Warner Bros. // 1984 // 124 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // January 23rd, 2007
Bianca: I think you're blowing this thing way out of proportion if you ask
me. All I'm saying is that you can't go nuts over a landscaper and a teenager in
a blue suit!
Selena: She flies. Can you get it through your thick skull and into your tiny little brain, Bianca? The girl can fly!
Since the dawn of film, women have gotten the shaft when it comes to being super heroes. I don't get it, because the comic books have always been chock full of great story lines featuring the likes of Catwoman, Elektra, Vampirella, Wonder Woman, and Supergirl. On the written panel pages all of these women thrive, yet on the big screen? Something happens and we get train wrecks like Halle Berry going nuts over catnip and tuna fish; Jennifer Garner turning a fiery, violent, Greek assassin into something resembling a meek soccer mom; or blonde Kathy Lee Crosby wearing a long sleeve scuba outfit rather than brunette Wonder Woman's corset. The super women movies always seem to fail at the box office, and rightfully so since they are mangled and mishandled productions.
Supergirl isn't the worst "girl in a cape" adaptation, but it has the distinction of being an elegant misfire and a legendary flop ($35 million to produce and a box office take of only $15 million). It's no surprise when you look at the time it was made by the Salkinds (producers of the Christopher Reeves films) between Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The "Super series" was losing steam, and becoming more and more cartoonish. Director Jeannot Szwarc (Santa Claus: The Movie as well as several episodes of Smallville) admits he was trying to bring silly sweet fantasy elements to the film rather than the operatic serious tone of Richard Donner's original opus. He wanted to pay homage to fairy tales and The Wizard of Oz more than create a realistic, super-charged, action drama. Whatever the intentions, Supergirl bears the title of "biggest financial failure in the Superman franchise," but she has fans out there (myself included). The movie has charms despite all the flimsy frippery of the production. Call me a wanker, but I like this film despite all the badness on display.
Somehow a lost city of Krypton named Argo lives on in "inner space" (in a drop of water to be simple) after the apocalypse that destroyed the planet. Somehow these people know of Earth and Superman's presence, yet he knows nothing of them. The entire place is maintained by the scientist Zaltar (Peter O'Toole, Club Paradise) who has borrowed a creative living battery called the Omegahedron that powers and builds the lost civilization. The vital power source is lost while young, beautiful Kara (Helen Slater, The Legend of Billie Jean) plays with the orb, and so she must journey to Earth to recover the vital object. Unfortunately she won't get to meet her cousin Superman, because he's away in a far away galaxy on a mysterious mission (ties in nicely to Superman Returns, and makes me wonder if Bryan Singer is a fan of this movie).
The bad news is the Omegahedron has fallen into the hands of an evil sorceress named Selena (Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest). In the witch's possession the orb begins to unleash dark destructive powers that allow her to enslave a planet with no hero to defend it. Kara must go undercover as a student named Linda Lee at an all girls school near Chicago (hunh?), and make appearances as Supergirl to save the day. She's got the outfit, the powers -- and she's gonna do it all in a skirt. Can Supergirl save both the Earth and Argo?
What the hell went wrong? Just about everything, when you look at the process of making the film. The script was constantly being retooled and rewritten, and there were at least five versions and never a final shooting script that wasn't subject to sudden change. Originally the idea was to open the movie at the same place as Superman with the destruction of Krypton, but that was scrapped fearing it would recall the original too much. In the comics Argo did escape destruction and existed in outer space, but only for a brief time until Kryptonite killed the last survivors and Kara was sent to Earth to join her cousin. The "inner space" concept the Supergirl movie uses is silly and not well explained. Another last minute revision was to take Superman out of the story line. Christopher Reeve bowed out at the last minute saying he wanted Helen Slater to star in the film and have it be solely her own vehicle. He may have been gallant, but I have my doubts. More likely the actor was growing tired of making only "Super" epics, he had to br written out at the last minute. Margot Kider's bad relationship with the Salkinds at this point prevented her from appearing as Lois Lane (she lost favor with them after Superman 2). Design elements were changed close to filming including tweaks to the costume (thankfully the headband for Supergirl was jettisoned). The production was rushed to make a release date that would never happen from the original studio. Then there was the problem with the editing of the film which was taken out of the director's hands before release which made the serpentine plot more impenetrable.
Despite the mind-numbing script with gaping plot holes, I love Supergirl's ensemble of performers. The cast was a great concept, and too bad they didn't have more to work on that was serious and meaty. Originally the producers wanted Brooke Shields to appear in the costume, but they ultimately went with a newcomer. Helen Slater creates a perfect female counterpart to what Reeve left as a legacy, and she seems game to pull off the whole concept. Chris coached the novice nineteen year-old girl on how to play the part with sincerity, and her performance works in every scene. Supergirl is a great hero played by the perfect actress, but sadly a three deal picture never got past the first chapter. Helen Slater is the best thing about the film. As kooky and cracked out as Faye Dunaway appears, something about her performance works in a funny, ironic way. You can see the scenery heading down her throat, and she gives a campy, ghoulish performance that shows us what Joan Crawford would have been like had she lived to be in a Salkind Super movie. It's a sheer delight even if it trivializes the movie. Speaking of campy fun, did I mention Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) playing Kara's vaguely gay drunk uncle Zaltar? Or that Brenda Vaccaro (Midnight Cowboy) gets to vamp it up as Selena's deep voiced wise cracking sidekick? Mia Farrow (Rosemary's Baby) lends her star power as Kara's mom for the Argo city sequence much like Brando did in the Superman movie, though without Brando's chance to lecture. Maureen Teefy (Doris from Fame) takes on the role of Lucy Lane, Lois Lane's younger sister (who was almost played by Demi Moore). The only link to the other films in the franchise comes from Marc McClure's turn as Jimmy Olsen who dates Lucy. Hart Bochner (Terror Train) and Peter Cook (the devil in the original Bedazzled) round out the cast as love interests for Supergirl and Selena.
The crux of the problem with Supergirl mirrors what was wrong with the Superman movies after the second installment. The camp is conscious and forced, and most of the actors are playing as if they are in on a joke. Slater's portrayal of Kara works the best because she plays heroic innocence honestly. Dunaway and Vaccaro are so over-the-top and goofy that it's enjoyable to laugh at them, but you feel they are laughing too much with you. Unlike Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, they don't mine the characters for real malice or intent. This kind of knowing dismissal colors the entire movie from plot to the execution. It seems the filmmakers abandoned the serious tone of the comic books and what Richard Donner established in the first chapter of the films. There are great elements such as the lyrical Jerry Goldsmith score, and some of the flying sequences are better pulled off than what was seen in the other movies (Slater trained extensively to do acrobatic graceful poses for her character). Some elements of the movie fight against the dark powers of intentional camp, but they can't win when the movie as a whole refuses to have faith in its own premise. They are asking us to believe something they don't.
Supergirl has been released on DVD before by Anchor Bay in several different editions (all currently out of print). There was an International version which contained the longer European edit of the film, a director's cut that added more footage restoring the original vision, and a Limited Edition (with only 50,000 copies printed) which contained both versions as well as alot of bonus material not included in the other pressings. This new Warner Brothers DVD rereleases the European cut that clocks in at 124 minutes (14 minutes shorter than the "Director's Cut"). Oddly enough this means the original American 105 minute version shown in cinemas of 1984 has never been released (thank goodness). So why all of these versions? Warner Brothers originally backed the Supergirl project, but once 1983's Superman III disappointed at the box office the enthusiasm waned. They shelved Supergirl, and it seemed the movie would languish in vaults. Tri-Star pictures stepped in, and bought release rights to the feature domestically. They decided Szwarc's 138 minute cut was far too long, and a 124 minute print in European markets released by Thorn EMI was also too lengthy. The American marketing team hacked Supergirl to 105 minutes which created a fast pace, but also added plot holes and cleaned out any character development.
The Warner Brothers edition of Supergirl carries over the same commentary from director Jeannot Szwarc and historian Scott Bosco with comments about Anchor Bay edited out. The track is a great listen that explores everything you could possibly want to know about the feature's history. The transfer is the same, although I detect a dose of sharper color in a sequence or two. The grain and shimmering seem to be ported over from the Anchor Bay edition, but these flaws are minimal. The movie looks good for its age, and the flesh tones are accurate. Warner Brothers took an "if it ain't broke don't fix it" with porting the surround mix and basic visual treatment from the previous Anchor Bay incarnation. Missing in action is the fifty minute "Making of Supergirl" behind the scenes feature which can be found on both the Anchor Bay International Cut and two disc Limited Edition. This is a strange omission since Warner Brothers included these on all the Christopher Reeve movies recently rereleased. This makes the Warner edition not as complete. The menus for this new release use the Superman themes from John Williams' score instead of the Jerry Goldsmith tracks provided for the film. The cover art is a strange choice, and looks far too airbrushed.
In the face of apparent badness, forced camp, and huge plot holes, I have a soft spot for Supergirl. I'm glad to see Warner Brothers reissuing her adventure, because it truly completes my set of Superman films. The film out classes the third and fourth chapters with Christopher Reeve, and it has some of the "gee whiz" quality that makes these sort of movies work. Sue me, I kinda dig the flick in a "so bad it's good" way. Warner Brothers is offering the best cut of the movie with an essential commentary on the disc. It's certainly worth the low price when you search the out of print Anchor Bay editions which fetch quite a price on eBay and Amazon.
Despite easily spotted flaws, Supergirl developed a fanbase of followers who champion her campy, only outing to date. Could a remake be done? Rumors are swirling that Akiva Goldsman (who penned Batman and Robin) has a script floating around out there, and Mischa Barton (The O.C.) would consider the leading role. But would any studio want to risk remaking a film that cost $35 million to produce, and only made $15 million in domestic box office? Stranger things have happened, and as long as they stay away from the comic book sidekick "Streaky the Super Cat" it could be promising. But your best option? Buy this DVD, and experience the original vision of Helen Slater battling Mommie Dearest for world domination. It's sadistic super fun! Your Superman Ultimate Edition is not complete until you add this one to your collection. Grab some booze and some good friends, and enjoy a misguided attempt to make you believe a girl can fly. Helen Slater will reinforce your faith, while Faye Dunaway will have you howling with glee. What will become of our lack of successful female super heroes? Until studios realize how to make the girls of Marvel and DC work on screen we're stuck with the campy likes of Supergirl or Elektra.
Guilty, guilty guilty pleasure of a movie. It's so bad it becomes a hoot to
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Director Jeannot Szwarc and DVD Project Member Scott Michael Bosco
* Fan CGI Movies: SUPERGIRL Movie Project
* Previous Review on DVD Verdict