When father-son production team Alexander and Ilya Salkind purchased the film rights to Superman in 1974, they also purchased the rights to Supergirl should the Superman film franchise become successful and need to branch out. Ultimately, the Superman movies enjoyed a tremendous amount of success (well… Superman I and Superman II did anyways) and a Supergirl film was released, but it absolutely tanked at the box office and was quickly dropped and swept under the rug by Warner Bros.
The Supergirl movie was filmed one year after Superman III went into production. At this time, the Superman film franchise was considered a hot property that brought in lots of revenue and could do no wrong, so a Supergirl film was just money in the bank. Superman III (1983) blew a hole in this theory by not performing very well at the box office (you can see box office revenues for Superman films here). Why did it do so badly? Was it because it paled in comparison to the action packed blockbuster that was Superman II (1980)? Was it because Richard Pryor played the main antagonist? That’s for discussion another time. Whatever the reason, it was obvious by Superman III that the Superman film franchise had peaked and this concerned Warner Bros, who decided to sit on the finished product for a while. Tri-Star Pictures eventually obtained the film from Warner Bros and released it in North America (it originally premiered in the UK). It had a strong opening week but performed poorly in overall box office sales (Supergirl box office numbers). Helen Slater (actress who played Supergirl) was signed to a 3 picture contract, but this was quickly scrapped. The poor reception of Superman III and Supergirl was too much for the Salkinds, and they sold the Superman films rights to Cannon Films (who later released Superman IV in 1987).
You can find numerous online Supergirl movie reviews that will discuss the nuances of the casting, plot, soundtrack, distribution and background politics of the film – and they are all entertaining to read – but in this article I will focus on the film’s impact on DC comics.
The greatest thing to come out of the Salkind Superman film franchise was the Olivia Newton-John Supergirl costume (y’know… the costume where she is wearing the headband?). This is my favorite Supergirl costume ever, and quite possibly my favorite DC comics related-thing from the 80s. The Salkinds requested that DC modernize the Supergirl costume to keep with 80s fashion (to be in sync with the film), so in Supergirl #17 (1984) DC readers were introduced to a Supergirl wearing a bright red headband. The real kicker is that midway through filming, it was decided that the headband looked too ridiculous and was never used in the movie (you can find test screenings on the DVD). Despite being scrapped by the film’s wardrobe department, the headband did remain as an iconic look for Supergirl until her death in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (1985). Which leads us to our next item…
A popular rumour/speculation that has been floating around for decades is that Supergirl was killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths because her film did so poorly. This is in fact false and if you pay attention to the clues you will see that the death was pre-meditated. Clue #1: The Supergirl comic book series (1982 – 1984) was cancelled several months before her film was released to North American audiences. Clue #2: Crisis on Infinite Earths was planned/plotted by Marv Wolfman several years before the Supergirl film was released. In later interviews with Dick Giordano, it was revealed that there was some hesitation on DC’s part to kill off Supergirl if the movie was successful – but alas, that was not the case. Jeannette Kahn was the one who ultimately threw the kill switch. So to conclude, it was planned that Supergirl would die in a 1985 company-wide cross-over event, but she would have been spared had her movie been a box office smash.
As far as promotional efforts go, besides this house ad for the VHS release and a “soon to be a major motion picture!” blurb on Supergirl #17, DC didn’t try very hard to advertise this film (at least from what I can remember). It could be due to the fact that Warner Bros dropped this film like a hot potato after it received poor reviews in the UK and tried to distance itself from it as much as possible*. DC comics did, in fact, publish an official adaptation of the film in 1985. The Supergirl film was released as three different versions: the 105 minute North American version, the 124 minute UK/European version and the 138 minute Director’s cut. The Supergirl film comic book was an adaptation of the UK/European version, I believe.
The 1984 Supergirl film is actually quite enjoyable if you don’t take it too seriously or nitpick about all the things that don’t sync up with DC continuity. If you can remember that CGI didn’t exist back then, that they didn’t have a very big budget to work with and that Supergirl is being hoisted by a wire when she flies – then you will probably enjoy it for what it is – a film about a super-powered girl who just happens to be called ‘Supergirl’.
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*For some reason this film is never included in the Superman’s collectors set (contains Superman I, Superman II, Superman III and Superman IV).