It was the one-two punch KOs of Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie that led to the Salkinds divesting themselves of Superman and which, in consequence, gave us The Quest for Peace. Both came from the director of Jaws II, perhaps not the most obvious choice to bank everything on, but then, like Richard Lester, Jeannot Swarzc doubtless came cheap and took direction himself (he’d also directed Reeve before, which might have helped with the cameo that didn’t happen). Supergirl holds an 8 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t entirely unfair, as it isn’t a good movie. It is, however, probably more engaging and inventive than the previous year’s main attraction (originally intended to feature her), which thought it could coast to victory by stapling on a top-drawer comedian.
Supergirl’s top-drawer comedian was only top-drawer about 20 years earlier. Peter Cook, now dissolute, shambolic and in need of several 100 hours of dentistry, was coasting on booze fumes by this point (whereas, ironically, his former co-star and collaborator was making a mint from playing perpetually pissed). His is a strictly minor, supporting character, but he’s nevertheless able to bring a sliver of withered spleen to Nigel, warlock and school teacher. The cumulative effect of his presence is one of whomever the production could afford after Richard Pryor broke the bank, hence a selection of past-it stars – Faye Dunaway (only in her early 40s, but nevertheless), Peter O’Toole (competing with Cook in the dissolute stakes and miraculously looking relatively fresh by comparison) and Mia Farrow – and a wide-eyed ingenue for the title role (Helen Slater).
The most curious part of the picture, written by David Odell – of The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, The Dark Crystal and Masters of the Universe – is its choice of premise. Where Superman stuck to starchy real-world villainy (until Quest, and even then), Supergirl, anticipating Doctor Strange, is fully on board with magic. Admittedly, not fully on-board for villains from the comics, so par for the course in that sense, but there’s a modicum more imagination going into this on paper than the average Superman effort.
So, to explain Supergirl/Kara Zor-El existing, we have a retconned pocket universe, Argo City, created in “trans-dimensional” space called the Survival Zone – a bunch of Kryptonians survived the planet’s destruction there. The logistics of this place don’t bear much scrutiny, seeing as it’s apparently protected from the elements – or lack thereof; a trans-dimensional vacuum? – by a thin piece of easily punctured polythene. It was also, it seems, founded by Zaltar (O’Toole), yet he isn’t in charge, having borrowed the Omegahedron, one of two great power sources, to mess about with in his creations of the “illusion of life” without permission from the presiding Guardians.
Zaltar implies this is a bit of a makeshift dump, and it does for all the world look like an untutored sound stage (“a lonely old rock”). Why someone who founded a survival community should then recklessly endanger it is unclear – Wiki references him as a wizard, but that isn’t mentioned in the movie, unless it’s in the 138-minute cut, and his dabbling is surely Kryptonian science rather than magic – but then, the two most “sympathetic’ characters in the picture are the ones who cause all the problems that ensue.
Because Zaltar kicks the Omegahedron to Kara, who then ruptures the dome with it, and then scarpers – as Mia scolds “This is our universe and you’ve destroyed it with a game” – in the craft Zaltar planned to use to scout Venus. Which is even more reckless than he is; SuperZaltar could probably have retrieved the Omegahedron tout suite; sure, he’d find himself propping up the local bar rather than attend a girl’s school, but he was fully apprised of the necessaries. Instead, he volunteers to descend to the Phantom Zone, where he will endure suffering forever. He’s a bit of despairing sod, really (did they only have one craft? How remiss was that?)
There’s thus a ticking clock on the movie, but Szwarc and Odell singularly fail to stage it that way. Without the Omegahedron, the city “can’t survive more than a few days” – perhaps Earth time runs differently; Phantom Zone time certainly does – and their “suffering will be short”. If Kara knows this, going to school (conveniently where Nigel is a teacher) is probably the last thing she should be doing (her craft surfaces in a lake, which is a decent twist on travelling through non-existence NASA space, since portals are portals, but the visualisation lacks coherence).
Nevertheless, it’s a boon to get to see the Phantom Zone when Kara is banished there by Selena (Dunaway). It’s a grim, de-powered place, with pools of Black Goo and eternal darkness, so no wonder Zod and co were livid when they got out. As depicted, this pocket universe is the Supes equivalent of a Hell dimension, one that has turned Zaltar to drink, or to drink more (was this O’Toole’s suggestion, or a hasty rewrite on discovering his standard daily state on set? The actor won a Golden Raspberry for his troubles, but he’s actually quite enjoyable). We also learn that Kryptonians study 6-dimensional geometry, which seems rather more mundane than 5D, 6D etc spiritual development (Kara, told “Most great artists find mathematics troublesome…” discovers the same discipline is a breeze once on Earth).
The consequence of all this malfeasance is that Kryptonian science is perceived on Earth as magic, which is the standard form of such matters. The Omegahedron falls into the hands of amateur witch Selena, who promptly sets out on her own (“I’ve just outgrown you, Nigel”).
While Superman is the embodiment of Luciferian apotheosis, Supergirl carries with her no such aspirational weight (indeed, this is highlighted by Maureen Teefy as Lois’ cousin Lucy Lane having a Superman poster on her wall). Like the more recent, gender-indeterminate Supergirl in The Flash – actual Baphomet statues are on display here – Slater’s beanpole is defined by her learning curve. She’s built to fail and so grow. One might thus argue she’s closer to a Peter Parker, and the within-reach, associative level of the Luciferian ideal. “Magic” used by those who have attained this is good and right (this is the lure of the superhero), whereas those who don’t are obviously demarcated and excepted through overt insidiousness.
To wit, the bent of Nigel and Selena is expressed clearly from the first (“It takes a lifetime to discover the secrets of black magic from the ancient grimoires”). These aren’t benign, “white” witches; their intentions are undisguisedly those of power, service to self (Selena’s particularly obsession is to have others love her). To which end, Selena starts a coven of “wrinkly little wretches” (Nigel’s description of her foot soldiers, one of whom includes Sandra Dickinson) in coordination with Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro, probably getting the tone of this thing better than anyone else).
She thus starts out rather low-rent, trying to attract Ethan (Hart Bochner, Die Hard’s consummately performed low-life Ellis), who manages to fall for Linda (Kara) instead. She continues to be fairly low rent (as far as I can tell, she only hankers after Ethan because Bianca expresses desire for him), desirous of world domination and designing herself as princess of Earth (well, Diadanus of Catania, Priestess of Sechnid and the Ultimate Sire of Endor) with Ethan as her consort. It’s only when she ropes Nigel back in, with his Burundi Wand (“pure, unadulterated evil”) that she really gets anywhere (a mountain of evil that, it seems, the Salkinds wanted in a Superman).
The movie is thus cross pollinating with the sorcery genre, one that was only ever semi-popular in the ’80s, taking in everything from Conan to Indiana Jones to The Dark Crystal to The Witches of Eastwick. That it never gathers any momentum in that direction is partly down to Szwarc’s pedestrian visuals, but it’s also due to Dunaway’s strained performance, charmlessly one-pitched in her malice; she’s camp, but she isn’t enjoyably camp, which reflects the broader problems with the picture. Anyone else doing the comedy side, be it Cook, Vaccaro or even Bochner (in lovelorn mode) has some skill in that quarter, but Faye falls flat (she also took home a Razzie).
Szwarc doesn’t know how to pace a movie, so Supergirl unfurls in a mostly limpid fashion; there’s no sense it’s remotely trying. The super scenes are nothing special, or failing even to must that level of nothing, with flying Kara doing so in a prolifically sedate manner. Only the Phantom Zone sequence has anything approaching dramatic import. Nevertheless, I found this less of a test of my patience than Superman III, which really had just the one (really good, mind) episode in its favour.
One element that sits rather surprisingly in retrospect is the sexual undercurrents. The first humans Kara encounters are a couple of would-be rapist truckers, not such a winning reflection of life on Earth (this is not dissimilar to Lois working on a story involving rapists when Clark arrives in the first film). And Kara may be whatever age she really is, but in context, she’s a schoolgirl having a thing with a guy who’s nearly 30. Worse still, Jimmy Olsen (a returning Marc McClure) thinks nothing of having a fling with Kara’s fellow pupil Lucy. All a bit skeevy? Mind you, Jimmy’s something of a moral coward, urging the girls to ignore Ethan’s dazed traffic troubling status and only then reluctantly getting involved.
A sign of Supergirl’s erratic writing is that Earth people talk in terms of where they live as a planet, something no one who isn’t a super villain from outer space does; Nigel suggests Supergirl should worry Selena “if you’re serious about taking over this planet”, one of Kara’s teachers comments that “we’re all alone on this… miserable little planet”. Were Supergirl “Totally on another planet”, it might be able to boast such far-out lustre. Instead, it brings you resoundingly down to Earth with a bump.