Warner Archive Blu-Ray Review: Jeannot Szwarc’s ‘Supergirl’

Supergirl (1984) has long been a forgotten part of the DC movie universe, but three years after the Girl of Steel returned on the small screen, Warner Archive has finally given the cult, campy classic a Blu-ray release. By no means a perfect film, Supergirl is still a surprising marvel of visual effects, and will surely surprise any new viewers who have only heard bad things about it for decades without actually seeing it. Supergirl is one movie that does not deserve the bashing it gets.

supergirl flying

Like the Salkind’s other Superman movies, the script by David Odell (a Jim Henson vet who won an Emmy for The Muppet Show) plays fast and loose with Supergirl’s complicated and convoluted history. The film begins on Argo City, which somehow survived the destruction of Krypton and is powered by a little ball called the Omegahedron, created by the wizard Zaltar (Peter O’Toole). One day, Zaltar takes the Omegahedron out to show Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater).

While the adults aren’t looking, Kara plays with Zaltar’s magic and loses the Omegahedron. She decides to take it upon herself to chase the ball to Earth and becomes Supergirl by the time she arrives.

On Earth, the witch Selena (Faye Dunaway), her bumbling sidekick Bianca (Brenda Vaccar) and the warlock Nigel (Peter Cook) discover the Omegahedron. Power-hungry and completely unaware of the object’s power, Selena uses it on her quest to become a supreme witch, despite Nigel’s constant warnings. It’s up to Supergirl to get the Omegahedron back and stop Selena from taking over the world.

Supergirl has its share of problems, starting off with Helen Slater’s cold, detached and clearly uncomfortable performance for much of the movie. She does get better as it progresses, but it is clear director Jeannot Szwarc was not prepared to get a good performance out of the first-timer. Where Christopher Reeve was dripping with charm and charisma, the script does not give Slater a chance to show any of these traits. Slater’s best scenes are the ones where she is allowed to be a real girl as Linda Lee. Once she’s in the Supergirl costume, it feels like she’s never having any fun. Supergirl is a supposed to be a teenager, yet Szwarc forget to tell that to Slater.

While Slater is having no fun, Dunaway is. If you thought Dunaway was just going to phone this in for a quick buck, you’re wrong. She clearly relished the chance to play such a campy, over-the-top character like Selena, performed in the vein of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Unfortunately, unlike Lex, Selena is an underwritten character who never seems to be as threatening to Supergirl as she could be. In Superman lore, we know magic is one of Superman’s weaknesses, but that is not an element at play here.

The film also has its fair share of plot holes. Films can be ambiguous – speculating on the meanings of endings is part of the film-watching game – but Supergirl has real, nagging holes. We never know how Selena knows the Phantom Zone exists. You can buy the idea that maybe she stumbled upon it while playing with the Omegahedron, but she even refers to it as the Phantom Zone. Then, there’s this bizarre idea that Supergirl comes out of the water, then goes back in to return to Argo City. So, is Argo City Atlantis? Is there some sort of portal to this “inner space” Zaltar talks about at the beginning?

Every aspect of Supergirl has its pluses and minuses. The flying effects show just how far the team who worked on Superman: The Movie had come since 1978, especially in the “flying ballet” sequence and it’s easily the best part of the movie. But other effects were already dated by 1984 standards, and the production design for Argo City is just god-awful. Jerry Goldsmith also provides the film with its stirring theme, but he uses the specific cue so many times to the point of making it annoying. Selena’s bizarre winged gargoyle monster thing looks cool but is so rarely used, and we end up with Supergirl actually spending 10 minutes fighting possessed construction equipment.

The end result is a film completely devoid of the charms of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie or even Superman II (both Donner and Richard Lester’s versions). But if you embrace Supergirl’s glaring problems, the movie is at least fun for all its nonsense.

The Blu-Ray

supergirl selena

Supergirl has a rough history. Since it was not wholly owned by Warner Bros. until 2006, it was previously released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 2000 as a two-disc set with the international and director’s cuts. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray has the 125-minute international cut in high-definition and the 138-minute director’s cut on the included DVD. According to Warner Bros., they do not have access to the original film elements for the director’s cut, so they carried over the standard def version from the Anchor Bay release.

That’s a disappointment for sure, but the international cut looks stunning and up to Warner Archive’s usual high standards. It really does look wonderful from start to finish, even if it does highlight some of the technical limitations of 1984 effects.

The bonus material includes:

  1. Commentary by Director Jeannot Szwarc and Special Project Consultant Scott Michael Bosco – This is the commentary Anchor Bay recorded for its two-disc edition, featuring Szwarc and that now-defunct label’s Scott Michael Bosco interviewing him to guide through the film. It’s an interesting commentary, since Szwarc clearly loved making the film. He talks about how he ended up with the job, even though he had never directed anything like this before. They also discuss how Christopher Reeve ended up not appearing in the film (only Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen is carried over from the Superman movies) and how Slater won the role.
  2. The Making of Supergirl – This is an hour-long documentary from 1984, so it is clearly more promotional in nature.
  3. Trailer
  4. The Director’s Cut – Like all of the Salkind’s Superman films, Supergirl exists in different cuts. When the film was finally released in the U.S., they cut it down to just 105 minutes and that version has long been discarded. The international cut is now considered the “main” version of the film, but the director’s cut also exists to provide a look at some longer versions of scenes and alternate cues of Goldsmith’s score.

Supergirl was a flop when it came out, and it would be more than two decades before another female DC character would get her own movie. The Salkinds must have seriously thought they were making another prestige project by getting Peter O’Toole, Peter Cook and Faye Dunaway involved, but they cheaped out on other aspects, especially when it came to the script and production design.

Some of the effects are terrible, particularly in the finale, but others are wonderful. Supergirl gives us one of the best scenes of the ’70s-’80s Superman franchise, when Helen Slater gleefully flies for the first time on Earth. The floating, twirling and somersaulting might not seem as big as the “super feats” in Superman: The Movie, but it is a quiet character moment to appreciate in a bombastic movie. Szwarc did his best with the material he had and succeeded in at least making a movie that’s better than Superman III or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Thanks for Warner Archive for this disc to review! All screenshots come from the director’s cut DVD.

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