Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Supergirl
This was inevitable. Every superhero movie produced by the Alexander and Ilya Salkind without the guiding hand of director Richard Donner has an inherent cheesiness. As we’ve previously discussed, this comes from a certain European sensibility about the American superheroes in general and Superman in particular. From that point of view, the characters are meant to be figures of camp. Donner disagreed with this idea and re-framed his Superman movie as a modern day American myth. Sure, there was still a comic sensibility on display — Christopher Reeve’s Superman is even self-aware enough to slyly poke fun at his boy scout image — but Donner expertly layered that into a surprisingly grounded reality. The humor sprung up from the world instead of mocking it and its fantastical characters.
Donner’s successor, Richard Lester, always seemed above the material he was working with (notable exception: A Hard Day’s Night), and thus his Superman II features more of the camp value the Salkinds always wanted. And as also previously discussed, Superman III was the crescendo of their camp Superman. As it turns out, the relative commercial and critical success of Superman III cooled their interest in another Superman film. In lieu of producing a fourth film, they moved on to another superhero in the library they obtained from DC Comics — Superman’s cousin Supergirl.
They idea was to refresh the series with a new central character, but as we’ll see, the Salkind brand of entertainment would doom the film to the same shelf containing Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Which means, of course, it is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie.
The plot concerns Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater), a teenager from the Kryptonian outpost known as Argo City. The community somehow survived the destruction of Krypton by fleeing to a pocket dimension hidden at the subatomic strata of the universe. Kara spends much of her time with Zaltar (Peter O’Toole), the scientist who established Argo City in the pocket dimension. When he borrows the city’s key energy source, the Omegahedron, and shows it to Kara, she accidentally blasts it into the void; threatening the city. Feeling very guilty about dooming her people to suffocate, she follows it out into conventional space and, eventually, to Earth.
One there, she discovers she has all the same powers as her cousin Kal-El; whose exploits the Argoians are somehow aware of. Her trip to Earth also gifts her with a skirted version of Superman’s costume. Though intoxicated with life on Earth, Kara figures out a way to enroll in a boarding school near the probable landing site of the Omegahedron — taking the name of Linda Lee — and begins her search for the energy source while also making friends like Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy) and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure). Meanwhile, failed witch Selena (Faye Dunaway) comes across the Omegahedron and learns to access some of its powers.
Eventually, Kara and Selena cross paths; leading to a battle between Supergirl and Selena’s newfound magics, derived, of course, from the Omegahedron. She even sends Kara to the Phantom Zone. But with the aid of Zaltar — who was sentenced to the Zone for taking the Omegahedron without the city council’s permission — she manages to get back to Earth for one last battle with Selena.
And if the whole thing sounds ludicrous while also sort of pedestrian, that’s part of the charm. Despite the Salkinds’ stated intent to refresh their super series, they turned to the a film director incapable of breathing that new life into it: French film and television director Jeannot Szwarc. While an able craftsman — his previous films include the time travel romance Somewhere in Time and the least absurd of all Jaws sequels Jaws 2 — his vision is very much married to what he finds in the script. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some movies do not require a showy, “visionary” director to set the film apart from the pack. Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry and even Donner’s Superman prove you can shoot a film in a very straight-forward way and still deliver a classic. But as with Jaws 2, Szwarc gives Supergirl a very pedestrian feel, depending on the look of the earlier Superman films to define its style.
Which shouldn’t suggest Szwarc was lazy. Thanks to a commentary track from the 2000 DVD release of the film, it’s very clear he put a lot of effort into preparing the picture and trying to find a way to convey Kara’s abilities as different from Superman. As he put it, Superman was about power, while Supergirl was about grace. It’s a good idea, but production realities hobble this concept with poor Helen Slater looking more stuck on wires than graceful whenever she has to fly.
Sadly, that lack of grace follows her into just about every aspect of her performance. As a newcomer, it is a clear she needed more guidance than Szwarc or the Salkinds were willing to offer. Coupled with a bizarre take on the character from writer David Odell — a Muppet Show veteran who would go on to another bizarre adaptation with Masters of the Universe — Slater’s Kara comes off wooden. And, to be honest, the same could be said for some of her other film and television appearances, but her star role in The Legend of Billy Jean also suggests she could’ve been much better as Supergirl had someone been there to help her find a more natural take on Kara. In fact, failing to build her up as a performer was a critical error as she was going up against one of the great queens of camp: Mommy Dearest‘s Faye Dunaway.
As the villain, she’s a hoot. Dunaway knows exactly what film she is in and uses all of her resources to conjure up a delightful character who steals every scene she is in. While maybe not as unhinged as her Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest, Selena is a wonderfully campy character who deserves better than the drab setting Szwarc creates for Supergirl‘s Midvale. While the witch herself lives in an abandoned dark ride inside a shuttered amusement park, the rest of town looks like a dusty, nondescript town somewhere on the road between Los Angeles and Phoenix, Arizona. That should be a remarkable feat as the film was shot near London, but the flatness of the locations just makes the film look cheap.
Nonetheless, all of those decisions, bolstered by Dunaway’s campy villain, give the film a lot of its cheesy edge. It’s still fun as hell to watch and it even offers up a handful of great scenes; like Kara’s battle with an invisible monster. It shouldn’t work, but thanks to a few well-realized visual effects and some genuine craft, it’s proves their was some potential hidden within. But beyond that, there’s the essential cheesiness of a Salkind production. Superman is very much the outlier in this regard with earlier films like The Three Musketeers and later films like Santa Claus: The Movie sharing a similar vibe or feeling of cheapness — even if the films were expensive to make. Supergirl shares in this ineffable quality as it tries to bring new life to the brand, but ends the Salkinds’ time with the Superman brand as a whole. For us, though, Supergirl offers one last look at how the people who birthed the superhero film thought it should evolve.
Supergirl is available for rent on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu, and as a Warner Archive Blu-ray release.