You though the behind the scenes politics was complicated with the first three Superman movies? Well, it was, but all of them are still included in pretty much every Reeve Superman box set. Most sets even include both versions of Superman II these days. Yet despite existing in the same canon, Supergirl has never been included in any Superman DVD or Blu-Ray box set by Warner Bros. This is the movie that led to producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to sell the Superman film rights to The Cannon Group.
Back when the Salkinds purchased film rights for Superman, they also purchased the rights to the character of Supergirl, in case any sequel or spin-off would ever occur. At first they planned to include Supergirl in Superman III, but Warner Bros rejected their initial story treatment. Then Richard Pryor got involved, and Supergirl disappeared from the story entirely. After Superman III disappointed in both critical reception and commercial profit, they decided to create a spinoff movie to freshen up the film franchise, starring Superman’s Kryptonian cousin.
They tried to re-hire Richard Lester to also direct Supergirl, but he turned down the role, instead deciding to focus on his Finders Keepers comedy, and later a reunion with his Three Musketeers cast for The Return of the Musketeers. Robert Wise (who helped edit Citizen Kane before becoming a director) also turned down the helm. Eventually, they hired French director Jeannot Szwarc, best known for his TV work and Jaws 2. Christopher Reeve actually helped choose him for the director’s seat, having worked with him in the romantic fantasy Somewhere In Time. Even though Richard Donner and the Salkinds really didn’t get along at the time, Donner did help Szwarc out with technical advice.
Hundreds auditioned for the role of Supergirl, including Demi Moore and Brooke Shields. The Salkinds rejected both of them despite having good screen tests, wanting to go with someone new and unknown instead (much like how Reeve was new in Superman). They ended up signing on Helen Slater, for which she was paid $75,000. Even for back then, that’s … kind of insultingly low for a lead role as far as I’m concerned. Demi More was hired at one point as Lucy Lane, but left for Blame It on Rio. Maureen Teefy was hired for Lois’s little sister instead. Other major cast members include Faye Dunaway as Selena, the main villain, Peter O’Toole as Zaltar, a mentor figure of Supergirl’s, and Peter Cook as Nigel. Marc McClure returns as Jimmy Olsen (playing the character in all four Superman movies).
While Warner Bros was involved with the production, the Salkinds financed the film completely on their own. The film was shot mainly at Pinewood Studios in London, under the supervision of Warner Communications. At the time, the Salkinds wanted a holiday season opening, yet Warner only had a July slot opening. This created a conflict between the Salkinds and Warner Bros. Along with the disappointing results from Superman III, this prompted the studio to relinquish its distribution rights to the Salkinds, no longer wanting anything to do with its release. Tri-Star then picked up the distribution rights for the United States.
Yeah, the production disputes with this movie led to Warner Bros, the company that owns DC Comics, to want nothing to do with the Supergirl movie. That says a lot.
Test audiences in the United States found the movie too long, so it was edited down from 135 minutes to 105 minutes for the North American release. The end result is a jumbled mess of a film that failed to impress critics. The international release is 124 minutes, and that fared better critically, but not by much. Supergirl holds a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 3.2/10. While it did open at #1, it ultimately bombed, only making $14.3 million on a $35 million budget. O’Toole and Dunaway were each nominated for a Razzie award for worst acting. Slater on the other hand received a Saturn Award nomination for Best Actress.
Since then, the movie has received scattered home video releases. The home media rights have switched between companies multiple times, until Warner finally picked the rights back up around the release of Superman Returns. In 1998, a 114-minute cut was released on VHS. In 2000, the international cut was officially released in North America for the first time. A secondary, limited release, included a recently discovered “director’s cut” at 138 minutes. In other words, there are 5 different versions of this movie that have seen official releases, if you include the 135-minute test screenings. These days, only the International Release and the Director’s Cuts are still being released. The Director’s Cut is only available on DVD as there is no surviving HD print.
From what I can tell, the US theatrical version is a complete disaster. It removed almost all of the main villain’s development, removes the explanation for why Supergirl cannot locate the object she’s looking for (more on that later), and cuts down on pretty much all side character development. There are actually a couple of moments in the International Release but not in the Director’s cut, including a reaction shot from Nigel after he’s cursed by Selene that’s abrupt in the director’s cut. Apparently there is a civilian death scene in the US theatrical cut that isn’t in any other version of the movie.
But whichever version of the movie you watch, it still suffers most of the same problems.
First off, let’s start with what actually works in this movie. Slater is really good as Supergirl. She’s got a generally curious attitude when visiting Earth, is overall friendly, but is convincing when Supergirl stands her ground. Her annoyed look when inappropriately approached by a couple of horny sleazeballs works quite well, even if the scene feels a bit forced from a writing standpoint. She’s also got the superhero poses down quite well.
As much as both Dunaway and O’Toole were nominated for Razzies, their performances aren’t really that bad. The Selene character is intimidating at times, and when she wants something, Dunaway is convincing as an overly eager sorceress, and when she gets over the top, she’s entertaining. The main problem is the writing. Selene’s character is very inconsistent – one minute she’s brilliantly evil, and the next she’s whining about not getting her way like a spoiled child. As for O’Toole’s character Zaltar, well … nothing about his character makes any sense, and his inspirational speeches can be summed up with “you can”. He does put energy into the role though, even if he’s clearly drunk in real life while filming his Phantom Zone scenes.
This movie also has some very interesting ideas. You wouldn’t know this just by sticking to the movies, but Superman is just as venerable to magic as normal humans are. Giving Supergirl a sorceress as a main villain actually creates a lot of opportunities for unique situations that Superman hasn’t faced on-screen. At least not in the movies – I can’t speak for the TV shows. The idea of Supergirl trying to blend into a school with little knowledge of Earth is also an interesting idea.
Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack is surprisingly good. The main theme feels heroic and mildly epic, but also carries a bit of a feminine tone. The dramatic themes also work quite well, and the creepy choir music in the Phantom Zone sequence is very effective.
Speaking of which, the best part of this movie is just before the climax, where Supergirl is actually sent to the Phantom Zone through Selene’s magic. What we see is a dark, desolate wasteland where she no longer has her superpowers, and is struggling to move on. This sequence is best in the director’s cut, as you see more of the misery of the wasteland that is the Phantom Zone, while also giving the movie’s rushed pacing a much needed dramatic break.
Unfortunately, this movie has too many different plot elements and terrible writing behind all of them, creating a complete mess no matter which version you watch.
The main story revolved around a round object called the Omegahedron. It acts as the main power source for Argo City, an isolated Kryptonian shelter with survivors of Krypton’s destruction. This city exists in some pocket dimension called the Survival Zone. Zaltar somehow grabs hold of this tennis ball-sized power source and starts goofing off with it. An accident launches it through the city’s outer walls, which appear to be made of a giant party streamer, and it starts floating from “inner space” to “outer space”, and eventually Earth. Yeah, I have no idea what “inner space” means either.
Supergirl follows the object, but Selene finds it first. It boosts her powerful, yet unpracticed, magical abilities. If Supergirl doesn’t find the Omegahedron within a matter of days, everyone in Argo City dies. So why is she wasting time registering in an all-girl’s school instead of actively searching for this object after her wrist tracker loses track of it?
Meanwhile, Selene wants the school groundskeeper as her boy toy, gives him a love potion that makes him fall in love with the first person he sees, only for Supergirl to meet his gaze before Selene. That’s what sparks the rivalry between Supergirl and Selene – a boy that neither of them actually know. There’s a subplot involving school bullies that only lasts a couple of minutes. There’s some sort of dark shadow power that’s mentioned, but never really explained. This movie is loaded with too many concepts and not enough time to explore any of them. Dropping the school portion of the movie entirely would have helped a lot.
Supergirl is also severely harmed by a limited budget. Some effects are really good, like the first scene where Supergirl is flying around, complete with beautiful landscapes. Other scenes involve incomplete effects, or mere swirling lights like the vortex Supergirl and Zaltar attempt to use to escape the Phantom Zone. It looks like something out of a fantasy TV show, not a theatrical release. The middle of the movie even features an incomplete effect where Supergirl is supposed to be fighting some sort of magically summoned monster. Nothing is there. It looks like she’s either fighting something completely invisible, or the wind, yet Supergirl can clearly see her enemy. Perhaps worst of all – in the climactic battle, Supergirl forgets that she can fly for a couple of minutes.
From a quality standpoint, this movie is a complete disaster. It’s a messy story with dialogue that’s often somewhere between awkward and confusing. It’s full of poorly explained concepts that could have actually been fascinating if handled well. While Reeve did originally intend to cameo in the movie, he backed out, which left his only appearance being on a poster made from a promotional shot. The lack of Reeve appearing in this movie hurts this movie’s credibility, even with Jimmy Olsen’s appearance. It’s got incomplete effects. Every version of the movie suffers from editing problems. Overall, it’s very difficult to recommend this movie to anyone.
Yet despite all of the movie’s problems, I still enjoy it. Badly written dialogue or not, it still gets the character of Supergirl right. Some of the school scenes are so over the top girly that I can’t help but find it amusing in small doses. As intentionally forced as the magically induced romance is between Supergirl and the groundskeeper, it’s still kind of charming. Dunaway’s over-the-top performance chews up scenery in an entertaining way. And unlike the TV show that just started its sixth and final season, it’s not obnoxiously political (I gave up on the show when its politics started getting in the way of the storytelling).
If you’re itching for Supergirl on-screen, I’d much sooner recommend some of the DC animated movies. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse and Superman Unbound are both good. I haven’t watched Smallville, but I’ve heard Supergirl’s appearances in Season 7 are also pretty good.
Next up is Superman IV, which is widely considered to be among the worst superhero movies in history. Then we’ll begin the Batman quadrilogy. I’ll also be looking at Steel, starring Shaq, Catwoman, the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, Superman Returns, and then I’ll wrap this series up with Joker. Why not include Joker since it’s not part of the DC Cinematic Universe?