Supergirl” (1984) starts in cheesy fashion on a Kryptonian outpost, with Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater) impulsively deciding to chase a doodad that she has carelessly dropped into a timewarp (or something along these lines) all the way to Earth. Without pausing to shed a tear for the family and friends she leaves behind, she’s Supergirl – she can change costumes and hair colors with her mind, which technically makes her more powerful than Superman. And this seems like a really dumb movie out of the gates.
But as Kara adjusts to Earth, director Jeannot Szwarc’s (“Jaws 2,” “Somewhere in Time,” and tons of TV) film almost finds a groove. It doesn’t turn out to be great by any means, but after that atrocious start, the fact that it’s watchable and sometimes fun is an outright relief.
Based on Superman’s cousin who joined the DC family in 1959, “Supergirl” is written by David Odell, who also wrote “The Dark Crystal” and “Masters of the Universe.” He likewise loads this one up with spells and sorcery via the villain, Faye Dunaway’s Selena. She becomes a more powerful sorceress – her comic-relief/audience surrogate sidekick, Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) is amazed – by constantly working at it. It’s similar to how Lex Luthor perpetually tries out new schemes to defeat Superman in the 1978-87 movies.
“Supergirl” slows down too much whenever it cuts to Selena, who often attacks Supergirl with magic from afar, via her looking-glass mirror. It picks up whenever we’re with Supergirl, who invents the alias Linda Lee and enrolls at Midvale (Illinois) High School, having seen how much fun the students are having playing softball.
Slater is cute and appealing, and she looks so different with dark hair and a school uniform that one could almost forgive love interest Ethan (Hart Bochner) – initially smitten with Linda thanks to Selena’s love potion – for not realizing Kara and Linda are the same person. To Ethan’s credit — and making Lois Lane seem rather dim in comparison — he actually is not tricked by the alias.
“Supergirl” remains cheesy throughout, and the hijinks are middling, like when Linda reverses the hot water pipes on her inexplicable gym-class bullies. The big practical effects set piece is an out-of-control backhoe that Linda’s friend Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy) tries to commandeer, only to bump her head and lose control again. This sequence goes on way too long before Supergirl naturally saves the day.
At two hours, the whole film is too long, but saving graces are peppered throughout. Namely, Slater has good chemistry with everyone. The tomboy Lucy is Linda’s kind roommate, Ethan is the sweet guy she’s crushing on, and Jimmy Olsen is on hand as a possible love interest for Lucy, coming over from the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies. Lucy is the sister of Lois, furthering the “Superman” connection.
A newscast informs us that Superman is busy off-planet, which allows this movie to happen without Kara meeting up with her cousin. Odell does a good job of tying “Supergirl” in with the wider saga while letting Kara find confidence on her own.
For every tonally bizarre sequence – like when two truckers stop because they see Kara in the street and immediately decide to take a crack at raping her – there’s another moment where “Supergirl” flirts with being cool – or at least less cheesy. For example, Kara ends up in the Phantom Zone, that place from “Superman” we never figured we’d see. The production design is suitably bleak – Kara escapes rocky terrain only to sink into sludge — and appealingly Eighties with its swirling tornados of color.
The slow pace unfortunately keeps “Supergirl” stuck in the Phantom Zone muck, so you won’t want to watch it more than once. But I can recommend one viewing to those curious about Supergirl’s screen debut. The cast is good, the special effects of Supergirl flying have aged well, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score keeps things upbeat.
At the end of the adventure, Supergirl can legitimately stand side by side with Superman, not merely as a girl version of him. I don’t mind Superman being absent from this movie, but it’s a shame Slater and Reeve couldn’t team up for at least one cinematic outing.