Armchair Script Doc: Supergirl

We watch a movie featuring one of our favorite actors and it simply doesn’t quite work. I find that most of the time the problems can be traced back to the shooting script (not necessarily the script the writer actually intended). The movie I’m taking a look at this time: Supergirl.


Helen Slater as Supergirl/Linda Lee/Kara Zor-El
Faye Dunaway as Selena
Peter O’Toole as Zaltar
Maureen Teefy as Lucy Lane
Hart Bochner as Ethan

Directed by:
Jeannot Szwarc

Written by:
David Odell

Character, Supergirl:
Otto Binder (uncredited)
Al Plastino (uncredited)

When the power source to Argo city is lost, Kara Zor-El inadvertently goes off to retrieve it. Arriving on Earth, she becomes Supergirl, the less worldly cousin of Superman. She battles an increasingly powerful witch who is not only in possession of the power source but is growing stronger from it.

Released: November 21, 1984

I’ve been a fan of Supergirl since the mid-60s. As a kid, I was first introduced to her “silver age” character in the comics. After the success of the first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, I was eagerly anticipating this installment into the mythos. I was spurred on by seeing making-of stories in fan mags such as Starlog, so I had very high hopes. Those hopes lowered a bit after seeing the mess that was Superman III, but hope remained nonetheless.

I watched the movie twice on release day, the day before Thanksgiving (U.S.). I came away with mixed emotions. I loved seeing one of my favorite comic heros on the screen. What I didn’t enjoy was the story. It felt choppy. Worse…the director allowed too many actors to chew their cud in too many scenes. While newcomer Helen Slater was appropriately enthusiastic in much of the role, I felt that Dunaway, Peter Cooke, and Brenda Vaccaro were too over-the-top even for camp. O’Toole also was very large in character, but you sort of expect that. Props to Teefy who I thought played a well-balanced Lucy Lane.

But we aren’t here to talk about the acting. We’re here to talk about the storytelling, which is where Supergirl finds its major weakness. Like most superhero tales, this first (and it turns out, only) installment is an origin story. As a result, a good hunk of the beginning of the film is dedicated to showing us Kara’s “ordinary world”. From there she gets the “call to adventure” and then proceeds to learn amazingly quickly about her new powers as she heads out to quest her quest.

Unfortunately, the ordinary world of Argo City is bloody dull. It’s so Apollonian and nearly-monochromatic that it might as well be in a Prozac-like stupor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of setting up the normal, non-adventure world of our soon-to-be hero. Thing is, it needs to be tight. It’s not good when the audience, just a few minutes into the film is antsy for the story to get a move on.

The plot device of the lost omegahedron was absurd but workable. That it easily burst through the shell of Argo City like it was made of tissue paper didn’t help. Kara’s trek to rescue it was presented via a way-too-long SFX sequence (a la Superman: The Movie) where she receives instruction and we see a lot of abstract images.

For me, the introduction of Selena and Nigel was immediately worrisome. First, they weren’t interesting. Worse, it was going to be a magic story. While it is generally accepted that kryptonite is effective against our Kryptonian heroes, much less well known–except to comic book fans–is that the other force that works against them is magic. While it’s understandable that the writer(s) wanted to use something different than the kryptonite deus-ex-machina of-the-week, I’ve long held that magic was one of the weakest of the anti-supes weapons. But maybe that’s just me.

Since a movie about superheroes needs to be…well, super…I think that there needs to be a very specific antagonist with very specific goals–goals that often entail getting those meddling heroes out of the way in some fashion. Selena was none of that. She wanted power, but that alone is a vague purpose. She wanted a boy-toy…but that is sort of weak for a super-villain, don’t you think? Worse, she was only just learning about her powers. That allowed Kara to always be on a par, if not slightly ahead, of Selena on the learning curve. In short, Selena was a weak counterpart to Supergirl and that weakened the amount of risk Kara was ever actually in.

Compare this to Superman having to face off against the evil Kryptonian trio in Superman II. Not only were his abilities matched, but he was also out-numbered. High stakes, indeed. For Supergirl, the stakes were basically her facing off against one lovelorn witch.

Even accepting the witch storyline, the script commits the unpardonable sin of grinding to a halt in most of Selena’s scenes. There’s a lot of bellowing and posturing with her kooky side-kick offering moments of common sense (this never bodes well). Adding to this weakness, we get flooded in a sea of overacting that simply makes it worse. Sure, you expect a bit of camp in these sorts of stories. There comes a point, however, when you simply lose the interest of the audience.

One of the failings of Supergirl is that it seems that only Slater, Teefy, and Marc McClure (reprising his Jimmy Olsen character from the Superman flicks) were trying to play it straight (or at least not-too-campy). That is a key for hero movies and shows…you have to have respect for the audience and the characters. The moment the creative team starts treating it like a goof, you’re finished. You might as well turn off the lights and pack up the cameras.

The best part of the movie was probably the sequence set in the Phantom Zone. It was here that Kara was no longer Supergirl. This was her realization that there were true stakes for her (finally). Too bad O’Toole chewed so much scenery (and drank too much “squirt”) that the audience was taken out of the moment.

Of course Kara escapes. She then defeats Selena’s monster–or the monster that has been manipulating Selena–using the super-trope of flying around something really really fast. At this point, even a Supergirl fan is starting to be glad that it’s winding up.

What would have made this movie better? I’m not a big fan of origin stories. Sometimes they are enjoyable, but most of the time the audience (who is likely familiar with at least a little of the orgin mythos) just wants the script to get on with it. I think I’d have started with Linda living with her step-family in Midvale and then getting a message from Argo City telling of the missing omegahedron. We do this early in the first act so that we are establishing Kara/Linda’s “ordinary world” as well as immediately setting in motion the stakes that will fuel the rest of the story.

Personally, I’d have Supergirl face off against a super-villain or two, but let’s go with the sorceress story. She needs to already be powerful. Perhaps she is like the head of a kabal controlling worldwide interests–interests that don’t neatly fit in with Kara’s world view. This Sorceress gets the power source and starts to wield it to tip the balance of power. Stakes are rising and we’re only at the end of the first act (a fourth of the script).

From here, obviously, Kara’s situation has to deteriorate–both personally because of her duties, and professionally being that the Sorceress already knows of Supergirl and has long prepared to deal with her when necessary. This would, naturally, include a trip to the Phantom Zone.

While Kara is in the Zone, there need to be consequences for her step-family as well as Argo City. There needs to be pressure really applied to Kara’s already overwhelmed shoulders.

In the end, of course, Supergirl prevails using both brawn and brains. The thing is that we don’t just have a lot of flopping about. Our hero needs to act heroically. While it’s the fashion to have heroes be all angsty (e.g. Peter Parker…the model for superhero angst), Kara shouldn’t be filled with these sort of doubts–at least, not to the extent that we’ve seen in recent history. Sometimes you want a superhero to be super. Really super. If you can’t be that, then don’t wear the “S”.

As we can see, Supergirl was probably doomed from the start by its story and structure. While some tweaks could have been made in direction, acting, and editing, I’m not sure this was a salvageable story as it stands. The magic storyline was never that strong. Some aspects of story that didn’t need lot of explaining got a lot of screen time (Argo City), while things like how Kara almost immediately knew how to use all of her powers were all but ignored. It feels a lot like a script that the “suits” got their hands on and “improved”.

Supergirl could have been a very impressive movie. With the experience gained with the first two Superman films (I’m ignoring #3) it should have been spectacular. Instead, while not exactly a complete flop–we did get an enthusiastic Helen Slater in that blue-red-yellow outfit after all–it definitely wasn’t exactly super. There are a lot of places to point fingers for its failings, but this is a case where it simply wasn’t on the page.

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