After the box office success of the Christopher Reeve-led Superman movies, it makes sense for the studio to attempt to cash in on a similar property. In this case, it’s Supergirl, who winds up being Superman’s cousin. We don’t see the Man of Steel in this spin-off, but his presence on Earth is noted. At one point in the production, a Reeve cameo was considered, but it was never filmed. His absence is explained with him going into space on an adventure that probably isn’t exciting enough to be made into a movie.
Supergirl‘s plot has to work in an origin story for its titular character. It winds up using a MacGuffin, the Omegahedron, something that disappears from the planet of Krypton after some tomfoolery on the part of a couple of people. It winds up on Earth, so Supergirl (Helen Slater), travels through space in order to go back and get it. We’re told that everything will shut down if she doesn’t retrieve it in a matter of days. If I remember correctly from the father series, that time frame won’t matter a whole lot because Kryptonian days equate to years on Earth.
Anyway, she comes to our planet, magically acquires the suit, and then decides to join an all-girls school, because when you have superpowers, what else is there to do? She befriends Lois Lane’s sister, Lucy (Maureen Teefy), and uses her advanced brain to do really well in math class. This sounds a lot like the type of superhero movie you want to see, right? You want to see an extremely powerful individual hide her powers and go to school, I’m sure of it.
Okay, there’s also a plot involving a witch, Selena (Faye Dunaway), who acquires the MacGuffin and uses it to do nefarious things like … try to make a guy fall in love with her. She also eventually tries to take over the world, but it takes a good two-thirds of the film until this comes to fruition. In this time, we get maybe two action scenes of Supergirl saving random people, one of whom is Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), the only character to appear in both Superman and Supergirl.
My point is that the film is pretty boring for a good chunk of the time. It runs for over two hours, and a significant portion of this time is spent on character development and other things you’re not going to care about. This would be completely fine if, say, the characters were interesting or even deep, but they’re coming from a comic book and they’re not exactly going for high drama. This is a campier approach to a superhero, much like Superman III was. It’s a shame, because if the tone was more in line with the first two Superman films, we might have had a good movie.
The direction and the performances seem to be at odds with the script. They want to treat the property like it’s a joke, while it wants to be taken seriously. The result is an odd mixture, and doesn’t work because of this tension. How can you take a film seriously if everyone involved doesn’t want to. Superman got worse when it went for camp, and now Supergirl has started this way. How do the comic book fans feel about this? How do they like seeing their hobby being made fun of on the big screen?
When we do get some action scenes, they’re not terrible. They can be fun, at least, when they actually try to be. There are points when the special effects look worse than the earlier Superman films, but for the most part, they look fine. The problem mostly comes from the inevitable comparison to Superman and Superman II, both of which contain more interesting action that looks better. This film hasn’t topped them, and because of that, a lot of people are going to wonder what exactly the point is.
The entire production seems like a weaker version of a film we’ve already seen. It’s the same type of story — a lot of meandering until a climactic battle between the villain and the hero, with a couple of minor action scenes in the middle — just with a lot less interesting people being involved. There’s a reason that Superman is an icon and Supergirl is barely noticeable. He stands for something; she comes across as a cheap knockoff.
That is to take nothing away from Helen Slater, in her first feature length film role. She plays the character straight and stoic, despite the campy performances all around her. Now, does that make it a good performance in a bad movie, or an actor who couldn’t take direction and decided to just do her own thing? I think that her performance in Supergirl would work in a movie with a straighter tone, but here it comes across as either the best thing or something so out of place that it further ruins the movie. Yes, it can be one or the other, each on polar ends of the spectrum.
Supergirl is not a good movie. It has competing factors for tone, meaning it can never decide whether it wants to be serious or silly. It has special effects that are sometimes good, sometimes not, and a lead actress who is either strong in a bad movie or out of place in a silly one. Either way, she stands out, but I can’t decide if that’s a good thing. It’s still not a good movie, and if you have seen the first two Superman films, there’s very little reason to watch this one.