Wednesday, September 02, 2015

80s Revisited: Supergirl

Supergirl (1984)
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc; screenplay by David Odell; produced by Timothy Burrill.

When we were kids, my sister loved this movie. I certainly didn't. I didn't so much that, if my sister is reading this, she's probably already rolling her eyes in anticipation of what I might say.

What I should say is this: when you're a kid--and hopefully you grow out of it, thought a quick glance around the internet will show you that not everyone does--you do have a tendency to look at something, not be able to relate to it, and write it off as dumb. That was certainly the case with me and a lot of what my sister liked when we were kids. I could look at a movie like Supergirl, which was very much a female-oriented story, not recognize why the women in the movie were doing certain things because (as a boy) I couldn't relate to them, and I would just assume it was bad rather than just something I didn't understand. It's the essence of bad criticism. No attempt at empathy, no attempt at trying to understand, just a quick, thoughtless write-off because it wasn't catering directly to me, the white male, whose stories are apparently "universal." Hey, in my defense, I was 8 years old.

Seeing it now, three decades later, I still don't love Supergirl, but I was surprised at how much I really did like about it. And actually, what I like about it now is what I hated about it as a dumb kid: just how female-oriented it really is. At heart, it's a story about a teenage girl falling in love with life, learning about herself, finding her power and strength in the world around her. It's unique in superhero movies, and just the scenes where she's enjoying that she can fly are delightful. I like Helen Slater in this movie; she plays it... not naive exactly, and not earnest, either, but with a sort of... goodness. She's selfless, and she often acts without thinking to help other people. Supergirl isn't played as a complex character, but she's sort of unfailingly good-hearted, and I like that about her. Slater plays her as someone always discovering, always taking things in, always thinking. And she never once forgets that Supergirl is an alien, which is a neat contrast to Christopher Reeve's human-raised affability in the Superman movies.

Where I think the movie falls, though, is in two ways.

First, there's just too much going on, so not enough really lands. Kara Zor-El comes from Argo City, which is in inner space, to recover a Kryptonian relic (the Omegahedron) that has the power to create. The Omegahedron is found by Selena, a power-hungry witch who starts to channel its powers and wants to take over the world. The two cross paths when Selena uses a love potion to attract the attention of a local handyman (Hart Bochner), who falls in love with Kara's human identity, Linda Lee, by mistake. Yeah, there's a subplot of Kara laying low in a girls' school as a human, becoming friends with Lois Lane's sister Lucy (a vibrant Maureen Teefy), and also Jimmy Olsen (Mark McClure) is there for some reason. And then there's a sidetrip back into inner space where Kara attempts to rescue her mentor (Peter O'Toole), and Peter Cook as Selena's warlock lover/Lucy's math teacher. Anyway, like I said, there is a lot going on in this movie. Probably too much. And for a movie that runs (in the version I saw, which was a director's cut) 138 minutes, it creates some serious pacing problems, particularly since these things aren't interlaced very well, and the movie seems to stop at times to deal with things that just become boring. The whole trip into the Phantom Zone with Peter O'Toole is interesting, but it also a very slow patch just as it seems like the movie's climax is about to start.

The second problem with the movie is the villain, Selena, played by Faye Dunaway.

Selena is potentially a really interesting character, and with Supergirl not being a very complex character, Faye Dunaway should really be carrying the movie. Unfortunately, I don't think her performance is very good. I just could never figure out what the whole witch thing was about. It's played in such a straightforward way--she's a witch and she wants to rule the world and I guess we all just accept that that's a thing. But she's not very good at magic until she finds the Omegahedron, so I couldn't figure out if the magic was supposed to be real (and certainly Peter Cook acts as though it is) or if it was just supposed to be the Omegahedron amplifying Selena's will. Is the magic a con? There's an implication that she's a washed-up carnival fortune teller who wanted to graduate into the real deal, and Peter Cook comes across like one of those old school charlatans who takes black magic only seriously enough to string along a rich benefactress or get laid. He seems like a con man. Selena seems like a con artist who believes real power is possible, and then accidentally falls into something. But the movie doesn't play it that way. Is the demon creature that Selena summons in the action climax real, or is it just because she imagines it that way and the Omegahedron creates it for her?

Part of the problem with Selena and her storyline is that Faye Dunaway is too put-together as the movie starts. I felt she needed to be more like Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, where the character is weak and kind of pathetic in the beginning and then becomes more powerful and with that power becomes more vengeful. She's actually a good counter to Kara in that way, because she's her opposite: the things that make Kara strong are the same things that have made Selena cynical. But Selena is beautiful and strong the whole time, and although Dunaway makes some laugh lines work, she plays it a little too one-note until the second half, when she becomes a more and more unhinged supervillainess. I wish the progression just had more of an arc to it. It becomes monotonous at times, and since the rules of how her powers work are never clearly defined, it's hard to become invested in.

(That said, basing her in a defunct amusement park? Excellent touch.)

What works in this movie works pretty well, and there's a lot I liked about it (shout-out to Jerry Goldsmith's score), but there are just pacing problems and what should be the central performance too often falls flat. I was surprised to discover that Muppet Show writer David Odell wrote the screenplay. He also wrote The Dark Crystal, which is a movie I consider very well-paced.

(That said, it was supposedly rewritten pretty heavily by others, so who knows. This is a product of the Salkinds, which can only mean it's a miracle that anything works, because without strong creative types like Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz around, they put out Superman III, which was the kind of silly slapstick and camp they wanted to include in the first two movies until Donner and Mankiewicz fought for more verisimilitude. Never forget that before those guys came in, the script for Superman had a cameo with Telly Savalas in character as Kojak.)

I will say that Supergirl never felt tedious to me. I just wish the elements had gelled better than they did. But I'm certainly not sorry I watched it again. It's worth taking another look at.


Tallulah Morehead said...

I've seen (Never mind how. I know people) the pilot for the new SUPERGIRL TV series. You're gonna love it.

SamuraiFrog said...

It's one of the two new shows I'm most looking forward to this season.