As I try to survive the new apocalypse that comes in the form of ice, my standards seem to be lowering. Because, try as I might, I cannot hate Supergirl. Oh sure, the script is terrible, the acting redefines the word “camp,” the effects are terrible, and the entire thing feels hopelessly like a cash grab rather than a legitimate work of art.
But Supergirl is also great fun. It seems to revel in the spirit of those old cheesy 30s adventure serials (you know, where the scripts were terrible, the acting redefined the word camp, etc). I always felt that there were scenes in the original Superman films that were far too solemn. That Lois Lane monologue scene had me cringing. Supergirl does not even try to that. But for this material, which was campy to begin with, it strangely works.
So, the story starts in this Kryptonian city named Argo City. Kara Zor El, Superman’s cousin (Helen Slater) lives there, as does the designer Zaltar (Peter O’Toole…yes. Really.) Due to a mishap, he loses the Omegahedron, a small orb which powers the city. Zara goes after it, and it lands on Earth. More specifically, it lands at the feet of a sorceress named Selina (Faye Dunaway….yes. Really) who comes to the dubious at best conclusion that the orb can be used for spells. This leads to constant berating from her boss Nigel (Peter Cook – again, yes. Really). Zara assumes the name Linda Lee and enrolls in an all girls school where she rooms with Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy, aka that Jewish actress student from Fame) so that she can recover the orb before Argo City runs out of power.
First, Helen Slater works as Supergirl. She actually acts alien and even seems just as amazed at her new powers as the rest of the population. She still manages to give some dignity to the role and, in fact, manages to come of as a strong hero in her own right. This is vital – treating Supergirl as less than Superman would have been a terrible move for the film to make. The film does not do so (although, for whatever reason, it DOES surround her with dim bulbs who have only vaguely heard of Superman) making her stand on her own.
Actually, the entire film does something that the original Superman film did not – acknowledge its source material. People may want to deny it all they want, but Superman is a comic book character. And the original film tried to transcend that origin, for whatever reason. And frankly, I still feel that the film suffered for it. Filmmakers can try and make these characters as noble as they would like, but they are still comic book characters.
All of the dialogue and the mis en scene of Supergirl feels like it comes from a comic book written in the 1950s. Every single line, particularly the hero’s and villain’s may as well end in an exclamation point. You can practically see the written sound effects in certain scenes. Now, for other characters, this would be an absolute death knell (see Batman and Robin) but here, for whatever reason, it works.
Of course, there are people who try to ascribe other themes to Supergirl, especially those who feel that the film is about female empowerment. That may be, the same way that Superman may really be about the Jewish immigrant experience in America, but I don’t think that is the real point.It was important that the hero was a woman, yes, but the film does not treat that as though it is anything special. Rather, it is primarily meant to bring a comic book to life. I think it succeeds.
Of course, the film has many flaws. The flying sequences are terrible (one had me laughing ) Faye Dunaway’s performance starts at camp and never lets up, and Peter Cook is absolutely wasted. Additionally, two things bother me about the film: one is the Omegahedron, and the other is the love interest Ethan (played by Hart Bochner- that guy in Die Hard who tried to negotiate with Hans Gruber). The problem with that little MacGuffin is simple – it is never clearly defined. Basically, it does everything that the plot requires it too. This is bothersome, for example, how on earth does Selina know how to work it.
Now, the character of Ethan is more problematic. If the film is meant to be about female empowerment, then why does he need to exist? It is not as though he really loves Linda, after all – he was under a magic spell. There is a scene in which he shows up with flowers and talks about how he wants to marry her. The strange thing is that both Linda Lee and Supergirl seem to appreciate this behavior. Almost all of the women I know would call the cops. Yet this is somehow seen as endearing. I don’t get it. It would have been far stronger for Lee to ignore his advances – or better still, finding love on her own terms.
The rest of the film is, well, adequate, but it’s certainly passable. Try as I might, I cannot write off this film, even with those flaws I described above. Its B-movie spirit produces so much fun that I cannot hate it. It’s one of those films that’s perfect for a lazy afternoon or an insomniac at 3 AM.