin. It’s a shame these moments of aesthetic beauty are relatively few and far between.
While the Salkinds would botch up the Superman franchise by trying to make them into comedies, they admirably temper the all-out gags in Supergirl, perhaps too much at times, as some of the things we’re supposed to take at face value as deadly serious stretch the ability to feel like they carry the weight intended. It’s too silly to take some of the more peril-filled moments as truly catastrophic, and yet the tone is not really set up properly to think that the campiest scenes are altogether meant to be tongue-in-cheek humorous. It’s not funny in the slightest, but at the same time, quite laughable in many respects.
Supergirl is a project that should have been a slam dunk. We like Superman, attractive actors in respectably flattering outfits, and we like superhero films with interesting mythos and the ability to create a sense of fun. While the Superman tie-in and the cute girl are there, it’s those last bits, the interesting mythos and sense of fun, that are too often missing from this fits-and-starts attempt to capitalize on an already fading franchise. As a result, it was a major flop at the box office, taking in a paltry $14 million on a budget at least three times that. I suspect if we were to ask the Salkinds, whose Supergirl would represent their final effort to bring the stories of Kryptonian heroes tot he big screen, why they have such little regard for these characters and the fans that love them, their response might echo that of one of the would-be rapists Supergirl inquires of as to their motivation for being so tenaciously malignant: “That’s just the way we are.”
— Helen Slater would come back to the world of “Supergirl” for several episodes of the 2015 TV show as Eliza Danvers, the adoptive mother of Kara. Prior to this, she also played Superman’s Kryptonian birth mother, Lara, on a few episodes of TV’s “Smallville”, and voiced Superman’s adoptive mother, Martha Kent, on an episode of the animated TV show, “DC Super Hero Girls”.
Qwipster’s rating: D+
MPAA Rated: PG for violence and some language
Running Time: 105 min. (138 min. director’s cut)
Cast: Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway, Peter Cook, Hart Bochner, Brenda Vaccaro, Maureen Teefny, Peter O’Toole, Marc McClure, Mia Farrow, Matt Frewer (cameo)
Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Screenplay: David Odell (based on the character created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino)