- Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
- Written by David Odell
- Starring Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway & Pete O’Toole
- Released 21st November 1984
Before there was Melissa Benoist (first seen here in costume) and before there was Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck there was Christopher Reeve – sadly missing from this film – and Helen Slater who starred as the original super-cousins.
After the release of ‘Superman III’ came this first attempt to broaden the horizons of the franchise and bring in a wider audience to the notion of superheroes. It would be a further three years until Reeve would return to the screen in ‘Superman IV: The Quest for Peace’ and there was very little by way of live action female lead heroism aside from re-runs of the classic ‘Wonder Woman’ series.
Super girl, first known as Super-girl, made her debut in 1958 alongside her cousin in ‘Superman’ #123 before being rebranded to the now familiar Supergirl and given the Kara Zor-El mantle in 1959s in ‘Action Comics’ #252. Seen as a hugely positive role-model to young female readers Alexander Salkind and son Ilya had purchased the rights to the character at the same time as acquiring the rights to the Man of Steel himself.
‘Superman III’ had proven a flop with critics and it was decided to take the franchise in a new direction to breathe some fresh air to the box office before bringing end to the Superman boom.
Thus brings us to a film I haven’t seen in maybe twenty years but have fond childhood memories of the over the top spells and ‘cutting edge’ special effects. ‘Supergirl’ is by all accounts a box office flop, making $14 million off a $35 million budget but making a star of Helen Slater in the process.
In typical Super-origin style the film opens on an alien landscape and follows the story of how our Kryptonian hero makes his or her way down to Earth. Unlike the cataclysmic events depicted in Superman origins ‘Supergirl’ starts off on the floating city of Argo, a city which survived the death of Krypton and continues to live on. A clumsy Kara has a majorly coincidental mishap with a device called an Omegahhedron and has to leave behind her family to travel to Earth in order to find it.
This is where the first of my now adult issues with ‘Supergirl’ arise: my perception of Superman was that when landed on Earth as a baby he was powerless and that years under our red sun helped him develop the abilities he beings to display as a young adult. Kara lands on Earth and immediately has all the abilities of her cousin.
Separating the film from all the ‘Superman’ films past there’s no Kent-style family to take in Kara and raise her or shelter her from the human race, Kara has to find her way entirely on her own having arrived on Earth in her Supergirl costume.
She takes up the disguise of Linda Lee and moves into the dormitory of nearby girls school where she happens to share a room with Lucy Lane, younger sister of Lois Lane herself.
Sadly this is where the original Superman – Christopher Reeve – was due to join the film however sadly he pulled out. His lack of appearance anecdotally written over in a background new report stating that Superman is off-planet dealing with a crisis elsewhere however he does make one visual appearance in the form of a poster on Lucy Lane’s wall.
The absence may be notable but doesn’t derail the film as a whole. In a modern day adaption (take note CBS) the idea of Superman being on Earth and learning of another Kryptonian would be impossible to ignore but somehow the fact this film was made in the 80s makes it all the more acceptable.
Tying ‘Supergirl’ to the ‘Superman’ universe is an appearance by Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, he doesn’t have a huge amount to do within the story but his appearance does help to bring the films together and give that sense of an extended universe of heroes.
Slater carries the film along with Faye Dunaway as the evil Selena. Dunaway is undeniably over-the-top and her delivery of the witchy spells are nonsensical at the best of times but it’s all part of the charm of ‘Supergirl’. Peter O’Toole adds some serious thespian charm to the proceedings and Brenda Vaccaro brings the comedy. Together the elements work well and despite the cobbled together nature of it all ‘Supergirl’ actually works and could almost be considered a coherent piece of mid-80s science fiction.
Where Superman dealt with aliens was perhaps more direct comic-fare ‘Supergirl’ is much more science fiction with its magic, monsters and demons. The basic comic elements like the Phantom Zone still exist but they’re twisted to fit in to a film more akin to ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ style tale. With a higher budget this film could have been truly spectacular.
Super girl herself is not the hard and fast hero of her cousin, for much of the film she struggles to accept being the hero and is often very down on her luck whether being left without her powers in the Phantom Zone or being torn apart by the shadow demon during the climax of the film she is often screaming for help rather than leaping tall buildings in a single bound. This sadly makes her eventual defeat of Selena anti-climactic as it comes all too easily after the voice of O’Toole cheers her on from the grave one last time.
There’s still a great deal of conflict in ‘Supergirl’ but at the end of the day the stakes are not high as much as they are easy to circumvent.
The special effects don’t necessarily hold together well against modern films but of its age there’s a lot to enjoy on screen here right down to Kara flying around on the beach without so much as a single string visible on camera.
The biggest concern with ‘Supergirl’ is perhaps the running time. The cut I watched today was 1hr 59. There are varying degrees of theatrical and directors cuts varying from 105 to 138 minutes but it all depends on which release you happen to purchase. I would now like very much to see the extended directors cut to see what more could be brought to the party.
Sadly the film isn’t available on blu ray but there are various DVD versions out there and with the new CBS version on the way it’s only a matter of time before ‘Supergirl’ is given the BD treatment.
It’s not going to float everyone’s boat but fans of comic movies or a good entertaining Sunday afternoon film should really give this a watch. Even if it’s just for nostalgia.
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