Captain Marvel has hit theaters, bringing not only the next installment in what has become a decade long franchise, but also the first solo film outing for a female comic book character in their shared universe. Many audiences and critics alike have been quick to draw comparisons between it and 2017’s smash hit “Wonder Woman”, most likely because people perceive a competition between the two colossal comic book publishing giants: DC Comics and Marvel Comics.
But what about the OG solo female superhero movie “Supergirl”? Written off by many as a box office and critical failure, Supergirl flew into theaters on November 21, 1984. Produced on a budget of $35 million dollars by the Salkinds (yes, the same Salkinds who produced the Christopher Reeve Superman films), the movie only recouped $14 million domestically in the United States with no reliable information on what was made overseas. But what made this film such a failure? And is it really as bad as most people make it out to be?
The film opens on Argo City, a Kryptonian survival colony hidden in a secret dimension in inner-space. It’s here we first meet Kara Zor-El/Supergirl played by Helen Slater in her debut film role. She is joined by her parents Alura (played by Mia Farrow) and Zor-El (played by Simon Ward). It’s here that we also meet Kara’s teacher and mentor Zaltar (played by Peter O’Toole). It’s here that he explains how their city is able to sustain itself through the power of the Omega Hedron, a small spherical device of unlimited power and abilities. While experimenting with the device, Kara unintentionally punctures a hole in the dome protecting their city, sending the Omega Hedron hurtling out into outer-space. Taking responsibilities for her actions, Kara hijacks a space ship and goes out into the void to retrieve the device against her parents’ wishes.
Soon we find that the Omega Hedron has crash landed on earth (because of course, it did) and it is found by Selena, a woman desperate to achieve world domination through magic & the dark arts. Selena (played by Faye Dunaway) is aided in harnessing the power of the device by her friend Bianca (played by Brenda Vaccaro) and mentor Nigel (played by Peter Cook). In her quest to achieve her nefarious goals, Selena must gain the love and soul of a young landscaper named Ethan (played by Hart Bochner). Supergirl must find a way to combat these three rogues and retrieve the Omega Hedron before Argo City dies.
At first glance, the story sounds very straight forward, but I would be lying if I said there weren’t more than a few elements of the story that ultimately don’t make any sense. Riddled with plot holes and questionable character motivations, “Supergirl” struggles to tell a coherent plot to drive the narrative of the story. At various points throughout the film, you see Supergirl encounter a possessed bulldozer, she’s attacked by the weather, and Selena manages to summon an entire mountain to appear out of nowhere along with black-clad storm troopers on motorcycles to enslave the town of Midvale. And what causes of these bizarre events? The McGuffin that is the Omega Hedron. From the onset, there are no definitive rules put in place to dictate what this device can and cannot do, so what inevitably ends up happening is that the Omega Hedron performs whatever outlandish task the writer and director needed it to do in order to create conflicts for Supergirl and get her to the next part of the story. Without an established set of rules, the movie quickly runs off the rails because your audience is more preoccupied with asking how something is happening instead of being invested in the characters or action that they’re watching.
The story clearly takes inspiration from the classic fairy tale-type stories: a beautiful princess is separated from her family and must defeat 3 evil witches, all while trying to capture the love of her noble and handsome prince. Add to this the presence of magic which creates fantastical elements such as love potions that were more than likely added into the script to gain the attraction of younger female audiences instead of young boys.
But how could a giant studio like Warner Brothers let something like this happen? To understand that, you have to know the history behind this pre-production of this film. Made in 1984, “Supergirl” was made just one year after “Superman III” had hit theaters and was originally planned to be a tie-in film that would be related to the movies starring Christopher Reeve. This would create a strong launching point for the character of Supergirl to start from and provide an interesting story for Superman to participate in as he would be meeting his Kryptonian cousin. Unfortunately, Superman III would grossly underperform its predecessors in the Summer of 1983 and Christopher Reeve quickly developed cold feet in pursuing his part in “Supergirl” further.
With Christopher Reeve now off the project, director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2, Santa Claus: The Movie) and writer David Odell (Masters of the Universe, The Dark Crystal) were immediately tasked with ejecting all of Superman’s scenes out of the story. This proved challenging, given the short time before production was set to start and the fact that 70% of the story focused on Superman finding his cousin, training her to use her powers, and then becoming ill from Selena’s magic and Supergirl needing to save him and the Omega Hedron. The script ultimately went through 5 rewrites before production started and would continue to get touch-ups while production was going on.
Once production started, Szwarc and Odell had reduced Superman’s presence to him only being mentioned in a radio announcement having left earth to negotiate a peace treaty on another planet several lightyears away and the shot of a Superman poster in Lucy Lane’s bedroom. At this point, the only returning character from the Superman film franchise was Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen who appears in the third act as a love interest for Lucy Lane, Lois Lane’s younger sister and Kara’s roommate at school.
The loss of Christopher Reeve as Superman meant losing more than just the built-in fan base, but also meant that instead of having a character building second act where Supergirl meets her cousin and is trained how to control and use her powers by him, she instead decades out of nowhere to enroll in an all-girls boarding school, leaving the audience to ask “Why is she going to school instead of looking for the Omega Hedron to save her people?!” It’s clearly meant to help Kara develop as a character, but it’s a decision that ultimately doesn’t make any sense for the character given the stakes she is battling against. There are several more instances like this throughout the course of the film that were quite clearly rushed decisions that were made by Szwarc and Odell to just have a finished script that they could shoot and meet the release date for the movie.
With the Salkinds producing the film and a strong $35 million-dollar budget behind them, they were able to utilize the same effects team who had worked on the previous Superman films. “Supergirl” greatly benefits from the experience of this effects crew, utilizing techniques such as practical wire work, front & rear projection, blue screen, matte paintings, and miniature models. All of these techniques were very polished by the time “Supergirl” went into production, so her flying sequences are among the best we have ever seen from this time period, some scenes even rivaling flying shots filmed for Superman: The Movie or Superman II & III. The effects used for her heat vision, x-ray vision, and super hearing are also well executed. This was the strongest benefit for the film as all of these practices had now become mastered crafts by the effects teams since they’d been developing and perfecting these techniques with Superman since 1978. If you are a fan of that era of special effects, then there is certainly a lot here to enjoy, especially her flying scenes done through craned wire work. Helen Slater trained vigorously to be physically fit enough to do those sequences herself and the level of grace and fluidity they were able to achieve truly creates the illusion of flight, perhaps even more so than effects used today in 2019.
When everyone thinks of Superman, the first thing they hear is John Williams’ theme. It’s THAT iconic. So, the Salkinds and Warner Brothers knew they had to get something on par to create a musical identity for “Supergirl”. Jerry Goldsmith achieved worldwide recognition for his work on such films as Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was originally hired by Richard Donner to compose the score for Superman: The Movie but was unfortunately made unavailable due to commitments on another project, thus John Williams was hired and the rest is history.
Jerry Goldsmith conducts a very heroic and bombastic score for the film, learning from what John Williams did with Superman and composing an opening march theme that would be the core motif used in the other tracks throughout the score. The music excellently captures the punchier beats in the action cues but also hits those quieter pieces in the more emotional scenes. He doesn’t make what might be an obvious mistake by making it overly feminine or dainty because the movie’s main character is a girl. Instead, Jerry makes a score that is befitting a hero and brings that epic scale and bombastic presence to the theme. It’s also very catchy (yes, it’s still stuck in this writer’s head as he types).
As production drew to a close on “Supergirl”, Warner Brothers had financed the production of the film but decided not to put up the additional financing to distribute the film. This created yet another challenge for the film that would ultimately be resolved by TriStar Pictures, but also create another obstacle. While TriStar bought the distribution rights to the movie, they thought the runtime was too long and felt that by editing it down to its bare nuts & bolts would better their chances to get more people into theaters to see the film. What was originally planned as a 2 hour and 18-minute film, was now trimmed down to 1 hour and 45 minutes for the US release. Once this version started receiving negative backlash, a slightly longer cut was produced for Europe and Asia at 2 hours and 4 minutes, and is referred to as the International Cut.
“Supergirl” only recouped $14 million dollars in its domestic box office release and currently has a 10% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. Many critics point the finger of blame at the weak plot and bizarre plot threads that seemingly come out of nowhere, part of which was due to the restricted run time inflicted upon it.
In 2006, the original print was found in the Warner Brothers archive labeled “Do Not Use” and was the original 2 hour, 18-minute Director’s Cut. Anchor Bay released this version of the film in 2006 as a limited edition release to coincide with the release of Superman Returns.
Most recently, “Supergirl” was remastered and given a Blu-ray release by the Warner Archive Collection after WB purchased back the distribution rights. The 1080p Blu-ray copy of the film is of the International Cut but includes a second disc which features the Director’s Cut on DVD and also the 1984 “Making Of” documentary.
2.5 out of 5 Stars:
This movie is broken, there’s no denying that. But therein lies part of its charm. You can see that it is very competently shot, boasting beautiful production design and cinematography that is on par with the Christopher Reeve Superman films and the cast of actors are quite likable in the roles they play. The effects are very well executed, even perfecting some of the flying techniques used in the previous Superman films. Where the movie falls apart is the story and it’s overly rushed editing. Lacking the sense of verisimilitude that Donner’s Superman movie brought to the character, “Supergirl” sadly falls into the mistake of thinking “this is a film for kids” and doesn’t try to bring a sense of reality or competent reasoning for what is happening. Given more time to breathe and perhaps being able to utilize the character of Superman, this film could have been a lot better. I would say if you’re a fan of the Christopher Reeve era of Superman, then “Supergirl” is certainly worth a viewing, especially now that it is available on Blu-ray. But I would say that you have to go into it with the right mindset and know that what you’re about to watch is a cartoon. If you look at it through nostalgic eyes, it’s a movie you can have a lot of fun with, if not at least a laugh. For the record: It’s nowhere near as bad as the Halle Berry “Catwoman” movie.
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