1/4, 1980s, Fantasy, Jeannot Szwarc, Review

Supergirl

#11 in my ranking of the theatrically released Superman films.

Well, that was something. Reeling from the financial failure of Superman III, the Salkinds were banking on this spinoff to rescue the franchise and their financial stake in the Super characters. It…it did not work. This silly look at superheroes versus witches lacks any sense of urgency even though the action is supposed to undo terrible things. Instead, we get a full act of filler that derails everything that the movie never recovers from, not that its first act was anything terribly special.

In some kind of technobabble pocket dimension that exists for technobabble reasons, saved by Zaltar (Peter O’Toole), lives a group of Kryptonians preserved from the destruction of their home planet. Among them lives Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater). Zaltar uses a device called the Omegahedron to create art projects based on Earth life for…reasons. An accident sends the Omegahedron out of the city and to Earth, so Zaltar gets banished to the Phantom Zone and Kara decides to just go to Earth to get it back so that her people won’t die. There’s your stakes.

And then Kara gets to Earth and she instantly forgets everything about the movie’s stakes. She emerges from a lake in full Supergirl gear for reasons, start smelling flowers and chasing bunnies. Meanwhile, the Omegahedron has fallen into the picnic of Selena (Faye Dunaway), a witch, alongside Nigel (Peter Cook), who is also a witch? I guess. It’s not important. Anyway, Selena sees this orb fall into her food and she instantly decides that it will help her…conquer the world. Like…there’s no second to consider what this thing is that she’s holding. She’s going to conquer the world with it.

Now, to talk about Plato for a quick second. He established several rules for drama that dominated Greek theater at its height in Poetics. A couple of these major rules tend to work best in theatrical settings, but one is pretty easily applicable to all forms of storytelling, Unity of Action. This concept is the idea that everything in a story should feed the central point of the story. Everything should interlace together to tell one thing, one story. So, when Selena decides to use the Omegahedron to conquer the world and this has absolutely nothing to do with Kara’s central concern of saving her home, it creates a dissonance in the storytelling that creates the impression that we’re not watching one story. We’re watching several, and they clash.

It also doesn’t help that Kara then spends the next half hour trying to get into and blend in with the girls at an all-girls boarding school. Why? I assume it’s because superhero convention demands that our superheroes have secret identities, and what would a Supergirl movie be without Kara leading some kind of double life even if it has nothing to do with her story, has no effect on her ability to carry out her central mission and purpose, and she has no direct tie to the planet? So, sure, let’s watch Kara get stuck in math classes (taught by Nigel for inexplicable reasons), save Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy), Lois Lane’s younger sister, from a maliciously delivered ball in a schoolyard game, and, because why not, let’s watch Selena decide that a man is her primary concern now.

Wait…wasn’t she going to conquer the world? Not after she got some tasty man meat from Ethan (Hart Bochner), a groundskeeper at the school that she sees once and decides must be hers, for some reason. And that becomes the plot of the movie for a bit. Selena wants Ethan, so she cooks up a love potion, but it backfires and Ethan ends up falling in love with Kara’s alter ego Linda Lee (with brown hair instead of yellow hair). This is after, of course, a ridiculous action sequence where Selena uses her magic to power a piece of construction equipment to literally scoop Ethan up from the ground that Supergirl flies away with to save him. Because, why not? It’s not like any of this matters.

Selena ends up getting Ethan back and sending Kara to the Phantom Zone where she meets Zaltar again. I’ll say that Peter O’Toole not caring about his performance is still worth watching. He was nominated for a Golden Raspberry for his performance here, but it wasn’t deserved. This isn’t some great O’Toole performance on par with T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia or anything, but I’ll take half-drunk O’Toole over most actors desperately trying any day. Anyway, Zaltar leads Kara out of the Phantom Zone in the one special effects sequence that looks any good with a maelstrom that they must crawl past, and Kara gets out for her final confrontation. She wins, blah, blah, blah.

I felt like using witches in a Superman/Supergirl movie was a weird choice, but I was willing to go with it. This subgenre of comic book movies feels more natural with cosmic fantasy than spells and potions, but it’s all in a similar vein of fantasy. They can intersect. The problem isn’t that. It’s that Selena’s whole plot is nonsensical. It has nothing to do with Supergirl’s motives. It also functions as a complete distraction from the actual story. It probably doesn’t help that about half of the film is about girls being boy crazy. At best, this is silly nonsense, but there was real money behind this. It was the final nail in the coffin of the Salkinds having anything to do with the Superman franchise, and it was a deserving end. They had absolutely no idea what they were doing, and hiring Jeannot Szwarc, the director of Jaws 2, was the exact kind of strange choice I would have expected.

Rating: 1/4

9 thoughts on “Supergirl”

    1. It’s fine. The movie’s worth a few ignorant potshots. RLM did the movie on a Best of the Worst, which I rewatched after I wrote the review, and I say pretty much the same thing as they do.

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  1. This is a deeply stupid movie. But, sadly, a lot of the 50’s Superman comics were also very stupid. I mean…THIS level of stupid. So in a way, this movie IS appropriate to the source material. It’s just not good.

    The problem is Supergirl’s origin…and that Helen Slater is ALL woman and not a girl. (Technically, Helen was “just” 21, but she’s way more mature than some 21 year olds. I mean, Tom Holland is very believable as a teenaged boy, so age isn’t the issue, casting is). If you don’t nail the origin, who is Supergirl and why is she here, the rest of her doesn’t make sense. Superman makes sense, Supergirl is just…visiting. Supposedly for high-stakes reasons that, as you say, get tossed out the window.

    IF they’d nailed the origin, then you could have made this a good Supergirl movie. I mean Helen is adorable and easy to root for. She does a better job playing a superhero than just about anyone who’s landed on Disney +

    As always, it comes down to writing. I can’t fathom how David O’Dell wrote this and also wrote ‘Running Scared’, which I love. Or maybe Running Scared is the outlier (Paul Glicker might be the hero there) and he’s just a hack fraud.

    Relatedly, the Poetics should be required reading for anyone trying to make a movie. Or write a book. Sadly…this is not the case. I’m not even sure it’s taught at the High School or college level. I had to read it on my own and I was an English minor back in the day.

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    1. I keep blaming the Salkinds for everything that went wrong with this franchise, but I’ve yet to read anything to dissuade me that they were anything but brainless money people who were convinced that they were creatives and micro-managed the actual creatives to disaster. I think they were operating on an idea of what comic books were (which was probably accurate to a point) and just wanted to fulfill that vision of it. They didn’t like the mythic scope that Donner brought to it. They wanted the funnies because they’re called comic books!

      They were probably some of the worst producers to work for, so I don’t know how much blame to lay with any of the writers. It doesn’t help when you write a good scene and the producer says, “I don’t like it. It’s not funny. Make it funny.”

      Slater is quite charming as Supergirl, though. I do like her. She’s just trapped in something that doesn’t deserve her, much like Reeve became trapped in the same franchise that didn’t deserve him.

      I graduated years after you, including a major in English literature. We never talked about the Poetics. I read it on my own as well. I mean…it’s not in English. Why would we cover it? It’s not like it’s one of the foundational works on how to tell stories or anything.

      I have little use of the rules around place and time within it, but that unity of purpose is just good stuff.

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