Re-evaluating SUPERGIRL (1984)
I hadn’t planned to do any further entries in my coverage of Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s Superman film series (including the Donner films, the theatrical version of Superman II, and Superman III), but the buzz over the pilot to the upcoming CBS Supergirl TV series got me interested in revisiting the movie — particularly after reading this defense of the film on The Mary Sue not long ago, which argued that it worked as an unapologetic Silver Age story, basically the same mindset that let me enjoy Superman III.
Now, my prior impression of the Supergirl movie, which was written by David Odell (The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal) and directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who’s since gone on to direct many episodes of Smallville and six of Heroes), was not much kinder than my prior impression of the Superman movies. I remembered thinking Helen Slater looked great and was reasonably good in the role, and I remembered loving the Jerry Goldsmith score, but I also remembered finding it rather silly and resenting the way that Supergirl got stuck with a love-triangle plot while her male counterpart got to save the world. Let’s see how that holds up.
First off, Goldsmith’s score is still fantastic. I think I need to get the CD. It’s very much in the vein of John Williams’s Superman work (which was in turn an elaboration on the earlier Superman themes of Sammy Timberg and Leon Klatzkin and just the general heroic-march tradition), but it’s also very much a classic Goldsmith score, with many of his trademarks including the use of novel electronic sounds to supplement the gorgeously arranged orchestra. I also quite like the main title sequence created by Derek Meddings, with reflective titles swooping through the mists and bright lights flashing off them. It’s the kind of title treatment that would soon go on to become a garish cliche of computer-animated titles, but it was done live with actual reflective cutouts, which gives it a much greater elegance. Though the film has some weak effects (like a couple of really blatant jump cuts), it also has some spectacular ones, particularly Meddings’s superb work with a moving camera and a glass painting to represent the villainess Selena’s fortress in the climax.
The film opens in Argo City, evidently created by Peter O’Toole’s inventor Zaltar as an extradimensional artists’ colony of sorts, much more inviting and organic than the sterile, jagged crystals of Donner’s Krypton. It’s never explained whether it was created/moved to “inner space” as a means of escaping Krypton’s destruction or if it was already there and happened to survive as a result. Anyway, Slater’s Kara Zor-El, a favorite of the iconoclastic Zaltar, is girlish and a bit gawky, a convincing teenager even though she was around 20 at the time. She has a nice rapport with O’Toole, but it all goes wrong when their playing around with the Omegahedron (one of Argo City’s two power sources, Zaltar says, though the identity of the second is evidently lost to editing) causes it to be ejected into space, endangering the city’s survival. (That second power source must not be all that impressive, then.) Kara hijacks the pod Zaltar had made to travel to Earth (where her cousin Superman lives) in order to pursue the Omegahedron and bring it back, while Zaltar gamely sentences himself to the Phantom Zone for his crime. Technically it’s as much Kara’s fault as his, and I like it that the film sets her up with a strong motive to correct her mistake, although it unfortuntely forgets it almost immediately.
After a trip through the lava lamp dimension, Kara somehow emerges from the pod in Supergirl costume, and the coltish teenager has somehow given way to a graceful and lovely young woman, just by a change of hairstyle, clothes, and manner. Slater’s eyes are just extraordinary — perfect for Supergirl and convincing as Christopher Reeve’s cousin, and just plain compelling to look at. And the design of the Supergirl costume is fantastic.
As Supergirl discovers her powers on Earth, we get the lengthy “aerial ballet,” which is just beautiful, a charming sequence as Kara revels in what she can do and the beauty of the new world she’s entered. It’s fittingly named, as Slater’s flying technique is more balletic than Reeve’s, more like swimming through the air, with arms out to the sides and one knee bent. It’s different, but it works for her. Later, she rather randomly adopts the identity of girls’ school resident Linda Lee, and apparently has the same power as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman to change into any desired outfit instantaneously, except she does it by passing behind things rather than spinning. This includes the ability to change from blonde to brunette as well, and again, she looks very different as Linda. Performance-wise, allowing for the fact that this was her debut role, I think she did a terrific job, creating a mostly strong and expressive character who was also young and innocent. She’s particularly good in her scenes with O’Toole in the Phantom Zone, exhorting him to get out of his self-flagellating funk and help her escape. I would’ve loved to see her mature in the role in later movies.
Most of the film’s cast is terrific. The villains consist of Faye Dunaway as Selena, an ambitious novice witch who gains great power from the Omegahedron and uses it in pursuit of conquest; Brenda Vaccaro as her roommate/sidekick Bianca; and Peter Cook as Nigel, the mentor in black magic who craves her but whom she tosses over in favor of the Omegahedron’s power. They’re all extremely good, particularly Vaccaro, who shows great comedic flair. (Useless fact: When this movie first came out, I knew Vaccaro mainly from The Pride of Jesse Hallam, a TV movie that was filmed at the high school I then attended. I don’t think I ever saw her in person, though. I was too shy to audition for a role as an extra.)
Maureen Teefy also does a good job as Linda’s roommate, who coincidentally happens to be Lucy Lane, sister of Lois and girlfriend of Jimmy Olsen (with Marc McClure reprising his role from the other films and not really doing much). Lucy’s main role in the comics was to be the most mean-spirited and disapproving girlfriend in history (for some reason, Silver Age DC love interests tended to be thoroughly awful toward the male leads), but here she’s basically a mini-Lois, sassy and fearless, with much of the same spirit as Margot Kidder’s Lois. In one of the film’s big set pieces involving a magically controlled runaway construction vehicle, Lucy throws herself into danger to try to take control of it, while Kara/Linda just stands around doing nothing for two or three minutes to let the action play out — a major logic hole, and far from the only one in the film. Lucy is knocked unconscious in the process, and Supergirl rather callously abandons her in order to rescue the male lead from the vehicle.
Unfortunately, that male lead, Hart Bochner as the “love interest” Ethan, is by far the most awful part of the film. The attempt at a love story is atrocious. Ethan is a total non-entity, just eye candy until Selena decides to cast a love spell on him to test it as a tool for control — and he’s thoroughly unpleasant and abrasive in his first dialogue scene, up to the point where she slips him the potion. It’s supposed to make him love the first person he sees, but he staggers off and wanders through town for a good ten minutes, then gets caught up by the construction vehicle and needs to be rescued by Supergirl, all somehow without actually looking at anyone until Supergirl randomly changes to Linda after the rescue. Then he’s “in love” with Linda for the rest of the movie, and though Kara/Linda initially discourages him, she ends up sort of falling for him — which is deeply creepy considering the non-consensual angle to his participation in the story. Which is balanced by the fact that she’s evidently underage, so neither participant is really in a position to consent. It’s creepy and wrong for both of them. The fact that he’s shown to be still in love with Linda after the spell breaks doesn’t ameliorate it any, because that “love” is totally unmotivated; Supergirl even points out that he doesn’t know a thing about Linda. Plus Bochner is a dull, unappealing actor and his character has no discernible personality. I suppose that’s sort of a counterpoint to the way female love interests were often portrayed in male-led action movies — vacuous, personality-free eye candy existing only to be romantically available to the hero — so perhaps one could read a certain satirical statement into it if one desired. But I doubt that was the intent, and it doesn’t do much to ameliorate the unpleasantness of the character and the storyline. The most annoying thing is that Kara pretty much spills her secret identity to him because she can’t resist kissing him as Supergirl. Superman gets to keep his secret to himself, but Supergirl spills it to the first guy who turns her head? Okay, that could be chalked up to her youth and inexperience, but it feels a bit gendered, in terms of who has the control and power advantage in the relationship.
Still, I have to admit, the movie is less centered on the love triangle than I thought. Supergirl and Selena are fighting over Ethan, but Selena’s interested in Ethan more as a trophy and a pawn than anything else, and as a way to manipulate and hurt Supergirl. Her agenda really is world conquest, and she gains the power to pull it off. So, even though the romantic angle is terrible, it isn’t quite as demeaning as reducing Supergirl to a petty love triangle while Superman gets to save the world. The stakes really are global and the villainess quite dangerous, once she gets the hang of her powers. In terms of potential for global domination, Selena easily rivals Zod and surpasses Lex Luthor and Ross Webster. Which makes sense, since she’s getting a power boost from Kryptonian technology. (Which is perhaps amplified in its power on Earth just as everything else from Krypton is, by the logic of Silver/Bronze Age comics. When she first touches it, it seems to bond with her as a “child of the Sun” — the same yellow star that empowers Superman and Supergirl.) True, that threat is more potential than actually demonstrated; we only get one scene of the townsfolk protesting her evil reign without any real portrayal of its effects. But I was clearly wrong to believe Selena’s goals were limited to stealing Supergirl’s boy toy.
Selena’s fusion of magic and Kryptonian technology even allows her to banish Supergirl to the Phantom Zone, the first time in the series that we see what the Zone is like on the inside, and it’s a pretty dark and grungy place. (A brighter version of the Zone would later be depicted in Smallville, but never in an episode directed by Szwarc.) The problem is that getting out of it is implausibly easy. Sure, the way out involves risking a deadly maelstrom to which Zaltar sacrifices himself to help Kara, but still, given that onscreen evidence suggests a roughly 50 percent survival rate, you’d think Krypton’s criminals would be braving the rift all the time and periodically succeeding in their escapes. My personal rationalization is that the rift was only created when Zod, Non, and Ursa were blown out of the Zone in Superman II (either version), and maybe Zaltar was the first to discover it.
It’s in these climactic sequences that Slater’s mostly strong performance as Kara is undermined. Twice, once in the Phantom Zone escape and once when battling Selena’s final-boss demon, Supergirl is overcome with despair and whines “I can’t!” until Zaltar encourages her and gives her the confidence to go on (in the flesh the first time, Obi-Wan-style later). Again, this could perhaps be attributed to her youth, but it feels like the movie was saying a mere female couldn’t succeed without borrowing strength from a man. (And its one attempt to show any kind of “girl power” message is in questionable taste, as she fends off a couple of truckers who randomly sexually harass her, implicitly with rape in mind; and though she thrashes them handily, they’re played more as figures of humor than menace. One of them is a young Matt Frewer, in what is not one of the finer roles of his career.)
The ending is also kind of arbitrary. Since the filmmakers evidently wanted the Superman and Supergirl films to stand more or less independently of each other (or at least decided they did after Christopher Reeve bowed out of appearing in Supergirl), the film ends with Kara getting Lucy and Jimmy to promise to tell no one about her. Really? Don’t tell Superman that he’s not the last son of Krypton, that his cousin, uncle Zor-El, aunt Alura, and hundreds of other Kryptonians are alive and well in “inner space”? That is just so not cool. It’s also unbelievable that she could keep her existence a secret, given her public appearances in the city fighting Selena’s attacks.
All told, it’s a film with a lot of flaws and plot holes and an absolutely horrible excuse for a love story, but there’s still a lot that works, at least by the turn-off-your-brain Silver-Age standards of the series. It’s reasonably well-made, and it has great music and good costume design (by Emma Porteous, who did several Bond films, Clash of the Titans, Aliens, and season 2 of Space: 1999). Bochner aside, it has one of the strongest casts of any of the Salkind Super-movies, and Helen Slater is a worthy addition to the Kryptonian family.
Indeed, Kara herself is a terrific character — she’s intelligent, adaptable, a problem-solver. She spends much of the movie actively searching for the Omegahedron, even plotting out search grids on a map at one point. The sense of urgency she should have about rescuing Argo City is missing, and she does tend to get easily distracted by schoolgirl antics and creepily wrong romance, but those are flaws in the writing and direction, and perhaps can be somewhat attributed to her youth. Indeed, in a sense, they underline her inquisitive nature. Superman grew up on Earth, but to Kara, it’s an alien planet and she’s got too lively a mind to resist exploring its novelties.
Anyway, even with the flaws in execution, what’s intriguing about the premise is that Supergirl is one of the few screen superheroes who’s actually the protagonist of her movie. As my friend David Mack recently pointed out in his comments on Mad Max: Fury Road, a hero and a protagonist are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. The protagonist of a story is the character whose action or pursuit of a goal drives the narrative, and the antagonist is the one countering the protagonist’s actions. Usually in superhero stories, it’s the villain who’s actively pursuing a goal (such as world conquest) and the hero who’s reactively trying to thwart them, so generally the villain is the protagonist. That’s certainly true of the first three Superman films. And in a sense, Selena fills the classic villain-protagonist role, since she’s pursuing the goal of conquering the world and Supergirl has to stop her. But Selena’s powers are merely a side effect of Kara’s mistake in losing the Omegahedron, and Kara is the one who sets the story in motion both by making that mistake and by going to Earth in order to correct it. She’s the one trying to retrieve the Omegahedron while Selena thwarts her efforts with magic. And she’s the one who motivates Zaltar to help her while he’s content to wallow in despair. So she’s the primary protagonist of the film. It makes her a nicely proactive and motivated heroine, and is a real strength of the film, despite its constant efforts to undermine itself.
In sum, I have to conclude that, like the other Superman films that preceded it, Supergirl is not that bad, and is in fact rather fun to watch if approached in the right spirit. (Although the same does not go for the film that followed it, The Quest for Peace. Don’t expect me to change my mind about that one.)
Helen Slater has gone on to play several other DC characters. She was the voice of Talia al Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series, and played Clark Kent’s Kryptonian mother Lara Lor-Van (billed as Lara-El) in Smallville. And she’s appearing in the upcoming CBS Supergirl series as Sylvia Danvers, Kara’s adoptive mother on Earth (opposite Lois and Clark‘s Dean Cain as Kara’s adoptive father). Hart Bochner also returned to DC, playing Councilman Reeves in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Marc McClure, in addition to playing Jimmy Olsen in four other films, played Kryptonian scientist Dax-Ur in Smallville. Matt Frewer’s extensive career is surprisingly light on DC roles, but he did a memorable turn as Sid the Squid in Batman: The Animated Series‘s “The Man Who Killed Batman,” as well as playing Moloch in the Watchmen feature film.
It’s a shame that Slater didn’t get the chance to play Supergirl again, since she was really good at it. It might be a stretch to say that playing Supergirl’s mother on the upcoming series is the next best thing, but it’s something, and I look forward to it. I hope the new series manages to make Kara a comparably strong, charming, and proactive character, while avoiding the film’s many failings.