After Superman III was virtually torpedoed single handedly by the confusing appearance of a gurning Richard Pryor, a female-centric spin off featuring Superman’s cousin Kara was made in an attempt to keep the brand going. In many ways you could say Supergirl was a very early crack at a connected comic book universe as everyone seems to be related to someone back in Metropolis and Jimmy Olsen turns up despite no one in the audience really wanting him too. Of course you could ALSO say it failed miserably but there is a sizable sense of 80’s fueled nostalgia that surprised me by being nowhere near as bad as I remembered it.
A small cluster of Krytonians live in Argo City, an enclosed crystal located in Inner Space and is filled with glittery shit that is kept going by the Omegahedron, an all powerful orb that can create matter. One of the creators of Argo City is Zaltar, a shouty artist who dresses like a bohemian tramp and is improbably portrayed by a frankly terrifying Peter O’Toole. He’s illegally “borrowed” the Omegahedron mainly because wants to create art with it and he’s a flaky twat and when young Kara accidentally seems it careening to earth it seems that Argo City is doomed (let’s be honest though, if you put 1984 Peter O’Toole in charge of a whole city, this is what you’re almost certainly gonna get). Spunky Kara leaps aboard Zoltar’s pod and heads off to reclaim it – therefore denying us a full blown horror movie where Peter O’Toole heads to earth and gains the powers of a demi-God. On arrival she gains all of the powers of her cousin and immediately enrols herself in a girls school under the name Linda Lee because it’s 1984 and secret identities are mandatory. She also rooms with Lois Lane’s sister too because apparently stupid coincidences are way easier to write but there is trouble on the horizon in kitch witch Selina who wants to rule the world becuse…. well, she just does and she’s got the Omegahedron in her possession. Teaming up with Peter Cook’s slimy warlock/maths teacher (who seems to have gone to the Severus Snape School of Sinister Line Readings) Selina’s only obstacle is Supergirl, who is enjoying the cream of earth culture like having her ears pierced and being fascinated by bras (it has a male screen writer, what are you gonna do?). Can Kara defeat Selina, reclaim the Omegahedron and save her people?
Supergirl may not be the most beloved of superhero movies but it has it’s virtues.
Helen Slater as Supergirl herself is tremendously appealing with her giant blue Bush Baby sized eyes and balances the naivety of the character nicely so she doesn’t become too cloying and she nails the superhero aspect giving the numerous extended scenes of Supergirl flying – which feels like the filmmakers bragging about how much stock footage they have to rear project behind poor Slater while she dangles from wires – a grace which sells the effect nicely. Everyone else in the cast seems to overact depending on how famous they think they are with Faye Dunnaway Cook and O’Toole consuming the set wholesale while not seeming to be enjoying a single second of it. Maybe it’s because Jaws 2 director Jeannot Szwarc (enjoyably inferior follow up’s seem to be his forte) insists on using oddly framed master shots for the majority of the film that look like the camera is placed too high but it’s more likely that they’re embarrassed to be in such childish, if genuinely sweet trash.
However, there’s an uneasy, prevailing oddness about the whole movie too that constantly rails against it’s innocent looking PG rating. For example, having Peters O’Toole and Cook in the same film – therefore making it more of a bizarre nexus of snarky British alcoholism than Withnail & I – is only the tip of the iceberg, especially since O’Toole seems legitimately smashed off his arse during all of his scenes. Not matter how hard you try (and you totally shouldn’t) it’s tough to ignore the many breezey references to sexual assault that flits in and out of the otherwise happy-go-lucky script. Within the first half of the movie alone we have Kara encountering a pair of redneck rapists within a day of her arriving on Earth, a male character getting roofied with a love drug slipped into his drink and the same character then falling in love with Kara in her schoolgirl outfit. Maybe I’ve got it wrong and time moves differently in Argo City and Kara’s actually 47 or something but she’s still wearing a school uniform in the scene and it’s still fucking weird.
Plus despite the fact that the movie impressively ranks her power set (she can pretty much do everything Superman can except that weird plastic S thing he throws in Superman II – thank god) it’s a shame so much of Supergirl’s mission is related to men telling her she can “do it” when the going gets tough. She fares far better than Faye Dunnaway’s spiteful idiot of a villain who is barely in control of her powers most of the time and seems to have the ambitions of a whining child. Lex Luthor does what he does in the Christopher Reeve movies because he is a money and land obsessed, egotistical criminal genius, Selina accidentally gains magical powers and immediately uses them to seduce a gardener… it’s not really breaking stereotypes is what I’m saying.
It’s hardly as progressive as Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel but it does try dammit and it’s heart’s in the right place – anything Supergirl can’t do seems to be a result of her age rather than her gender – and surely SOME kudos have to go to the attempt at producing a female lead special effects blockbuster as far back as 1984. It’s flaws are many and it certainly isn’t remotely perfect but it’s better than the final two of the four “original” Superman movies, it’s still the first female superhero movie that existed and it’s still better than Catwoman.
That’s gotta count for something, right?