HCF GUILTY PLEASURES: SUPERGIRL [US 1984]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 138 min/ 124 min/ 105 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Kara Zor-El lives in an isolated Kryptonian community called Argo City, which exists in a pocket of trans-dimensional space. The Omegahedron, which powers the city, is accidently blown into space due to carelessness from Kara’s friend Zaltar, so Kara follows it to Earth in an effort to recover it and save the city. The Omegahedron is found by Selena , a power-hungry would-be witch who realizes that the Omegahedron is a source of great power and can enable her to perform real magical spells. Supergirl arrives on Earth and discovers her powers. Following the path of the Omegahedron, Kara takes the name Linda Lee, identifies herself as a cousin of Clark Kent, and enrols at an all-girls school where she befriends Lucy Lane, a younger sister of Lois Lane who happens to be studying there…..
Ever since Man Of Steel, a film I loathed so much that I didn’t even wish to do a Alternative Review of it because the very thought of it makes me want to smash something, I intended to do a Superman Guilty Pleasure. Given that the only really good Superman movies are the almost flawless first movie and the compromised but still impressive second one, one could classify Superman 3, Superman 4: The Quest For Peace and Superman Returns all as Guilty Pleasures if one was so inclined, though I always find Superman 4 embarrassing to watch because it really is poor – though I would watch it in place of Man Of Steel any day. But no, I’m going to go for Supergirl, which, while it does have its ardent fans, seems to be generally disliked more than all the Superman films save maybe the fourth one. And I cannot understand why. I loved it when it came and really like it now, even though of course I’m more aware of its flaws now. It’s a really charming and imaginative fantasy spectacle, more of a fairytale than a science-fiction piece which may be more aimed at the girls than the boys but is full of heart, wonder and a whole load of impressive special effects and action scenes. I can’t say any of things apply to Man Of Steel except for maybe the special effects bit, and I would even quibble that.
Supergirl certainly had trouble coming to the screen. It was initially supposed to include Superman, who would be bewitched by the evil Selena and freed by Supergirl, but Christopher Reeve, unhappy at the excessive comedy in Superman 3, bowed out of the part. Five re-writes later and the turning down by Demi Moore and, it is rumoured, Dolly Parton of the two main roles, Supergirl began shooting with newcomer Helen Slater as Supergirl and Faye Dunaway as Selena, only to be constantly affected by producer conflicts and replacements, some of it seemingly due to the Salkind brothers, who had produced the Superman films, once again seeing a project as a cash cow rather than a labour of love. Then Warner Bros. decided they didn’t like the film and sold it to Tri-Star, who cut the 138 min film down to 124 min for most countries and 105 min for US release, the latter version being very choppy and even almost incoherent in places, though still not really deserving of the roasting from critics it got upon release. The film flopped, but luckily the 138 min version was eventually released on DVD, and it is definitely the version to watch, not really seeming much slower, just ‘fuller’. Supposedly even more footage exists in the same vaults they found the Richard Donner Superman 2 reels, such as Selena turning someone into an ice sculptor which then just melts away!
Supergirl opens in ‘innerspace’, and I’ve never understood why Argo City is in ‘innerspace’ when Krypton was just out there in normal ‘space’, but never mind, we don’t spend much time there, and soon Kara is heading for Earth in her spaceship, tacky lighting effects all around her outside. We next see her flying out of a lake on Earth as Supergirl, an effect which was actually achieved by pasting a photograph of Slater onto a wooden cut out, and then we have a rather beautiful scene, called in the soundtrack album The Aerial Ballet, which was criminally cut out of the US cinema version, where Supergirl gets used to her surroundings and gently jumps about. The photography is fantastic and the music is gorgeous as we feel Supergirl’s wonder and total innocence, lost in the moment until she remembers why she has come to earth. It would be silly to have Superman in a scene like this, but in a film called Supergirl, it’s entirely fitting, while one of the best things about Supergirl is how she flies, much more feminine in manner, yet still evoking power and strength. The flying effects are better than those in all the Reeve Superman films.
Kara becomes Linda Lee and joins a school, and the scenes that follow there are not too interesting, especially as Helen Slater seems to be able to show naivety and little else. Some scenes where she flies around appear to be added just to get some Supergirl footage without much actually happening, but luckily the duller stuff is countered by the often highly entertaining scenes featuring the evil Selena, some of the best also featuring a superbly slimy Peter Cook. Dunaway is often mocked for her campy performance, but it’s absolutely perfect, gloriously showcasing the attractiveness [and yes, the Bonnie And Clyde star still looks extremely sexy] of and sheer delight in evil-doing and getting one’s own back on a world which hasn’t been very kind. Less excusable is a seemingly pissed Peter O’ Toole, who appears to not have a clue what is going on or indeed what he is doing. His eccentric performance is fun to watch, but unlike Dunaway’s has no weight or wit to it. There is a rather dark, if also blackly comic, horror film going on in the shadows of Supergirl, the scenes involving Selena and her cronies suggesting true evil lurking around in the background. The Omegahedron is quite creepy the way it grows and grows, the mostly-invisible black hole that sucks up everything in its path is a unique creation, and at the end we get to see summoned ‘The Beast’, who may very well be the Devil himself, and the blurred, but noticeably demonic, monster is really rather nightmarish for a family movie.
In terms of story, Supergirl resolves itself into a series of battles between heroine and villainess around half way through, and though these are entertaining, certain elements of the film get short shrift. A good example is Selena’s takeover of America, which seems to happen in seconds. Meanwhile it’s impossible to forget that Supergirl and Selena spend most of their time fighting over a hunk rather than mankind, and said hunk is appallingly played by Hart Bochner, though maybe his astoundingly bland performance was intentional, considering he can act: consider for instance his great role in Die Hard. The Phantom Zone, where Supergirl is transported to for a while, is as forbidding a wilderness as exists on film, but the way to get out of it seems ridiculous even in a film like this. There is no doubt that the multiple script rewrites partially harmed the film, which would rather spend time on trivial stuff then, for instance, tell us exactly what Supergirl’s powers are, while the references to Superman and his world seem awkward. Director Jeannot Szwarc, who had previously done such good work on Jaws 2 and Somewhere In Time, seems slightly lost. There is rarely any sense that the filmmakers didn’t have any faith in what they were making though [despite what many critics seem to think, Supergirl is not overly comic and actually no more so than Superman The Movie], and this carries their movie past its weaker parts. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, with a wonderfully upbeat and rousing main theme and a lyrical, yearning secondary theme, also makes a great contribution.
If Supergirl were released today, I doubt it’ll be any more liked than it was back in 1984, especially considering the current fashion for angst-filled grittiness in superheroes. A reboot would be a bad idea for the very same reason; they’ll probably try to turn it into something it shouldn’t be. Us fans of this immensely flawed but really rather lovable movie just need to be content in forever spreading the word and hope that it will one day be reappraised as the third greatest ‘Super’ film.