“What the hell is this movie?”
This is a question Supergirl had me asking every several minutes, as its fantasy/sci-fi plot kept breaking new ground and meshing its plots in unexpected ways. I say this partly as a critique, but please keep in mind, I also said that to myself through laughter. This movie is equal parts bizarre, aimless, and amusing. Its general reputation of “silly failure that caused the Salkinds to lose the Superman franchise rights to Cannon Films” does not do justice to the final product.
Let’s dig in.
Supergirl is about Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater), a Kryptonian who lives in the space island Argo City, housing the last remnant of Krypton’s population. Kara is friends with a happy-go-lucky scientist type named Zaltar (Peter O’Toole). With a light-up wand, he activates the Omegahedron, a powerful scientific tool that manipulates matter and keeps Argo City thriving. When it goes flying off to Earth by accident, Kara follows in Argo City’s lone spaceship, set on retrieving it to save her home. Her naivete and optimism do not flicker for the length of the movie, which will either enchant or annoy viewers.
This premise, complete with a young heroine, a wise old mentor, and a quest to retrieve a magical MacGuffin, seems simple on its surface. Kara emerges from her underwater landing site dressed in her big-S Supergirl outfit, delighted to learn she can fly. Her flight sequences during this early period, as well as throughout the movie, are balletic and graceful, easily rivaling any other flight scene from a superhero movie. Kara flies in subtle arcs, and her enjoyment over being skybound is written on her face. Christopher Reeve made people believe that a man could fly, but Helen Slater made it look more fun.
The movie goes madly, beautifully flying off the rails from this point forward. I will explain the plot as best I can without going into third-act spoilers.
Kara meets a couple of truckers who immediately try to touch and harass her; she sends them flying and sleeps in the wild (What is it with Kryptonians and truckers?). She wakes in the morning to a bunny and sounds of schoolgirls playing, and instantaneously changes into a school uniform, complete with wig. Her ability to change her appearance at will comes in handy several times throughout the movie, each time with a different visual trick. This movie does a good job of playing with expectations but having fun while doing it, which makes a lot of its choices easy to forgive. She is immediately accepted into the school as Clark Kent’s cousin (how does Kara know her cousin’s secret identity?) and rooms with Lois Lane’s little sister, Lucy (Maureen Teefy). Kara has several fish out of water moments, including entering a room without knocking and not knowing how to shake hands, but she gets along well with others.
In one of the most bewildering moments of the movie, Lucy and Kara play field hockey with a couple of mean girls who play rough. Kara asks what’s wrong and Lucy says one of the girls is “retarded” (hello, insult from 1984). The bully whacks the ball at Lucy, causing Kara to jump in the way as the ball explodes against her back. It’s a neat moment demonstrating Kara’s selflessness, with the side effect of showcasing the monstrous strength of this mean girl. The movie is full of oddly hilarious moments like this. The tone might be pretty mixed, but at least it’s not boring.
It’s time to talk about the witches now.
An amateur witch named Selena (Faye Dunaway) chances across the omegahedron and understands enough about its powers to know that it’s worth hoarding. She dumps her slightly more capable warlock boyfriend Nigel (Peter Cook), but he hangs around to advise her as well as teach Kara’s computer science class (sure). She takes it back to her roommate/flunky at their defunct haunted house. The flunky had been looking up how to start a coven in a book and came away with the insight that they can make rent if they charge only $5 a head, but Selena says the omegahedron will solve all their problems now. They follow its signal to Kara’s school, where it’s presumably reacting to a Kyroptonian’s presence, and get completely distracted by a shirtless gardener named Ethan (Hart Bochner).
The bizarre “love triangle” between Selena, Ethan, and Kara is… well, it kind of dominates the rest of the movie. Selena invites Ethan over to seduce him but he escapes into town in a daze, setting off a Rube Goldberg-esque series of accidents worthy of Superman III. Kara seems to regard Ethan as a puppy dog, but he falls head over heels in love with… her student alter ego (because of magic, but come on). Bochner was 28 years old in 1984, and his character Ethan steals a kiss from a girl wearing the uniform of the school that employs him… let’s move on.
The omegahedron slowly builds in power, but Selena is hellbent on winning Ethan over, which leads to some showdowns with Kara involving various forms of magic and Kara countering with displays of Kryptonian might straight out of the Silver Age. Kara is knocked into oblivion and makes a grueling comeback, completing her Hero’s Journey against an accidental villain. Her original quest -to retrieve a rock and go home- is distracted by a numbing devotion to pop movie conventions. Of course someone her age has to blend in at school! Of course she has a love interest! Of course she has to make things right! Argo City must have a sweet VHS collection, otherwise Kara could just knock Selena out with a field hockey ball and fly off with the omegahedron. Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring would capture it with underrated finesse, just like the rest of the movie. One particularly dark scene is haunted with just the right kind of creepy chorus to give this sunflower of a movie some menace.
The sooner viewers let go of any desire for dramatic stakes, the sooner the movie becomes a blast. This is not a Superman movie with a female lead swapped in; Supergirl is a mixture of sci-fi and fantasy that just wants to have fun. Viewers’ reactions will depend on what they want from a superhero movie and what they are willing to let go. For that matter, I watched this movie via the DC Universe streaming service, and while the video quality was fine, I don’t know that I would want a crystal clear high-definition restoration of this movie. Speaking as a child of The NeverEnding Story (also from 1984), this movie feels much more comfortable with soft edges and dreamy lighting. Supergirl doesn’t entirely make sense, but neither does love, and especially not in this movie. Following Kara Zor-El through a strange and unpredictable crucible of startlingly low stakes may fly in the face of epic expectations, but gosh darn it, the movie still flies.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5.