Movie Review - Supergirl
Before we leave the Superman franchise of the 80’s and leap (in a single bound, no less) ahead 20 years, we have to take a look at the Salkind-produced Supergirl film of 1984. While this film is pointed to for causing the Salkinds to sell the movie rights to Superman…well, it likely only started a process that was initiated by Superman III. Like Superman III, I saw this in theaters and as a kid, sure, I enjoyed it. Looking at it now with older eyes, I’m a bit more mixed about it…but after watching Superman III and IV prior to this, I can’t hate on it the way many critics both then and now have. Supergirl does some things very right…and some things very wrong. It’s this inconsistency that hurts the film the most, as we’ll see in the length of this review.
I should mention for the record that this review is based on the Director’s Cut of the film. This fact, in and of itself, might be the cause of some of the initial negative reviews the film received. You see, there are three…maybe four…versions of the film out there. The first, the US Theatrical Cut, is the source of the negativity, only running 105 minutes. Compare this to the 124 minute run time for the International Theatrical Cut or the 138 minute running time and you can see that a fair amount of material was missing from our first version of the film. Not helping matters? The home video version only weighs in at 89 minutes while the TV version comes in with 92 minutes. This doesn’t mean that more is better…and we’ll get into that…but the most common complaints seem to be that the film is mostly jokey dialog. Hrm…doesn’t that seem to fit in to where the producers felt audiences were with Superman III…and look at how well that turned out. Flawed or not, the two longer cuts…the International and the Director’s…at least provide more story and more padding between jokes.
Right…so back to the actual review. Way back before Marvel did their shared cinematic universe, one could indeed argue that the Salkinds attempted to do so with this film…as it tries maybe a little too hard to let audiences know that this film takes place in the Christopher Reeve Superman universe. Okay, so there’s a mention of her cousin, Kal-El…sure, that has to be there. Having Kara Zor-El, in her earthly identity of Linda Lee, going to the same girls’ boarding school as Lois Lane’s sister Lucy? Bit of a stretch, but I’ll allow it. But for the life of me, there really is NOTHING to justify Jimmy Olsen being there…except to show that YES DAMMIT, this IS tied to Superman…as though the mere title of the film was not a dead give-away.
And yet…Argo City looks nothing like the Krypton shown in the Reeve films. Argo City instead is practically a hippie commune in ‘inner space’ with very organic shapes…almost the antithesis of the crystalline structure of any and all things Kryptonian. Now, one could simply accredit that to Peter O’Toole’s character, Zoltar…said to be the founder and creator of Argo and written and played to be an artiste…almost diva-like. Some of this might be due to the fact that Zoltar’s name could be changed to Exposition Man and Peter O’Toole could be replaced by, say, any five year old. Okay…that’s a little harsh. He does the whole ‘inspirational dying mentor’ cliché near the end of the film pretty well…so, no, no five year old is going to manage that. It just struck me that in the beginning as Zoltar is announcing the various places he intends to go that he’s just seemingly crying out for attention: “Hey! Look at me! I’m gonna go to this other place soon…so…you better look at me!” Also, some description of what this ‘inner space’ is…is it a pocket dimension? Is it, like three doors down and across the street from the Phantom Zone? Is it, say, a micronized bottle in a certain Coluan’s collection? We’re never told. Even the few exterior glimpses of Argo that we get just show our organic-looking, totally NOT Kryptonian architecture sitting on what looks to be a fragment of the doomed planet being orbited by what appear to be stadium lights. Now, that’s not a knock on the effects or miniatures teams…headed by Roy Field and Derek Meddings respectively…you know, the guys that did the first two Superman movies…so, we’re not slouching here. An explanation of this might help to shore up the excellent visual and thematic evocation of birth or rebirth when we see Supergirl’s emergence from this ‘inner space’ being from a lake somewhere near Midvale, IL. [To spare you the trip to Google Maps, it’s south of Chicago. – Ed.]
In mentioning the theme of birth or rebirth, this seems as good a time as any to go into the story of the film. You see, thanks to some tomfoolery on the part of both Kara and Zoltar, the main power source for Argo City, the Omegahedron, has been flung from ‘inner space’ to Earth and, by chance [Like it does in most plot driven movies. – Ed.] into the clutches of a would-be witch that fancies herself a sorceress bent on world domination because…well…why not? Sadly, the producers were still in that Silver Age mentality that was working so well for the Superman films. From this premise, the film then splits in two directions: the first, an overly simplified coming of age story as a young girl transitions to womanhood, the second a fantasy journey with magic and monsters that’s actually somewhat reminiscent of such films such as Neverending Story, Krull and The Dark Crystal. That last feature written by the author of this film…David Odell. That being said, it’s pretty clear that the second aspect of the story is clearly in the author’s wheelhouse and, as such, ends up being the stronger of the two storylines. The other…well, I hate to state the obvious [Really? Since when? – Ed.] but having a guy write about a girl’s rite of passage…maybe not so much. Even if the guy had daughters (and no, I’m not doing the internet search to find that out…that’s just creepy) there’s a big difference between observing a girl going through puberty and actually being a girl going through puberty. That said, all of the boarding school stuff with Supergirl in her Earthly identity of Linda Lee ranges from forgettable to annoying. Switching gears to the other aspect of our story, the quest to retrieve the Omegahedron and stop Selina’s grab for world domination…and the local landscaping guy…is formulaic but entertaining. The magic effects with the various “Powers of Shadow” that are summoned are very much 80’s visual effects…and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for those. And though there are moments where these effects are stretched beyond their limitations, the fact that magic is the driving force behind you gives your brain plenty of room to rationalize away any weaknesses you might see. The conflict between the two, Kara and Selina, over the Omegahedron with the fate of two worlds in the balance really should have been enough…however, since these are girls, well, okay, a girl and a woman…I dunno, it might have seemed necessary to have them fighting over a guy in the 80’s mindset…but looking at it now, yeah, it’s just kinda lame. Just like in Superman III, it feels like the producers didn’t have any faith in their core character…even though said core character had been around for quite some time…even at that point. So that’s a minus one point. However, the film does give us a plus one point…we actually get to see the Phantom Zone for the first time…something that hadn’t been done before or since. This, like seemingly every other aspect of the film, comes with good and bad attributes. I covered the good already…we get to see the Phantom Zone in all its desolation and despair. Kudos to the production design for making it look like something out of the Darkness’s castle from Ridley Scott’s Legend. However, we never see any of the other inhabitants. We’re told that Krypton’s most evil criminals are just over the hill…and that’s it. Had we not been wasting half of our running time with the half-baked coming of age stuff or the competition over the local groundskeeper…I mean, how cool would it have been to see Kara and Zoltar having to fend off and flee rabid hordes of Kryptonian criminals also seeking to escape? Yet another missed opportunity in a franchise where they seem to be piling up.
Helen Slater makes an excellent Kara/Supergirl…although I found her Linda Lee to be a bit too earnest. Granted, I am thankful that she didn’t opt to portray her earthly identity the same way Chris Reeve opted to play Clark Kent. Faye Dunaway overacts in a way that doesn’t necessarily detract from the picture, per se…but you can’t help but wonder if she’s buying into the whole ‘it’s only a comic book’ mentality that plagued Hollywood until only recently. Brenda Vaccaro as Selina’s hench-wench fills the ‘Otis’ role…but instead of being the villain’s bumbling sidekick, she’s a wise-cracker. And given the Salkind’s knack for insisting things be overly jokey, you can rest assured that if she’s on screen, she’s flapping her gums about something. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Maureen Teefy feels like she’s trying too hard as Lucy Lane. It’s almost like she honed in on the worst aspects of Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and decided to build her character around those traits. Certainly shows there’s some relation…but doesn’t make for an enjoyable performance. I already spoke to Peter O’Toole’s Zoltar…very diva-like in some moments, very phoning it in for others. Marc McClure tries, and you have to give him that, because you can tell that he’s not sure why he’s there either.
As a movie soundtrack buff, I'd be remiss to talk about Jerry Goldsmith's score. The fact that Goldsmith wrote the music to the film in and of itself is rather interesting...here's why. Back when Richard Donner was filming the original Superman, his first thought to compose the movie was...Jerry Goldsmith. The two had worked together on The Omen, so, why not, right? Well, as the filming ran longer, Jerry became unavailable...leading Donner to his second choice, John Williams. But filming continued on...and now John Williams was unavailable, but Jerry Goldsmith was open. Filming ran even longer...but finally, upon completion, Goldsmith was no longer available but Williams was. And the rest is cinematic history. BUT...Goldsmith did get to play in the sandbox with Supergirl and if you separate it from the film, it's a nice look into an alternate reality where Goldsmith indeed composed the Superman films. The score has some good, solid themes that make me regret not picking this up on CD when it was released around the same time as the Collector's Edition DVD was available.
Ordinarily, these retro reviews fall into a category of either “Because I Hate Myself” or “In Defense Of…”. The Director’s Cut of Supergirl really kinda falls in between the two. With the additional material, a comprehensible story emerges along with character nuances…but at the same time, the story that is there can be kinda tough to sit through…especially the boarding school/Linda Lee stuff. Still, it’s VERY worth noting that this is the first big screen appearance of a superheroine headlining her own solo film…something that remains lacking in this renaissance of comic book cinema until Wonder Woman makes it to the silver screen in 2017. Then as now, you have to give it up to DC…sure, they’re not as popular as Marvel, but this film put them up on the diversity scorecard 1 to nothing…and with Wonder Woman it becomes 2 to nothing. I’m not saying Supergirl being the first excuses it from its lackluster moments…far from it…but she deserves her spot in cinema history…and with this Director’s Cut, she also deserves a second look (although it’s a little odd there’s no Blu-Ray version of the film yet). It takes a dreadfully reviewed movie and in my opinion elevates it to a solid ‘meh, it’s okay’.