THE HISTORY OF DC COMICS ON FILM
PART 7 – SUPERGIRL
For part 7 of our journey through the history of DC Comics on Film, we come to one of the most divisive movies on the list, Supergirl! Released in 1984 on a budget of $35 million, its box office haul of just $14.3 million makes it an undisputed commercial flop. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2, Santa Claus: The Movie) and yet again produced by the Salkind family, the film very much feels like a case of what could have been. Following the abandoned attempt to introduce the character as part of Superman III, a decision was made to attempt to reinvigorate and expand the franchise following that film’s less than stellar box office returns and critical reception. To freshen things up, the Salkinds went with a Supergirl solo movie, instead of Superman IV. Set within the same cinematic universe as the Superman films, a mooted Christopher Reeve cameo as the Man of Steel would have been a great crossover moment, but sadly due to Reeve’s decision to pull out of the shoot, his appearance in the film amounts to a poster of him appearing on the wall of Kara’s dorm room at her boarding school (his absence is explained by way of him being off planet on a peace seeking mission). Crossover fans did get their fix by way of Marc McClure reprising his role of Jimmy Olsen, making him the only actor to appear in this film plus all four Superman films starring Reeve. Whilst time has probably not been very kind to the film, there are some pieces of enjoyment to be found here, mainly due to the casting…
Kara Zor-El lives in an isolated Kryptonian community named Argo City, in a pocket of trans-dimensional space. It is never explicitly mentioned, but they have survived the destruction of Krypton. Also, they are somehow well aware that the infant Kal-El was sent to Earth. A man named Zaltar allows Kara to see a unique and immensely powerful item known as the Omegahedron, which he has borrowed without the knowledge of the city government, and which powers the city. However, after a mishap, the Omegahedron is blown out into space. After overhearing the wariness of her parents, Kara follows it to Earth (undergoing a transformation into “Supergirl” in the process) in an effort to recover it and save the city. Quite how she constructs the finished Supergirl suit in the confines of her escape pod remains to be seen, but it is best not to question these things…
On Earth, the Omegahedron is recovered by Selena, a witch (yes really) assisted by the feckless Bianca, seeking to free herself from her relationship with warlock Nigel. Whilst not knowing exactly what it is, Selena quickly realizes that the Omegahedron is powerful and can enable her to perform real magical spells. Supergirl arrives on Earth and discovers her new powers. Following the path of the Omegahedron, she takes the name Linda Lee, identifies herself as the cousin of Clark Kent, (never questioned) and enrols at an all-girls school where she befriends Lucy Lane, the younger sister of Lois Lane who happens to be studying there. Coincidences galore here, Nigel happens to be the Mathematics teacher at the school, and Jimmy Olsen, our link to the Superman films, also happens to be visiting town to woo Lucy Lane.
Supergirl and Selena repeatedly battle in various ways, until Selena uses her powers to put Supergirl in an “eternal void” known as the Phantom Zone. Here, stripped of her powers, she wanders the bleak landscape and nearly drowns in an oily bog. Yet she finds help in Zaltar, who has exiled himself to the Phantom Zone as a punishment for losing the Omegahedron. Zaltar sacrifices his life to allow Supergirl to escape. Back on Earth, Selena misuses the Omegahedron to make herself a “princess of Earth”. Emerging from the Phantom Zone through a mirror, Supergirl regains her powers and confronts Selena, who uses the Omegahedron’s power to summon a gigantic shadow demon. The demon overwhelms Supergirl and is on the verge of defeating her when she hears Zaltar’s voice urging her to fight on. Supergirl breaks free and is told by Nigel the only way to defeat Selena is to turn the shadow demon against her. Supergirl quickly complies and begins flying in circles around her, trapping her in a whirlwind. Selena is attacked and incapacitated by the monster as the whirlwind pulls Bianca in as well. The three of them are sucked back into the mirror portal, which promptly reforms, trapping them all within forever. The final scene shows Kara returning the Omegahedron to a darkened Argo City, which promptly lights up again.
Helen Slater makes an excellent Supergirl. Appearance-wise she obviously looks spot on for Kara Zor-El, being the right approximate age and stature for the character. Her performance is very enjoyable throughout. Whilst the two sides of her character are not as juxtaposed as Reeve’s Superman/Kent, she still manages to convey two different personas when portraying Supergirl/Kara and her human alter ego, Linda Lee. Strong and confident as Kara, as opposed to the shy, timid Linda, it makes for a nice contrast. Her sense of wonder at the ways of Earth are always evident, particularly in the below scene where Kara first sees the image of her cousin, Superman..
Faye Dunaway is on fine, scenery-chewing form as the evil witch Selena, her performance every bit as big as her hair. Despite the campy nature of her character, not least her lair (situated in a disused ghost train), she does manage to convey a genuine sense of menace when ever she inhabits a scene. Whilst not a physical opponent for Supergirl, she does take a real measure of delight in getting the upper hand over her younger rival. An enjoyable villain.
There are some fine actors throughout the supporting cast in the film, with several veterans making memorable guest appearances. Peter O’Toole is sadly under utilised as Zaltar, Kara’s Kryptonian mentor. Oozing gravitas, his short spell on screen elevates the film. Peter Cook is on hand too as Nigel, Selena’s would-be suitor, quick with a withering one-liner and a sarcastic comment. I thoroughly enjoyed him in the film, as he provided some genuine comedic splendour into what at times becomes a dour film. Marc McClure, reprising his role of Jimmy Olsen, gives more of the same as his previous appearances in the franchise, albeit with fairly little screen time.
Taken from the viewpoint of a modern, more sophisticated audience, then the film can easily be written off as a dated, relatively poorly made attempt to put this classic comic book character on the big screen. But what cannot be ignored or written off, is it’s significance. This was the first, and for a long time only, female-led comic book movie. This had not been done before, and wouldn’t be again until 2004’s Catwoman. For children of the 80’s, of which I am happily one, this was highly important. For those of us just too young to have been around when Linda Carter was headlining primetime television as Wonder Woman, this was our chance to see a strong, dominant female character taking centre stage. For all the film’s shortcomings, of which there are plenty, it must always be acknowledged as a trailblazer.
In the next history of DC Comics on film….Superman IV: The Quest For Peace…..