The Superman series (of which this is a spin-off) offered flying effects of diminishing order of credibility with each sequel. By the time this distaff version (which came between Superman III and Superman IV) arrived, it was pretty blatantly obvious that we were seeing Helen Slater held aloft and pretending to soar in front of backdrops to be matted-in later. Supergirl is a mess whichever version you see — the 114-minute cut originally screened in America, or the 138-minute “International Version.” Making her film debut, Slater actually does make an appealing Supergirl, and it’s a shame she didn’t get a better movie to introduce herself to the mass audience. The next year, she starred in The Legend of Billie Jean, another nothing-special movie wherein she was endearing despite the material. I sat through all 138 minutes of the “International Version”; it’s not appreciably better than the 114-minute version you may have dozed through on previous VHS releases, though on DVD, to employ an overused DVD-reviewer’s phrase, it’s Never Looked Better.
Kara (aka Supergirl), Superman’s cousin, accidentally loses the all-important Omegahedron that keeps her home city of Argo alive. The Omegahedron makes its way to Earth, followed inadvertently by Kara, who upon landing on Earth mysteriously emerges from a lake with (A) her Supergirl costume on and (B) her hair completely dry. The Omegahedron falls into the hands of campy witch Selena (Faye Dunaway), who plots World Domination. If you thought Superman was the only survivor of Krypton, you would be wrong: turns out Argo City was saved and isolated in space by good-guy scientist Zaltar (Peter O’Toole). Peter frickin’ O’Toole?? Why is he in this? Same reason Faye Dunaway, Peter Cook, and Mia Farrow are in it: the money. And what does Selena do with the Omegahedron upon receiving it? Completely dorky things like starting a car, making a bimbo spin upside down at a party, and, oh, trying to get hunky landscaper Hart Bochner to fall in love with her. He does not; as luck would have it, he becomes smitten with Supergirl (in her civilian guise of “Linda Lee”), much to Selena’s dismay. Entirely too much of our time is occupied by the ensuing rivalry.
So basically Supergirl boils down to a sexist catfight between two fairly powerful women for the affections of a fashionably unshaven landscaper. Yes, Selena does wield the powerful Omegahedron, which Supergirl wants back; but a depressing amount of the film’s midsection is, in essence, a catfight. (In a mildly amusing reversal of the Superman/Clark Kent/Lois Lane dynamic, Bochner falls for Supergirl’s plain-Jane human identity first, and pays Supergirl little mind until he figures out that “Linda” and Supergirl are one and the same.) It’s worth noting that Superman and Lex Luthor did not come to loggerheads over the affections of Lois Lane (not in the films, anyway). It’s pretty clear the movie was never meant to be taken seriously. But even on its own campy terms, it moves like a tortoise and has no particular rhythm or sense of spectacle. If you enjoy it at all, it’s likely because of Slater’s performance, so full of winning eagerness and innocence that she deserves better material. It’s because of her that I’m giving this thing the time of day. But the movie isn’t quite campy enough to be a so-bad-it’s-good Saturday-night cult favorite. When conscious campiness fails, it just folds up into lameness.
I like ass-kicking women, and part of the disappointment with Supergirl is that — pretty much like her cousin — S-girl has a hands-off approach to evildoers: she’ll use her heat vision on their weapons, or knock them over with her super-breath (she uses said technique on loutish trucker Matt Frewer, two years away from his Max Headroom 15 minutes). For her maiden adventure, Supergirl needed a villain she could really unload on, physically (the closest she gets is a largely invisible demon). What she got was an Oscar-winning actress sniffing a paycheck, and Brenda Vaccaro. She plays Selena’s live-in flunky Bianca. She is meant to be to Faye Dunaway as Ned Beatty was to Gene Hackman. And Vaccaro actually makes her scenes worth watching — she has warmth and humor, and doesn’t seem overly impressed by the fact that she’s in an expensive superhero movie. Adding to the fun is the movie’s apparent terror that we’ll infer a lesbian relationship between Selena and Bianca, so the script has them both drooling over Hart Bochner. Yeah, yeah, and Batman and Robin were hetero.