Supergirl is a disjointed, nonsensical, and misguided mess partially redeemed by an earnest lead actress in the form of Helen Slater, whose magical moments of flight accompanied by a sweeping score by the late Jerry Goldsmith were more than enough to make me a genuine fan (especially as an 18-year old kid whose devotion to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies knew no bounds). If you feel the same way I did and do, then this Blu-ray, which looks and sounds better than all previous home video releases, is strongly recommended. The rest of you can give it a polite pass. For Fans Only.
Supergirl begins with a rousing main title theme and stylized opening credits flying towards the viewer, recalling the first Superman movie. It's all downhill from here. Suddenly, somewhere, in what appears to be deep outer space, an ivory structure appears, grounded on a floating island, and covered by a protective sheet like cellophane wrap on a cake. This place turns out to be Argo City, populated by people in hippie garb and living together like some religious commune in a psychedelic playground. The movie introduces us to a wide-eyed, winsome blonde named Kara, who is having intellectual conversations with the wise and eccentric Zaltar (Peter O'Toole). They, along with the other Argo City residents, are survivors of the planet Krypton. How this community managed to survive Krypton's explosion is never explained. Why Argo City doesn't resemble the John Barry-designed Krypton architecture seen in the Superman movies remains a mystery. The closest we come to any background at all is when Zaltar mentions that Earth ("where my cousin went!?" points out Kara) is in outer space, while they are in inner space. The physical differences between "outer" and "inner" is left unresolved.
The citizens of Argo City are apparently able to survive thanks to a power source called the Omegahedron, a spinning globe which Zaltar has "borrowed" for his own creative amusement. He employs a wand powered by the globe to create solid objects, including a bracelet for Kara which becomes a tracking device for the Omegahedron. Kara's mom Alura (played by Mia Farrow) is introduced, and has a talk with Zaltar, while the young blonde uses the wand to create a mechanical butterfly which is brought to life by the Omegahedron (kicked over to her by Zaltar for some reason). The butterfly buzzes around, then makes a bee-line towards the outside, breaching the protective sheet like a baseball through a screen door.
Both the Omegahedron and Kara are flung towards the hole as if the entire city was being depressurized, even though no one else seems to be affected by the vacuum. The globe rockets out through inner-space (finding its way to Earth coincidentally enough), but Kara manages to hold on to dear life. Somehow, she is pulled away from the draft, and Zaltar basically seals it shut using his wand like a soldering iron. Kara's father Zor-El (brother to Jor-El and played by Simon Ward) makes an appearance, and roundly scolds Zaltar for endangering their city ("Our lights will grow dim and the very air we breathe so thin" exclaims Alura). Meanwhile, Kara climbs aboard the "traveler" (basically a rocket shaped like a globe) in order to chase the power ball, as if it were some unruly puppy running into traffic. How Argo City managed to survive in inner-space when their protective covering can be so easily pierced is never addressed. Why no one in Argo City has any superpowers is likewise never explained. (At the end of the movie, Kara is able to fly back to her home in inner space without any problems).
The Omegahedron lands in the town of Midvale (apparently near Chicago, which is featured prominently during the flying scenes) and is taken by Selina (Faye Dunaway) who uses it to exploit her powers as a witch of some sort. Accompanying our villainess is her sidekick Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) whose primary role is to tell bad jokes, and make vacuous observations ("I think I recognize the costume"), and Nigel (Petter Cook) a high school teacher who is there to flirt and mock Selina for no apparent purpose. Kara finally reaches Earth, emerges from a lake in full costume and makes her debut.
After that interlude, it's back to the main plot, which devolves into an even bigger mess. Selina falls in love with a hunky gardener named (Hart Bochner) and uses her powers to attract him. In the meantime, Kara enrolls into an all-girl's school, passing herself off as an orphan and cousin to Clark Kent. (It is explained earlier that Superman is off into space on some peace-preserving mission, presumably one that entails ridding Earth of all its nuclear weapons.) Calling herself Linda Lee, Kara becomes the roommate of Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy) who happens to be the younger sister of Lois Lane (I always thought that Lois's sister was someone who had "three kids, two cats and one mortgage"). It also turns out that Lucy's boyfriend is Jimmy Olsen, and he is due for a visit to Midvale which would allow him to meet Clark's cousin and thus establish a connection to the Superman Universe.
Selena lures Ethan to her lair, and seduces him with a potion which will make him fall in love with the first person he sees once he awakens from a drugged-induce state. (Imagine the uproar if the the female/male roles were reversed in this day and age.) Instead, he ends up stumbling into town, and all hell breaks loose when Selena commands a tractor to literally scoop him up. Lucy becomes injured when trying to take control of the runaway vehicle, prompting Supergirl to make her public debut. After saving Midvale from a minor disaster, Supergirl turns back to Linda Lee and Ethan ends up falling in love with her, causing Selina to go nuts. The rest of the movie focuses on Selena trying to strike back at Linda (who for some reason is dubbed "the wimp" just because she's out of costume). Incidentally, the whereabouts of the Omegahedron take a backseat to this love triangle (actually a "love quadrilateral" when you consider Supergirl's involvement), but I guess that's Argo City's problem. After a few minor squables, Selena manages to banish Supergirl to the Phantom Zone, leaving Selena free to rule the world and to keep the young gardener all to herself. As it turns out, the Phantom Zone isn't just a piece of glass, but rather a transport to another dimension which looks likes some desolate planet. (Never mind that this contradicts what was originally portrayed in the first two Superman films, and never mind that there are visual continuity errors galore when we see Kara being carried off in the two-dimensional plane.) Fortunately, Supergirl finds a familiar face in the Phantom Zone, and the two work together to escape the prison so that Maid of Might may save the day.
Make no mistake about it: Supergirl is a borderline incompetent movie, fully deserving of its status as a box office bomb and a critical disaster. However I cannot muster the kind of revulsion most people have for the film (I am far more aghast at disasters like Batman and Robin, the last Fantastic Four, and some parts of Justice League). My fascination with Supergirl traces back to its development in 1983 by producer Ilya Salkind, who was responsible for bringing the Man of Steel to the silver screen five years earlier. Supergirl was released not too long after the second (and presumed final) Superman sequel co-starring Richard Pryor, which proved to be such a disappointment that I was anxious for another Salkind production to get the bad taste out of my mouth.
The movie also happened to make its US debut at my place of employment (and the best job I ever had, second of course to writing for www.highdefdigest.com), namely a once popular, but now non-existent mall-based movie theatre in San Jose, California. With few exceptions, our six screen offerings were basically second-run films and second-rate releases like Weird Science, Blame It On Rio, Cannon productions, and so forth. Supergirl's premiere at "my" lowly movie theatre should have been a big hint as to its quality and the studio's faith in the final product, but back then, we didn't have the internet to give us minute-by-minute updates on its current word-of-mouth. It was a bad omen when Tri-Star picked it up after Warner Bros dropped it, and it was an even worse omen that the original one-sheet featured a mistakenly reversed image of the Statute of Liberty (or maybe it was rebuilt incorrectly after the events of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut). I later learned that Supergirl had opened months earlier in Japan, with fair-to-middling results, and had already been pirated on VHS and laserdisc in the US. Still, it sold out on two-screens on opening day, which was enough to convince me that it would be a smash hit and a welcome addition to the Superman lore. That same weekend, I stayed after work to see it for myself. Before it was over, my brain deflated and my heart sank.
There are so many obvious technical and creative faults with the picture that to enumerate them all would be an exhausting and depressing endeavor. The most glaring problem is the story, which cannot sustain interest in the viewer due to needless distractions and subplots which are neither dramatic nor funny. It is hard to believe that this was the best script writer David Odell (The Dark Crystal) could muster. However, Director Jeannot Szwarc must take the majority of the blame in delivering a final product that limps awkwardly whenever the main character is not flying literally. There is a distinct lack of energy and urgency throughout the film, and whatever excitement is generated is greatly due to Jerry Goldsmith's music. His heartfelt main title and love theme are undisputed highlights, and it is a shame that his work is wasted on such poor cinematic results.
Along with the score, the other saving grace of the movie is its featured starlet, Helen Slater, an unknown young actress whose obvious appeal was not lost on teens such as myself. Her innocence, sense of wonder, and ability to slip into that familiar costume convincingly were an irresistible combination (remember, this was before Catwoman, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, and Storm would make it to the big screen). Even though there was a degree of sexism in the treatment of her character (gals fighting for the affection of a single guy; misplaced bras, cuddly bunny rabbits, pierced ears "which makes all the guys go crazy" (?!?), and girl's softball rivalry all distracting Supergirl from her mission; and even more bizarre, Supergirl letting two would-be rapists get off easy even after they make their intentions clear), and occasional moments where her earnestness and innocence goes a little too far (the Argo City scenes in particular), Miss Slater maintains her dignity despite the screenplay and direction. Like Reeve, she approaches the larger-than-life role with a down-to-earth manner which prevents the character from falling into an abyss of ridicule.
However, the same cannot be said for Faye Dunaway and Brenda Vacarro as the campy villainesses, who are as uninteresting and as uncharismatic as a B-movie can get. Faye simply cannot stop overacting for the cameras, and Brenda is flat as her comedic sidekick. Peter O'Toole as Zaltar hams it up a bit when he's at his most enthusiastic, but his behavior is otherwise in line with the Kryptonian elders scene in the Superman movies. Maureen O' Teefy is good as Kara's friend and roommate, but Marc McClure is not given enough to do as Jimmy Olsen. Speaking of the Man of Steel, a simple yet memorable "cameo" takes place when Kara discovers a Superman poster in Lucy's room, "Do you know him?" she asks. "Superman? Sure! My sister's got something going with the big guy." Goldsmith captures the moment nicely by juxtaposing the Superman main theme with Supergirl's using a combination of subdued horns and gentle strings. It's a sweet moment in a movie desperately in need of charm.
In addition to its lack of emotion, the movie further suffers from too many scenes which clearly don't make sense or are logistical failures. Towards the climax, Supergirl is seemingly trapped by hellfire bursting out from under tile floors, forcing her to a crawl around for a while. Why doesn't she simply fly away? Supergirl flies through a water tower, causing a flood to flow through the entry side of the hole, but not through the exit. Chain-suspended cages imprisoning Jimmy, Lucy, and Nigel come tumbling down the floor, where obvious dummies bounce around before the cutaway. Kara doesnt know what a tree is, but she knows how to use a typewriter. The high-definition picture also reveals some of the wires suspending Helen Slater during several flying scenes, which break the otherwise well-executed illusion. Finally, two main actions scenes lose all their tension thanks to poor imagination and technical incompetence. An invisible storm monster goes head to head with Supergirl, and she gets knocked around like some over-zealous mime. She finally defeats him by brandishing an electrified pole, and we barely get to see what the creature looks like. The whole scene is a cheat, and a lifeless one at that. (Exactly where did the budget go in this film?) A similar monster reappears for the finale, taking Supergirl in its grips, and twisting and turning her body like a rag doll. However, the whole torture scene looks unforgivably amateurish and baffling in the visual distortion. (Is her body really being distended like some funhouse mirror?) For those who care not about comic book heroes nor their movies, Supergirl is a deserving target for groans, snickers, and mockery. For those who had higher hopes, Supergirl is simply a downer.
Interestingly, the original U.S. cut of Supergirl has never been released on the digital format, but is unlikely to be missed at all. The International Version (1:24:32) and the Director's Cut (1:38:36) are a bit longer and provide additional exposition, but do no tell a more coherent story or provide more rousing action. Most of the additional footage comprises of extended moments or additional dialogue of otherwise inconsequential scenes which should have remained on the cutting room floor. For example, when Ethan first meets Linda, he recites a poem which is meant to be cute, but just comes off as flat and embarrassing. Verbal exchanges and personal interaction among Selena, Bianca and Nigel only emphasize that none of these characters are worth the screen time (in general, these three have even less wit and chemistry than the quartet of antagonists found in Superman III). If there was any hope that such restored footage would have made for a better film, then the Director's Cut proves that less is more. Fortunately for the most detail-oriented among us, there are many websites which provide comparisons among all the video releases on a second-by-second and frame-by-frame basis. However, first-time viewers will probably have the better experience enjoying the high definition presentation with surround sound with the International Version.
To me, the best thing about these longer versions is the completion of a sequence truncated by the US theatrical cut, and described on the original movie soundtrack as "Arrival on Earth/Flying Ballet." Here, Kara lands on Earth for the first time, and takes a few minutes to take in her surroundings and explore her powers. Composer Goldsmith orchestrates a nuanced, yet panoramic musical suite as Supergirl flies through a lake and stumbles on the shore. She crushes a rock into dust, uses heat vision to make a flower blossom, and floats in the air. She then takes a graceful and majestic flight for several minutes amidst clouds, mountains and waterfalls, before landing back on shore to watch the sunset. In its theatrically edited form, it was an effective introduction to Supergirl in full costume. But the longer version is a more touching presentation of the film's one true magical moment. It's really a shame that the remainder of the movie could not rise up (pun intended) to the level of this five-minute segment, which would have easily turned Supergirl into something worth watching.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Almost 35 years after its original theatrical release, and more than 10 years after its last DVD presentation, Supergirl is finally given the gift of high definition flight on this simply packaged Blu-ray release. The BD50 disc contains the International Version of the movie, while an accompanying single DVD holds the Director's Cut. There is no booklet or any other printed material.
The box cover art features Helen Slater in full costume against the familiar big red "S" with a newly designed title logo on top. The back of the cover features a summary of the movie, a critical blurb apparently praising the film (taken out of context?), and a description of the discs' contents.
The Blu-ray disc carrying the International Version is encoded in 1080/AVC MPEG-4, and letterboxed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Watching this disc isn't an eye-popping, visual revelation, but the improvements are definitely noticeable. When I first saw the International Version on DVD (as released by Anchor Bay in 2002), I felt that the picture looked a little "off." It appeared too tightly cropped on the sides and bottom as compared to the Director's Cut DVD and when referencing my full-screen laserdisc. With this Blu-ray, it appears that all the "zooming in" has been corrected as the movie looks less cramped than its original digital release, and even better than the Director's Cut. Limbs are no longer cut off awkwardly and objects appear more properly centered. (Please note that I do not own nor have I ever seen the 2006 DVD release from Warner Bros.)
As a result of the new Blu-ray transfer, we can see more of Supergirl in flight without the noticeable congestion and the visual composition is less distracting. The brighter and more vibrant colors especially during the special effects scenes, which deserve more a more detailed picture. The Director's Cut looks brighter, but the International Version looks more natural.
Above: International Version Blu-ray
Below: Director's Cut DVD
Even more interesting is the fact that some scenes look like they sourced from an alternate take, or else altered in the Director's Cut. This is obvious in the shot where Zaltar repairs Argo City's breach: the color timing and framing look completely different, not to mention the absence of certain special effects such as the outside lighting in the background.
Above: International Version Blu-ray
Below: Director's Cut DVD
When it comes to the Blu-ray, the overall picture quality often varies from scene to scene. The visuals suffer most during flying scenes where chroma keyed background footage is used. Once in awhile, grain suddenly appears like a sandstorm, and the colors shift sometimes randomly. On the other hand, literal down-to-earth moments appear solid, well-detailed and display any overt faults. The high definition remaster is a true improvement over what has been previously released to home video. This isn't reference-quality material, but it is the best Supergirl has ever looked.
Back in the mid-1980s, the Dolby Pro-Logic version of Supergirl was actually quite a home theatre show-stopper, especially coming from the Japanese-imported laserdisc. In 2002, the film was released on DVD and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack sounded even better, with clearer stereo and surround separation and increased dynamics.
Presently, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track may be a sonic improvement over any previous home video version, but it also shows the age and limitations of the original source. While channel separation is well defined, the music score is more compressed than I had originally noticed, and low bass is heard infrequently. Rear channel activity is often present, but likewise reserved and often limited to a monophonic signal, even during busier scenes with crowds and ongoing commotion during the action scenes. However, I appreciate what has been done to this dated soundtrack, and can confirm that I've haven't heard Supergirl sound this dynamic and detailed in years.
The audio commentary is well-recorded and nicely accompanies the main soundtrack, which is presented in stereo and fluctuates in volume as necessary to accompany the voiceovers.
This Blu-ray carriers over the same supplements found in Warner Bros 2006 DVD, including a commentary provided by Director Jeannot Szwarc and Special Project Consultant Scott Michael Bosco, a made-for-TV documentary, and a trailer.
What can one say about any movie which holds an irrationally forgiving place in your heart, despite its multiple faults and failures? For fans of any fantasy genre, disappointment is all too familiar when it comes to a movie adaptation which fails to meet its potential, and disgust is a certainty when it doesn't meet even the lowest of expectations. Supergirl was just one more nail in the coffin when it came to possibly invigorating the Superman franchise in specific, and expanding the potential of superhero films in general.
And yet, despite all its problems, I've always felt compelled to point out its creative merits, to defend its artistic intent, and to refrain from dismissing it with such disdain. It hasn't been easy defending the nearly indefensible. (Although I do have one or two critics on my side, with special acknowledgement to the well-expressed opinions of comics journalist Dwight Decker). But reviewing this long-awaited Blu-ray release reminds me that while Melissa Benoist may be this generation's Supergirl, my personal Maid of Might will always be Helen Slater. For this reason, I can recommend this Blu-ray, but to hardcore fans only.