This is the nineteenth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
After the disappointing performance of “Superman III,” Alexander and Ilya Salkind decided to go a different route in their Superman franchise. Instead of moving forward on another Superman film, they decided instead to produce a spin-off about Superman’s cousin from Argo City.
Originally, Supergirl was intended to be introduced in “Superman III,” but when that story was rejected by Warner Bros., the Salkinds dropped the concept from that schedule all together. While “Supergirl” is canon to the other Salkind Superman productions, Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen is the only connection – apart from a poster of Christopher Reeve as Superman in Lucy Lane’s dorm room – to the other films. Superman was slated to make a small appearance, but Christopher Reeve declined after he read the script.
Director Jeannot Szwarc was hired on the recommendation of Christopher Reeve, who had worked with the director on the film “Somewhere in Time” in 1980. Szwarc actually contacted Richard Donner, the director of the first Superman film and 2/3 of the second, for advice on the technical aspects of making “Supergirl.” Bryan Singer would also seek advice from Richard Donner – whose wife Lauren Schuler Donner was producer on Singer’s X-Men films – when he set out to make “Superman Returns.”
As with Superman years earlier, a large casting call was made for the role of Supergirl. Among the actresses to audition were Brooke Shields and Demi Moore. Shields was Alexander Salkind’s first choice, but both Ilya Salkind and Jeannot Szwarc felt she was too well known at the time and cast newcomer Helen Slater instead. Demi Moore was cast as Lucy Lane – younger sister to Lois – but ultimately left the project to make the film “Blame it on Rio.” The role of Lucy eventually went to Maureen Teefy, who had played Sharon Cooper in “Grease 2.”
“Supergirl” has the distinction of being the only film in the Salkinds Superman franchise not distributed by Warner Bros., the parent company of DC Comics and copyright holder of the characters. Warner Bros. was originally set to distribute, but after several clashes with the Salkinds over when the film should be released – WB wanted a summer release, while the Salkinds were adamant about releasing it during the holiday season – Warners released the film to the Salkinds to find distribution elsewhere. The failure of “Superman III” and perceived non-viability of the franchise also played a large role in Warner Bros.’ decision to let the film go elsewhere.
“Supergirl” was picked up for distribution by Tri-Star Pictures and, ironically enough, released in July of 1984. Critical reaction to “Supergirl” was extremely negative, being nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Actor (Peter O’Toole) and Worst Actress (Faye Dunaway). Currently, “Supergil” holds a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the critical consensus being, “The effects are cheesy and Supergirl’s wide-eyed, cheery heroine simply isn’t interesting to watch for an hour and a half.”
In the book “The Encyclopedia of Fantasy,” co-author John Grant had some more positive comments about the film. Grant called Slater “an exceptionally charming Supergirl” and that the film had some “excellent-and excellently realised-flights of imagination.”
Ultimately, “Supergirl” failed to recoup its budget, making only $14.3 million on a $35 million negative cost. The Salkinds would go on to sell their option for a fourth Superman film to Cannon, who would make “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” but the Salkinds weren’t finished with Superman yet. They retained the television rights and Ilya had plans to use them.
Rossen, Jake (2008). Superman Vs. Hollywood (pp. 145-157). Chicago Review Press.
Wilson, John (2005). The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood’s Worst. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 0-446-69334-0.
“Supergirl (1984) – Rotten Tomatoes”. Rotten Tomatoes
Stecklow, Steve (1985-04-19). “Box Office Bombs May Turn Into Skyrockets On Videotape”. Chicago Tribune.