In the years since its first release, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997) has gradually undergone a major re-evaluation. Much maligned in its day, Batman & Robin has become a cultural landmark in queer cinema as the first queer superhero blockbuster. Initially critics and audiences recoiled in disgust at Schumacher’s take on Tim Burton’s hyper-operatic style and pseudo expressionism. But what Schumacher did was to use that heightened sense of style to filter the camp and humor of the Adam West Batman television show into a distinctly nineties cultural milieu as a means of exploring the inherently queer aspects of the Batman mythos. Although it is of less historic significance, Supergirl (1984) is another superhero blockbuster that deserves its due.
Supergirl doesn’t challenge the sexual or gender politics of the intellectual property, nor does it subvert its genre. Supergirl is remarkable because it so faithfully translates the comic to film to the extent that as a movie it almost doesn’t work. When one watches Supergirl one feels as though the comics of Jerry Siegel, Otto Binder, and Robert Bernstein from the early sixties have simply been given motion. Supergirl screenwriter David Odell carries over such conventions from the comics as characters describing what they are doing as they do it; the campy villain monologues about “world domination”; the general playful tone meant to undermine the suspense of the plot to make the comic more palpable to little kids; and even inexplicable changes in costumes and locations that always happen between panels (continuity errors).
Supergirl works, not because of Jeannot Szwarc’s direction or Odell’s writing, but because of the cast. Helen Slater’s dry line delivery as Supergirl constantly reiterates her alien status while the warmth of her presence evokes the kindness and innocence of the adolescent superhero. If Slater is sweet with low energy, than the villains are all campy, twisted, maniacal evil. Faye Dunaway and Peter Cook are great campy, silver age of comics villains. Like Gene Hackman before them, Dunaway and Cook have no qualms about chewing up the scenery and committing 100% to the silliest dialogue imaginable. Of course, Peter O’Toole excels at this as well even though his part in Supergirl is brief.
It’s easy to overlook Maureen Teefy’s part in Supergirl as Lucy Lane (kid sister of Lois) because she never puts on spandex and she isn’t playing her part to the hilt. But Lucy is a central character to developing Slater’s Supergirl and functions very much in the same way that her boyfriend Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) does in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Teefy’s performance is a balance of awkward nerdiness with fearless pugnacity. Lucy is a good foil because she is Supergirl except she doesn’t posses the mighty powers.
Despite all of these good or enjoyable qualities Supergirl just can’t seem to live down its reputation as the film that ended the Salkind’s relationship with DC Comics. Part of the problem may be the confusing labels attached to the various home video releases of Supergirl. When I first saw Supergirl I saw the “director’s cut” that Anchor Bay put out on DVD in 2000. This version of Supergirl is the longest and was prepared for television screenings that never came to pass. It’s not an actual director’s cut of the film, but it was approved of by Szwarc. The other version of Supergirl that’s been released onto DVD and Blu-Ray is the edit of the film for European distribution. This version was released theatrically in Europe months before Supergirl premiered in the U.S. and is roughly twenty minutes longer than the U.S. theatrical edit.
I have never seen the U.S. theatrical version of Supergirl since it’s never been released on disc with the other two versions of the film. Personally, I am of the mind that comparing different cuts of a film is an enjoyable and enlightening experience. However, if I had to select one version of Supergirl to keep, or to use as an introduction to this muddled affair, it would be the European theatrical cut. This version has room to explore all of the characters without ever feeling padded with comic asides and special effects.
In this age where comics rule the silver screen and audiences are clamoring for more femme superheroes I find it surprising that the cult of Supergirl is so small. Supergirl is a nutty, campy, and totally sincere mess of a movie that is enjoyable from start to finish while remaining entirely faithful to its source material. Doesn’t that check all of the boxes of what superhero fans want in their movies? I mean, Supergirl even doubles as an ad for Popeye’s Chicken and who doesn’t love that chicken?