Supergirl (1984)

"I just don't sure you're not staring at my 'S'?"Both comic book and movie begin with Argo City, a civic center blown free from the planet Krypton with its gravity and atmosphere completely intact (take that, laws of physics). I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume that the Action Comics team threw in a few pictures with this story. Not so here. Opening with a “bang” is one of the first things to go out the window, despite this film’s nominal connection with the wider Superman franchise. After all, why show us something we can just talk about it? And have Peter O’Toole stand around, waving his magic wand?

O’Toole is Zaltar, Argo City’s apparent savior. See, in this version of the story, Krypton’s death blasted Argo into a funky, negative universe called “innerspace” (narrated by William Shatner). Zaltar’s the guy who figured out how to keep the air in and everyone’s feet on the ground. How? Magic of course, with a little help from the film’s MacGuffin: a shinny pokeball called “the omegahedron.”

More than a miniature Unicron, the omegahedron can “create the illusion of life,” power the entire city, provide oxygen and (we assume) nourishment for its numerous inhabitants, and do all of this from the palm of Peter O’Toole’s hand.

Wait. What is this thing (so vital to the city’s basic survival) doing in the palm of Zaltar’s hand, anyway? Oh, he “borrowed” it. I see. Wonderful. This can only end well.

Enter Kara (Helen Slater), Zaltar’s…student, I guess…and Kal-El’s cousin. He got shot to the planet Earth as a child, you see, and Zaltar is maybe thinking of going there. Going somewhere, anyway. And who can blame him? Argo City is a retro-sixties, beige-deco nightmare. Hell, I’d be climbing the curving, shinny walls, too. Enter Kara’s mother, Alura (Mia frickin’ Farrow). Casually passing the omegahedron to Kara, Zaltar turns to Alura for an expository rap. Krypton go boom, innerspace, blah, blah, blah. Kara (apparently a “great artist”) uses the ‘hedron’s power to create the illusion of a dragonfly. Too bad the ‘hedron’s “illusions” are strong enough to punch through Argo City’s hull. (Freeze-frames reveal that, yes, Argo City is coated in plastic.) Fun with explosive decompression ensues, meaning Pokeball of Power’s sucked out into space.

Data: Correction, sir: that’s “blown out.”

Thank you, Data.

Data: A common mistake, sir.

Without the MacGuffin, the people of Argo can look forward to slow, painful death. Who could possibly pull their irons from the fire? Kara sneaks away while the question is under debate, hijacking Zaltar’s bubble-shaped innerspace ship. (Take that, Fifth Commandment.) She and the ‘hedron travel through a murky swirl of colors before bursting out of some stupid hippie’s lava lamp. No, wait. I’m sorry. Both emerge from a lake on Earth in the town of Midvale, Illinois, a fictional suburb of Chicago. The Windy City may be a stone’s throw away, but Midvale has its own…peculiar set of problems.

For one thing, the local math teacher, Nigel (Peter frickin’ Cook) is an evil wizard. So’s his girlfriend, Selena (Fay frickin’ Dunaway!). The omegahedron catches them during an lakeside picnic lunch. Or, rather, they catch it. Selena immediately recognizing it (how?) as a source of great power. She dumps Nigel on the spot and retires to her home, an abandoned amusement park. She lives in the spook house with Bianca, her Odious Comic Relief (Brenda Vaccaro). To prove their mousy worth, they’ll overthrow the Earth…even if the both of them are mystical amateurs (must’ve washed out of Hogwarts).

Kara just misses Nigel’s departure, emerging from the lake in full costume, complete with shield and skirt. Where’d it come from? Don’t ask. Must’ve come with her superpowers. A barrage of rear-projected flying ensues, the so-called “aerial ballet.” You know, we really have come a long way in twenty years. Even the cheep, matte flying of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was an improvement over this.

The newly-formed Supergirl, drunk on her own power, decides to take in the sights. Eventually, she remembers the ‘hedron, and that everyone she has ever known might die if it remains lost. By the time Peter O’Toole set up our Ticking Clock, she’d already blasted into innerspace, meaning Supergirl really has no idea how much time her home has. Who’s to say time moves at the same rate in both dimensions? They could all be dead now, yet still alive when you get back and oh, God, my head hurts. Somebody make it stop.

Supergirl’s on-again, off-again plot amnesia is actually quite important. Without it, she’d have no reason to disguise herself as a student at the Midvale Girl’s Academy…no reason to befriend an Earth-girl named Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy), sister to Lois…and no reason to share a milkshake with Lucy and Jimmy Olsen (series regular Marc McClure, in what is little more than a cameo)…we like to call this “padding” and sometimes it’s okay. Like when you have actors who play their parts seriously, no matter how outrageous those parts might be. Actors who don’t fall asleep on the job just because they’re starring in a (gasp) “comic book movie.” I’m looking at you, Faye. And both Peters. Likening their performances to a variety of pork product would certainly offend all those genuine Suidine-Americans (incurring the wrath of Miss Piggy and her Anti-Defamation League). Plus, the whole “ham” metaphor is so passe. Not to mention how far it falls from describe the true agony of these performances. It’s like watching Greek Tragedy…with dialogue by a semi-literate seventh grader who’s read one too many Silver Age comics.

That seventh grader’s name? David Odell. Who, incidentally, went on to give us Masters of the Universe.

Or maybe that’s not so incidental. After all, wasn’t that a botched superhero movie, too? Wasn’t the dialogue in that mess just as overwrought and leaden? Wasn’t the pacing there as schizophrenic, if not even more so? I honestly can’t remember…a testament to the quality of Odell’s work in its own right. Hell, if it weren’t for the IMDb, I wouldn’t remember any of Supergirl’s choice lines either.

In Reeve’s absence, cast and crew found themselves with a movie to rearrange. Obviously, they failed to do this to…well…my satisfaction, certainly. Even if I didn’t know about Reeve’s on-again-off-again involvement, I’d swear there was something missing…which is odd, considering this new Anchor Bay release is the longest version of the film the U.S. has ever seen. To think: until now, I’d only see edited versions of Supergirl. Gods, no wonder this film never seemed to make any fucking sense.

After watching all one hundred at thirty-nine minutes of film…twice…I can now say with conviction that Supergirl…just does not make any fucking sense. If the ‘hedron is a piece of Kryptonian science, then what’s this “Power of Darkness” Selena keeps invoking? Where the hell did it come from? Exo-space? What’s its beef with Supergirl? Or Earth, for that matter? And if this is all so vital, you’d think the Power of Darkness would chose an avatar with a little more skill…or a conduit that wasn’t connected with the planet Krypton. (If, indeed, Selena is its avatar and the ‘hedron its conduit…naturally, none of this comes under discussion.)

Why the sub-plot with Ethan (Hart Bochner), the dipshit gardener who winds up stoned on Selena’s love-potion? (Short answer: So he can fall in love with Linda Lee [as opposed to Supergirl], providing a needless Romantic Interest for our Heroine.) Why is Selena fiddling with love potions? Does she suffer from selective amnesia too? Is this one of director Jeannot (Jaws 2) Szwarc’s subliminal themes?

I’m going to go with “no.” And, hey, it’s not like this doesn’t lead into a major action set piece. The, I should say. The major action set piece. In an attempt to capture Ethan, Selena commands the Power of Darkness to chase him around Midvale (ville? vale? Ah, who gives a robot’s ass?) in a driver-less crane. The lack of a good AC/DC song is a mortal blow to this scene.

It also highlights another aspects of Supergirl’s amnesia, and this one’s a classic, straight out of the Superfriends. Like her two-dimensional forebears, Supergirl constantly forgets about her own powers. Think about it: you’ve got the exact same powers as Superman, right? How long would it take you to find the Omegahedron in the Chicago metro area? What if you had the slow deaths of every one you’ve ever known fanning the flames? How long would you pause to absorb the local color?

From all I can see, the events of the movie take place over the course of four days. In that time, Selena gains enough power over the ‘hedron to transform Midvale into a totalitarian city-state (complete with her own mesa-castle-fortress, which vaguely resembles the Temple of Power from the early days of the Power Rangers). Supergirl’s inaction not only dooms her people, it dooms Midvale, and endangers the rest of the world. Think of what Superman would say if he returned planetside and found Empress Selena sunning herself on the White House Roof:

Superman: Excuse me, ma’am? I’m looking for the president.

Selena: I think his head’s somewhere in the Rose Garden. You don’t want to know what happened to his body.

Superman: Great Scott…what’s going on around here?

Selena: Well, let’s see…I’ve conquered most of the North America…which means I have Europe and Japan by the balls…my army of kung-fu zombies is making headway into Siberia…the death-camps are liquefying about four thousand a day…each…oh, and I caught your girlfriend, that Lane woman? Caught her sneaking through the old tunnels Eisenhower installed back in the ’50s. Think she’s in Torture Room One today…but there’s just so many, who can keep them all straight?

Enter Batman from the shadows of a nearby TV antenna. After nailing Selena upside the head with a well-placed judo chop, he gives Clark the contemptuous glare Mr. Mind Eraser deserves and walks away, shaking his head in disgust…

Seriously though, the problems go on and on (much like this review). They are, by and large, the product of self-righteous movie makers denying their source material any shred of credit. Seems like the only lesson the Salkinds learned from Superman One and Two was, “Kids like to watch superhero movies.” To this end, Supergirl (and it’s later-day genre cousins in this, the last gasp of the Superhero Movie’s Golden Age) were dumbed down to the point of irrationality. After all, it doesn’t have to make sense, stupid. It’s just another damn comic book movie.

That kind of thinking gave us Batman and Robin, Doctor Strange, The Punisher (with Dolf), and The Punisher (without). On a grander scale, it gave us Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3, G.I. Joe and lord above so many others. That kind of thinking was exactly what brought the Golden Age of Superhero film (if you trace it back to Superman‘s premier in the 70s) low. So low, things became genuinely insane, paving the way for Schumacher and his ilk to scar all of our souls.

Is Supergirl any worse? In some ways…a lot of ways…if you adjust for the amount of wasted talent…heck yes. After all, where’s the senseless violence? Isn’t that what comics have always used to seduce? Isn’t that why we watch these things? (Rather, isn’t that why Hollywood thinks we watch these things?) So where is it? Nowhere. The one physical fight in the film comes when Supergirl fights a giant manifestation of the Power of Darkness…which, thanks to budgetary constraints, is completely invisible. Take that hopeful audience members.

There’s not even any sex worth mentioning, and you know I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel when I start counting breasts. Zero, just in case you were wondering. I suppose I could count sheep but that could be dangerous…must finish…

I haven’t mentioned Helen Slater, who (despite the fact that Faye gets first billing) is really the star of the show. She’s a looker, and a talker, but she’s so green here it’s painful. I can’t tell if that look on her face is a character’s emotion, or genuine awed confusion at what no doubt looked like chaos from her POV. Poor girl. Nice outfit, though.

That’s Supergirl, for you. A smile, a flash of leg, and she’s gone. So am I. This review is taking far too long. I can only say this: if I could travel back in time and take a crack at this screenplay (five re-writes and they expect something to make sense?) I’d have added only one exchange, at the very end, after Selena’s defeat:

Supergirl: Living in an abandoned amusement park ate away at the poor woman’s soul, leaving nothing but hate behind. When she saw the Omegahedron, she saw a chance to turn the world into a real haunted amusement park…with her as the ticket taker.

Selena: And I would’ve gotten away with it, too…if it weren’t for you damn super-kids!



4 thoughts on “Supergirl (1984)”

    1. I hope not, because I found his Supergirl score completely unmemorable. Seriously; I needed YouTube just to remind myself what it sounded like. Like the film itself, it tries so damn hard to capture to magic and majesty of John Williams Superman themes, but it can’t. It doesn’t have the timber (or the timbre) to pull off even a passing imitation, and so just sort of sits there, unremarkable to the last.

  1. And some people think the score is one of the best parts of the movie. It’s really a schizoid movie…or, rather, two zygotes of two entirely different movies, neither of which managed to grow very far. On the one hand you have Fay, and Peter, who are rolling eyes and declaiming like they are in 1960’s Batman. If that movie had been made, they damn sure should have had at least one scene together. And throw in, I dunno, Danny DeVito or something for a better class of comic relief.

    On the other hand Helen looked great, the music was like a softer and more exploratory version of William’s grand Superman March, and you could have had a movie about a young hero finding themselves and doing a little growing up in a strange but magical world (ours, when seen through the right kind of rose-colored lens). But to carry that off you’d need a plot, some actual acting, plus of course someone with at least a little gravitas as a villain — maybe a David Warner. And a love interest that didn’t make you want to puke.

    As it is, it is mostly a sad example of failure. And not even grand failure…this is a movie that stalled in the driveway.

    1. Which is exactly what keeps it – and a lot of other bad superhero films, now that I think about it – from being genuinely enjoyable Bad Movies (or even memorable ones, for that matter). The worst movies are like that train at the end of Back to the Future III – spectacular wreaks no one observed at the time, so we have to make up for it by paying them due attention. But this thing, Catwoman, Reb Brown’s Captain America flicks…they never bother to get up enough speed. Their wreaks are unimpressive, hardly worth rubbernecking. In all honesty, I think those are the saddest films of all. But I don’t pity them. That might require effort. And since they obviously couldn’t be bothered to make one, neither can I.

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