Thursday, December 8, 2016

Super Week, Addendum: Leave this place, and do no harm!


Now, what I said was, there was no such thing as a bad Superman movie—and it's a shame that it has to be phrased that misogynistically.  But here we are, and no matter how I phrase it, our return to Kryptonian cinema leads us to one of the most legendarily awful movies of the whole 1980s.

Directed by Jeannot Szwarcz
Written by David Odell
With Helen Slater (Kara Zor-El/Linda Lee), Mia Farrow (Alura Zor-El), Peter O'Toole (Zaltar), Maureen Teefy (Lucy Lane), Hart Bochner (Ethan), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Brenda Vicarro (Bianca), Peter Cook (Nigel), and Faye Dunaway (Selena)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Taken as a whole, the seven Superman movies are, if not exactly beloved, then at least accorded a certain fondness in our pop cultural memories.  I have gone on record as at least liking all of them, and I think that's true of most people—frankly, I suspect that even all those folks who outright despise BvS or Superman Returns or Quest For Peace still secretly get some kind of kick out of them, or at least they do if they have any abiding affection for Superman, the character himself.  Clearly, a "kick" isn't necessarily the best thing you could get from a movie.  All I really mean by it is that, in every last one of the seven Superman flicks, you are still able to recognize what you're looking at.  And so, even if you hate what you're looking at, you can still grind out some small quantity of pleasure from those films.  If by nothing else, then simply by cataloging their various sins.

But then comes the real black sheep, the movie that everybody goes to great pains to forget.  It is not often filed alongside the other seven (indeed, it is conspicuously missing from Warner's blu-ray box set), even though it's the fourth film in the series' original continuity.  This film, of course, is Supergirl.  And while there is but one, very subjective argument for keeping Kara Zor-El's sole silver screen adventure segregated from the seven headlined by her forerunner, it is nonetheless a pretty good one.  You see, Supergirl is outrageously and unforgivably terrible.

Yet history is history: Supergirl snuck into theaters the year after Superman III, its production masterminded by the indefatigable Ilya Salkind, the single most important creative force behind the Superman films before Zack Snyder came along to shake things up (for good and ill) in the 2010s.  In the end, Salkind chased his idiosyncratic vision to destruction.  Before Supergirl—even taking into account the middling success of Superman III—the Superman franchise was still very much a going concern.  After Supergirl, Ilya and his father, Alexander—who apparently woke up one day in 1985 and realized that his son's favorite toy had cost him tens of millions of dollars—sold the rights off to the Cannon Group.  And then Cannon made Superman IV, the failure of which sealed the franchise in a crypt for almost twenty full years.

(But you'll no doubt recall that, as far as I'm concerned, Superman IV is either the second-best or the best of the first four Superman movies.  However, I also recognize that this is a radical, fringe opinion.  So let's stick to the objective facts alone: Superman IV is, at 93 minutes, the shortest of all seven of the Superman movies.  Meanwhile, Supergirl—somehow—is 125 minutes long, or, to put that in perspective, four minutes longer than Star Wars.  Now, its original theatrical release was significantly more brief, and I can only imagine this was an absolute good as unimpeachable as Oskar Schindler's list.  Meanwhile, the extended home video cut adds something like twenty full minutes, and this cut is reportedly preferred its director, Jeannot Szwarcz.  However, since Szwarcz' single most accomplished film might actually be Jaws 2, the question, "What version of Supergirl does Jeannot Szwarcz prefer?", is perhaps best answered with a hearty, "Who in their right mind could possibly care?"  And there is no cut of Supergirl that would not be better were it shorter, even at five minutes long.)

Anyway: I have previously outlined Ilya Salkind's perverse passion for the Maid of Might.  One of the weirdest fixations in all fantastic cinema, it is not likely to make one predisposed toward Salkind's quest to see his favorite female comic book character realized on the cinema screen, even if Supergirl's toxic reputation hadn't already preceded it.  In brief, Salkind's original treatment for Superman III involved Supergirl, as well as Salkind's favorite villain, Brainiac; it also involved Brainiac trying to fuck Supergirl; and, at last, it involved Superman, who is traditionally defined in Supergirl's comic book adventures as Supergirl's older cousin, actually succeeding in doing so.


So, while Superman III itself headed off in other, less deviant (if perhaps equally strange) directions, Salkind remained steadfast in his dedication.  The upshot is a film that might have been better if it were as grotesque as his treatment for Superman III.  This, at least, might have had the appeal of a real psychosexual trainwreck.  Instead, while hardly devoid of its own strong whiff of genuine sleaze, Supergirl largely turned out to be a much more banal kind of bad.

Even so, it is—despite all available evidence—what you would call a "real movie."  Salkind put together this sideways continuation of the Metropolis Marvel's own big-screen adventures with fully $35 million—roughly equivalent to the budget for the actual Superman III.  For no tossed-off effort was Salkind's Supergirl!  Originally, Christopher Reeve himself would've even guest-starred in the thing.  And to this, Reeve said, "Are you high?  I'd rather go horseback riding."

In the end, the only hints of Supergirl's connection to the Superman franchise, beyond the obvious, are the occasional lazy reference to Superman (he's on a mission in outer space!), the unnecessary involvement of one Lucy Lane, Lois' sister, and the incredibly sad participation of actor Marc McClure, this franchise's Jimmy Olsen.  (And so does a subplot quietly unfold: Jimmy, our steadfast "cub reporter," who has been out of college and working at The Daily Planet for roughly seven or so years, spends almost every frame of his time in this picture attempting to spark a relationship with his co-worker's younger sister, a high school student whose performer's actual age—31—is perhaps the least apparent actual age of any movie teenager of the whole 1980s, leaving you nowhere to go but straight to Ephebophilia Town.)

But before diving into Supergirl's subplots—and Supergirl is basically all subplots, that sort-of tie together—a synopsis, however disorganized, is in order.

It actually does start off very well—because if there was one thing you could always rely upon in any Salkind-produced Superman film, it was its opening credits, and by God, is Supergirl no exception to that rule: the transluscent, glass-like titles fly up and glimmer inside a cosmic dimension made of blue and fuschia smoke, all while Jerry Goldsmith's John Williams Junior Supergirl theme roars great and epic thoughts into your ears.  You may silently wonder to yourself: "Wait, am going to like this movie?  I mean, I like Superman IV—I'm an easily-pleased idiot who loves virtually anything as long as it's Superman-related.  It's actually possible."

Then we arrive upon Argo City, which has survived the destruction of Krypton by being transported into "inner space," and Supergirl dutifully assures you that you will hardly enjoy a single second more.  (To Goldsmith's credit, however, his score remains exceptionally good—far better than this movie could ever deserve.)

So now we meet our heroine, Kara Zor-El, in the midst of sharing a brutally expository conversation with her mentor, the loopy artist Zaltar.  They talk about the Superman franchise and fake science while milling about their home, a large and clearly-expensive soundstage that still looks like complete shit.  Indeed, it shall soon belie the cheaper details of its construction, when Kara and Zaltar accidentally breach the cellophane that covers it, exposing poor Argo City to the sucking void outside.  In the process, Kara and Zaltar lose the Omegahedron, the energy source that has allowed Argo City's survival, and which Zaltar had been dicking around with, using it to power the matter-transmuting orange dildo he'd fecklessly given Kara to play with.  So, while Kara's parents berate the older gentleman, Kara sneaks off in a shuttle, planning to recover the Omegahedron on Earth, and thereby save her city from destruction—and hopefully long before the all-powerful maguffin can fall into the wrong hands.

Hey!  Guess what.

This introductory scene all but sums up the Supergirl experience: first, it's idiotic and arbitrary; second, it introduces a city-sized plot hole (why don't the Argonians just, you know, leave?); and, finally, it reveals what listening to these people for the next two hours is going to be like.  It takes Helen Slater, an actor of essentially no account prior to Supergirl (and of not much account afterward), and squares her off with no less a figure than Peter O'fucking'Toole—and it is quite impossible to say, with the script they're reading, whose performance is actually worse.

O'Toole is not the only great destroyed in the gears of Supergirl's rotten screenplay and outright-incoherent direction.  Indeed, one of the reasons those opening credits were so promising was who they promised.  Mia Farrow, as Kara's mother Alura, gets off comparatively easy—because Farrow literally has no role in the film beyond the five or so lines she reads during that Argo City prologue.  It's stunt casting so pointless and lazy that it must've made Brando himself jealous.

But wait!  We haven't even seen Faye Dunaway yet.  Ah, but we will, and very soon; and she is the worst, consumed entirely by her character's incredibly aggravating shtick.  (It's more or less what you'd get if you crossed Snow White's Wicked Queen with somebody doing a very non-specific impression of Madeleine Kahn.)

Dunaway, you know, is the villain of our piece, one Selena, a would-be witch who lives in the haunted house attraction of an abandoned amusement park.  (Truly, the production design of Supergirl can be very nearly encapsulated in the phrase "repurposed garbage.")  Selena, we learn, is tired of taking her cues from her haughty quasi-boyfriend Nigel, a slightly-better-read warlock—and also the computer teacher at the local girl's academy.  ("What?" you ask.  Wait for it...)  Wouldn't you know, today is the day that Selena finally comes into her own, when the Omegahedron falls out of the clear blue sky.

Kara arrives shortly thereafter, splashing down in a nearby lake—and emerging, just like that, in full Supergirl regalia.  (In case it hasn't dawned on you yet, this movie is just breathtakingly condescending.)  Our yellow sun fills our Kryptonian heroine with newfound power, and what results is the clear-cut best scene of the film, an awkward (and awkwardly wire-worked) ballet of Kara learning to fly and control her heat vision and such.  It is the only scene in the whole film that leaves you with anything close to the warm, kindhearted feelings that the Christopher Reeve movies seemed so well-calculated to evoke, despite all their many flaws.

Well, you would imagine that Supergirl, now possessed of godlike strength and speed, not to mention super-hearing and telescopic vision, would find the Omegahedron toot-sweet; in fact, she barely tries.  While Kara apparently does spend a few hours each day patrolling the general area (leading into the film's most famous scene, wherein she winds up the victim of a doomed rape attempt, played as a gag and perpetrated by Max Headroom in a Donald Trump hat), she gets sidetracked early, when she runs across the worst-pitched softball game I've ever seen in my life, being played by some local high school girls.  Intrigued, for reasons never so much as hinted at by the script, Kara dons civilian attire and forges her way into a spot at the girls' school—where our secondary villain just-so-happens to teach, and Lois Lane's little sister just-so happens to live.  Not that either of these facts really wind up mattering.  Instead, it's simply how Supergirl winds up about 33% deleted scenes from a risible Carrie knock-off—shower scene and everything!—even when it's supposed to be about saving the last remnants of the Kryptonian race from their imminent extinction.

Well, eventually, Kara gets around to dueling Selena, but not till the latter has developed a personal reason to attack her.  That's when the love potion Selena doses a local semi-handsome handyman with backfires, and he falls helplessly, annoyingly in love with this "Linda Lee" girl, rather than the middle-aged sorceress.  And, yes, I swear: that really is the plot.

Watching Supergirl is like watching all the terrible parts of the first three Superman movies at once without any of the good ones to compensate.  It is zany-as-fuck "comedy" from start to finish, and (needless to say) it's almost never actually funny.  On the very rare occasion it is, you're only laughing at it—like when Kara's human paramour gets beaned with a magical coconut that came from the sky.  Yes, this little nugget might make it sound like a so-bad-it's-good masterpiece.  I assure you: it is not.  It is a painful film, and mostly a very boring one.

But it might be even worse as an adaptation.  Supergirl clearly takes it cues from the 1960s, like all of Salkind's movies; but if every one of Salkind's Supermans negotiate the gulf between the Silver Age of Comics and the 1980s somewhat haphazardly, Supergirl just straight-up falls in.  It seizes upon several seemingly-random elements of Kara's four-color universe (like her alter ego, Linda Lee), without even trying to justify why they're there.  Simultaneously, it removes all of the key elements (like her "secret weapon" relationship with her cousin, not to mention her status as the sole survivor of Argo City) that make Supergirl's mythos even modestly sensible.  Certainly, the respect Superman demonstrated for Kal-El's own origin is nowhere to be found here.

So even as lacking as Lex Luthor always was in the early Superman films, Supergirl pits its heroine against a villain more unworthy by at least an order of magnitude.  And even beyond the abiding goofiness of Selena and her coterie, the single most maddening thing about Supergirl's villain has got to be the way the screenplay keeps conflating advanced Kryptonian technology with bona fide supernatural magic—so naturally, Selena only ever uses the Omegahedron like it was a Goddamned magic lamp.

Supergirl's often-interrupted quest therefore winds up the lumpiest accumulation of hateful nothing—a far cry from the comic book Kara's often-stupid but always-focused 8-page adventures.  Only in the very climax, when Selena fully unlocks the power of the Omegahedron (and, apparently, Satan), and magicks up a mile-high castle in the middle of downtown Midvale, Illinois, does anything even close to the genuinely epic accrue to Supergirl.  Of course, even this climax is totally ribboned through with Supergirl's endless clowning, not to mention a few more gaping plot holes.  Supergirl acts as if Kara was simply unworthy of taking part in the monumental action her cousin got up to every other year; a mid-film sequence with a backhoe almost leaves her stymied (it takes her, literally, at least three full minutes to even get into costume), and her battle with a knock-off of the invisible Id Monster from Forbidden Planet appears to exist mainly to show off the special effects that Salkind couldn't afford, even with 35 million bucks at his disposal.  And, frankly, there is no reason whatsoever to get into the appalling "romance" that proceeds from Selena's botched man-snaring subplot; let us simply say it sucks something awful.

So this is the one final thing a fellow has to contend with: a vague feeling of guilt, when he realizes that Supergirl was the only major female-led superhero film for years and years.  (Whereas the next was freaking Catwoman.  There wouldn't be a good one, as far as I can tell, until Kick-Ass, and that's only if you squint and make an effort to pretend that Hit-Girl is the lead.)  Either way, it seems we weren't ready for a Girl of Tomorrow in 1985.  The film's blatant misogynistic streak makes that depressingly clear enough; but you'd think that somebody involved still would've been interested in making the thing good, at least on its own reduced terms.  But even if that wasn't possible, surely there was no reason it had to be this much worse than Superman II or III, both of which are compromised in very similar ways—just not nearly so fatally.

And thus we have the real root of Supergirl's enormous failure.  Nobody cared about Supergirl, not even Ilya Salkind, beyond mashing up a whole bunch of contradictory ideas into a girl-shaped package.  And so we have what we have: one of the most astonishing wastes you'll ever behold.

Score:  1/10

Other reviews in this series:
Superman III
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice


  1. Man oh man, I had no idea this movie existed. I needs seek it out immediately.