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.

O Toole - Supergirl

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.”

I stand for truth, justice and chicken and biscuits. Love that chicken!

I stand for truth, justice and chicken and biscuits. Love that chicken!

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.

Demi Moore as Supergirl

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.”

Dunaway - Supergirl

Go find my agent!

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.

Supergirl - headband

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.

Slater - Supergirl

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).

More Movies that were supposed to…



Posted on October 26, 2015, in Movies, movies that were supposed to... and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Interesting account. You know – I really love that movie poster. “Her First Adventure.” What might have happened, indeed!


    • Yeah, they were really laying it on the line. Expect sequels! I suspect if they had made a deal with WB and released the picture in the summer, the outcome would have been different. Ghostbusters and Gremlins were the #1 and #2 movies, but they had both been in theaters for a month already. Supergirl could have had a pretty clear shot to make some money. Then again, the big problem is that the movie isn’t very good. That’s where firing Richard Donner became a problem. Had they kept him on, he could have steered the franchise for who knows how long.


  2. I was surprised to see you say that Slater’s acting career had flamed out pretty quickly because I had liked her pretty well without ever having seen Supergirl. So I looked up her filmography and it turns out that I saw most of her high profile appearances over the next few years, including Ruthless People (1986), The Secret of My Success (1987), and City Slickers (1991). While I’m sure the failures of both Supergirl and The Legend of Billie Jean killed her chances of becoming an A-lister, it seemed like she could have had a consistent place in supporting roles in comedies and romantic films. I remember being surprised when she showed up on Seinfeld for a single episode. I’m curious why her supporting work never really panned out.


    • I read that Slater was quite difficult to work with on Legend of Billie Jean. Not sure if that diva attitude carried over into her later work, but if it did that might explain some of her dwindling opportunities. I recently rewatched Ruthless People which I like a lot. But that movie belonged to Bette Middler and Danny DeVito – at least as far as the media was concerned. I doubt many people noticed Slater in the credits. By City Slickers, her movie career was basically over. She wasn’t remotely involved in selling that movie. I recall critics not being kind to her in Secret of My Success. That was probably her last chance to mount a viable movie career. But credit for the success of that movie went entirely to Fox (and rightly so).


      • Yeah, if she was difficult to work with then that could have done it.

        It seems to me that supporting work has the drawback/benefit that you will not get much credit for a hit, but you won’t get much blame for a bomb, allowing for a little more freedom to just work and hone your craft rather than being so worried about being a star. Of course Slater was facing a lot of competition for those ingenue roles too, which can be pretty boring unless you’ve got the right script. She got married in 1989 and had a child in 1995, so a focus on family life may have become more important in response to her acting career being less successful.


        • Tale as old as time.

          It’s a WTHH standard. But hey, she’s still working. She was on the series finale of Mad Men and will be a regular on the new Supergirl show. So, happy ending?


      • I’m extremely intrigue by the reports of Slater being difficult. I’ve been trying to look around online for any “good stories” to supplement such a thing. Helen Slater kind of fell into the same trap as Brandon Routh did over 20 years later when he (like Slater) was pegged out of relatively obscurity to launch a new Superman film franchise. What I mean is that it was supposed be a launching pad for “bigger and better things” but it somehow turned out to be a dead end (even though whatever problems were w/ said movies weren’t entirely their faults).


        • The only movie where I have found substantive rumors of Slater acting like a diva was The Legend of Billy Jean. Which is understandable. She was fresh out of high school when she made Supergirl and figured she would be a major movie star. It had to go to her head. For the most part, I have heard nothing but good things about her.


  3. Terrible movie. It’s sad to see O’Toole slumming it in this stinker. By this time, Dunaway had already been doing so, which is also sad. This movie had potential at the very beginning, but after all of those changes, and Christopher Reeve pulling out, they should have scrapped the whole schmear. I look forward to seeing the show tonight, and to seeing Slater paying homage to her not-so-much breakout role.


    • It really was a massive missed opportunity. If only they had found someone like Donner who got the material. Or better yet, hadn’t chased Donner off. We could be living in a radically different world where female protagonists were not considered box office poison.


      • I think it’s difficult to say that female protagonists are seen as box office poison these days with the success of The Hunger Games franchise and to a (much) lesser extent, the Divergent films. Also, the Tomb Raider movies did fairly well, as have the Underworld movies. Female superhero movies have all done terrible box office, but then, they’ve all been terrible movies. Hopefully, the upcoming Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel movies will do well.


        • I don’t believe female protagonists are box office poison. But Supergirl has long been one of a handful of movies used to prove that point.

          I still hear Hollywood guys say that people don’t buy tickets to movies with female leads. It’s been proven wrong time and again, but the Hollywood guys still buy into it. Even the head of Marvel will bring up Supergirl, Catwoman and Elektra to defend not making a Black Widow movie.

          If Supergirl had been good and performed as well or better than Superman III, it could have completely changed the course of movie history. Maybe we’d have gotten a Wonder Woman movie before now. Maybe it would have started a trend of female action heroines. Sadly, we will never know because the Salkinds dropped the ball.


        • Well, Marvel also has no plans to make a Hawkeye movie either. Neither character is particularly colorful or powered in any way. Their stories were basically summed up in about 5 minutes of A:AoU. Their movies, if they were to be made, would be basic action movies about non-super powered people. Minimal box office. I can see Marvel not bothering.


        • Yeah, but Marvel hasn’t specifically said “We’re not making a Hawkeye movie because movies about archers are box office poison.” There are leaked memos where the head of Marvel invoked Supergirl, Catwoman and Elektra as proof that movies with female heroes don’t work.

          Marvel has made how many movies now? With not one female protagonist? Despite having how many characters to choose from? There’s really no excuse at this point.


  4. I think the Marvel guy is being a little disingenuous. If people didn’t buy tickets, that has more to do with the movie not being all that good, not because the hero is female. Maybe he hates women. He might want to consider “The Heat” which was a box office smash and both leads women – Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy,
    Compare that with “Hot Pursuit” which, while I enjoyed….critics did not and it did mediocre box office. It was admittedly a lot more lightweight of a vehicle (hey, I like that at times) and the fact that it wasn’t a hit wasn’t because the leads were Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara – it was just a different level of material.
    Such a shame, that Supergirl didn’t live up to that poster; the artwork is fabulous!


  5. Poor Helen Slater. I thought she was pretty good an in a different version of Supergirl… who knows?

    I have high hopes for Melissa Benoist but I’ll have to avoid a lot of initial reaction because of spoilers (we don’t get to see Supergirl until Thursday because of that whole Atlantic Ocean thing.)


    • Just watched the show with my two girls. We all loved it.


      • I’m really unhappy they are showing it opposite Gotham. I’m not skipping an episode of a show I really like, which requires you to see it in order, to take a chance on another show. I’ve heard enough about it to give it a shot on streaming, but running two DC shows against each other is stupid.


        • See, I watch Gotham on delay anyway. And even then mostly out of habit. I don’t actually enjoy it and have considered dropping it many times. For my money, Supergirl is a vastly superior show. I hope it’s a hit.


  6. I love Faye Dunaway (my mother’s favorite actress, and has to be in anyone’s top three of actresses of the 1970’s), but man, this just doesn’t work here.


  7. I’m liking this new “Supergirl” though. This feels fun.


  8. Hollywood Flashback: In 1984, Helen Slater Fought Faye Dunaway as ‘Supergirl’

    by Bill Higgins
    11/12/2015 12:00pm PST

    Three decades later, Slater now stars as the superheroine’s (played by Melissa Benoist) foster mother on CBS’ drama series based on the DC Comics character.

    After a rough start, it has taken three decades for Supergirl to fly again. The DC Comics superheroine first took cine­matic flight in 1984’s Supergirl, starring a then-unknown Helen Slater. Krypton’s favorite flying teenager is now back in the CBS series starring Melissa Benoist that premiered as the second-biggest new series of the fall.

    Though it has developed a small fangirl following over the years, the $35 million TriStar release got mostly negative reviews. (THR said it “promises more than it delivers” and complained that the catas­trophes the heroine averts “are small potatoes” — like stopping an out-of-control bulldozer.) Its domestic gross was $14 million, though it did extraordinarily well in a then-burgeoning home video market. But the film aimed high, at least where casting its lead villain was concerned.

    Faye Dunaway landed the role of Supergirl’s archenemy, Selena, an evil enchantress who gets ahold of a powerful object called an Omegahedron after alien bigwig Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) accidentally launches it into space. Supergirl — real name Kara Zor-El ­— then flies to Earth to recover the supergadget. Co-star Brenda Vaccaro describes her role of Bianca as being Dunaway’s “sidekick witch” and notes she had to keep telling the Oscar-winning actress to calm down. “She was always worried about her costume or her hair,” says Vaccaro. “I kept telling her: ‘Relax, it’s just a fun movie.’ ”

    Slater, now 51, plays Benoist’s foster mother on the CBS series. She remembers her Supergirl experience (which she says paid $70,000) as “being 18, just graduating from Performing Arts High School, taking a year off to see if I could land any acting jobs and getting the lead role in this huge movie. To me, that overshadows how well the film did. I went from living in obscurity with my mother in New York City to this dazzling experience. I’m grateful for what happened. It changed my life.”


  9. Chris Stuckmann reviews Supergirl (1984) in Hilariocity form! Starring Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.

    “Supergirl,” (1984). Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc.


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