Movie Review: Supergirl (1984)
Near the end of “Supergirl,” after Selena the Witch (Faye Dunaway) has been defeated and the Omegahedron, which powers Argo City, the bubbled asteroid of Krypton, is back in Supergirl’s hands, Supergirl (Helen Slater) turns to her new friends, Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy) and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure, reprising his role), and begins to ask a favor. Jimmy interrupts:
Jimmy: It’s all right, Supergirl. We never saw you.
Lucy: We never even heard of you.
Jimmy’s turned out to be the truer prognostication. Barely anyone saw “Supergirl” in November 1984 but we all heard about it. We all heard it was awful.
It’s worse than awful. From my notes:
- Wow, this is bad.
- Ouch ouch ouch.
- It’s actually getting dumber.
- OK, this is insanely bad.
It has to be one of the worst wide-release movies ever made.
After Krypto and Beppo, before Streaky and Comet
Supergirl, the character, was created in 1959 during a period of comic-book doldrums in which the rulers of DC nearly destroyed their most lucrative property, Superman, by surrounding him with super dogs, cats, horses, monkeys, and, yes, even a girl. Chronologically, Kara the Supergirl appeared after Krypto the Superdog and Beppo the Supermonkey but before Streaky the Supercat and Comet the Superhorse. Just so you know where she ranks.
The men at DC never quite knew what to do with her. They still don’t. She started out in a skirt, went to hot pants during the ’70s, was killed off in the ’80s. Two years after this movie. Coincidence?
Christopher Reeve was the seventh man to play Superman, including voice-only work from Bud Collyer, Bob Hastings and Danny Dark, but Helen Slater was the first ever to play Supergirl. Really? She never showed up in the “Superman/Aquaman Hour” in the 1960s? She was never a part of “Super Friends” in the 1970s and ’80s? Apparently nobody wanted her. She’s such a non-entity she doesn’t even have an arch-nemesis. No Lex Luthor, Brainiac or even a Mr. Mxyzptlk. Which is how we got Selena the Witch.
Reeve’s Superman was an innocent who knew everything while Slater’s Supergirl is an innocent who knows nothing. She grew up as Kara on Argo City, a chunk of Krypton that looks like an adobe village drifting through space, and was apparently taught nothing by her parents Zor-El and Alura (Simon Ward and Mia Farrow). She says she’s bad at math. She says it like she’s hypnotized. That’s how she spends most of the movie.
Fighting over boys
As “Supergirl” opens, the Omegahedron, which powers Argo City, is borrowed by the well-meaning but tipsy Zaltar (Peter O’Toole). Kara comes upon him in the act of creation.
Kara: What is that going to be Zaltar?
Zaltar: I think, a tree.
Kara: A tree. What is a tree?
Zaltar: A lovely thing that grows on Earth.
It gets worse. Zaltar gives Kara the Omegahedron, with which she creates a dragonfly that flies out of Argo City, through a kind of transdimensionality, and toward Earth, where it plops, yes, into the orange dip of Selena, who is enjoying a picnic lunch with a warlock, Nigel (Peter Cook), while talking of her plans to take over the world. And now, with the Omegahedron, she can! Kara, hijacking a bubblecopter, follows, and emerges on Earth, through a lake, as Supergirl, costumed and everything.
OK: Argo City will die in a matter of days without the Omegahedron. So what does Kara do upon arrival? She smells flowers. She bounces around, testing her powers. She flies above horses. You know: girly things. She briefly goes to a city, where she’s menaced by two asshole truck drivers who get theirs, then returns to a more bucolic setting. She falls asleep, softly, in the woods, and wakes up, softly, near a bunny rabbit. I’m not kidding. Then a softball rolls by. Private school girls are playing a softball game and Kara decides to become one of them. She adopts the secret identity of Linda Lee, after Robert E., and winds up rooming with Lucy Lane, Lois’ cousin, and goes to classes, where she’s suddenly good at math. “Don’t go showing it off,” Lucy counsels, “because nobody’s going to like you.” There’s a mean girl who gets hers, and a studly landscaper, Ethan (Hart Bochner), whom all the girls coo over, including, it turns out, Selena. From her lair in an old amusement park, she kidnaps and casts a spell upon Ethan so he’ll fall in love with the first face he sees upon waking. Selena assumes it’ll be hers. But she’s occupied when he wakes, and he stumbles through a tunnel with his eyes closed, and into the town, where the kids from the school are at the local fast-food joint. He stumbles into traffic. Will he die? Will he open his eyes? Selena’s attempts to control the situation through magic make things worse, and Supergirl has to show up to save the day. All of this takes about 10 minutes of screentime. Meanwhile, Ethan still hasn’t opened his eyes. When he does? He sees Linda Lee. Big surprise. He kisses her. He makes her swoon. And boy does that make Selena mad.
Basically what we have here is a clash between two female super novices, Supergirl, who needs the Omegahedron to save everything she’s ever known, and Selena, who is using the Omegahedron to take over the world, and both are distracted from their primary task because of a crush on a boy. The filmmakers, writer David Odell and director Jeannot Szwarc, couldn’t have made it more insulting if they’d tried.
The triumph of someone else’s will
Eventually Selena, mastering her powers, sends Supergirl into the Phantom Zone, where she meets Zaltar, banished there for stealing the Omegahedron in the first place. He’s also given up. Not her. Her pep inspires him to find a way out, which involves climbing a kind of rockface against a kind of fierce wind. But it’s so difficult she’s ready to give up. “I can’t,” she says. “You can,” he replies. Then he dies. But she escapes and flies from the Phantom Zone right back into Selena’s lair. She stands there, arms akimbo, and declares, “You’ve had your fun, Selena. The game is finished.”
Ah, but it isn’t. Selena creates a monster, which kind of crushes or stretches Supergirl, who cries, again, “I can’t!” Can’t what? Die? Can’t bear the pain? Of the monster or the movie? When she hears Zaltar’s voice telling her, again “You can!,” like he’s Obi-wan Kenobi or something, this helps Supergirl, who’s just a girl after all and thus can’t find the strength and will on her own, find the strength and will to fight back. Then she uses her superspeed, as she should have from the start rather than standing around arms akimbo, to defeat Selena. The power of shadows turns on Selena and her henchwoman, the fairly innocent Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro), and takes both into a … vortex, I guess, where they suffer or die. Who knows? Who cares? We get Jimmy and Lucy’s lines above, and Supergirl flies off with the Omegahedron to finally, finally, deliver it to Argo City, which is surely dust by now.
“Supergirl” didn’t immediately die. It opened Thanksgiving weekend 1984 and was No. 1 at the box office with $5.7 million. Then word got out. It fell off 55% the following weekend, then 63%. Its final domestic gross was $14.2 million. Not even three times what it made opening weekend.
This was six years after “Superman: The Movie” (which opened at $7.4 million and grossed $134 million, to give you an idea of the legs good movies had back then); but despite a $35 million budget the special effects often recall the Superman TV show of the 1950s. The acting is horrible. Slater is all wide-eyed doeiness while Dunaway’s narrowed eyes perpetually flash malevolence. Peter Cook is wasted. Vaccaro is supposed to play comic support, like Ned Beatty in “Superman,” but she comes across as a voice of reason. “I think you’re blowing this out of proportion,” she tells Selena halfway through. “All I’m saying is you can’t go nuts over a landscape guy and a teenager in a blue suit.” It’s as if she’s critiquing the film from within the film. It’s like she’s trapped in her own kind of Phantom Zone. Maybe they all are. Poor bastards. They hurtle through time and space, trapped in this movie forever.