Best Shots Review: 1984’s SUPERGIRL Movie

Still from "Supergirl"
Credit: TriStar Pictures
Credit: TriStar Pictures

This might come as a shock to some of you, but apparently there’s a new Supergirl TV series premiering tonight on CBS. Though a mainstay of comics and merchandise, it’s the biggest spotlight the Maid of Might has gotten since her feature film in 1984.

There’s a reason for that.

Newsarama requested that I take a look back at this film in anticipation of the new series. I’ll admit, I’d never seen more than a few segments at a time on TV growing up.

Again, there’s a reason for that.

Now, this is not throwing shade at Ms. Helen Slater as Supergirl, a role that will see some homage in the new series (those who’ve seen pilot, keep quiet for those who haven’t). And I’m not just saying that because I had a crush on her as a kid, and to some extent as an adult. She’s got a strong, determined quality that balances nicely with the character’s innocence and sense of wonder. She embodies the character as well as Christopher Reeve did Superman.

And then there’s the rest of the movie.

My process of taking notes on this movie resulted in nearly 4,000 words, many of which consisted of “What is going on here?!” roughly in the voice of Jason Mantzoukas on the How Did This Get Made? podcast.

I pride myself on my ability to explain wildly complicated fictional scenarios, and yet I’m still not sure what the hell happens in his movie, or why it happens.

Many great films from the 1980s aren’t particularly logical. It took several viewings before I figured out how the map got into the attic in The Goonies, or the progression of the plot in Labyrinth, or anything that happens in Transformers: The Movie. And say a bad word about those movies and I’ll knock your block off. They’re classics, dammit.

Plotting a story isn’t easy. Overplotting a story, surprisingly, is very easy. There’s a video essay on this that combines Orson Welles, South Park and even Dude, Where’s My Car? that explains this pretty well. Here it is.

Supergirl has less of a “But/Therefore/Meanwhile” means of linking scenes than an “And Then…” style. Something happens, and then something else happens. And then something else happens, and then, and then, and then…

I’ll attempt to summarize. “Attempt.” Operative word here.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

The film was made by the producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind in an effort to “refresh” the Superman film franchise after the “Disappointment” of Superman III. Dammit, time has been kinder to that one than people want to believe. The lady getting turned into a robo-psycho in the climax still traumatizes me.

Anyone who has ever thought of Supergirl-the-character as a bit of a pale shadow of Superman likely has not had their opinions changed by the opening credits, which do an exact imitation of the Christopher Reeve Superman openings, only…less. The credits look less like a laser light show and more like logos for a shampoo commercial and/or daytime soap opera. In terms of being “off,” there’s not even a John Williams theme, but rather, fellow film-composer legend Jerry Goldsmith. Though his place in Heaven was truly assured by the theme to Patton, this is not particularly memorable work.

Faye Dunaway also gets top billing. She probably regretted that.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

It’s only fair she was the equivalent of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in this, as Dunaway and Hackman both got their big breaks in Bonnie and Clyde. Unfortunately, Hackman had an iconic villain to play with some campy elements, and Dunaway has a role that steers right into her Mommie Dearest over-the-top-ness.

I remembered Peter O’Toole had a role in this but was shocked to see Mia Farrow’s name. Also double-shocked to be reminded the love interest was Hart Bochner. He was Ellis the Coke-Snorting Yuppie in Die Hard! A role particularly memorable for being the biggest jerk in an ‘80s film with Alan Rickman, William Atherton and John Gleason. That’s acting, folks.

I also forgot this featured a supporting turn by Peter Cook, like Peter O’Toole a legend among British actors and heavy drinkers. His Dudley Moore collaborations, including the “Derek and Clive” routines, are still offensive.

Let’s also take a moment to note some behind-the-scenes folks.

The special effects – though horribly limited in most cases – were by a real legend, Derek Meddings, who did the effects on the Superman films, Tim Burton’s Batman, and also most of the 1970s and up James Bond movies – finishing out with Goldeneye, where he passed away while in post-production. Double-props: He did quite a few effects for the Gerry Anderson “Supermarionation” shows, including Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

The script was by David Odell, who wrote/co-wrote The Dark Crystal, the Masters of the Universe film, and won an Emmy for his work on The Muppet Show.

And director Jeannot Szwarc was well-qualified, having recently directed Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time, along with Jaws 2, thus proving he could both handle Superman actors and second-tier versions of blockbusters. After this, he did Santa Claus: The Movie, a film that has oddly fascinated me since childhood, and more recently, he has directed episodes of Smallville, Fringe, Gray’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Supernatural.

These are all true professionals.

And this was not their finest hour.

All right, I’m going to condense  the story of the actual movie. This is apparently the director’s cut, so there’s a bunch of scenes that aren’t in the original theatrical version. And it’s longer. Yaaaayyyyyyyy.

Fade in on what is either crystals or a bunch of white ropes covered in cellophane.  Dammit, crystals. Always with crystals in these Salkind Superman flicks!

The whole thing opens in the hippie-dippie commune-looking “Argo City,” where young Cara makes her way to Peter O’Toole’s Zaltar. Is he related to that machine that made Tom Hanks big?

It is not explained how Argo City came to be, or where it’s supposed to be, though Zaltar explains, “We are in inner space.”  Soooo….they’re inside of Dennis Quaid?

And despite not knowing what an Earth-tree looks like, Kara knows Earth as “where my cousin went,” which raises a great deal of other questions, and hey, didn’t Marlon Brando as Jor-El know a whole ton of stuff about Earth in the 1978 film? Stop thinking.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

Anyway, Zaltar has “borrowed” some whirly sphere called an “Omegahedron” that makes like the same sound as Ming the Merciless’ ring in Flash Gordon, which is another damn classic and did you know SH Figuarts is making a Freddie Mercury action figure, sorry, digression, but anyway, Kara makes a big creepy giant mosquito or something and then the Omegahedron gets popped through some cellophane-looking window into a vacuum and there are problems.

There’s supposed to be some set-up here about Kara being curious and creative and not knowing her talents, but this kind of gets wallpapered over by exposition and illogic. Aside from the dick move of Zaltar taking what is apparently the main power source of Argo City to make art, why on Earth were the walls so thin?

There is a split-second cameo by Mia Farrow as Kara’s mother Allura. The best she has to do is mention how Argo City will grow dim if the Omegahedron isn’t found…annnnnnnd that’s it. Geez, the woman gave birth to the Antichrist, throw her some meat. She actually kinda looks like Laura Benanti as Allura on the new show.

Anyway, with the Omegahedron lost and the city due to die without it, Kara immediately goes into the shoot needed to go to Earth and heads off in a space egg or something and how is this less convoluted than the origin in the comic books?

Credit: TriStar Pictures

Then Zaltar says he’ll send himself to the Phantom Zone, pointing out that others will die soon, but his suffering will be forever. Uh, but you’ll still be alive, dillhole!

After watching the space egg splashing through what appears to be the inside of a lava lamp…and how is she following the Omegahedron anyway?....we cut to Faye Dunaway’s “Selena” (heretofore referred to as “Mommie Dearest”) enjoying a luxurious lunch on a tiger skin rug with Peter Cook, who explains how to do an invisibility spell. Wait, there is magic in this movie? Yes, there is black magic and wait now the Omegahedron has landed in their fondue or whatever. Is that a fon-don’t?

This scene, by the way, was cut from the theatrical version, which makes Dunaway’s character even more incomprehensible – it at least establishes she’s a witch who wants more power than her lover/mentor, Cook. In the theatrical version, she just finds the Omegahedron and starts being magical.

This also reminds me of some screenwriting advice for genre stuff I’ve heard many times – if you’ve already got one set of complicated fantastic elements, do not add more. You already have a strange visitor from another…um, “inner space.” Now you’re explaining witches and warlocks just happen to exist and hang out?

We are 13 minutes into this movie and we already have “inner space,” Omegahedrons and black magic.

This is why you don’t mix SF and fantasy! Everything goes cross-eyed!

So, Mommie Dearest babbles about being immortal now or something, and there’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of Omegahedron cosplay at cons. Her first act of incredible magic is to…turn the car on without the keys.

The budget was not good on this one.

In a throwaway, it’s mentioned on the car radio that Superman’s off on a peace mission in a galaxy trillions of light years away, which is not actually consistent with what he was doing in the Christopher Reeve movies, but would have actually been a better set up for Superman Returns.

Meanwhile, the space egg opens and Supergirl flies out of the vortex, inexplicably arriving out of the lake and fully-costumed. How did she have time to sew a costume in the vortex? How did she even know this would follow the Omegahedron? Why am I asking these questions, the filmmakers clearly didn’t?

Credit: TriStar Pictures

FUN FACT: The character was originally supposed to have the headband Supergirl did in the early 1980s comics, and there were even publicity stills with said headband. They were right not to include this.

Anyway, I am going to say Helen Slater is super-loveable. Pretty, muscular, and she has great wide eyes and a nice smile that gives a sense of wonder and joy to what she’s doing. I’m not sure how she makes a flower bloom with heat vision or literally gets high from sniffing it (read: learns about flying), but she’s having fun.

She’s enjoying being out and about and able to fly, and that’s what I like in superhero stories – those moments where people get to have fun being creative with their abilities. Honestly, a nice pick-me-up after Man of Steel.

By the way, this “air ballet” was actually not in the original theatrical version, which is ridiculous! It’s a visual moment, shows her powers, and makes the character very likable.

At this point, the weirdness in the movie starts to get into massive “And Then…” territory. Summarizing is going to require quite a lot of compression.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

Mommie Dearest goes back to her headquarters at what appears to be an abandoned amusement park, which only barely makes more sense than Lex Luthor beign underground. Oh, and she has a female Otis named “Bianca,” played by Brenda Vaccaro, who’s all about “Let’s start our own coven!” I like her!

FUN FACT: Dolly Parton turned down the role of Bianca. She was right to do so.

Supergirl flies to a rear-projected big city, where she has some Omegahedron-detecting bracelet. They really should establish stuff like this. And then she just lands in the streets and no one sees her.

Given that this is a bad part of town, it would amuse me if she ran into that pimp from the first Superman movie who went “That’s a bad suit.”

So a couple truckers show up and try to get sassy with Supergirl. Hey, one of them is Matt Frewer, aka Max Headroom!  He is wearing an A&W Root Beer T-shirt, which is not a good product placement. She announces herself as Superman’s cousin. How does she even know about Superman? There is so much that is not explained.

Matt Frewer tries to feel up Supergirl, so she picks him up by his jaw, then blows him backward into a fence. This should probably kill him. The other rapist trucker pulls out a switchblade, which does not seem an effective move against someone who has just demonstrated super-strength and super-breath. She heat-visions the knife, and yet he still wants to come at her, so she kicks him in the balls and he flies into more garbage. Again, I think that would kill someone.

Supergirl takes off and the rapist truckers just lie there and agree to keep this to themselves. The one kicked in the balls does not even have like a higher voice.

I want to point out that if these guys drive around raping women all the time, they’re still out there and likely have learned nothing from this experience. This is not really a triumphant arrival for Supergirl.

Okay, so now Mommie Dearest is having a disco party. She has like a train that goes through the room like on Silver Spoons! Uh, Peter Cook is back and she’s drinking smoky drinks. Peter Cook reveals he saw Supergirl. Mommie Dearest is nonplussed, because “I have the power.”  Who is she, He-Man? Sorry, She-Ra. She then lights Peter Cook’s cigarette with her finger, which rightly does not impress him.

Peter Cook’s character makes no sense, but he’s awesome. Mommie Dearest makes some girl eat a scorpion and float around upside down. As a side effect of the Omegahedron, she is apparently filmed through five layers of Vaseline on the camera lens.

Aw, Supergirl sleeps in the woods and is awakened by a bunny! She’s so sweet! She finds she’s just outside a baseball field, which is weird as she surely could have found a hotel or abandoned house or at least slept on the bleachers.

She gets the idea to disguise herself as a schoolgirl, which she does by…walking past some trees and changing into a different outfit and hair through multiple dissolves? This also somehow puts her in a brown wig that weirdly looks more natural than Helen Slater’s real blonde hair.

Anwyay, she goes to the school, and Peter Cook is a teacher there, in addition to being an evil wwarlock, and then there’s a speeded-up thing as she creates her own file. She takes the name “Linda Lee” from Robert E. Lee, meaning this world’s Supergirl names herself after the Confederacy.

Aw, she fakes a letter from her cousin Clark Kent!

Note there’s an A&W machine she passes on the way there into a girl’s dorm where everyone’s in their underwear and panics. And he’s the headmaster, don’t they see him all the time?

Credit: TriStar Pictures

Awwww, she gets paired with Lucy Lane, who’s all a tomboy and stuff. She’s played by Maureen Teefy, who was Doris in the original Fame and in a lot of early 1980s stuff. The IMDb listing I am most curious about is the TV-movie Portrait of a Teenage Shoplifter.

Superman makes a cameo in a poster of a movie still that was also the cover to Elliot S. Maggin’s excellent The Last Son of Krypton novel. The angle and lighting used for this give some major codpiece action.

FUN FACT: Demi Moore was cast as Lucy, but bowed out to make the creepy screwball comedy Blame it on Rio instead. She was right to do so.

So Hart Bochner is the school’s groundskeeper and ah, Mommie Dearest has like a thing that detects Supergirl, but thinks it’s because she’s supposed to take Ellis as her “prince” and then Supergirl’s thing goes off, but she can’t ditch class and shouldn’t Peter Cook have detected the magic being around?

This is very confusing! I am very confused by this motion picture!

IT’S THE ‘80s ALERT: After a mean girl deliberately trips Lucy during field hockey, Lucy goes, “Yeah, she’s retarded.”

Weirdly, the mean girls look kind of nerdy. Also, they nearly burn the other girls in the show, so Supergirl sends hot water on them, and there’s a locker room scene with a lot of teen girls in towels and this makes me uncomfortable.

Why is Supergirl hanging around a girls’ school when the thing that would like keep her world alive is missing? Lucy’s dating Jimmy Olsen, which is also creepy. How does the logic of this movie work?

Lucy goes home and invites “Linda” to Popeye’s later. More product placement! NOTE: A map establishes Midvale, where Supergirl’s hiding out, as being near Chicago. Does that mean Metropolis is in Illinois?

This is not a good movie if you tend to overthink things, or just think.

Meanwhile, Mommie Dearest does some random spell and there is an hour and twenty minutes left in this movie... what did I agree to?

Oh, it’s to make Hart Bochner fall in love with her at first sight, and then Bianca comes through on the train and points out she could just use the Omegahedron, and Mommie Dearest is all like, “I’m saving it for bigger things.” So she slips a love potion into his Schlitz Beer and he stumbles around drunk, and why, it’s Marc McClure, Jimmy Olsen from the other films, having a date with Lucy – at Popeye’s!

This results in one of the movie’s better exchanges, when the drunk Bochner stumbles about:

LUCY: “Look at that dingleberry!”

SUPERGIRL: “What’s a dingleberry?”

Credit: TriStar Pictures

Oddly, no one helps him and Jimmy Olsen’s just like, “Let’s go back and eat some delicious Popeye’s Fried Chicken.”

Mommie Dearest animates a tractor-trailer and wait a minute -- this is the pilot of Killdozer.

You know, those things are not that fast. Outrunning one would be pretty simple, but Bochner keeps falling down because he’s drunk or on magic or some jazz. In order to the these effects, you would pretty much just need to show the tractor-trailer doing what it always does, and then it doesn’t even show Bochner getting scooped up.

Lucy actually tries to stop the possessed dozer or whatever, which causes a great deal of chaos just by people speeding around on what appears to be a two-lane street. Really, if they were obeying the speed limit, no problems. Jimmy takes pictures instead of helping his girlfriend  as there are like, Blues Brothers levels of car crashes.

But Supergirl comes to the rescue, appearing atop the roof of Popeye's!

Come back tomorrow for part two of our Supergirl review, with the thrilling conclusion, involving Chicken Wands, the Cosmic Birth Canal and Peter O’Toole’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat!

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