Reviewed Jun 19, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
The current wave of lavish blockbuster comic book inspired superhero movies owes in part to the emphasis on comics following the release of the original Superman movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With superhuman heroes and villains having extraordinary powers, these were somewhat escapist science fiction adventures and in tone much lighter than the doomed, bleak interpretations of tortured humanity that would follow the revisionism of the Batman movies a decade later. There was a time it seems when even comic books were light and pleasant. In the decade between these two seminal DC Comics adaptations there came a number of lesser known flops including Howard the Duck (one of the few Marvel failures) which is not light and pleasant, and Supergirl, which is. Supergirl was produced by the team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who had acquired the rights to the character and to other DC Universe figures when they purchased the rights for Superman. Although the new film was meant to feature the two super characters meeting, star Christopher Reeve eventually backed away and so Supergirl instead relied on dialogue references and audience familiarity. Indeed, the filmmakers tried here to create a rather self-contained film that would exist separate from the main franchise but operate within the same mythos. It was also more fantasy oriented, colorfully pulpy and aimed at younger audiences.
Supergirl stars Helen Slater as Superman’s cousin. Initially living in Argo City, surviving the destruction of the planet Krypton by residing in inner-space, she comes to Earth in search of the city’s lost power source, the Omegahedron – lost through the fault of an irresponsible Peter O’Toole, Slater’s sometime mentor. On Earth, the mystical power source is found by an aspiring witch (Faye Dunaway) who uses it to strengthen her powers of black magic, much to the chagrin of her warlock teacher (Peter Cook). Slater poses as a student (whose roommate is Lois Lane’s sister) in a private school. When Dunaway banally uses her magic to bewitch a handsome, much younger man (Hart Bochner) the plan goes awry as Bochner falls in love with Slater instead. Vowing revenge out of her petty middle-aged jealousy, Dunaway thus summons forth the powers of darkness to go after Slater. Their rivalry continues as Dunaway uses her power to banish Supergirl to the prison known as the Phantom Zone, wherein Slater realizes that her powers have been stripped. She also discovers that O’Toole is there too, as punishment for losing the power source, and she urges him to help them both escape back to Earth to stop Dunaway, who by now has become something of a petty, fascistic Matriarch, unable to control her own ambitions. Correspondingly, the showdown looms between these symbolic mother and daughter figures.
Perhaps needless to say, this is a silly movie, although will undoubtedly be entertaining for children, especially girls around adolescence – the presumed target audience in this case. Indeed, the film is noteworthy in that it is the first demonstration of the teenage super-heroine figure and indeed postulates a fantasy Earth where women have all the power and men are disposable, almost ineptly subservient and easily manipulated. However, the clash between powerful women is along generational lines – the innocent power and discovery of youth against the warped pettiness of age as the young Slater, discovering her femininity, faces the old Dunaway who resents Slater’s youthful womanhood more than anything else. Despite the unusual Matriarchal agenda, it is bathed in camp ridicule. Slater thus remains somewhat charmingly naïve through the movie whilst Dunaway’s desire to reclaim her lost youth takes on some truly pathological proportions in her romantic / sexual obsession with the handsome Bochner. However, the film deliberately avoids the homicidal megalomaniacal villains of the original Superman franchise to concentrate instead on a depiction of the abuse of power as rooted in pettiness and essentially immature jealousy. It is, however, this very emphasis on feminine pettiness and superficiality which runs the risk of making the film in the end merely trivial, a fate it does not in truth totally avoid.
It is as disposable entertainment that Supergirl has its presumed life, where its depiction of a young woman forced to adjust to a new environment and the peculiar priorities of an adult world may have some coming-of-age relevance for girls. Where the film both fails and yet is most revealing though is in the effort to create an independent pseudo-Matriarchal mythology to rival the Superman franchise. The original Superman was aware of its status as patriarchal myth, whereas Supergirl redirects the concept – it may look closer to a comic book but never attains the epic pop mythology which Superman sought and arguably undercuts the feminist allegory it provokes. Like the Superman sequels, it’s a tongue-in-cheek venture and although about the threat posed by pettiness, it locates this menace in matriarchal caricature. Thus, the pleasure and reassurance the film finds in Slater’s naivety is held against the allegorical but reactionary depiction of the demented Dunaway, seen as monstrous primarily because she intends to control the minds of men out of her resentment of her own lack of youth and perhaps desirability in comparison to Slater – lost innocence. The film explores this within a proficient Hollywood fantasy with superior effects and an engaging visual style. It thus has thematic interest but proved to be merely a light aberration before comic book adaptations turned dark and brooding with the likes of The Crow and Batman.