Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 7, 2016)
Often when a movie tanks critically and financially, someone claims that it would have been terrific if the director got his way. There's always some superior cut out there somewhere, the version that allows the ugly duckling to transform into a swan.
Sometimes these opinions end up being correct, as in the case of The Abyss. That film's extended edition greatly improves on the original version. However, this didn't cause a revelation, as the theatrical cut was still decent; the longer one simply made it more complete and logical.
The Abyss provides an exception to this rule, though, as most extended editions just make the pain last longer. I saw Supergirl during its theatrical run in 1984 and frankly thought it was pretty lame. Since that seemed to be the general pattern in the Super series after the first couple of films, I didn't think much of it and happily went on with my life.
Over the years, I heard that there was a longer "international" version of Supergirl that greatly improved on the US cut. When I got the chance to see this on DVD, I definitely fekt intrigued. If there was any hope a longer edition of Supergirl could make it entertaining, I was all for it.
Now that I've seen the international cut of Supergirl, I can say with certainty: this is a pretty mediocre movie. I didn't think it was laughably bad. Although it flirts with camp, the film never enters the realm of the genuinely atrocious. Instead, it commits what may be a more egregious sin: it seems dull for the most part.
Comic book movies can be good or bad or funny or tragic or silly or dramatic and still remain at least partially interesting. However, if they become boring, the viewer suffers the worst fate of all. I can't say I really disliked Supergirl, but I found myself disinterested for the vast majority of its running time. I kept hoping that the story would eventually take off but that never quite happened.
Films like this often come burdened by the necessity to relate vast amounts of exposition. Look at the first Superman, for instance. It takes a considerable amount of time to get to the introduction of the Man - not Infant, Toddler, or Teen - of Steel. Supergirl doesn't take quite so long to get Kara (Helen Slater) into her tights and cape, but it feels like forever.
Ironically, the movie might have been more interesting if it had spent more time with introductory material. The set-up feels rushed and incomplete. Of course, that might be due less to the amount of time devoted to the exposition than because of weak writing. The characters seem so flat and weakly-drawn that I don't think additional space would help them become more real.
The movie comes with a basic plot. After she accidentally allows the Omegahedron - a funky power source that keeps everything going in her home of Argo City - to fly into space, Kara splits in a ship and chases after it. Both the Omegahedron and Kara end up on Earth, where aspiring sorceress Selena (Faye Dunaway) has found the magical gizmo. She snags itand Kara very slowly tries to chase after it.
Along the way, Kara enters a girls' school - where she just happens to room with Lois Lane's sister Lucy (Maureen Teefy) - and meets dreamboat gardener Ethan (Hart Bochner). Mild complications ensue, most of which seem to revolve around who can bag the hunk.
If you're going to make a movie with someone as powerful as Supergirl, the story should probably involve events more life and death than just who'll get the date to the prom. Yeah, that simplifies things, and we do see Selena start to create a fascist state based on her power, but even when the movie tries to expand into these bigger issues, it still feels small and weak.
Some of that stems from Slater's performance. She's quite lovely and looks very good in the part. However, she's inherently a tiny presence and has a lot of difficulty pulling off a powerful character like this. As such, though Slater's as cute and sexy as Supergirl should be, she seems awfully flat and drab.
Slater succeeds much better with meek roles such as the one she superbly filled in Ruthless People. As she works here, Supergirl never presents a strong, heroic persona. I mean, she should really be almost as physically powerful and tough as Kal-El himself, but she always feels like a wimp. Selena's challenges should mean little to Supergirl and the "struggle" we witness should never exist.
Which leads to another problem with Supergirl: the terrible villain. Selena's an awfully "girly" baddie; her initial interest is in making hunky Ethan fall in love with her, after all! Yes, that seems to be part of her plan for world domination, but nonetheless, you wouldn't see a male villain bother with such silliness. Dunaway vamps it up in the role but doesn't lead us anywhere. The character is not fun or intimidating or clever; she just exists to motivate a plot.
As Bianca, Brenda Vaccaro adds a female counterpart to Superman's Otis, but she also suffers from a lack of definition. Otis was impossibly dumb, which made him cartoony but at least he seemed entertaining. Bianca just appears to give Selena someone to talk to throughout the movie; she adds no interest on her own.
Zaltar (Peter O'Toole) appears as the genius behind Argo City. He is also the one who accepts the punishment for Kara's goof and flits off to the Phantom Zone. O'Toole tries his best to work with the material, but he can't do much to make it compelling.
Speaking of Argo City, its treatment illustrates the shoddiness of the film's exposition. As I recall from the comics, Argo City was supposed to a new home for folks who survived the explosion of Krypton. There's no mention of this in the movie and we receive very little indication these people ever had anything to do with the residents of the doomed planet other than a couple of mentions that Superman is Kara's cousin.
It's the absence of the depth that comes with those details that most harms Supergirl. The movie seems poorly conceived and blandly executed. The film looks fairly good, and most of the effects still hold up acceptably well, but the story is dull and the characters lack range. It's not the worst superhero film ever made, but it's one of the less interesting ones.
Footnote: Supergirl excels in one department, that of product placement. I noticed at least three instances in which a certain brand of root beer receives significant presence. Twice this occurs through the inclusion of vending machines, while the third features a character who wears a T-shirt that touts the drink!
We also see a participant order a root beer of unspecified brand at a fast food establishment that’s another prominently-featured business. I'm not sure the placement is terribly positive; one of the vending machines gets destroyed, and the guy who dons the T-shirt is a baddie. Still, I found this obvious branding of the set amusing.