Supergirl (1984, Jeannot Szwarc)

Supergirl

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a powerful orb ends up on Earth, a Kryptonian girl called Kara – who’s Superman’s cousin – gives chase and finds that she now has special powers…

Good guys: Helen Slater plays Kara with wide-eyed likeability. The character survived the destruction of Krypton because she and her family live in Argo City, which is in a pocket of trans-dimensional reality (or something). When a MacGuffin called the Omegahedron is blown out into space, she follows it to Earth. Finding she can crush rocks and fly, she becomes Supergirl. But in order to search for the Omegahedron, she poses as a schoolgirl called Linda Lee – her alter ego has brunette hair, which acts as her equivalent of Clark Kent’s true-identity-obscuring glasses. At the school, she shares a room with friendly Lucy, who just happens to be Lois Lane’s little sister. Linda later has her first kiss, battles a witch, and ends up in the Phantom Zone (the prison world where Zod and her allies were kept in the first two Superman films).

Bad guys: Faye Dunaway – who gets close-ups filmed in soft focus with a splash of light on her eyes – is the villain: a would-be witch called Selena. Dolly Parton was initially offered the role and would have been more fun. We meet Selena as she’s having a riverside picnic while daydreaming about world domination. The Omegahedron falls out of the sky and lands in her food – she (somehow) instantly sees its potential for (somehow) casting spells. Her lair is in an old funfair and she has two hangers-on: Nigel and Bianca. The former is a teacher at the school Linda ends up in and is Selena’s boyfriend. A lacklustre Peter Cook seems less than thrilled with the role. Meanwhile, Bianca is played by Brenda Vaccaro – aka Joey Tribbiani’s mum. She’s the best thing about the whole film – sarcastic and full of energy, she feels like a real person.

Other guys: Peter O’Toole hams it up very entertainingly as Zaltar, an iconoclastic Kryptonian who accidentally causes the crisis at the start of the story. He willingly goes to the Phantom Zone as punishment, where conveniently Kara later bumps into him. Also in the Argo City scene are Mia Farrow and Simon Ward in phenomenally perfunctory roles as Kara’s parents. Hart Bochner – later sleazy executive Harry in Die Hard – plays the gardener, Ethan, who Selena takes a shine to. She gives him a potion so he’ll fall in love with the next person he sees… Of course, he wanders off and, after an elaborate action scene, claps eyes on Supergirl. The fun Lucy Lane is played by Maureen Teefy (Demi Moore was originally cast but quit when she got a better job), while Marc McClure has an inconsequential cameo, reprising Jimmy Olsen from the Superman films. An appearance from Christopher Reeve was planned, but he decided against it. We do see a poster of him, though, in Lucy and Linda’s bedroom.

Best bits:

* The terrific use of models, optical effects and theatrical set design as we’re introduced to the world of Argo City.

* “Nigel, how long have we been together?” “Ooh, months, darling.” “Then why does it feel like years?”

* Kara arrives on Earth in her new Supergirl costume. (Just allow me this one descent into perviness: phwoar.)

* Bianca suggesting Selena starts a coven so they can use the subs fees to pay the bills.

* Oh, look: it’s Max Headroom as a creepy trucker who tries it on with Supergirl.

* Oh, look: it’s Sandra Dickinson as a guest at the party Selena throws in her haunted house. (Howard Jones’s What is Love? plays as people mingle.)

* The scene with the tetchy school principle at Midvale High – Linda, as she now calls herself, waits until he’s left his office then at lightening speed forges a letter of recommendation from Clark Kent and puts it in the filing cabinet.

* When we first meet Lucy Lane, she’s reading an Incredible Hulk comic. A Marvel title! Sacrilege!

* Nigel: “I want to make a very serious proposal.” Selena: “In that outfit?”

* A fun trick shot as Supergirl flies into a large pipe on a building site – and Linda walks out of the other end.

* The past is a strange place, isn’t it? It only been 31 years, yet I doubt you’d make a film these days with scenes of schoolgirls showering, undressing and being flirted with by grown men.

* The photography is often very lovely. It’s by Alan Hume (many Carry Ons, three 1980s Bonds, Return of the Jedi, Runaway Train, A Fish Called Wanda). He uses smoke, long lenses and warm lighting to give the film a certain cinematic sheen.

* A mountain appears in the middle of Midvale town centre.

* Banished to the Phantom Zone, Supergirl tries flying… and falls flat on her face.

Review: This direct spin-off from the Superman series was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who was also responsible for such masterpieces as Jaws 2 and Santa Claus: The Movie. His style is often quite flat and he’s not helped by a script littered with that’ll-do plotting and contrivances. After an opening that’s like something from a 1960s Doctor Who – an alien culture crudely conveyed in “As you know…” dialogue – we get a story stuck in second gear. Kara’s search for the MacGuffin is about as leisurely as they come, while it’s difficult to take anything Selena says seriously. Sadly, there’s also no real attempt to distinguish Kara from Linda. Christopher Reeve understood that his character had two very different personas, but Slater just lets the costume do the work in this regard. Having said all that, it was quite diverting seeing this again. It’s gloriously bonkers at times. And it’s a superhero film driven by female characters – if nothing else, that’s worth celebrating.

Five hockey sticks out of 10.

Next time: Gene Hackman returns to the Superman series. What could possibly go wrong?

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2 thoughts on “Supergirl (1984, Jeannot Szwarc)

  1. For the second time in a row, I’ve sat down to a Super-film with very low expectations and been pleasantly surprised. Despite the obvious flaws – insane plotting, a villain who spends most of the film trying to get a man to love her instead of gaining power – I think this is more enjoyable than the three Superman films so far.

    Despite (what I assume to be) a much lower budget, the flying scenes here are more convincing too, and Kara’s joy in discovering the power of flight is very endearing. (Unlike the Superman films, where the hero spends most of the time putting on an act, here we really get to see Kara/Supergirl/Linda be herself.)

    It’s also surprising how well it fits with the Superman films – not only the obvious stuff such as the poster, Lois’ sister and Jimmy’s cameo, but also Superman being off in space (the same journey he comes back from in Superman Returns, perhaps?) If – like me – you like fitting it all together, you can even pretend Sandra Dickinson is reprising her role from Superman III.

    And though much of the dialogue is awful, there are some real gems. “Who is he?” “My maths teacher. I think.”

    So that’s Superman III and Supergirl that have far surpassed my expectations. Can The Quest for Peace make it a hat trick?

    (For some reason I couldn’t find the review on Facebook.)

    Like

  2. While I think it *is* rubbish, as I said in the review I did actually enjoy seeing it again – hence the compromise score of 5/10.

    I really, really hope you enjoy Superman IV as much. Seems unlikely, but you never know!

    Like

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