The Good: Basic quest plot is not terrible, The acting is surprisingly decent.
The Bad: Super cheesy special effects, Very limited story, Monolithic villain, Terrible messages for girls, Limited DVD bonus features.
The Basics: Underdeveloped and setting a poor example for girls, Supergirl does more to keep women in their place than empower them.
Every now and then, I try to go back to something I know I enjoyed as a child and review it as an adult. More often than not, that ends up being a horrible mistake. In the case of Supergirl, which I watched over six times this past weekend, it was a colossal waste of time and energy. Supergirl is, in almost every way, a terrible movie.
While some might hope that right away I would cite the cheesy 1980s special effects, I refuse; the problems with Supergirl go far, far deeper than just the effects. And, by the by, there are some pretty neat effects, like the giant creature at the film’s climax. The real problem with Supergirl is that anyone who is even remotely aware while watching the film will be able to tell that the writer, David Odell, and director Jeannot Szwarc have exceptionally little regard for women.
Supergirl is plagued by situations that are almost entirely resolved by men. Women in Supergirl are more peripheral characters, as opposed to actual fully-realized, clever, powerful individuals. While part of that makes some sense for the protagonist – Kara Zor-El/Linda Lee – who is a hero in the process of becoming, it makes no sense for the villain. Moreover, that Supergirl does not triumph using her own strength and ability at the film’s climax makes Supergirl a particularly lame story.
Kara Zor-El lives in Argo City, one of the remaining colonies of Krypton in inner space, where she has befriended the artist Zaltar. Zaltar, who is planning to leave Argo City, uses advanced technology to create art for his amusement and the benefit of the city. Zaltar is planning to leave the city, but his plan is thwarted when Kara uses the power source – the Omega Hedron – to create a giant insect that ruptures the city wall and causes the Omega Hedron to get lost. Feeling responsible, Kara hops into a transport bubble to journey to Earth in the attempt to recover the Omega Hedron.
On Earth, the Omega Hedron lands in the presence of the evil witch (literally) Selena. She quickly realizes that it is rich in magic power. When Kara arrives through a pond, she spends some time exploring Earth and her new powers – great strength, heat vision, the ability to fly and the ability to blow would-be rapists over with only her breath. She quickly turns into a brunette, enrolls in Midvale girl’s school as Linda Lee. Her roommate, Lucy Lane, helps her get acquainted. As Selena builds her power with her magic working in conjunction with the Omega Hedron, Linda works to balance her school life with helping people as Supergirl. Their fight focuses over a landscaper and magic that makes him infatuated with Linda, as opposed to Selena.
The girls in Supergirl are just that. Linda Lee and Lucy Lane are clearly teenagers, which makes Ethan’s attraction to both Linda Lee and Selena pretty unwholesome. But Supergirl feels like, in many ways, the pervy old man’s fantasy. The teenage girl protagonist runs around in a skin-tight, short outfit (that I can live with; I see worse walking down the streets today) and transforms into an unconvincing shy bookworm in a school uniform. There is a shower scene and when the school’s principal walks onto the dorm floor, there is a girl in her underwear doing (I kid not) jumping jacks. The girl’s flee in a parody of how young women – even in the 1980’s – act.
The real tragedy of Supergirl is not the special effects or even the rather obvious plot structure that follows the most predictable pattern possible for a hero story, it is the way every woman in the film relies upon a man for, well, pretty much anything. Kara Zor-El is mentored by Zaltar, who is a more active father-figure in the film than Kara’s own father (who is in the movie). She arrives on Earth where, after defeating two would-be rapists, she is at the mercy of a male principal. Ethan falls in love with her based on a spell, but she neither reciprocates nor forcibly resists his advances. When she is sent to the Phantom Zone, it is a man who helps her out and at the film’s climax, it is a man who disables Selena’s magic.
If the hero can be judged, in part, by the villainy of the villain, women are in trouble there, too, at least as far as Supergirl is concerned. Selena is a witch and she instantly recognizes the Omega Hedron as a source of great power. However, she is unable to use it properly without the help of Nigel, a man she spurned and, incidentally, one of Lucy and Linda’s teachers. Selena rejects Nigel, but is forced to accept his help to use the device to its fullest potential to unleash black magic and begin her reign of terror on Earth.
In fact, the only two things women do entirely on their own in Supergirl is defeat an enchanted runaway construction vehicle and trap Kara in the Phantom Zone. Way to empower women!
As for the acting, Supergirl is actually not bad. Helen Slater, who was a teenage girl when she was cast as Linda Lee/Kara Zor-El/Supergirl is appropriately young and plays both the naïveté and strength of the character well. Without words, Kara explores the new world around her and that sequence is astonishingly good acting for a young person. Slater even seems to have fun with the role when Kara explains her powers to Ethan.
From the established actors, the performances are equally good. Faye Dunaway is a perfectly credible villain as Selena. She is well-supported by Brenda Vaccaro as the wisecracking sidekick, Bianca. Poor Peter O’Toole! Peter O’Toole appears as Zaltar, one of the weakest characters of his career. O’Toole makes the best of the role (“There’s no way . . . there’s no way . . . here, let me show you the way!”), but it’s a pretty poor outing, though he lends his considerable charm to make Zaltar seem interesting, if not entirely well-written.
On DVD, Supergirl comes with its trailer, a trailer for all of the Superman movies, a trailer for Superman Returns, and a commentary track. The commentary track mentions all of the things that Supergirl wanted to do, without addressing the poor way it portrays women. Ultimately, it is a pretty big cinematic disappointment, despite the decent performances in it.
For other live-action DC superhero works, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight
Wonder Woman - Season 1
For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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