Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind hired director Richard Donner, for the princely sum of $1 million, to direct what would become the blueprint for future superhero films – Superman: The Movie (1978). Donner’s classic tale, with its ground-breaking special effects made audiences believe a man could fly.
With a staggering worldwide take of over $300 million, Superman conquered the box office. In 1980, Superman II also soared to unexplored heights for the emerging genre, as the picture took in over $100 million domestically. The Salkinds had a cinematic juggernaut on their hands, but it was all about to unravel.
Superman III (1983) did respectable numbers bringing in $60 million in the United States, but the Salkinds wanted to branch out and expanded their films rights to both Superman and his cousin Supergirl.
Everyone had the best intentions, and there certainly was plenty of money in the budget, but ultimately the Girl of Steel’s debut on the Silver Screen was a bust. The film seemed more focused on special effects than storytelling, which crushed any hopes the Salkinds had of expanding their “Super” franchise.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Terrible Supergirl Movie
15. Superman: MIA
One of the most drastic changes to Supergirl (1984) was the omission of the Man of Steel from the final script. Christopher Reeve was originally scheduled to make a cameo appearance as Kara’s (Helen Slater) cousin Superman, but he backed out of the project before cameras rolled. Director Jeannot Szwarc called his departure a “mutual agreement.”
“There were two major sequences which involved Superman,” Szwarc said. “One of them was when she arrived on Earth – he welcomes her – and they fly together. And then later he loses his powers. He has become an old man. He has lost his immortality and he has lost his powers. And she goes and saves him. And through saving him gets the key to destroying the evil witch.”
Perhaps Superman’s inclusion could have steadied a rather shaky storyline or, at least, made it worth stomaching. “It had an impact on everything,” Szwarc continued. “I personally think it would have been a much richer film if Superman would have made an appearance.”
14. Becoming Kara Zor-El
Casting 19-year-old Helen Slater in the part of Kara/Supergirl was one of the true achievements of the film, which came courtesy of casting director Lynn Stalmaster. “I introduced them to the eight primary candidates,” Stalmaster explained. “And I brought Helen in first. I decided to go for the knockout in the first round, and it worked.”
But beauty and acting ability can only take someone so far, especially when it comes to portraying a superhero. Late stuntman Alf Joint, who helped Christopher Reeve train to become cinema’s Superman, took on the task of shaping Slater’s physique.
In addition to running and lifting weights, Slater and Joint worked together vigorously. “If you want to, as people say, move well you have to do or be good at, physical things: gymnastics, riding – she rode,” Joint explained. “She did a little bit of fencing, anything that gives you style and movement – she did it.”
Prior to Melissa Benoist taking up the mantle of Kara on television, and Laura Vandervoort guest starring on Smallville, Slater was the singular epitome of Supergirl for fans across the world for over thirty years.
13. Budget And Special Effects
Unlike Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Supergirl did not skimp when it came to special effects. The opening title sequence alone cost $1 million to produce. Some of the more ingenious moments in the film cost next to nothing to pull off though, even though filmmakers had a total of $35 million to utilize.
When Kara arrived on Earth, she exploded upward out of the water. But instead of using actress Helen Slater in the shot, a cutout was employed. “We made a very good photograph of her and put it on a wood cutout, and pulled the cutout out of the water very rapidly,” director Jeannot Szwarc explained.
During the six-month shoot, Slater spent ninety days preparing for the complicated flying sequences. The actress was harnessed into the outdoor flying crane, which was 200-feet high, for over three hours a day. Other headaches emerged from the 22 days it took to complete the monster tractor sequence in the city of Midvale, which was built from scratch at the famous Pinewood Studios.
12. Box Office Bomb
Anyone want to guess how much those Popeyes’ ads cost in Supergirl? Despite a healthy budget, a strong cast led by Hollywood icon Faye Dunaway and solid special effects, the film version of Supergirl flopped when it descended on theaters in the fall of 1984.
Supergirl became the lowest-grossing installment of the “Super” franchise with only a $14.3 million domestic take. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace did slightly better in the summer of 1987 with a $15.7 million take in the United States.
The Girl of Steel’s feature film also had to settle for opening on Thanksgiving weekend. The producers and filmmakers were obviously encouraged by the picture’s first-week haul, including previews, which was good enough for first place at the box office: $8.4 million.
But it was only fool’s gold, as the picture plummeted 57 percent the following week with a take of only $2.7 million. After nine short weeks of brutal critical and box office response, akin to massive amounts of exposure to Kryptonite, Supergirl flat out died.
11. Brooke Shields and Melanie Griffith were almost cast
Much like Marlon Brando had been so pivotal in Superman: The Movie (1978), Faye Dunaway was the marquee name producers hoped would attract attention to Supergirl, but Dunaway only won the role of Selena after Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Goldie Hawn turned down the part. Director Jeannot Szwarc denied that there were other candidates in Anchor Bay’s 2002 Limited Edition DVD commentary, as he insisted that Faye was the only choice.
Helen Slater was among eight finalist director Jeannot Szwarc saw, but she was the first actress he and his team met with. The novice 19-year-old won the lead role, which even Brooke Shields and Melanie Griffith were in the running for.
John Travolta was approached to play Kara’s love interest Ethan, and Demi Moore was slated to portray Supergirl’s best friend Lucy Lane. Moore walked away from the project at the last moment.
Actor Dudley Moore was offered $4 million to take on the role of Zaltar, but turned it down. He did, however, suggest that Szwarc consider actor Peter Cook for the part of Nigel. And Cook made the cut.
10. Was that Max Headroom?
Matt Frewer (Watchmen) is a well-known and respected actor now, but in 1984 he still hadn’t transformed into the television personality so many Generation X members, especially in England, came to know and love in the mid-80s: Max Headroom.
Touted as the world’s first computer-generated talk show host, Headroom’s irreverent charm flooded airwaves with his debut in 1985. Although the character made Frewer a household name, transforming into Max via the makeup was a nightmare for Frewer. “It’s not fun,” Frewer explained. “It’s like being on the inside of a giant tennis ball.”
In Supergirl, Frewer was still a struggling actor who didn’t realize he was on the cusp of going from a nobody to a star. He played a wise-cracking earthling who tried to assault Kara when she first arrived on Earth. It was an inauspicious moment in his early acting career, as Supergirl blew him off with her super breath.
9. Nods to Matrix and Superwoman
Supergirl was loaded with magic, but seeing the future wasn’t a strength of Selena’s in the film. However, without knowing what they were doing, the filmmakers accidentally foreshadowed the sleek look of the Matrix Supergirl four years before her creation in Superman #16 (1988).
Kara’s costume in the comic books at the time was reflective of the ’80s mystique, including the stylish red headband, but a much more modern look was sported by Helen Slater in the movie. Slater’s costume was virtually identical to the wardrobe sported by the Matrix Supergirl, whose creators must have found inspiration in the feature film’s costume designed by Emma Porteous.
Supergirl also featured two characters who at one time or another donned the guise of Superwoman. Kara took on the part of the character in Elseworlds, Earth-192, and Earth-332, while Lucy Lane appeared as the DC character during the New Krypton storyline (2008-2009).
8. Easter Eggs
The Easter Bunny was a busy beaver dropping eggs all over the set of Supergirl. The first wink to the fans came at the 28-minute mark when Linda Lee/Supergirl met her roommate Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy) for the first time. Lane seemed very put out with the prospect of a suitemate. As she plopped down on her bed in disgust, Lucy revealed that she had been reading an Incredible Hulk comic book.
The second nod to film fanatics came just after the 36-minute mark, while Supergirl searched for the Omegahedron. As she flew through the city, Supergirl passed over a drive-in movie theater playing one of the best horror sequels of all time: Psycho II (1983).
Finally, at the 45-minute mark there were literal Easter eggs in frame. As Lucy joined Linda in the street, the pair walked in front of a window which was adorned by the large green eggs Flash (Sam J. Jones) used to engage Ming’s (Max von Sydow) men in Flash Gordon (1980). Maybe Flash needed some extra cash and hocked them when he returned to Earth.
After the departure of Christopher Reeve from the project, Supergirl producers wanted to create an on-screen connection to ensure audiences knew their film took place in the Superman universe. Actor Marc McClure, who played Jimmy Olsen, was hired to be the bridge between the two cousins of Krypton. In fact, McClure is the only player in the franchise to appear in all five “Super” films. McClure later extended his connection to the Man of Steel’s universe by portraying Dax-Ur in the Smallville episode “Persona” (2008).
Helen Slater also furthered her “Super” heritage by playing Clark Kent’s (Tom Welling) mother, Lara, in season seven of Smallville. Slater most recently took on the roles of Martha Kent, as a voice actor, on DC Super Hero Girls (2015-2016) and played Eliza Danvers on Supergirl (2015-2017).
Hart Bochner (Ethan) also has ties to DC fandom with his bit part in 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, as Arthur Reeves, but Bochner will always be known as the weasel Ellis from Die Hard (1988).
6. Supergirl Should Have Died In Inner Space
There were plenty of mistakes sprinkled throughout Supergirl, but the most ludicrous of all had to be the existence of Argo City in what the filmmakers termed as “Inner Space.” As truly defined, inner space is the area between Earth and outer space.
Perhaps, it was simply the screenwriter’s imaginative way of connecting Argo City to Earth. At any rate, inner space existed in the bowels of our planet’s oceans. When Kara and Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) accidentally lost the Omegahedron – the city’s power source – the inhabitants were in danger of dying in the icy cold of “space.”
Kara, of course, saved the day by taking a ship that could travel from Argo City to Earth. Once she was exposed to the yellow sun, Kara no longer needed the vessel and transformed into Supergirl.
So, how was it that, once she retrieved the Omegahedron, Supergirl could fly all the way back to Argo City without dying? This gaping hole in the story of Supergirl was just one of many hiccups that prevented the movie from finding its audience in 1984.
5. Oh, Oh, Oh, it’s Magic…
Unbelievably, Supergirl came up with a unique way to exploit a vulnerability of Kara’s without having to resort to using Kryptonite. Things had gotten a little shaky in the Superman franchise when Richard Pryor tried to kill the Man of Steel with Tar-ridden K in Superman III. So, the filmmakers chose to use magic to combat the Girl of Steel.
The idea was one of the best parts of the movie, but it was a little discouraging when the filmmakers didn’t take the time to explain minute details to audiences like magic can harm Supergirl. Sure, comic book aficionados knew, but what about the large populous that didn’t have a clue in 1984?
Intricacies pertaining to magic, inner, space and Argo City were notably absent from the film and doomed Supergirl to an early cinematic demise. Director Jeannot Szwarc seemed to have a very skewed idea of what did and didn’t work in storytelling. “I am sure there are things probably we should have explained more or better, but we felt when we started the film that the balance between exposition and the real story was accurate,” Szwarc explained. Wait – what?
4. The Phantom Zone
The filmmakers came so close to getting the Phantom Zone perfect in Supergirl, but another argument from director Jeannot Szwarc kept the prison from being portrayed with a black-and-white color scheme, which so often appeared in the comics.
On the positive side, Supergirl finally paid off what Superman: The Movie and Superman II set up with those wonderful sequences of Zod (Terence Stamp) and his cronies being banished to the Zone. In the film, Kara is trapped in the glass vehicle and then imprisoned in the Phantom Zone when it shatters above the harsh landscape.
The set was immaculately designed, but Szwarc made a late decision to stay away from a totally black and white concept. “We all felt it was too long,” Szwarc explained. “We were there [Phantom Zone] too long. It would have been all right to be in black and white but the amount of time you spend there it would have become like a movie within a movie.” Huh?
3. Slater Sings With O’Toole
One of the most heartwarming stories from the set of Supergirl was how 19-year-old Helen Slater reacted when she first came face to face with award-winning actor Peter O’Toole. After all, O’Toole was a stalwart of cinema and Slater was the new kid on the block. But it turns out that the unlikely duo would sing a song together on the set to alleviate Slater’s nervousness.
“Walking on the set and there’s Peter O’Toole that first day standing 6’1 like a prince… and he was wonderful,” Slater explained. “Well, the first thing he did was put me immediately at ease, because I’m a musician. He just sat me down in a corner, away from everyone on the set, and taught me this song that goes in rounds. And for like an hour and a half all we did was sing.”
2. Critical Response
The tagline for Supergirl touted the 1984 film as “Her first great adventure.” It was the intention of the Salkinds to launch an entire series of movies about Kara Zor-El. However, the feature was not only a financial flop, but a critical disaster.
Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune were the quintessential movie critics of the day, and the duo mercilessly slammed the picture, as they ended up giving Supergirl their traditional Two Thumbs Down. “Supergirl is a major disappointment, containing none of the humor or special effects, or frankly, even the acting of the recent Superman series of movies,” Siskel said.
1. Supergirl Finally Meets Superman
The Kryptonian cousins didn’t get the chance to meet on the Silver Screen in 1984, as fans would have liked, but following the movie actress Helen Slater met with the Man of Steel himself, Christopher Reeve. “I met him after I finished Supergirl, so really the advice [on being Supergirl] were all after thoughts,” Slater said.
“But there’s a wonderful story,” Slater explained. “We were sitting on Central Park West, it was really, really very, very late at night. And I was sitting in front of the Alden Hotel.”
“And all of a sudden, we’re sitting there just talking about,” Slater continued. “I didn’t know what time it was. Six huge firetrucks come out of nowhere and park dead in front of the Alden. And all the windows come up. And mothers and children are screaming – they don’t know what’s going on. A hundred firemen come out getting the hoses. And there’s Superman and Supergirl helpless sitting there unable to do a thing.”
“And he [Reeve] turns and looks at me, ‘Well, I guess it’s our night off,'” Slater said. “And I said ‘Yeah, I guess it is.'”
What shocking fact surprised you most from 1984’s Supergirl? Sound off in the comments!
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