Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock since 1938 will more than likely tell you that perhaps the greatest comic book superhero of all time is Superman. Since his first appearance, he has become a pop culture icon, up there with baseball and apple pie as a true symbol of America. Superman was a big fat hit almost immediately, and DC Comics was quick to snap up copyrights on nearly every potential spin-off they could think of. One such spin-off was Kara Zor-El, better known as Supergirl. The long lost cousin of Superman, she made her first true appearance in Action Comics #252 (dated May 1959). Her existence has been a rocky road, as she got her own short-lived comic books in 1972 and 1982, but never really reached A-List status before being killed off in 1985 during the epic "Crisis on Infinite Earths." (Of course, since nobody stays dead in comics, Supergirl was eventually resurrected in 2004.) Following the disappointing box office returns of Superman III, Christopher Reeve vacated his starring role in the franchise, and at the time had no interest in returning. Producers Alexander and ilya Salkind, who owned the film rights to the entire Superman family, decided to tread unfamiliar waters by starting a new franchise starring Supergirl. What resulted was a movie that didn't even recoup half of its budget, yet has developed both a cult following and a reputation that it perhaps does not completely deserve.
As our tale begins, we learn that Superman was not the only survivor of his home planet's destruction after all. While baby Kal-El rocketed towards Earth, a fragment of Krypton was hurtled into "inner space." That fragment would become known as Argo City, a virtual utopia crafted by Zaltar (Peter O'Toole), the city's founder. One of his little creations is the Omegahedron, Argo City's primary energy source. It's basically this little glowing ball that looks rather unimpressive, but can apparently bring inanimate objects to life if used properly. I guess Kryptonian technology is light years ahead of human technology, since I don't believe we've harnessed the power of the Superball yet.
But anyway, Zaltar decides that he's going to take the Omegahedron out for a walk one day, in order to better flesh out his artwork. He's not really supposed to have it, so he passes it off to his protégé, Kara (Helen Slater), for safekeeping before he can get caught with it. Silly Kara decides she's going to goof around with it, obviously not realizing that it's nothing to be trifled with. She creates a dragonfly, which ends up crashing right through one of the community's windows which looks like a thin layer of cellophane, to be truthful and causes depressurization that threatens the entire city. And wouldn't you know it, the Omegahedron gets sucked right out the window into the vacuum of space. Way to go, Kara, you dope. Ten minutes into the movie, and you've doomed the last vestiges of an alien civilization. Argo City is only going to last a few days without the Omegahedron, so Kara takes it upon herself to track it down and bring it back home.
The Omegahedron somehow makes its way to Earth, where it falls into the hands of all the wrong people. It lands in the possession of Selena (Faye Dunaway), a wannabe witch with aspirations of world domination. And apparently, yellow suns affect Kryptonian technology as much as they affect actual Kryptonians, because this thing pretty much does whatever Selena wants it to. Start the car without any keys? Sure. Set a turkey on fire? Why not? Make some random guy fall in love with you? Well, I don't think that's such a bright idea, but I guess you could do that. We'll get into that later. So with the Omegahedron in tow, Selena and her sidekick Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) decide to throw a little soirée to celebrate Selena's newfound power and recruit a coven. Something like that, I'm not too sure. I should also point out that Selena and Bianca apparently live in the haunted house ride at an abandoned carnival. What, is she a Scooby-Doo villain? That's stupid. Anyway, the party is eventually broken up by Nigel (Peter Cook), a warlock and occasional boyfriend of Selena. He warns Selena that she might have acquired a little too much power a little too quickly, and says that she should be careful. Of course, she's a totally over-the-top villain that wants to conquer the world, so what does she care? But Nigel's a huge buzzkill, and he totally ruined the party, so he's gotta go.
Meanwhile, Kara arrives in the Illinois town of Midvale, near where the Omegahedron landed. And she's fully decked out in her Supergirl costume with full cognizance of her powers. It took Superman years to accomplish all that, and she can do these things plus have a costume in twenty seconds on Earth? ...Okay. Regardless, Kara enjoys her new powers, especially being able to fly, until she stumbles upon an all-girls school. She figures, "Hey, I'll just go blend in for a while." And that's exactly what she does, by somehow becoming a brunette and changing into one of the school's uniforms by apparently willing the changes into existence. Well, isn't that a convenient power? You know, if Superman could randomly change his appearance at will, he'd have no need for phone booths. Not only is it convenient, it's useful too. But since Superman doesn't have that power, I guess there's just something in Argo City's water. It's probably the same reason why Superman could throw big cellophane sheets at people in Superman II.
The newly-disguised Kara makes her way to the principal's office, where she tries to pass herself off as a student under the name "Linda Lee." The principal, Mr. Danvers (David Healy), is suspicious at first, since he's never seen her before in his life. As she tries explaining her situation, the math teacher Nigel, of all people interrupts and calls Mr. Danvers out of the room. While the principal is gone, Kara (or Linda, or Supergirl, whatever) uses her super-speed to type up a letter of recommendation before slipping it into a filing cabinet. Mr. Danvers returns, and she suggests that maybe there's some paperwork about her in his files. He does discover the forged letter addressed from her cousin, Clark Kent. Mr. Danvers doesn't question the recommendation of a reporter from the Daily Planet, so she's apparently a student after all. Let's not let pesky little details like admissions paperwork or tuition or proper identification or anything like that get in the way. Principal Danvers leads Linda to a dorm room, where she'll be bunking with the tomboyish Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy). So they've got Clark Kent's cousin rooming with Lois Lane's sister, and both of them have the initials "L.L." Huh.
Classes begin the next day, and for some reason, Selena and Bianca are hanging around in the parking lot reading tarot cards. Selena says the cards say people will do anything for love, so as part of her plan for world conquest, she's going to make everyone love her. She sees one of the school's groundskeepers, Ethan (Hart Bochner), and decides that she's going to start with him. Ethan later arrives at Selena's abode a few hours later under the pretenses of doing a little gardening around the place, but Selena slips him a little Love Potion #9 and knocks him out. It's right around this time that Nigel shows up, looking to play the party pooper once again by continuing to warn Selena that the Omegahedron may be too powerful for her to control. While he does that, Ethan wakes up and staggers out of the house. He ends up in the middle of Midvale, walking around in the middle of the street like he's hopped up on goofballs. And everybody just yells at him and moves along. You'd think that someone would point him in the direction of the sidewalk, but no. People in Midvale must not be the friendly type. He ends up getting noticed by Linda and Lucy, who are in town with Lucy's buddy from Metropolis, Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure). Linda wants to help him, but Jimmy just dismisses him as a junkie that probably has a weapon. So let me get this straight: Jimmy has no problem letting cars mow down some guy that's potentially strung out, just because he thinks he's gonna get shanked if he helps. Geez, Jimmy. You can be a real turd sometimes.
Selena, meanwhile, finally realizes that Ethan's gone. She tracks him down via her magic mirror, then uses the Omegahedron to fire up some huge backhoe to scoop Ethan up and deliver him back to her. The thing does pick him up, but it ends up destroying half of Main Street in the process. And get this, while this backhoe is hunting Ethan down, everybody just clears the streets and lets it go after him. Even after it picks him up and carries him away, nobody tries to help him but Lucy, who gets knocked unconscious in the process. I guess everybody in town is as big a prick as Jimmy. But lucky for Ethan, there's a Kryptonian superhero handy!
Linda switches to her Supergirl costume, and helps fix most of the damage the backhoe caused. As the machine rolls on, Supergirl yanks the bucket off and deposits it safely on the ground. She quickly returns to her Linda Lee persona and opens the bucket, and Ethan who apparently passed out in all the commotion wakes up and sees Linda. This ends up finally activating Selena's love potion. He falls head over heels in love with his rescuer, and starts waxing romantic before planting a rather unexpected kiss on Linda. Honestly, if someone ever compiled a list of the most awkward kisses in the history of cinema, Ethan kissing Linda would be right up there. She's all "uh... okay" and rushes off, confused.
Not exactly happy with how things have resulted, Selena calls upon an invisible demon to go take out Linda. But I guess this demon is rather weak, since Supergirl kills it relatively quickly. Supergirl begins to get a signal from the Omegahedron, and she follows the signal straight to the amusement park where Selena lives. Supergirl is ready to throw down, but Selena distracts her by teleporting Ethan into the middle of a bunch of angry bumper cars. She also tries a little spell that makes multiple images of her surround Supergirl. Though truth be told, the effect makes it look like a lame version of Johnny Cage's "shadow kick" from the Mortal Kombat games. Supergirl is all "yeah, whatever" and snatches up a bumper car Ethan managed to jump inside, then flies off to safety.
But despite Supergirl's best efforts, Selena manages to poof Ethan into her castle high atop a mountain she created in the center of Midvale. She chains him up and forces some more of that love potion on him, and how he only has eyes for Selena. I think she also finally figured out the secrets of the Omegahedron, because she's got a henchman driving her around in this ritzy car so she can pick out random things to destroy. I'm surprised she even knows what the Omegahedron is in the first place, let alone how to use it. There's also anti-Selena protests in the streets, evidenced by Jimmy and Lucy leading some picketers carrying "Down With Selena" signs. I'm not even going to begin to get into all the things that are wrong with this bit of the movie. But I will say that nothing makes sense. Doctor Seuss books make more sense than this. But back to the movie. Every evil villain needs a hostage or three, so she traps Nigel, Jimmy, and Lucy in her castle while she waits for Supergirl.
Supergirl does arrive, only for Selena to put her in the Phantom Zone as soon as she enters the castle. There's no explanation as to how Selena managed to conjure up the Phantom Zone, let alone as to how she even knew what it was in the first place, but nobody ever accused this movie of swerving around any plot holes it happened to come across. So anyway, Supergirl's in the Phantom Zone, and completely powerless to boot. She wanders into some quicksand, but as she frees herself, she knocks herself out in the process. But all is not lost, as Zaltar comes to her rescue. You may be asking, "Matt, what is Zaltar doing in the Phantom Zone?" Turns out that after the Omegahedron was lost, he figured he'd really screwed up something heavy and had himself put in the Phantom Zone as punishment. And to save a little time, here is a brief summary of Zaltar and Kara's conversation.
Kara: I really need to get out of here.
Zaltar: There is absolutely no way out of the Phantom Zone. That's the whole point of this place.
Kara: I said I really need to return to Earth.
Zaltar: And I said there's no way out.
Kara: But I wanna leave!
Zaltar: Okay, I'll take you to the exit.
They do head to the one possible way out of the Phantom Zone, but they risk death by attempting their escape. Kara does escape, but Zaltar unfortunately dies on the way out. But no matter, Kara's got some megalomaniacal evil witch butt to kick. The exit conveniently drops her off back in Selena's castle, where Supergirl and Selena have their final showdown.
As I said earlier, Supergirl has earned something of a bad reputation in the years since it was released. It's been perceived as a horrible movie on the level of Superman IV, as a complete waste of time and effort. And while knocks against the movie may be justified, the movie does manage to bring a certain level of entertainment to the table. I'll agree that the movie could have been lots better, but it's so charming that I can't bring myself to hate it. So help me, I actually had a whole lot of fun watching the movie. Supergirl's reputation dictates that I probably shouldn't, but I did and I'm not going to lie about it.
So let's hit the acting first. Perhaps the movie's biggest saving grace is its lead actress. Helen Slater is quite charming and amiable in the lead role. It's a shame that Supergirl flopped and killed off any hopes for a sequel, because I believe Slater could have carried an entire Supergirl franchise much in the vein of Christopher Reeve's consistent performances as Superman. Essentially playing three roles, Slater is very much up to task. She is convincingly curious and awkward while in the Linda Lee persona, showing a want to learn about human culture yet not really certain how to properly fit in. As Supergirl, Slater is tough, confident, an example of "girl power" before the term existed. I honestly have nothing but good things to say about her. Meanwhile, Faye Dunaway is entertaining if not hammy as Supergirl's nemesis. Her character is so blandly written, so poorly constructed, that Dunaway would have been well within her rights to completely phone in her performance. I'm just going to come right and say it: the Selena character is so lame, she makes me pine for Nuclear Man. But regardless of how awful the role is, Dunaway gives a performance that isn't completely horrible. It's no Mommie Dearest, but then again, what is? Another main character, Peter O'Toole, is not bad at all. O'Toole, a certifiable Hollywood legend and seven-time Oscar nominee, is above this kind of material, but he brings a particular credibility to the role. Unfortunately, Supergirl doesn't make full use of his talents, and it ended up earning him a Worst Actor nomination at the 1985 Razzie Awards. Also underused in a thankless role is the late British comedian Peter Cook. Perhaps most recognizable in the United States as "the impressive clergyman" from The Princess Bride, Cook doesn't really get to do a whole heck of a lot. His role could have been greatly expanded upon, but I guess it's too late to go back and change it now.
Supergirl's romantic interest, Hart Bochner, isn't awful, but he seems way too old to fill the role. Perhaps that could be because, if my math is right, Bochner was 27 and Slater was 20 while production was under way. Not that age is always a big deal, but it's kinda creepy. Throw in the fact that he and Slater have an appalling lack of chemistry, and I just didn't have any real use for him at all. Brenda Vaccaro is acceptable, even a little amusing, as Selena's daffy sidekick. If the character was intended to be a version of Miss Tessmacher from the first two Superman movies, then I think it was a success. And rounding out the main cast, Marc McClure and Maureen Teefy are fun, despite having no real consequence on the plot nor very much screen time.
Jeannot Szwarc's direction is flat and uninspired. Despite well-done cinematography by Alan Hume, Szwarc's work just comes across as being somewhat run of the mill. I'm not saying that what Szwarc has done with the movie is awful, because it isn't. I'm just saying that there was plenty of room for improvement. I also wonder if he brokered some kind of funding from A&W Root Beer and STP, because there's product placement like crazy. However, Szwarc's indifferent direction is improved upon by the terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith, music that suits the movie's tone perfectly. The music never becomes overbearing, and really works well with the fantasy vibe that the movie maintains. Goldsmith manages to create a particular leitmotif akin to what John Williams did with the original Superman movie, even working in Williams's iconic theme song at one point. However, while good, most of the music ends up repeating itself over and over, which is somewhat distracting and disappointing.
David Odell's screenplay is high camp, through and through. While I did find it to be entertaining to a particular point, it's bogged down by instances of brain-dead dialogue and outright preposterous scenarios. For example, why does Kara feel the need to create a secret identity? She should be more concerned with finding the Omegahedron and saving the last city of Krypton, not mingling with us puny earthlings. Yeah, she might be curious about the planet her cousin calls home, but shouldn't she be worried about the fate of her own home? And I also wonder 1.) whose bright idea was it to have Kara change from her "Linda Lee" attire to her Supergirl costume and back by merely thinking it, and 2.) who had the forethought to leave a Supergirl costume tailored to Kara's specific measurements in the ship she took to Earth? I know these were done for the sake of convenience, but still, it's glaring things like that that could just confuse somebody to no end. But I will give Odell a little credit, as he expands on the mythology created by the Superman movie universe by taking us actually into the Phantom Zone. While we merely knew it as a thin pane of black glass in Superman II, we're shown that the world inside it is appropriately desolate and harsh. It's supposed to be a prison for the baddest of the bad, and I believe it. It almost as if it were a glimpse into a Kryptonian would call Hell.
Supergirl is most definitely Oscar-worthy filmmaking by any means. But it is, however, a harmless fantasy movie that is an acceptable way to kill a lazy Sunday afternoon. The movie is most certainly flawed, with lazy directing, an inane script, and acting that is mediocre (for the most part). But it is, however, a perfectly harmless fantasy movie that is an acceptable way to kill a lazy Sunday afternoon. And if one enjoys this kind of movie, you probably won't go wrong with Supergirl. I can truthfully say that, given its reputation, I didn't think it was completely horrible. It isn't the best movie ever made. Maybe not even fifth best. Truth be told, it's a lame B-movie. But depending on how you look at it, it can still be at least a little entertaining. And for that, I'll give Supergirl a thumbs-in-the-middle with two and a half stars. But as always, your mileage may vary.
Final Rating: **½