Anyone who watches “Supergirl” should feel insulted by it, but women have the most cause for offense. The title character has all the same powers as her cousin Superman, with the addition of being able to create costumes and change the color of her hair at will. Because she’s a lady superhero, you know. One assumes that if a sequel had materialized, Supergirl would have developed the power to notice shoe sales from miles away, or perhaps the ability to ask her husband for permission to drive the car.
“Supergirl” is so awful that Christopher Reeve declined to appear in it, even though he had just appeared in “Superman III” and would later make “Superman IV.” He was not an actor with a lot of discernment, is my point. In 1984, he was dressing as Superman at shopping mall groundbreakings and friends’ children’s birthday parties. And yet even he had the good sense to distance himself from “Supergirl.”
Supergirl is played by Helen Slater, then unknown but now world-famous for being the woman who failed to turn a starring role in “Supergirl” into a career. Slater was perfect for the part because she was pretty, in good physical condition, and had a face that was as expressionless as a dinner plate. When making a movie about a hero with super powers, the last thing you want is for audiences to be able to relate emotionally to him or her.
Slater starts out as Kara, a young woman who lives in an alien world called Argo City. It is apparently a fragment of Krypton that somehow survived when the planet exploded at the beginning of the first “Superman,” though “Supergirl” does not spell this out. Argo City’s designer is Zaltar (Peter O’Toole), who has a couple of magic objects that enable him to keep the city alive. But the only thing separating the city from outer space is a wall made of plastic sheets, and it’s pretty easy to tear a hole in them. Zaltar discovers this (I don’t know why it didn’t occur to him earlier) when Kara is fiddling with the magic objects and accidentally creates a dragonfly that slices through the plastic wall and threatens to destroy the city.
For trusting a leader so shortsighted, the people of Argo City obviously deserve to die. Nonetheless, Kara volunteers to go to Earth to retrieve the magical object that the Argonians need to survive, figuring she can get help from her cousin, Superman, who arrived on Earth some years earlier. But fate has two unpleasant surprises in store for Kara. For one thing, Superman has gone to the other end of the galaxy on a peace-keeping mission, which is the same excuse I use when out-of-town relatives want to visit me. For another thing, when the magical object, called the Omegahedron, falls to Earth, it lands right in the lap of the Earth’s most evil villain! Not Lex Luthor (I assume they didn’t even ask Gene Hackman after Reeve said no), but Selena (Faye Dunaway), a part-time witch and a full-time inspiration for campy lesbians everywhere.
While Selena practices dark magic with her minion and co-witch Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro), Kara arrives on Earth already wearing the signature Superman-style outfit. (Handy!) She knew the Earth’s yellow sun would give her super powers, but she was unprepared for how awesome they would be. For several minutes, we are forced to watch as she flies around and does super things. This movie exists only to capitalize on our pre-existing familiarity with the “Superman” movies, yet the filmmakers thought we would enjoy lengthy sequences of power-discovery and flying, as if we’d never seen them before.
For some reason, Kara poses as a student at a boarding school, adopting the name Linda Lee. This is where she uses her costume-changing and hair-color-altering abilities. Like most extra-terrestrials in movies, Linda/Kara speaks perfect English and appears to understand how Earth society functions, yet she’s baffled by the act of shaking hands. And wouldn’t you know it, she is assigned to share a room with Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy), who is Lois Lane’s sister! And Lucy is dating Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), who actually appears in the film! And Linda and Lucy’s teacher is Nigel (Peter Cook), a warlock who is also Selena’s occasional romantic partner! In other words, the film’s plot is nothing more than an elaborate web of coincidences so outrageous and implausible it makes “Crash” look believable by comparison. (Just kidding. Nothing could make “Crash” look believable.)
Meanwhile, Selena has created a love potion and intends to use it on the beefy gardener, Ethan (Hart Bochner), who works at the boarding school. I swear to you, the movie gives no indication of how this will help Selena in her world-domination plans. She’s a cougar, that’s all, and she wants some hot lovin’ from someone more masculine than Brenda Vaccaro. Such a person being unavailable, she settles for Ethan. But the plan goes awry, and Ethan winds up falling in love not with Serena but with Linda Lee/Kara/Supergirl!
The potion that caused Ethan to fall in love with Linda Lee/Kara/Supergirl wears off after a while, whereupon the movie has the audacity to suggest that he is in love with her anyway, of his own volition, despite having spent no time with her. (On the other hand, perhaps spending no time with her is the best way to go about it.) Selena is still really peeved at everything, and she casts Supergirl into a two-dimensional prison called the Phantom Zone, which turns out to be three-dimensional. Supergirl’s fellow prisoner is Zaltar (remember him?), who is being punished for the way he screwed up Argo City. It is impossible to escape from the Phantom Zone, but Supergirl does it anyway, which is typical of her attitude.
“Supergirl” was directed by an old French dude named Jeannot Szwarc, who had previously made “Jaws 2” and “Somewhere in Time” and would later make the epic 1985 failure “Santa Claus: The Movie.” He went on to have a long career directing television shows, including a recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” where his deftness with unsympathetic characters and laughable plotlines surely came in handy. With “Supergirl,” he sought to make not a thrilling superhero adventure, but a lukewarm semi-comedy about witches and orbs. And at that he succeeded! Vive la France!