The early 80s: a time in American culture filled with explorations of questionable fashions, clashes of socio-political identities, gargantuan cocaine habits, and an unending urge to somehow bring the simplicity/mythical mono-culture of the 50s back to life. Along with an assortment of rock and roll revivals, and the machinations of The Moral Majority, this meant that the time was right for comic movies to enter the prime time with DC legend Superman crashing into the box office with two smash hits: Superman, The Movie and Superman II, The Sequel. So happy were the film producers Ilya Salkind & Alexander Salkind with the money made from the franchise, that they took a scrapped subplot from a rejected Superman III, The Flop script and decided to make Supergirl!!
Directed by the guy who directed Jaws 2 and written by the bloke who would be responsible for Masters Of The Universe, it had a $35 million budget and then blew one million of that on the 5 minutes of credits at the start. The rest, they spent on filming the America set plot in London, securing a brace of highly talented third choice actors, having Christopher Reeve turn up in cameo – via a poster – and then trimming out half an hour in post-production to still have it make back $14.3 million from its official run. Due to developing a cult following, a two-hour cut was eventually released, as well as a 92 minute TV version – but the film still languishes with a 10% critic and 25% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Which is pretty unfair, considering Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is at 27% with critics & 63% was the audience, as well as being on the Dignitas advised viewing list.
Supergirl has got a lot going for it, and not just the impressively bombastic opening. Helen Slater does a good job as the constantly pleasant Kara Zor-El / Linda Lee / Supergirl, walking a line that could have been annoying innocence-and-naivety, but just ends up being young and nice to people unless shown otherwise, with Maureen Teefy as a bad-girl-but-actually-good-egg Lucy Lane, Faye Dunaway as the gloriously evil sorceress Zaltar, with Brenda Vaccaro as sidekick Bianca, who has the simple decency to tenaciously enjoy being a total arse towards everyone, living in a fairground Haunted House, and abusing Powers-What-Mortals-Were-Not-Meant-To-Know. You also have Hart Bochner (Ethan: beefcake, love interest), Peter Cook (Nigel: evil warlock, dick) and Peter O’Toole (Zaltar: Scientist, Artist, Nihilist) giving absolutely straight performances through some of the worlds clunkiest lines ever, and managing to add dignity to the proceedings that it quite probably doesn’t deserve.
The script is a strange beast, because it’s both excellent and quite bad at the same time. On the positive side it assumes high levels of intelligence from the audience, with very little exposition given about either Zor-Els’ Kryptonian powers or the magical forces she goes up against. She is super strong, flies, and has laser eyes etc because she’s Supergirl, duh! It also plays up her fish-out-of-water situation like nothing until the 2011 Thor film; she can handle sixth-dimensional geometry equations in her head so she’s not stupid, she just doesn’t get the cultural references as it’s her first time on Earth. Hence when she gets aggressively hit on by two Truck Drivers in an alley, she knows what they want to do to her, she’s just can’t get over them being that unpleasant. If anything, they come across as the stupid ones, as Billy decides that after she’s said she’s Superman’s cousin, hammered Eddie through a fence with hurricane breath, and just used her visible eye lasers to superheat his flickknife, he still thinks he can take her.
The film also has some outstandingly insane comic book physics, such as making a plant grow faster by heating it up with eye lasers and making a lightning gun out of a lamppost, by charging it up in a thunderstorm. This does get a bit annoying, especially when it appears that the last Kryptonian city, sitting in a hurricane-filled alternative dimension, is protected from the elements by a thin layer of clingfilm… but eventually just becomes part of the daft joy of the whole thing. It’s also why you can be apprehensive when Supergirl is attacked by a terrifying invisible monster and panic when the love interest gets stuck on a self-driving bumper car attraction. That it’s lovingly shot, often in a knowingly hyper-camp style, and has clearly had time and money put into the design and production, also helps sell the whole thing, with only one brief bit of special-effects having visibly aged all that much.
The problem is simply that the whole affair is too linear, with no side-plots or complications to be found across it’s two hours. It’s filled with moments of amusement, little scenes of tension, and some great exchanges of hammy dialogue, but it all just strings together without any kind of driving force or binging narrative. You don’t even get to see Supergirl do in any do-gooder that isn’t directly plot related, so there’s no build up or expectation of what she can or can’t do. The closest to a diversion is when she ends up in the Phantom Zone and gets right royally miffed about being there, but you know how she’ll get out of it from moment one and the whole danger is done in ten minutes and a sacrifice that doesn’t seem to really have much emotional weight to it. It doesn’t have the complexity of other superhero movies, especially of the two previous Superman films, so whilst it’s a pleasant two hours you won’t really be able to say it was compelling.