The Revisit – Supergirl

The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Supergirl (1984)
Written by David Odell
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Helen-Slator_Supergirl

Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater) lives in Argo City, a hidden haven for Kryptonians…under water…in another dimension? Um, okay. Well, she has a friend in the elderly artist Zoltar (Peter O’Toole) who has…stolen the city’s energy source? It’s called the Omegahedron, and he’s using it to make…art? Kara is playing around with, screws up and it goes hurtling out across space and time. As everyone panics at their impending doom with the Omegahedron missing, Kara launches herself out across a 2001-style psychedelic space tableau. Arriving on Earth, she mimics her famous cousin’s fashion style to become Supergirl and seek out the MacGuffin that can save her people.

Supergirl is not a very well made film, but it has been so maligned and tarnished for decades to an extent that is sort of unfair. Its quality is no better or worse than Superman III, and it’s still better than Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. There is a lot wrong with Supergirl, and I’ll talk about that, but know we’re also going to look at some things that are charming and fun about the film.

The biggest problem with Supergirl is the script’s hyperactive need to rush us to the moment where Kara is in the Supergirl costume. To do this, it establishes no rules about this niche of the Superman universe. Somehow the people of Argo City are acutely aware of Superman’s existence and that he is a Kryptonian. They apparently have the means to leave? Yet, the never do until Kara jets off to Earth. It’s never clearly established where exactly Argo City is. Sometimes it felt like it was in a pocket dimension, but then Kara exits and reenters by going underwater. These inconsistencies really mess up the whole opening portion of the film and understanding exactly how Supergirl fits with the rest of the movies.

Things get better once Kara is on Earth and we get some pleasant fish out of water moments. I think Wonder Woman does those better and is also taking a lot of cues from Superman the Movie. One area that this film copies that it shouldn’t have are the way powers were just invented for the sake of plot convenience. In Superman II’s finale he just suddenly can turn his “S” into a large cellophane sheet that can wrap around the Phantom Zone criminals? Even as a kid I hated that. Supergirl has the ability to just morph into her civilian identity of Linda Lee, clothes and hair color/style change included. Once again, this is where the screenwriter was way too sloppy on establishing the rules.

An entirely shocking fact I learned when doing research on Supergirl was that it cost around 2 million MORE dollars to make than Return of the Jedi. There is no evidence of that on screen. It looks incredibly cheap in a lot of moments, and there are places where it felt like they were incapable of making an effect, so they went with terrible alternatives. The invisible monster that attacks the all-girls’ school reeked of not wanting to spend money on a real puppet or animatronic. The demon that appears at the end of the film is also very shoddy. I guess the budget was eaten up by the casting. You have Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole, Peter Cook, and even Mia Farrow in a tiny role. I guess they asked for a lot? It’s hard to figure out how a film with a budget that adjusted for inflation is around $85 million in today’s dollars.

But Supergirl is not a film without merit. Helen Slater is trying her damnedest to embody the same sense of heroism Christopher Reeve puts across in the first Superman film. She’s definitely earnest and has a sense of doing what’s right, but I don’t think she has a script that supports her ability to make Supergirl charismatic enough. Faye Dunaway is plenty of fun as the villainous Selena, but Peter Cook and Brenda Vaccaro as her henchpeople are much more entertaining in my opinion. Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen was enjoyable as a cowardly type. The love interest for Supergirl was the worst, so dull, reminded me of the “sexy dude” from the Diet Coke commercials in the 1990s.

The standout in the supporting cast was by far Maureen Teefy as Lucy Lane. First, she was a great visual match for Margot Kidder. But the even better part is how plucky she plays Lucy. In the first big set piece of the film, you have the runaway excavator tearing through the town. Everyone is panicking, but it’s Lucy who runs forward and jumps in the thing in a (failed) attempt to stop it. Supergirl eventually shows up to save the day, but I really loved how proactive Lucy was. She saw people in danger and stepped in to try and do something about it.

The film does an excellent job of being empowering as well. Supergirl never relies on a male character to save her and, while there is a poorly shoehorned in love interest, her focus remains on retrieving the Omegahedron and saving her people. She doesn’t stay behind to be with this dude, in the end, instead goes home to make sure Argo City lives.

Supergirl is not a perfect film by any means but has a lot of earnest heart. The biggest strike is the very poorly written screenplay. It makes me sad that the script didn’t live up to the other really great elements, especially the soundtrack. Modern superhero film, Marvel and DC, suck when it comes to their music and Supergirl has fun with it’s heroine’s theme. It helps underscore the genuinely good heart at the core of the picture. While Wonder Woman may be the first big successful solo female superhero film, I hope people don’t forget what the first one was. Supergirl deserves a lot more respect than cynics give it these days.

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