Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Supergirl
Tonight on CBS, Supergirl comes to TV in the form of a brand new series. I couldn’t be more excited about it. While they aren’t perfect, the Flash and Green Arrow shows from the same producers are a lot of fun. I’m hoping the new Supergirl show will be just as entertaining. The fact that the show will have a female protagonist is just icing on the cake. I have two daughters and I am really excited about the possibility that we could watch this show together.
With Supergirl coming to TV tonight, I thought it would be a great time to look back at the Supergirl movie which tried (and failed) to make the Girl of Steel into a movie star.
In 1983, the original Superman trilogy was getting ready to wrap up. Superman III was scheduled for a summer release and Christopher Reeve was anxious to hang up his cape and start his post-superhero career. But producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind weren’t ready to let the super series go. So they came up with an idea to spin-off the series with a new character.
When the Salkinds bought the rights to Superman originally, they also got the rights to all of the supporting characters from the comic book. In fact, Supergirl had been included in a very strange treatment for Superman III. That version of the movie featured several characters from the comic book including the villains Brainiac and Mister Mxyzptlk.
In Ilya Salkind’s original treatment for Superman III, Brainiac finds and adopts Supergirl. When she grows up, he falls in love with her. But conflict arises because she has fallen in love with Superman instead. Warner Brothers objected to just about everything in the treatment. Supergirl and Mxyzptlk were scrapped and Brainiac was replaced with a giant supercomputer.
But Ilya hadn’t given up on his ideas for Supergirl and Brainiac. Knowing that there wouldn’t be a Superman IV (at least not any time soon), Ilya suggested to his father, Alexander, that they make a Supergirl movie instead.
In order to ease the transition to a new female hero, the Salkinds asked Reeve if he would agree to appear in Supergirl. Initially, Reeve agreed. But after giving the matter additional consideration, he changed his mind. According to Supergirl director, Jeannot Szwarc, “At the last minute, Chris decided he didn’t want to do it. For personal reasons and probably because he didn’t want to be tagged as Superman for the rest of his life.”
Reeve was at least partially responsible for Szwarc being hired to direct Supergirl. Richard Lester, who had directed parts of Superman II after original director Richard Donner had been fired and who had directed Superman III by himself, was ready to move on. Sound of Music director Robert Wise was approached, but he wasn’t interested either. Reeve had worked with Szwarc on the fantasy-romance, Somewhere in Time. When his name came up, Reeve endorsed him as a director capable of making a fantasy film.
Szwarc was best-known for having taken over directing duties on the troubled Jaws sequel, Jaws 2. While no one considered the sequel to be a worthy successor to Spielberg’s classic, Szwarc was given high marks in Hollywood for having made the best of a bad situation. In another ironic touch, Szwarc’s directorial debut had been a killer cockroach movie called Bug. Bug was squashed at the box office because it opened on the same day as the original Jaws.
The director wanted to make certain that Supergirl wasn’t just Superman in a skirt. “I said I would be interested if the tack was, instead of strength, was elegance. It’s a girl, after all. And to do something closer to fantasy.” Szwarc’s ideas were right in line with what the Salkinds wanted to do.
Unfortunately, there were problems with the script. First of all, Superman had to be written out since Christopher Reeve had changed his mind about a supporting role. But Warner Brothers wanted changes as well. The original script included Brainiac just like the first treatment for Superman III. Once again, the studio objected. Additionally, the plans for extensive fantasy settings were deemed too expensive. So everything had to be pared down.
While the script was being rewritten, Szwarc and the Salkinds set about finding their Maid of Might. The elder Salkind wanted to cast a known star. His first choice was Brooke Shields. But Ilya and Szwarc wanted to go with an unknown just as they had for Superman. Ilya Salkind later admitted that maybe it would have been better if he had lost that argument.
The casting call for Supergirl was extensive. A then-unknown Demi Moore auditioned for the part. There is an internet rumor out there that Moore was cast as Lucy Lane but backed out at the last minute to star in Blame It on Rio instead. I can’t prove this rumor false, but it seems unlikely. I haven’t seen anyone associated with the movie mention Moore as anything other than a candidate for the lead role – one of several who auditioned and were passed over. You would think if Moore had actually been cast in a different role, it would have come up in an interview somewhere.
According to Szwarc, he knew Helen Slater was his Supergirl right away. “She Walked in. That was it. There was a close-up of her face on video and she was so captivating. She was still in high school, she had done very little, but she really had something.”
Slater was 19 years old at the time. She heard about the audition from her high school drama teacher. She showed up in a homemade costume with oversized glasses. Slater was cast and signed to a three-picture deal. Her salary for the first movie – which ended up being the only movie – was $75,000.00.
To prepare for the role, Slater underwent a superhero transformation. First, she had to dye her brown hair platinum blonde. That was the easy part. Then she began an intense workout regimen. According to Szwarc, “She had to train for at least three to four months, general physical training and then all the specific stuff she had to practice in order to do the flying.”
While Sater was in training, the director set about casting the rest of the parts. The idea was to follow the kind of casting that had worked for the first Superman movie. Cast an unknown actor in the lead and surround them with big names in the supporting roles. Faye Dunaway was cast as a villainous sorceress. Despite playing the villain, Dunaway got top billing. Peter O’Toole was cast as Supergirl’s mentor. It was a relatively small role, but O’Toole was also given billing over Slater.
The Salkinds wanted Dolly Parton to play Dunaway’s sidekick. But Parton was put off by the idea of dark magic and witchcraft, so she turned down the part which went to Brenda Vaccaro. In order to establish some continuity with the previous Superman movies, Marc McClure was brought back to reprise his role as Jimmy Olsen. Also, Maureen Teefy was cast as Lucy Lane, Lois’ sister.
The Supergirl costume went through a few changes before they finally settled on a relatively straight-forward version. At one point, Supergirl had curled hair and a headband as she did in the comics at the time. But they were considered distracting, so they were eliminated.Originally, the S on her chest was overlaid on the costume. But DC didn’t like the look, so it was sewn in. Slater’s training was having the desired effect on her figure, but she was given some artificial enhancements to her chest size to complete the illusion.
The shoot on the original Superman movie had been contentious. It ended with Richard Donner being fired before he could complete work on Superman II. By comparison the Supergirl set was relatively drama-free aside from a few flight-related accidents. Once, Slater was supposed to glide over a lake. But she was accidentally dropped into it. Later she was flown directly into the branches of a tree. But aside from a few bumps and bruises, it was smooth sailing. The real problems started after filming was completed.
Production wrapped in the Fall of 1983. Warner Brothers wanted Supergirl ready for the following summer. But the Salkinds worried that the movie would be overshadowed by other high profile summer releases. They thought that was what had sunk Superman III. So they were insistent on a holiday opening. Neither side would back down and eventually Warner Brothers walked away from the picture.
At this point, they had a completely filmed movie and no one to distribute it. The Salkinds started making deals to have Supergirl debut outside of the US. But there were doubts about whether or not the movie would ever show in theaters in the United States. Eventually Tri-Star came along and agreed to distribute the movie. They had an opening in their schedule for the holidays so the Salkinds got the November release they wanted.
However, test screenings did not go well. Audiences got restless during the original 135-minute cut of the movie. So the Salkinds cut out over twenty minutes. According to Szwarc, “There was stuff I really liked, but I didn’t have final cut.”
When Supergirl was finally released, it didn’t get the promotional push Warner Brothers had given the Superman movies. Making matters worse, it faced unexpected competition from The Terminator which had been playing strongly all through the fall and the action movie Missing in Action which had debuted the week before. Supergirl opened in first place over the holiday weekend, but it grossed less than half of its budget.
Ilya Salkind chalked up the movie’s failure to the gender of the protagonist. “It’s very hard for superhero women to be on the big screen. There is some resistance from the audience, which does not apply to television. Stuff like Sheena, it doesn’t work. That is a fact.” Sadly, that attitude is still alive and well in Hollywood today.
The planned sequels never happened. Discouraged, the Salkinds walked away from the Superman universe altogether. When Christopher Reeve eventually returned to the role that made him a star, it was at the Cannon Group. Instead, the Salkinds turned their attention to Santa Clause: The Movie. The big budget flop was also directed by Szwarc.
Slater’s movie career flamed out relatively quickly. By 1990, she was working primarily in TV. Like a lot of actors who have been associated with Superman, she has come back to do cameo appearances in other versions of the Superman story. In 2001, she played Kal-El’s Kryptonian mother Lara on the TV show Smallville. And it has been announced that she will play Supergirl’s foster mother in the new TV series which starts tonight (just in case you forgot).