Nine things I loved about the 1984 Supergirl movie
How do you like your bad superhero movies? Competently made but ultimately misguided? Or full-on crazy?
As mentioned in my Superman III review, I stopped seeing the ’80s Superman flicks in real-time after the second one. This means I missed III and IV: A Quest for Peace. And Supergirl.
Supergirl is the movie that Superman producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, made after they ran out of ideas for the Superman franchise (hiring Richard Pryor for the third one was the last gasp). Neither director of the first three Superman films wanted to be involved in the new project, so the Salkinds brought in Jeannot Szwarc. The French director’s previous credits included Jaws II (he pinch-hit a month after filming had already begun, so you can’t blame him too much) and a 1980 time travel fantasy, Somewhere in Time. Somewhere was based on a Richard Matheson novel and starred Superman’s Christopher Reeve, who said nice things (“He works cheap”?) about Szwarc to the Salkinds.
David Odell and not David and Leslie Newman, who had contributed to the Superman movies, wrote the screenplay. Odell had won an Emmy for his work on The Muppet Show. Apparently, the Supergirl script went through many revisions; one of the biggest changes was excising two scenes featuring Superman. Reeve had at first agreed to appear in a couple of scenes, then changed his mind.
Supergirl herself is a character that was introduced as Superman’s cousin, with the same powers as Superman, by DC Comics in 1959. She didn’t get her own title until the 70s, and then it only lasted a couple of years. But when the Salkinds bought the rights to Superman from DC, they were given the rights to any character that had appeared in a Superman comic. So.
The movie was released in 1984, a year after Superman III tanked. Reviews for Supergirl were brutal; it’s fortunate that the people involved escaped with their lives (in fact, three didn’t, and the movie is dedicated to them), never mind their careers. Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway were each nominated for Razzie Awards for Worst Actor and Worst Actress, respectively.
With time, though, a few revisionist thinkers have found some charm in the movie. Then again, some have found something to like in Superman III, too.
It all depends on how you like your bad superhero movies. For my money, Supergirl is wall-to-wall entertainment, whereas Superman III drags. Supergirl is ridiculous, but its ridiculousness is inspired – no idea seems too outrageous to use. Superman III is ridiculous too, but its lunacy is constrained by filmmakers’ desire to make a movie that appeals to a mass audience. Supergirl labours under no such pretensions.
1. Supergirl has O’Toole, reading his lines like a lush invoking Richard III.
2. Supergirl has Dunaway as an aspiring witch, and Brenda Vaccaro as her assistant/friend/it’s-complicated-thing. These two have amazing scenes together. They could be in an entirely different movie, and if they were, I would watch it with glee. They are the true Witches of Eastwick.
3. Helen Slater.
4. Selena, Dunaway’s witch, lives in an abandoned amusement park ride, with a people-size miniature train running through it. In one scene, she’s having a party and the butler/servant arrives on the train with the drinks. It’s never explained why or how Selena came to live in an abandoned amusement park ride, but she does assure Vaccaro at one point that, with the possession of the Omegahedron (we’ll get to it), property taxes will be a thing of the past. (I’m paraphrasing, but property taxes are mentioned.) Sure, Superman III‘s evil billionaire Ross Webster lived atop a hi-rise with a ski slope on the roof that is similarly never explained, but the abandoned amusement park is easily a more inspired (and no doubt cheaper) idea.
5. When Supergirl arrives on Earth, following the trail of the Omegahedron (a device that powers her home city of Argo, and which she accidentally let loose), she ends up in the small Illinois town of Midvale. She soon spies students from a girls’ boarding school playing in a field, immediately decides to enrol, and ends up rooming with the sister of Lois Lane. How could it be otherwise?
6. Selena is picnicking with her warlock lover Nigel (Peter Cook) when the Omegahedrom arrives on Earth. The device falls from the sky into what looks like a bowl of humous.
7. Supergirl fights an invisible monster and a runaway bulldozer.
8. There’s a bonkers idea every other minute. Which isn’t quite as good as a bonkers idea every minute, but it beats Superman III‘s record of one good idea (Clark Kent v. Evil Superman) surrounded by dozens of bad ones.
9. Great wire work. While Supergirl cheaps out in the special effects department, there is one really nice scene early on where Slater flips around in the air, learning to master her powers.
There were also some things I didn’t like about Supergirl, however. In no particular order, they are:
Jimmy Olsen/Marc McClure. Why? McClure returned for his role as Superman’s pal, in this case Supergirl’s, in fact he’s the only actor to have appeared in all the ’80s superflicks. But Olsen is just a pill; in Supergirl, he’s a charmless know-it-all who tells the high-schoolers he’s hanging with in the soda shop not to bother with the dude stumbling drunkenly around in the town square, and who is in danger of being hit by a car. (In fact, it’s the movie’s love interest, Ethan, a landscaper played by Hart Bochner, who is under a spell cast by Selena). Let’s face it; no one knows what to do with this character, and no one ever has, because he was invented for radio and he sucks. Yes, I’m starting an anti-Jimmy Olsen campaign right here.
The worst shower scene ever.
The pointless mean-girls subplot in Midvale High, or whatever the school is.
The giant tire. What is it with this franchise and tires? In the Clark Kent vs. Evil Superman scene in Superman III, which takes place in a wrecking yard, Clark hurls a bunch of tires at his foe, until Superman is “trapped” in a column of rubber. (Of course, he easily busts out.) In Supergirl, the rampaging bulldozer (under the control of Selena, who is in possession of the Omegehedron) bangs into a tire dealership (because what would a small midwestern town be without a tire store in middle of downtown?), thus knocking a giant tire off the roof to let it roll through the town. Enough with the tires, already! If there’s a tire scene in Superman IV: Quest for Peace, I’ll know something’s up.
The rape-y scene. Is it me, or does just about every ’80s action movie have some kind of threat-of-rape scene? There’s one early on in Howard the Duck, when a couple of punks threaten Lea Thompson‘s Beverly Switzler, and there’s one early on in Supergirl.
That’s it for Supergirl, the good and the bad. As mentioned, the movie did a big rubber tire at the box office – it did so badly that DC killed off the character in 1986. Of course, the company brought her back, and now there’s a TV series based on Kara Zor-El’s adventures on Earth; one episode even references the mighty Omegahedron. But if the TV Supergirl is successful, it’s probably because there’s no Jimmy Olsen.
Next: Howard the Duck.