If you bothered to read the synopsis of Ilya Salkind’s abandoned Superman III idea, you know that it revolved around Brainiac and Supergirl. Brainiac kinda-sorta made it through to Superman III in the form of an autonomous super-computer that almost kills Superman. Supergirl did not.
Because the Salkinds decided to give her her own film. The hope, obviously, was that this would launch a new franchise, now that Superman looked to be petering out. Jeannot Szwarc, director of Jaws 2, was hired to direct from a screenplay by David Odell. who wrote The Dark Crystal. A young unknown named Helen Slater was cast as the Girl of Steel, and the film was Â released the year after Superman III hit with such a loud thud.
The opening titles give us a small hint of what we’re about to experience. They fly-by like the titles of the Superman series, but with their own unique look. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is also sweeping and orchestral, but uses none of the themes John Williams made so famous with Superman. The movie tries to walk a fine line, evoking the former series while doing its own unique thing. All too often, though, it just ends up wanting to have it both ways and not making any sense.
To wit: Superman started out on Krypton. But because this is a movie about a girl, we open in a magical fairy-tale city with a science-fictiony edge.
This is Argo City, and it is completely unlike the Krypton we saw in the previous films. Superman’s Krypton was a forbidding place of harsh cold and sharp angles, with glowing Scotchlite robes.
Argo City, on the other hand, is full of curved organic shapes and see-thru clothes. And Kara-El (played by Helen Slater), cousin of Kal-El, better known as Superman.
Oh, and nobody wears shoes. It’s a hippy paradise.
Peter O’Toole, as Zaltar, has constructed the city in “inner space”Â (it’s never really explained what he means by that). In the course of the opening scenes, he tells Kara about things called “trees” on Earth, and talks about visiting there, or maybe Saturn or Venus, and seriously, why can’t screenwriters seem to grasp that space is B-I-G? Twenty-eight known galaxies, and the only places Zaltar is interested in are all in our solar system? Â I don’t know why that annoys me so much, but it does.
Anyway, the city runs on a power source called the Omegahedron, which O’Toole “borrowed.” He lets Kara play with it, and she uses it to create a giant dragonfly. And they obviously don’t teach little girls how to sit properly in Argo City.
The dragonfly comes to life and punctures the city wall, letting out the air and the Omegahedron. Wow, that name is really long. I think I’ll just call it theÂ OH! Argo City supposedly has a secondary power source, but they won’t last long without the OH!, so Kara jumps into a capsule and chases it to Earth. Â Zaltar then sentences himself to the Phantom Zone as punishment, which will have the convenient side-effect of leaving him alive long after the city has perished.
Kara rides through some sort of cosmic wormhole which does not feature either giant space babies or Willy Wonka singing a creepy song.
Meanwhile in Midvale, Illinous, not far from Chicago, witch Selena (Faye Dunaway) is on a picnic with her weird magical mentor Nigel (Peter Cook) when suddenly, oops, there’s an OH! in her soup. She immediately senses its power and chants some kind of spell giving her immortality or something (this never plays any actual part in the story, BTW).
And this kind of thing continues throughout the movie. Stuff is done without setup or explanation. Somebody just recites some nonsense bit of dialogue out of the blue, the scene continues almost as if they said something that made sense, and then the story moves on. Anyway Selena decides she’ll use the OH! to rule the world and drives away as the car radio mentions that Superman is on a peace mission to some planet trillions of miles away. Convenient.
Kara reaches Earth and bursts up from the waters of Lake Michigan, Â now wearing a super-uniform, again with no explanation of why she’s wearing it or where it came from. Not to complain about the costume itself; it’s actually quite nice. I really like the way the cape falls in multiple folds.
Although when she’s flying, they sometimes replace it with a special stiff cape to keep from exposing her ass or something.
She engages in a little graceful flying, then meets two would-be rapists, one of whom is Matt Frewer. She lifts him up by his chin, then super-kicks the other guy in the balls.
The two guys, BTW, are wearing T-shirts with logos for A&W and STP. And you’ll be seeing each of those logos a few more times over the course of the film. In a later scene, I even think you see a different extra wearing the same STP T-shirt.
Selena Â throws a party at which Peter Cook delivers some incomprehensible lines about magic, and this brings up another really big point about this film: is the magic real or not?
Because, see, we never see anyone do any magic before the OH! shows up. All we hear is Nigel talking about putting beans in the head of a decapitated person in order to turn invisible, and he is so pompous and preposterous that my constant impression is that he’s some kind of con man spouting this stuff to impress ladies and get into their pants.
But we never actually see it work, and if Selena is supposed to be any kind of example, it obviously doesn’t. We learn that she ran a fortune-telling con at a carnival before it got shut down, and now she lives in the haunted house ride at the abandoned carnival, with bills piling up. So this idea that she’s some kind of incredible sorceress even before the OH! shows up doesn’t even occur to me watching the film. She just seems really conceited and self-deluded.
Anyway, later, Supergirl wakes up in the forest where she has spent the night. She hears voices nearby and sees a girls’ softball game in progress. She makes note of the uniforms worn by one group of girls and then sort of mentally makes her own clothes or something. And darkens her hair for some reason (that reason being, of course, that Supergirl in the comics did that, but there’s no reason for it in the movie).
She then goes to the girls’ school, where she types up a fake letter of recommendation from her cousin Clark Kent and uses it to fool the school’s headmaster into admitting her. And guess what? By amazing coincidence, the student she is roomed with is Lucy Lane, kid sister of Lois Lane! As the girls bond over their mutual relatives, Kara sees a picture of Superman hanging on the wall, which is the only time you’ll see Christopher Reeve in this movie.
By even more amazing coincidence, Kara’s math teacher is Nigel, Selena’s boyfriend. As Kara is distracted in class by the fact that Selena is nearby with the OH!, she is singled out by Nigel to humiliate, until she spouts out the correct answer to the nearly impossible problem he has written on the board. Lucy tells her not to show off her brains or “Nobody’s going to like you.” Interesting advice, because it’s insulting but true.
Outside meanwhile, Selena has been distracted by a hunky groundskeeper…
who will grow up to be this guy.
That’s Hart Bochner playing Ethan, perhaps the wimpiest romantic lead in any female-centric movie I’ve ever seen. Selena decides that she will make him hers.
Lucy and Linda (Kara’s Earthly secret identity) are playing field hockey, but one of the girls on their team has it in for Lucy for some reason (never explained, of course). She tries to hit Lucy with the ball, but Linda dives in the way and the ball explodes against her back. Who knew the bully girl was also super-strong? Later, the girls are in the shower (because what’s a movie about teenage girls without a shower scene?)…
when Linda once again foils an attempt by the bully, this time to scald all the girls in the shower by turning off the cold water. The bully and her buddy, the only two not-pretty girls in the school, apparently, Â are foiled and laughed at by all the hot girls. They run out swearing revenge and are never seen or heard from again.
So it’s a long weekend. Kara searches for the OH! all night. The next day, Selena gives Ethan a love potion that will make him fall for the first woman he sees, but she is distracted by Nigel long enough for Ethan to escape. He stumbles through town, where he is spotted by Linda, Lucy and Jimmy Olsen having lunch at Popeyes. Yeah, that Jimmy Olsen.
Marc McClure is the only cast member from the Superman series to make an appearance here. And once again, the movie is trying to have it both ways–name-checking the other movies, showing a photograph of Reeve, including Jimmy, but otherwise trying to be distinct and unique. It’s not really working. The only thing that works less is the idea that Lucy Lane swoons over bow-tied Jimmy.
Selena wants Ethan back, so she uses the power of the OH! to send a monstrous steamshovel to retrieve him.
while she watches the action in her magic mirror, because if it’s a story about a girl superhero, you have to make it explicitly a fairy tale. Girls eat that shit up.
I have no idea why the nymphs holding up the magic mirror are sporting wood. I mean, okay, it’s actually sculpted as the flowing fabric of their dresses, but come on.
Anyway, Â Supergirl appears to stop the shovel, leading Brenda Vaccaro (playing Bianca, Selena’s sidekick) to spout one of the movie’s more ridiculous non-sequitors. She sees Supergirl and asks, “Storm Dragon?” Who knows, maybe the actual explanation for the movie is that Selena and Bianca are on drugs and just tripping through the whole movie. It makes as much sense as anything they actually say.
Supergirl saves Ethan, making Linda’s face the first face Ethan sees. He, of course, falls madly in love with her. Selena is not pleased.
To be concluded next week…