Supergirl (USA/UK, 1984)

March 25, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Supergirl Poster

Supergirl holds the distinction of being the worst movie made during the Salkind Era of Superman (which began with 1978’s Superman and ended with 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, although by then the Salkinds had sold the rights to Golan-Globus). That’s right, Supergirl achieves the seemingly impossible task of being worse that both Superman III and Superman IV. The movie was in trouble before the cameras started rolling and things didn’t get better during production. When it was released into theaters, the film hardly made a blip on the box office radar, performing poorly when it opened and fading quickly. Hopes that this might revive the Superman franchise were quickly dashed. (Although it did not end the career of Jeannot Szwarc – the Jaws 2 director moved on to Santa Claus: The Movie immediately after completing work on Supergirl. What a résumé!)

The elephant in the room is the absence of Superman. Original concepts for Supergirl were based on the expectation that Christopher Reeve would come on board in some capacity. Originally, he was supposed to play a supporting role (acting as a mentor to the title character). When Reeve indicated he wanted to reduce his participation, the Superman appearance was diluted to a cameo. However, after the actor’s relationship with Ilya Salkind soured during and after Superman III, Reeve backed out altogether (even though he had a good working relationship with Szwarc). Superman’s lack-of-presence looms large over Supergirl and, aside from a few name-drops and a photograph (accompanied by a few bars of John Williams’ iconic score), the Man of Steel is M.I.A. Adding Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen into the mix emphasizes how badly Reeve is missed.

The story feels like it was written on the back of a napkin by a group of stoned comic book fans. It’s supremely stupid and natteringly nonsensical. It begins in Argo City, an “inner space” community comprised of Kryptonian expats who have lived there since the destruction of their planet. Argo City was created by Zaltar (Peter O’Toole), a scientist who used the Omegahedron to power the world. Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater), a cousin of Kal-El, lives in Argo City with her mother, Alura (Mia Farrow), and father (Simon Ward). When Zaltar allows Kara to toy with the Omegahedron and an accident causes it to be ejected into space, she takes a spaceship and follows it to Earth while Zaltar exiles himself to the Phantom Zone for his part in the affair.

On Earth, the Omegahedron comes into the possession of wannabe witch Selena (Faye Dunaway), who is the consort of the warlock Nigel (Peter Cook). Her assistant, Bianca (Brenda Vacarro), is Supergirl’s version of Superman’s Otis. Selena recognizes that the Omegahedron contains power; she seeks to unlock it free herself from her liaison with Nigel and gain access to true magic. As she is working to understand her new talisman, Kara arrives with the secret identity of “Linda Lee” and enrolls in an all-girls school. From there, she begins her search for the Omegahedron – a quest that leads her to an inevitable conflict with Selena. Along the way, she befriends Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy), the younger sister of Lois Lane; falls in love with the school’s groundskeeper, Ethan (Hart Bochner, who four years later would become immortalized as the smarmy jerk in Die Hard); and reconnects with Zaltar in the Phantom Zone.

If all of this sounds haphazard and confusing, that’s because it is. It doesn’t help that Peter O’Toole gives what is unquestionably the worst performance of his career, sleepwalking his way through the slight role of Zaltar (possibly outdoing Marlon Brando’s level of bored indifference in Superman), or that Faye Dunaway turns up her vamping to an “11”, thereby making Ursula in The Little Mermaid seem restrained by comparison. Any charm evinced by relative unknown Helen Slater is undermined by the raft of bad performances surrounding her. She’s sufficiently charismatic that, had she been given a Superman-quality vehicle, she might have done something with it. But Selena is no Lex Luthor and Ethan is no Lois Lane.

The film’s tone has been infected by the silly comedic approach employed by Richard Lester in Superman III (Lester, when approached by the Salkinds about directing Supergirl, turned them down). The dialogue veers toward campiness and jokiness. Even during the climactic struggle, in which Supergirl fights a bad special effects monster, there’s nothing resembling suspense or tension. With a villain as over-the-top as Selena, it’s impossible to accept that the stakes are high. One wonders why the filmmakers stuck with Faye Dunaway (considering her reported Diva-like behavior) if this was the result.

Movies made in the pre-CGI era were often given “mulligans” for subpar special effects but Supergirl came far enough into the post-Star Wars period that its visuals should have been more impressive than what they are. Indeed, there’s little excuse beyond cost-cutting for them to look worse than in any of the first three Superman movies. If there’s one bright spot to be found, it’s Jerry Goldsmith’s score. One of a small group of in-demand veteran composers in the early ‘80s, Goldsmith agreed to compose Supergirl. Keeping Williams’ Superman themes in mind, his final work is distinct yet musically linked.

It's unsurprising that Supergirl was never accorded a sequel although one was planned at the time the movie went into production. (The property would later be completely rebooted for TV as a successful series that ran for six seasons from 2015-2021. In that series, Helen Slater played the role of Kara’s adoptive mother.) The movie is so scrambled and poorly executed that it would have been a shock for it to be embraced by either comic book fans or mainstream viewers. In comparison to Superman, the godfather of the franchise, it seems almost to be a satirical offshoot – something so bad that it can’t be taken seriously. (In fairness, similar comments could be made about both Superman III and Superman IV.) The across-the-board awfulness of Supergirl disabused those who optimistically believed the Salkinds’ stewardship of the Superman series couldn’t slip lower than the disappointment of Superman III. If Superman was an eagle streaking across the sky, Supergirl is the result of that eagle’s bowel movement.

Supergirl (USA/UK, 1984)

Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Cast: Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole, Brenda Vacarro, Peter Cook, Hart Bochner, Marc McClure, Mia Farrow, Helen Slater, Simon Ward
Home Release Date: 2022-03-25
Screenplay: David Odell
Cinematography: Alan Hume
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 1984-11-21
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1