Supergirl (1984) / Fantasy-Action
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)
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.
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 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 equally bungling superhero treatment had been dumped into theaters, gutted down from an original 2 1/2 hours just before it hit theaters.
The practice of studio trimming usually 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' were quite merciful on wasting any more time for the unfortunate audiences that actually paid to see it. 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 stinks.
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. 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, 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, taking her to Earth where she fits in as an alter ego, Linda Lee, 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, heat with her eyes, and see through most objects.
Meanwhile, the Omegahedron ends up in the hands of a fledgling sorceress 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.
As usual for projects built with making money in mind, the makers of Supergirl have no real 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. Much of the back story of Argo City, 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 many 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 trying to get the studly gardener, 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.
If there is anything that keeps this film from being completely intolerable, it's due to good casting in the important roles. Helen Slater proves to have the looks, grace and character to play the goody-goody neophyte, while Faye Dunaway is quite charismatic in her high camp role as Selena, the scheming witch whose pettiness drivers her to make silly blunders. Unfortunately, despite having a game cast to make a good film, the contrived situations and dialogue are a major 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 a teacher at that school, while Jimmy Olson, played once again by Superman's Marc McClure (Superman II, Superman IV), is also in town.
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. They do a pretty decent job in convincing us that Supergirl can fly, though. It's a shame these moments of aesthetic beauty are few and far between.
While the Salkinds would botch up the Superman franchise by trying to make them into comedies, they find a way to do the same with Supergirl by taking it too seriously much of the time. 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 women in appealing 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 almost wholly missing from this mishandled attempt to capitalize on an already fading franchise. I suspect if we were to ask the Salkinds why they have such contempt 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."
©2007 Vince Leo