Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Supergirl (1984)

Next summer, Wonder Woman is finally getting her own movie, something that’s long overdue. While it’s easily the most high-profile female-led superhero movie, it’s far from the first. “Elektra,” “Catwoman,” “Barb Wire,” “Tank Girl,” “Red Sonja” and “Sheena” all proceeded it. You’ll notice all those movies were box office bombs and most of them are varying degrees of terrible. Sadly, there was precedence for this too. The very first superhero movie of the modern age to star a woman was 1984’s “Supergirl.” Like the ones that came afterwards, “Supergirl” was a financial flop and a critical failure. Considering its dubious position in comic book movie history, why do I own it?

Following the destruction of Krypton, a remnant civilization of Kryptonians survive in a pocket dimension called Argo City, created by the artist Zaltar. Kara Zor-El, the cousin of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman, lives there with her family. After Zaltar steals the Omegahedron – Argo City’s power source – something goes screwy, the power source sucked into space. Kara follows the Omegahedron to Earth. There, the device falls into the hands of Selena, an amateur witch with dreams of ultimate power. Kara, meanwhile, becomes the hero Supergirl. While attempting to recover the power source, she also has to navigate high school, dating, and her own powers.

“Supergirl” is a deeply flawed film that does increasingly more things wrong as it progresses. However, the movie gets one important detail right. Helen Slatter plays Supergirl. Just as Christopher Reeves was perfectly cast as Superman, Slatter is pitch perfect as Supergirl. She’s beautiful, sincere, naïve, but curious, determined, empathetic, and willing to risk her own life to save others. Lacking the experience of her cousin, Supergirl makes more mistakes, doubts her own abilities more, which is totally in keeping with the character. While Slatter is great, the film could’ve handled the character better. When Superman first appeared in Richard Donner’s “Superman,” he’s helping people. When Supergirl first appears, she gets hit on by some truckers before beating them up.

The right actress was cast as the titular hero. That’s not what’s embarrassing about “Supergirl.” Instead, it’s the film’s villain that produces many eye rolls. Faye Dunaway plays Selena, the witch who accidentally receives the superpower granting MacGuffin. Selena is the most facile of female supervillain. She uses her newly gained ability to try and seduce hunky guys or throw awesome parties. It’s not until the half-way point where she starts to do truly evil things. Even then, her actions – enslaving the town, endangering Supergirl’s friend – come off as every superficial. Dunaway acts ridiculously, seeming less like a supervillain and more like a sitcom arch-enemy. Worst yet, Selena has two comic relief sidekicks. The incredible annoying Bianca, played by Brenda Vaccaro, makes constant quibs about the film’s events. Selena’s ex-boyfriend Nigel, played by Peter Cook, is a very broad, stuffy British stereotype. The character of Selena has no basis in the comic book either, making me wonder where the hell the screenwriter got these terrible ideas.

I think one of the reasons why so many female-led comic book movie fail is because directors, producers, and screenwriters feel the need to add condescending, stereotypical “girly” story developments. In other words, the creative crew do not take the characters seriously, solely because of their gender. This is very clear in “Supergirl.” A large portion of the film is focused on Kara’s adventures in high school. Some of this stuff is okay, like Kara befriending Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister. Other parts are hopelessly dopey. Such as Supergirl’s abilities being used during a polo game or to prevent a locker room prank.

Worst yet is the bizarre romance forced into the movie. Selena attempts to cast a love spell on a hunky gardener. Through a convoluted series of events, he ends up falling in love with Supergirl. Enchantment is not a good basis for any honest relationship but “Supergirl” runs with this. The love interest, named Ethan and played by a flat Hart Bochner, essentially stalks the girl, appearing with candy and flowers. That Supergirl ends up reciprocating these feelings seems highly unlikely. Having said that, Slater’s incredibly sincere performance almost sells her feelings for this random guy.

The special effects in “Supergirl” range from okay to fairly bad. The flying shots are generally fine. However, the action scenes cooked up to challenge Supergirl are incredibly underwhelming. Selena’s plot causes a crane to go ballistic, threatening Kara’s friends and the Popeye’s Chicken they’re having lunch at. That it takes Supergirl more then a minute to diffuse this situation is disappointing. Later, Selena summons an invisible monster to fight Supergirl. How this one is defeated, which involves an electrified lamp post, seems especially random. Afterwards, the witch interrupts the heroine’s romantic date at a carnival. Causing bumper cars to go crazy is not a very threatening villainous action. The climax of the film has Supergirl fighting against a giant demon Selena summons, which is when the special effects are downgraded from “inconsistent” to “shitty.” It’s a fairly weak climax.

Why Do I Own This?: “Supergirl” has been in-and-out of print for years now. I own neither the original Anchor Bay release nor the Warner Bros’ DVD that came out in 2006. Instead, I grabbed a grey-market DVD at a convention a few years back. I was always curious about the film and, considering the dirt cheap asking price, decided to take a chance on it.

Why I continue to own it is out of a generalized desire that the movie was better. Whatever wishes I might have, “Supergirl” sadly isn’t very good. Helen Slater is great as the titular character but a ridiculous villain and mediocre script deeply hurts the film. It’s not even up to the quality of “Superman III,” though it’s slightly less embarrassing. I have no doubt that “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” will fare better and, hopefully, finally break the stigma surrounding female superhero movies. [5/10]

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