Film Torments: Supergirl (1984)
THIS TIME on Torments, Dan looks at a forgotten lesson in comic book atrocities.
There was a time when superhero movies were a marquee event. When the original Superman hit cinemas in 1979, comic books were still seen as a niche platform; an outlier, in the eyes of the public at large, for nerds and outcasts to indulge their fantasies. Then, the success of that film proved the populist nature of comics, as Adam West’s Batman had done before. Now, with the unmitigated triumph of Marvel Studios and DC’s desperation to emulate said triumph, comic book movies have become a ubiquity in popular culture, and the inescapable reach of the cinematic ‘universe’ is all-consuming and never-ending.
But Supergirl wasn’t made in the modern day. If it had, it might have been good. It might have even been bearable. It would have been polished to a mirror sheen, pumped full of wry inter-textual wit and loaded with enough one-liners to launch a billion GIFs on Tumblr. It would have had enough clanging violence to satiate the teen and adult demographic’s bloodlust, but just enough fart jokes and physical comedy to satisfy the kids. It would have been marketable, and shiny, and savvy, and self-aware, and wholly disposable. It would, quite possibly, have Calista Flockhart and get a third season.
Unfortunately, Supergirl was made in 1984. It did not have a cinematic universe to fall back on, nor did it have substantial studio backing. It was funded entirely by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who owned the rights to the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise, including the Supergirl option. When Superman III posted disappointing returns, the Salkinds doubled down, pouring their own money and stars like Faye Dunaway and Peter O’Toole into a project that, in hindsight, seemed doomed from the start. It didn’t help that the end result of a $35 million investment proved to be one of the worst superhero movies ever made.
No hyperbole: Supergirl is fucking dreadful. From start to finish, it’s a stupefying melange of disappearing plot points, baffling character motivations and lumpen pace. It never gets exciting. Not once does it threaten to thrill. It screams half-arsed at every opportunity, from its thudding call-backs to the Reeve films to its lacklustre heroine, whose agency is constantly undermined by lame comedic stylings and an interminable 40 minutes of wandering through school corridors and trying on bras.
Oh, yes – Kara Zor-El (a debuting Helen Slater) goes to school. She’s in search of the Omegahedron, a mysterious MacGuffin that powers the Kryptonian city of Argo. After a mishap involving Zaltar (a manically intoxicated Peter O’Toole), Kara hurls herself into the vacuum of space and emerges on Earth, inexplicably complete with her superhero costume. Once on Earth, Kara sets out to find the Omegahedron by going to school. She spends most of the movie there. I have yet to determine why. In fact, I spent most of the run-time loudly shouting, in various combinations, “Why the fuck is she in school?” I never received a satisfactory answer.
In the absence of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Faye Dunaway steps in as Selena, a budding witch-in-training who temporarily foregoes her plans for world domination when the schoolground’s sexy gardener, Ethan (Hart Bochner), catches her eye. Apparently desperate to inhale the throbbing rod of a mulletted gentleman, Selena spends most of the film antagonising Kara and embroiling the three in a bizarre love triangle that takes up the majority of the plot. That’s right – Kara’s quest to save her people is put on hold by Selena’s overwhelming libido.
I do not understand why Supergirl was turned into Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While it was somewhat admirable for a female crime-fighter to be the central focus of the film – something the upcoming Captain Marvel is lapping up praise for – the novelty wears off when you realise it’s just progressive garnish on top of an insipid romance designed to have powerful women fawning over a dumbshit man. Imagine if Clark Kent and Lex spent the entirety of Superman II trying to get into Lois Lane’s high-powered trousers – that should give you some idea of how embarrassing this is to watch.
The brief moments of spark in Supergirl come when its titular heroine is showing some savviness. The script is so uneven that Slater can’t latch onto how she’s meant to play the role – she’s a doe-eyed naif one moment, assertive go-getter the next (and that’s not even considering her Linda Lee disguise) – but when she gets the chance to be the latter, she does reasonably well with some clunkers. Dunaway and O’Toole both camp it up to the nth degree, as you’d expect; particularly the former, whose astonishing orbit of concentrated ham is unimpeachable. Not even O’Toole’s perpetual drunkface can compete, and this is the man who gave us Tiberius.
The effects are, inevitably, dated. The flying sequences look no more or less effective than in the Reeve films, but Supergirl‘s attempt to emulate the “flying around the world with Lois” scene is a surreal affair, with Kara carrying an Ethan-occupied bumper car across the American countryside. It’s a bizarre, if homely visual, and one of the rare moments that the film tries to craft some kind of identity, albeit one cribbed from elsewhere. The runaway forklift sequence, however, might have more property damage and devastation than the climax of Man of Steel; where Snyder’s sociopathic Superman was, ultimately, trying to stop the villains, Kara actually watches the carnage unfold for a full minute until she finally decides to intervene.
Kara is Kal-El’s cousin, by the way, and the script will never let you forget it. The film is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to lazy references to its predecessors, almost exclusively consisting of soundbites like, “Oh, yes, Clark Kent is my cousin,” and, “Oh, yes, Lois Lane is my sister.” Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) shows up to say, “Hi, I’m Jimmy Olsen.” Lex is mentioned a couple of times. It’s craven and pandering, sure, but it’s no less cloying than your average MCU masturbation – it’s simply more blatant and unapologetic about it.
There’s nothing visually to set this apart either, and certainly nothing that distinguishes it from its parent. It doesn’t look or feel like a comic book film (Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping score notwithstanding). It barely feels like a movie, clocking in at an exorbitant two hours with about 40 minutes of relevant footage. The rest is endless reams of padding that drag down a camp, adventurous story into the pits of mediocrity.
All these elements coalesced into a box office bomb, and a projected trilogy was cancelled. (Nothing changes in Hollywood.) Slater, for her part, would go on to achieve success in Ruthless People and City Slickers, proving she had the fun, comedic chops that were largely absent in this naffness. What was originally intended to consolidate and expand the sagging Superman series ensured its (brief) cessation, before an enterprising duo at Cannon acquired the rights at a bargain. What was meant to be a rejuvenation for the Salkinds’ bastard child was, in fact, their final stab at industry greatness.
But I still don’t fucking know why she was in school.