Supergirl

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Directed by Jeannot Szwarc, 1984.
Starring Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole, Hart Bochner, Peter Cook, Maureen Teefy, Marc McClure.

In the interspatial city of Argo, young Kara Zor-El loses an essential all-powerful device – the Omegahedron – and flies to earth to reclaim it. Once she’s there she gains great powers – but in her quest comes up against a megalomaniacal sorceress who doesn’t want to give the Omegahedron back…

MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE? Pff. The concept of multiple screen superheroes having adventures in the same fictional world stretches all the way back to the mid-eighties. Originally planned to appear in 1983’s Superman III – but replaced with Richard Pryor – the Man of Steel’s Kryptonian cousin Kara took to the big screen the following year in her first, and to date only, movie appearance.

Supergirl states its credentials as a bona-fide Super spin-off from the get-go by establishing Kara’s relationship to you-know-who within minutes – and doesn’t let us forget it. In fact the shadow of Kara’s famous caped kin is almost too heavily felt, what with her Earth-bound best-bud Lucy (Teefy) just so happening to be Lois Lane’s sister, bowtied news snapper Jimmy Olsen (McClure) popping up for no particular reason, and numerous mentions of Clark and the Daily Planet. We’re even informed in the first ten minutes that Superman himself is on a peace-keeping mission to a galaxy far, far away – so don’t expect him to turn up and lend a hand when it all inevitably goes pear-shaped.

Where the movie noticeably diverts from its parent series is in its use of the then-hot fantasy genre. Black magic, witches and demons abound; Kara’s home of Argo City is an art noveau woodland-realm where drawings of dragonflies come to life; and her transformative adventure from naïve child to more worldly hero is similar to that of movies like The Dark Crystal (1985) and Labyrinth (1986). Rather than the broad acts of benevolence of most superheroes, Kara embarks on a specific quest for an all-powerful thingamajig which will save her imperilled kingdom from unspecified but imminent doom; this is the Hero’s Journey template popularised by Joseph Campbell, evident in most superhero movies but much more explicit here.

Opposing Supergirl in her mission is Faye Dunaway’s Selina, an original evil-doer not taken from the comics. Introduced as a semi-comedic wannabe-witch, she lives in an old Ghost Train ride, holding cocktail coven parties and desperate to acquire real power while the bills stack up; and is suddenly gifted just that when the Omegahedron lands in the middle of her picnic. Most effective early on as a sultry yet creepy oddball, Dunaway grows more arch as her powers increase, and by the finale she’s in full-on diva mode, blasting spells while dressed like Mariah Carey on the last night of a World Tour. Legendary British satirist Peter Cook is jaw-droppingly miscast as her jilted lover and mentor in hocus pocus, while he and others also suffer from a strange tendency to play straight scenes that were clearly written to be comedic.

Where the casting really succeeds is with Supergirl herself; Helen Slater’s charming and elegant central performance shows her delight at discovering earth and her new powers, whilst also providing the necessary steel when confronting the bad guys (although one early encounter with would-be rapists seems out of place). Only 20 years old at the time, NY-born Slater is as genuine and assured as Christopher Reeve in his star-making Superman performance six years beforehand.

This is the Hero’s Journey template popularised by Joseph Campbell, evident in most superhero movies but much more explicit here.

While Reeve had a mentoring Marlon Brando providing gravitas and exposition, Slater has the equally heavyweight support of Peter O’Toole as Argo City scientist Zoltar – apparently clad in a Medieval Christmas jumper – and the two make an appealing teacher/student double act. Rogue-ish freethinker Zoltar enjoys the attention as wide-eyed Kara watches his scientific marvels; while later on it’s her youthful enthusiasm which breaks him out of a grim malaise which can easily be read as alcoholism.

Supergirl is out of the blocks in record time – hero, villain and mystical McGuffin are set up in the first fifteen minutes, and Supergirl appears in costume shortly afterwards (it took an hour for Superman to don the cape in his first movie). The script then takes an odd, somewhat leisurely U-turn into classroom-based japes as Kara enrols in an all-girl boarding school to fit into earth society. How playing hockey and taking computer classes will help her acquire the Omegahedron is never successfully explained, but it allows for the obligatory secret identity – in this case Linda Lee – and encounters with school bullies before she works her way up to monsters and supervillains.

The middle act is clogged up by Selina’s tiresome obsession with landscape gardener Ethan (Bochner), quickly resorting to magic potion-spiked-booze when the dopey turf-merchant doesn’t reciprocate. Alas, the first person he lays eyes on when the spell takes effect is Linda, and he then becomes a trophy for hero and villain to compete over; a role all-too-common for female actors in such films but a rare one for a male actor, and Bochner plays it with good humour. Although Kara at first resists Ethan’s advances, he comes to represent temptation for her to stray from her quest, which eventually leads her into trouble.

Said trouble – the highlight of the film – comes at the beginning of the third act; searching for Ethan, Kara is tricked, trapped and sent spinning into the Phantom Zone – the Kryptonian prison viewers may remember from Superman II (1980). It turns out the flying space-window-thing General Zod and his fellow criminals were trapped in was merely the transport to said zone, not the zone itself. Rather, it’s a bleak, acrid wasteland of black rock and brooding clouds, and Supergirl’s arrival perfectly mirrors her first moments on earth in the early part of the movie; whilst there she discovered her new powers with delight in golden sunshine, here she falls into despair as her powers abandon her. Before she crushed a stone to powder in her hand – now attempting the same thing only draws blood. Before she danced through the sky effortlessly, but now she collapses in a heap when attempting to take-off. To add insult to injury, the primary colours of her costume are stained when she falls into a pool of oily sludge. Bloodied and muddied and battered, tears in her eyes, Kara – with a little help from an equally stranded Zoltar – must find the determination to escape her fate. The point is clear – it’s not the powers that make the hero, it’s the will, and Kara quite literally must crawl up from rock bottom to save the day.

Supergirl contains probably the greatest pre-CGI flying sequences ever filmed, using techniques built-up over the three previous Superman flicks. The highlight of this is the aforementioned ‘aerial ballet’ sequence, in which Kara first discovers her powers, a truly impressive feat of wirework and choreography. Other special effects are equally effective, such as the arrival of an invisible behemoth that uproots trees and crushes cars as he marches towards our heroine; and a mountain that suddenly appears in the middle of Smalltown USA. No expense is spared – including an opening credits sequence which cost a cool $1m to shoot.

The Maid of Might (yes, that’s what early comics called her) might have had only one cinematic adventure, but it’s a distinctive and likeable one. Though it flounders somewhat in the midsection, and could do with a more robust villain, its fantasy approach to superheroics keeps it interesting and Slater makes for a memorable, vulnerable hero.

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Review supplied by the Cold Cathode Counting Tubes

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