For the last survivor of a doomed world, Superman has a large family. Many Golden and Silver Age superheroes had a “family” – characters who share in the main hero’s adventures as, if not an equal, as a sidekick. Batman had the various Robins, the various Batgirls, Ace the Bat-hound, Batwoman, and, at times, Catwoman. Captain Marvel, of Shazam! fame, had Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., and Uncle Marvel. Superman had Superboy*, Krypto, Beppo, and Supergirl. not to mention the various Kryptonian criminals in the Phantom Zone. Supergirl, Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, was first introduced in 1959, though DC had floated the idea in 1958 with Jimmy Olsen wishing a “Super-Girl” into existence. Kara has the same powers as her cousin, thanks to being under Earth’s yellow sun. She arrived on Earth in a different manner, though.
In her first appearance, Kara wasn’t sent off from the dying world of Krypton on a rocket. Instead, she lived in Argo City, which had survived the planet’s explosion only to have the ground it sat on turn into Kryptonite. Kara was sent off to follow her cousin, but arrived in Midvale instead. She took on the the secret identity of Linda Lee, an orphan at the Midvale Orphanage.
Being the comics, nothing stays simple. Kara, as Linda, gets adopted, graduates high school and college, and moves to the West Coast to work as a TV camera operator. A second Kara, from the alternate dimension of Earth-Two and becomes Power Girl. However, after Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 1985 crossover event to try to clean up the DC Universe’s massive convolutions, not is Kara killed off, the universe is rebooted, removing both Supergirl and Power Girl from continuity. A third Supergirl, Matrix, is a shape changer, appeared in 1988, and a fourth, Linda Danvers, is an Earth-born angel**. Also, being the comics, no character stays dead for long. Kara began reappearing through the late 80s and is reintroduced in 2004 by Jeph Loeb, first in Superman/Batman and then in a new Supergirl title.
Rewinding back to 1984, Alexander and Ilya Salkind still had the movie rights to not just Superman but related characters, including Supergirl. Superman was in the top ten grossing movies of the 70s and is the movie that people associate with the character. Superman III, with Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor, came out in 1983 to poor reviews. Supergirl was a chance for the Salkinds to rebound. There were several cuts, including a domestic cut for the US and a longer international cut for the rest This review uses the 2006 DVD release, which was the international version of the movie.
Supergirl begins in Argo City, the home of the last survivors of Krypton, tucked away in an alternate dimension. Kara, played by Helen Slater in her first role, watches Zaltar, played by Peter O’Toole, use the Omegahedron, a powerful power source that uses imagination for creation. Such a powerful device needs to be used carefully, lest it falls into the wrong hands. Zaltar hands the Omegahedron to Kara to let her explore her own imagination. Kara’s creation, though, gets away from her and pierces the wall surrounding Argo City. The power source is blown out through the hole; its loss means Argo City’s time is limited. Zaltar, because he “borrowed” the device without permission, will be sent to the Phantom Zone. Kara chases after the Omegahedron to make up for its escape.
On Earth, Selena, a vain, impatient sorceress out for world domination (Faye Dunaway) and Nigel, her mentor and long suffering lover (Peter Cook***) are having a picnic while discussing invisibility spells. The Omegahedron falls into the potato salad and is picked up by Selena. The sorceress senses the power within and claims the power source as her own. She returns to her home, an abandoned amusement park she shares with Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) and experiments with the Omegahedron.
Kara arrives not far behind. Now under Earth’s yellow sun, she discovers her new powers, including flight. She heads to the nearby town, Midvale, where she finds the girls of Midvale High. Kara changes into a similar uniform and becomes the new student, Linda Lee. She name drops Clark Kent when she arrives, and, when the headmaster, Mr. Danvers, is distracted, types up a letter from her cousin to make sure that she’s accepted. Danvers shows her to her new room and her new roommate, Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy), the younger sister of the Daily Planet’s star reporter, Lois Lane. Lucy, while not thrilled about having a roommate, perks up when she discovers who Linda’s cousin is. Linda also sees the school’s buff groundskeeper, Ethan (Hart Bochner), and is impressed.
Ethan also impresses Selena, who comes up with a plot to force the groundskeeper to love her as part of her plot to rule the world. Selena drugs him with a love potion, which will make Ethan fall in love with the first person he sees when he regains consciousness. Unfortunately for the sorceress, Nigel interrupts. While he’s not allowed in, Nigel is enough of a distraction to let Ethan stumble to an escape. The groundskeeper, walking drunkenly down Midvale’s main street, avoids being hit. Selena uses the Omegahedron to locate him and enspells a backhoe to retrieve him. Lucy and Linda, along with Lucy’s boyfriend from Metropolis, Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure, the only actor from Superman to appear in Supergirl), see Ethan in trouble. As vehicles avoid both Ethan and the backhoe, chaos ensues, leading to spilled gasoline, downed electrical lines, and a tire fire. Kara disappears to the bathroom and appears as Supergirl on top of the diner. Supergirl saves the day, cutting the electrical lines with her heat-ray vision, blowing out the fire with her superbreath, and rescuing Ethan from the animated construction vehicle. Ethan recovers, and, to Selena’s chagrin, sees Linda first.
Selena escalates against Linda and Supergirl, never realizing they are the same person. The sorceress lures Supergirl into a trap by kidnapping Ethan. Selena twists the knife; she kisses the groundskeeper before sending Kara into the Phantom Zone. Kara, lost in the darkness of the Zone, loses her powers and, as she wanders, falls into an oily bog. Zaltar, in self-imposed exile, rescues her and helps her return to Earth through a small rift.
On Earth, Selena has succeeded in taking over Midvale through her dark sorcery and has plans for the rest of the continent. Lucy and Jimmy try to lead a resistance, but are arrested by Selena’s ensorcelled police. However, Selena and Bianca are watching what is happening in the Phantom Zone and are amazed when Supergirl returns. In the final battle, Selena summons a shadow demon to tear Supergirl apart. Kara turns things around on the sorceress, who is pulled into a whirlwind and trapped inside a mirror. With Midvale returned to normal, Kara retrieves the Omegahedron and leaves to return home.
Supergirl was not well received and failed to recoup its $35 million budget. Dunaway and O’Toole each received a Razzie for the film. Slater, though, was nominated for a Saturn for Best Actress. The problems may stem from having an almost twenty minute difference in running time between domestic and international. The longer version gives the movie time to set itself up, showing the rift between Selena and Nigel and showing Kara getting used to being on Earth. The chemistry between Dunaway and Vaccaro as Selena and Bianca is worth seeing. The main problem is that the movie went for camp at a time when camp wasn’t appreciated. If the movie had been made in 1979 instead of 1984, Dunaway’s over-the-top performance wouldn’t have seen out of place, following in the footsteps of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor.
As an adaptation, Supergirl took the character and presented her on the big screen. Her powers were influenced by Superman’s from his 1978 movie, though without the time travel. In the comics, Supergirl helped people at a personal level, and this does come through in the movie. The plot itself would fit earlier Superman comics, though not as much in the 80s. Kara’s origins, while meddled with, still reflect her background in her comics debut. The film does look like it came from a comic without being a cartoon.
Supergirl, while meant to be a stand-alone film, still leans heavily on Superman. Other than the villains, each character has a connection to the Superman cast, with Jimmy Olsen being brought over. However, as a character, Supergirl wouldn’t exist without Superman, so the links are expected. There were plans for a Christopher Reeve cameo, but that fell through; the lack of Superman is explained in a radio broadcast early in the movie, one ignored by Selena she’s taking Nigel’s car to return home.
Overall, some changes were made, more to take advantage of the medium than anything else. Despite the movie’s issues, it made an attempt to be faithful to the character, making this a successful adaptation despite the lack of theatrical success.
* Sort of. Superboy was originally the young Superman in Smallville, but later the name got attached to a different character believed to be a clone.
** Soap operas don’t get this complex.
*** Cook portrays a Snape-like character long before Snape was created.