Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Superman: following the peacekeeping exploits of super-powered alien Kal-El, who was sent to Earth moments before his home-planet exploded, and was then subsequently raised by middle-American farmers under the name of Clark Kent. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster as a comic book character, the franchise has expanded into pretty much every single conceivable medium, spanning from 1938 to the present. For our purposes here, we’ll only be examining the theatrically released live-action films.
The Installment: Supergirl (1984)
So apparently Kal-El isn’t very alone in the universe. Turns out a whole city’s worth of Kryptonians are still alive and well, floating through space in an isolated Kryptonian community named Argo City. Kal-El even has relatives living there! Like his cousin Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater). Eternally bright-eyed Kara is bored living inside Argo City, because there is no way to leave. Except the totally super easy escape method she uses when she needs to reclaim the Omegahedron (Argo City’s power source, or something like that) after causing it to shoot into space. This brings her to Earth, but wouldn’t you know it? Superman is off on a “peaceseeking mission in a galaxy several hundred billion light years away.” So Kara becomes Supergirl. She also takes on a secret identity, that of school girl Linda Lee. Meanwhile, the Omegahedron falls into the hands of a wannabe witch, Selena (Faye Dunaway), who uses the Kryptonian artifact to become a legit witch. And everyone wants to bang shirt-challenged dreamboat Hart Bochner, even though he never once calls anyone “bubby.” Yay, Die Hard jokes!
Supergirl may not be a good movie, but it is kind of an adorable movie. Considering that the Salkinds spun it off from the Christopher Reeve series just as it had reached a nadir of condescension and detached comedy, it is rather surprising what a sincerely sweet and dorky film this is. Supergirl contains a horde of head-scratchingly wonky creative decisions, but it is genuinely pleasant – even naive – in nature. And though sincerity is rarely ever cool or hip, as the good portions of Superman demonstrate, sincerity is a currency that never loses value. So, while Superman III (for example) is just kind of an aggravating viewing experience, Supergirl can smoothly coast by into so-bad-its-good territory. The whole movie is impressively ridiculous, one forehead-slapping development after another. While some minimal research has learned me that magic is apparently one of Superman’s weaknesses in the comics, that doesn’t make using magic and witches in the film any less completely insane.
The presence of Peter Cook (one of England’s most influential comedians, though probably best remembered stateside for his iconic cameo in The Princess Bride as the “wuv twue wuv” priest) gives much of the villains’ subplot the strange vibe of a late-60s/early-70s British genre comedy — especially a scene in which Faye Dunaway tortures a female partygoer at her own party as a show of power to Cook’s character. Since Dunaway and Cook were surely aware of how dumb this movie was, they both ham up a storm. And the relationship between Dunaway’s Selena and Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro), Selena’s horny wise-cracking middle-aged assistant, feels like something out of a Cagney & Lacey-esque TV series. In fact, one interesting aspect of this film is how genuinely female-oriented it is. Helen Slater – who is suitably cornfed and earnest in the role – is no more objectified in her costume than Reeve was. I respect that the filmmakers didn’t use the film as an endless opportunity to put Slater in skimpy clothing or sexual situations. The objectification is appropriately left for Hart Bochner, as the two-dimensional lust object of most of the female characters. (Also, Hart Bochner is always great.) The only part of the film that drops the ball in this area is a scene in which Kara beats up two would-be rapists, which kind of shows its colors when the two men end the scene by each getting a light-hearted quip. Oh, rapist. You’re incorrigible!
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is also a worthy addition to the franchise.
What Doesn’t Work:
…let’s not kid ourselves. This movie is a disaster. A fun, even forgivable disaster. But a disaster all the same.
Kara: What is a tree?
Zaltar: A lovely thing that grows on Earth.
Kara: You mean the place my cousin went?
This is some of the first dialog in the film, and it really sets the tone. For a legitimate spin-off, this couldn’t feel less legitimate. Marc McClure reprises his role as Jimmy Olsen, connecting the film back to the proper franchise. And Christopher Reeve was originally supposed to appear in the film, but – presumably after looking at the script – he bowed out; though a poster of Reeve as Superman still appears in the film. Nonetheless, the way Supergirl square-peg-in-a-round-holes its way into the existing franchise mythology makes it seem like this was originally intended as a completely different film, and then got looped into the Reeve series as an afterthought moments before going into production. Argo City looks nothing like the Kryptonian crystalline architecture we’ve already seen (production value-wise, it also looks like it is from a 1974 TV show, not 1984 motion picture). And the existence of the community is never properly contextualized or explained in relation to the destruction of Krypton. Did they escape? If so, how? We are told that the citizens are trapped inside the city, apparently able to watch and study Earth, but unable to leave. Yet, Kara manages to leave by hopping inside a small spacecraft and just flying away. So what the fuck was that machine for if not leaving? And how is she the first person to ever try it? And, wait a second, they didn’t have trees on Krypton? Anywhere? I guess we never saw any at the beginning of Superman. But if that is true I’m not sure how Krypton was much better than the hellscape of the Phantom Zone we are shown. From what we see the Phantom Zone actually looks like it might be a better place to settle than Argo City. I always pictured the Phantom Zone to be a featureless void, but since Superman I and II never showed it, Supergirl gets all the glory. And I guess the Phantom Zone looks like the planet in Aliens. Who knew!
As long as we’re on the subject of the Phantom Zone — while a minor thing, it bugs me that Supergirl tells us that there is a fairly easy way out of the Phantom Zone. You just need to journey to a certain vortex and climb out. I guess Zod and his cronies didn’t know about that area.
The fact that Kara knows all about Kal-El, as Superman, as Clark Kent, is so weird and makes no sense really. It is also a perfect example of when trying to meet the audience half-way in a sequel can be a bad thing. Yes, this movie would surely have been better if Reeve had appeared in the film to pass the torch to Helen Slater — I mean, Kal-El learning he has family alive would be a big emotional moment for him (if done right, of course). But they couldn’t get Reeve, and re-casting him wouldn’t have worked while he was still doing proper Superman films. The filmmakers probably should have rethought things at this point. Using the cousin angle saves time, sort of. Kara gets that she has powers when she arrives on Earth and masters them very quickly. But this negates any interesting story and character growth that would have come from her having no frame of reference. And all the connections to Superman make the already silly film even sillier. Kara just happens to land on Earth near the school that Lois Lane’s sister attends?
Obviously the filmmakers are adapting an existing DC character here, but ultimately trying to piggyback the Superman franchise ends up holding Supergirl back. Story-wise the film is straining to be its own thing. Best example: why the hell does Kara go to school? She lands on Earth and then immediately assumes a secret identity. Yet there is no actual reason for her to do so. If Superman had been in the film, and this was more of a story about her visiting him on Earth and then getting into trouble, this would work. But she’s on an important mission. There is no reason for her to get out of her Supergirl uniform (a uniform which, by the way, just appears on her when she arrives on Earth, not of her own doing). It isn’t just pointless for her to enroll in school. Cause, sure, she’s probably curious about Earth. But the people of Argo City will die if she doesn’t get the Omegahedron back ASAP. So the fact that she gets hung-up on schoolwork – schoolwork – and shit like that makes her secret identity all the more illogical. There is a moment where she strays from her mission because she doesn’t want to get in trouble at school. Come on, movie. This easily could have been fixed by having Kara be a rambunctious teen, who runs away from home to see Earth and accidentally lets some Kryptonian technology fall into the wrong hands, instead of her being a bland nicegirl on a time-sensitive mission to save her people. Though, really, I don’t think Supergirl wanted to be a superhero movie at all. It kind of feels like a teen-comedy about a young witch at boarding school who has to battle some older witches. It is a fantasy movie at every turn. It has a fucking love spell as a major plot point! A love spell.
The most entertaining parts of the film (presumably entirely because of the actors being used) are the villains’ scenes. Dunaway and Cook ham up a storm and actually seem to be having fun. A whole film about these witches and warlocks (I do like that Cook only moonlights as a warlocks, grumpily earning his paycheck as a school teacher) would likely have been much more interesting. Alas, the rest of name actors don’t seem to be having as good of a time. The Argo City scenes are seriously depressing. Marlon Brando got to puff around his opening segment with juicy dialogue (and the satisfaction of a history-making paycheck). Here the actors seem sad to be speaking. Mia Farrow, as Kara’s mother, almost seems confused by her presence in the film, since she was currently at the height of acting career, with Supergirl conspicuously sandwiched among Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and Her Sisters. Then there is Peter O’Toole, as Kara’s mentor Zaltar, who just looks miserable — and drunk. Though who can blame him. I would be drunk too.
And what are we to make of this “peaceseeking mission in a galaxy several hundred billion light years away” that a radio news report tells us is keeping Superman busy? That’s a pretty huge mythology bomb to drop on us in a casual news report that’s happening in the background of a scene. It is going to be very disappointing if the next Superman film doesn’t include some crazy aliens.
Body Count: 3
Number of Times Supergirl Smugly Lets a Villain Shoot Her in the Chest: 0
Best Villain Dispatching: Using her heat vision to foil a school bully who is trying to tamper with some water pipes to scald Kara while she is in the gym shower.
Supergirl’s Superest Feat: Causing a flower to bloom just by touching it.
Best Use of Her Brains: Using super speed to quickly forge a letter of recommendation while the school’s dean has stepped out of the room for a moment.
Should There Be a Sequel: No, I think we’re all good here.
Up Next: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
previous franchises battled
Back to the Future
Planet of the Apes