Supergirl might not have been a hit with the critics, but the time has finally come for it to enjoy status as a cult classic. This is a film that didn’t exactly win over most audiences the year it debuted, and the criticism it faced as a result was perhaps a bit unreasonably harsh from a film community that wholeheartedly praises equally ridiculous-but-awesome genre movies of the time period like Predator and RoboCop. Brought to you by Jeannot Szwarc, director of such classics as Jaws 2 and Santa Claus: The Movie, Supergirl gets teased for wearing its heart (and, OK, its budget) on its sleeve, but in the end, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Besides expecting way too much from a fairly low-budget and straightforward genre film of the '80s, one of the biggest problems with critiques of Supergirl is that writers seem to think the star is, well, Supergirl. We're here to assure you that is simply not the case. This is a movie about Selena, the witchy nemesis of our girl Kara Zor-El, and the brilliance of the actress Faye Dunaway, who portrayed her onscreen.
The basic plot of Supergirl follows Kara as she travels to Earth in order to retrieve the Omegahedron, an instrument that apparently singlehandedly keeps Krypton from just imploding. As a result of that famous Kryptonian genius, the instrument was created to be very small and easy to steal and accidentally send rocketing through space towards Earth. When that happens, Supergirl decides to take responsibility for retrieving it. Unfortunately, by the time she arrives on Earth, the witch Selena has already found the Omegahedron and decides to keep it. She fixates on a young man named Ethan, who ends up falling in love with Supergirl via a misdirected love spell, thereby making Supergirl Selena's mortal nemesis. She succeeds in imprisoning Kara in the Phantom Zone, but only briefly. When Kara escapes, she puts an end to Selena’s rampage, imprisoning her in the Phantom Zone instead.
Dunaway was very nearly not cast as Selena because someone else was up for the role before her. The first choice was none other than one Dolly Parton, and what a wild ride that might have been, particularly in 1984, the same year Parton appeared in the equally bonkers Rhinestone with Sylvester Stallone, a box office bomb turned cult classic in its own right. We at FANGRRLS do sincerely believe that there is an alternate universe out there in which this version of Supergirl exists, and it is perhaps a better world. This is not said to disparage Dunaway, but rather to praise Dolly, who would have been truly something to behold as the sequin-dress-wearing Selena.
By the time she was approached to star in Supergirl, Dunaway’s film career had already been something of a rollercoaster ride. She kicked off with a strong debut in The Happening and launched to fame via her next film, Bonnie and Clyde opposite Warren Beatty in 1967. Since then, she had shown up in critical successes like Chinatown and Network, as well as films that became infamous for their many flaws paired with Dunaway’s tendency to go all-out as an actor. Supergirl, released three years after the fact, was Dunaway’s first film role since her fateful turn as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, which was incredibly controversial. While Mommie Dearest is very much its own can of worms and deserving of endless critical analysis, Dunaway's performance there undeniably had a major impact on her career going forward.
On the other hand, Dunaway is a genuinely great actor even if she doesn’t always have a great script to run off, and she brings her all to Supergirl. Other very skilled people like Peter O’Toole and Mia Farrow appear, and all of them are acting to their fullest in a movie that doesn’t necessarily call for it. The results might be comical more often than not, but the Razzies “awarded” to both O’Toole and Dunaway were a little unfair. After all, this was the early days of superhero films, and nobody fully knew what they were going for quite yet.
Groundbreaking in at least one way, Supergirl was the very first superhero film to focus on a female character, and its box office failure led to decades of unfair assumptions about the supposed lack of commercial viability for action movies with female protagonists. The unfortunate timing of its release after the once-successful Superman franchise had produced multiple mostly derided sequels didn’t exactly help public perception. That said, the quality of Supergirl isn't far from that of the critically acclaimed Superman (1978), and in anyone's honest evaluation, it is still one of the better superhero films of its era. When grouped in as a continuation to Superman, it is almost unquestionably the best of the sequels.
Besides all that, as witches go, Selena holds up. The one-dimensional stereotype of the wicked witch is definitely present in this character, but there's also something notable in her unwillingness to live life by anyone’s rules but her own. A great deal of Selena's character growth was absent from the version released in the US, although the director’s cut edition includes the footage, and it is indeed a better movie as a result, explaining a bit more behind her motivations and fleshing out her character in ways that the US cut did not. While she is petty and spiteful in any version of the story, plot elements that are confusing in the US cut are explained in the longer version, such as why she randomly happens to live in an amusement park, and how she even became a witch to begin with.
Selena’s sudden and inexplicable interest in Supergirl’s beau Ethan is confounding, not to mention the fact that her previous boyfriend, a warlock named Nigel, was someone she was barely interested in. Although the film seems to cast an element of shame on Selena for her treatment of Nigel, he really was a jerk throughout the whole story. While Selena was punished for their misdeeds, Nigel is allowed to go scot-free despite the fact that he was definitely more complicit in his enabling of Selena at every turn.
One cannot discuss Selena or Supergirl at all without mentioning Selena’s friend and accomplice Bianca, as portrayed by Brenda Vaccaro. Throughout the movie, Bianca is there as a friend and partner at every turn. She stands up to Selena again and again, as any true friend would do, even if Selena bullies her and refuses to listen. When Selena fixates on Ethan and Supergirl, Bianca is completely baffled by why her friend is so interested in a couple of random young people. She advises Selena against going toe to toe with Supergirl. If Selena listened to Bianca, the movie would be a proto-feminist comedy rather than a superhero epic. Or, in a perfect world, it could be both.
Although Selena and Bianca are banished to the Phantom Zone never to be heard from again, it is this FANGRRL's personal theory that the witch spent her time there centering herself and learning to master her abilities without the interference of the material desires of the outside world. We have yet to hear from Selena again, as she and the film were mostly dismissed as hokey and second-rate, but it is more hopeful to believe that perhaps she got her whole entire act together and she and Bianca are living in luxury on another planet, having used her magic and a newfound sense of peace to free themselves from the Phantom Zone. This is easier to wish for than what is actually implied by the movie, which is that they were both banished to a Hell dimension for the rest of their lives alongside serious criminals and murderers because one of them took things a little too far with a crush one time.
In the end, Selena’s real downfall was herself, not Supergirl. If she had never fallen in lust with Ethan and had instead focused on mastering her own newfound power, Supergirl probably never would have found her and the Omegahedron in a million years, Krypton would be destroyed, and Selena would be ruling Planet Earth. Again, it is likely there is an alternate dimension where this is the case, and it is perhaps a better world.