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The Nostalgic Attic: Supergirl (1984)

1 July 2013

Supergirl (1984)

"Such a pretty world. I can't wait until it's all mine"

Some films get saddled with a reputation so early on in their release that any hope of success is scuppered right away. Over inflated budgets, re-shoots and terrible scripts can all lead to dreadful advanced word-of-mouth and a box office fiasco.The 1980's had its fair share of disasters, with Heavens Gate kicking off the decade in spectacular fashion with a 44 million dollar flop. The George Lucas produced Howard the Duck wallowed in 35 million loses. Ishtar came in at a mind boggling 51 million, and barely made back Warren Beattys catering bill in box office receipts. 

Somewhere in the middle of all of that we have Supergirl. The Superman series was a huge money maker at this point, with Part III coming out in 1983 and cleaning up cash wise, despite poor reviews and dwindling profit lines. A spin off series seemed like a good idea to milk the cow; a female friendly action fantasy could have been quite the hit if it was put together correctly. Sadly things didn't work out as planned for Warner Bros and Tri-Star Pictures. Time can do funny things to a film, though. Heavens Gate has been re-evaluated over the years and despite its running time, regarded as a close miss. Howard the Duck found a bigger fan base on VHS and is a minor cult classic at this point. The less said about Ishtar, the better.

So how has time been to Supergirl?

Supergirls 'first great adventure' kicks off on Argo City, a place for survivors from the planet Krypton. Ageing artist and teacher Zaltar (Peter O'Toole, Caligula, High Spirits, the Last Emperor) shows young Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater, The Secret of My Success, Ruthless People) a tool known as the Omegahedron which is used to power the city. Unaware of really how powerful it is, Kara accidentally sends it blasting off into outer space. Zaltar takes responsibility and self exiles whilst Kara heads off into the depths of the unknown in pursuit of the device that is vital to the very survival of her people.

Luckily for her, it goes straight to Earth, where a certain cousin of hers hangs out. Unluckily though, it happens to land right in the middle of a picnic of a not-so-very-nice witch by the name of Selena (Faye Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde, Mommie Dearest ). Selena isn't modest about her plans for total world domination, and straight away she can sense the strength of the Omegahedron. She can see it also as an escape from dreary warlock Nigel (Peter Cook, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Derek and Clive Get the Horn) who is only holding her back. Aided by her seriously stupid sidekick, Bianca, Selena starts to perform real magic, and of course, those plans for world domination start to come to a head...

Meanwhile, Kara lands on Earth and quickly discovers her super powers. After beating up a pair of dodgy rapists she assumes the identity of 'Linda Lee', the cousin to famous reporter, Clarke Kent. Sadly Superman himself is off doing a peace keeping mission on a planet millions of miles away, so we never get to see him. She sets herself in a girls school that not only happens to have the creepy warlock Nigel as a teacher there, but she also bumps into the plucky younger sister of Lois Lane; Lucy (Maureen Teefy;  Fame, Grease 2 ).

Now at this point you would expect the plot to converge on the good-versus-evil battle between Selena and the ever-powerful Supergirl.... but no. What happens is both ladies fall for the same dorky, hunky gardener, Ethan (Hart Bochner; Terror Train, Die Hard). Selena puts a love curse on him, but it backfires and he falls in love with 'Linda'. Supergirl manages to put a stop to most of the evil Selena sets in place (including a possessed construction truck that wrecks havoc all over town, and the highlight for me, an invisible demon thing that is sent to destroy Linda), until Selena grabs Supergirls friends and banishes her to the 'Phantom Zone', a desolate place now inhabited by Zoltar. Selena puts the city in a grip of terror and is ever closer to world domination. Will Zoltar be able to help Supergirl get back to Earth and save the planet? Will she retrieve the Omegahedron? Will her dopey gardener still love her? 

To put it mildly, the film is a mess. The script is saddled with consistently clunky dialogue that sometimes makes no sense within the context. The plot seems to be moving in a satisfactory direction and then takes a nosedive into a teen/romance novel story line. Trivial is the only way to describe the 'love potion' romance aspect of the film; sadly it never gets close to having some actual emotion in the way the original Superman film conveyed. The triviality extends to other areas of the plot. Superman gets to fight crime on a mass scale; Supergirl teaches some school bullies a lesson. We just never really get a sense of scale here. It's not a surprise to see how many writers went through this project, though it seems strange that this is the place they ended up. The massive budget and expectations didn't help, either. It doesn't look like a 35 million dollar film, considering the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Empire Strikes Back cost less than half this to make.

Despite all of the very obvious flaws, there is still some fun to be had with it. The bad dialogue will get a few chuckles, and the intended comedy is hit or miss for the most part. The extended action scenes are handled quite well; the rampaging truck scene mentioned above looks good, as do other moments towards the climax. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is actually great; it is really quite memorable, and will stick with you long after the film has ended. Helen Slater makes a good leading lady, and it's a pity this film played a big part in her future career. Faye Dunaway goes nuts with the role she is given, and despite the awful dialogue and plot, she walks away relatively unharmed. Peter Cook seems like strange casting to me, as his role is relatively straight. The other characters are never given a huge amount to do, and cameos from Marc McClure reprising his role as Jimmy Olsen kinda just remind you that it isn't a Superman film, despite it being canon to that series. 

The FX work ranges from choppy to pretty good, with the usual blue screen/flying moments sticking out the worst. But hey, that's just age. The scene where she battles the invisible demon is pretty atmospheric, as is the final showdown with the forces of darkness that Selena summons. I'm a sucker for a giant monster. Both those scenes terrified me as a kid. Some of the set design feels kinda bland, such as the 'Phantom Zone', and the inside of Selenas mountain palace. The title sequence is really nicely done, though. As it should, it apparently cost one million dollars alone. 

Some people point the finger for the flop at director Jeannot Szwarc, who had previously helmed the ok-ish Jaws 2, and went on to do Santa Claus: The Movie the following year. The most obvious culprits seem to be the executive producers, the Salkinds. They controlled the rights to both Superman and Supergirl, and were heavily involved in bring this film to screen. The film crashed hard at the time, but did it deserve it? Yes. It's erratic at the best of times in all departments, and at its worst, a sloppy disaster. Once again though, time has changed a box office disaster into what is now considered a campy cult classic. The film has had several extended cuts released, and still gets a cinema revival now and then. Many films never get to that stage, so it must be doing something right for a lot of folks, whether it is intentional or not. Me? I can enjoy it for the silliness of it all, but no doubt hardcore superhero and comic book fans will hate it.

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At 4 July 2013 at 18:51 , Blogger Dave R said...

Laughed hard at "seriously stupid sidekick". Its a pity Bryan Singer didn't use the superman leaving plot as the reason superman leaves in superman...5 or whatever it was called (which I liked a lot better than man of steel)

Can you do Space Camp next?? :)

At 7 July 2013 at 02:53 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I have yet to see Man of Steel, but my complete hatred for Zack Snyder isn't going to make it an easy watch.

Space Camp will be done at some point, I only watched it about a year ago, don't think I can handle it again too soon :-)

At 20 May 2014 at 11:47 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...


I also am a non - fan of Zack Snyder, so I have completely avoided Man of Steel.
xcellent review of a rather ragged spinoff - I wrote a lengthy review myself -:here's a link:

At 20 May 2014 at 12:58 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks for the link, Craig. Our reviews are very similiar in that we both seemed like and dislike the same things. No doubt we will still end up watching this one again in 20 years time.

And I still haven't gotten around to Man of Steel, despite it being available on our cable box. It kinda feels like Zack Snyder has the best agent in the world, and managed to wrangle him a six picture deal... somehow he keeps getting mega-budgets, while much more talented directors struggle.

At 20 May 2014 at 19:45 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

Yeah - we did sync up on this movie. We also sync up on Zack - although I will watch Watchmen one of these days - just because I loved the comic back when it was coming out for that year. And I must apologize for that ragged comment up there - my smartphone goes bonkers when you add a link - starts moving stuff all over the place and I come off like Yoda. Cheers!

At 22 May 2014 at 07:51 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Watchmen is great, yet infuriating in parts. Visually, he nailed it. But how can you go wrong there when you are going frame by frame from the comics in most parts? Some of the performances miss the mark, and some scenes... I'm normally not one to complain about gore scenes, but they were there just for childish glee, and not because they were supposed to be. I think you will know what I mean when you watch it.


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