Alexander Salkind and his son Ilya Salkind backed into success with the Superman (Christopher Reeves) series when director Richard Hamilton failed to prove available and they snagged Richard Donner (who’d only found success with The Omen, but went on to The Goonies and Lethal Weapon) and for the role. Tom Mankiewicz touched up the script that Mario Puzo (The Godfather) had written under Donner’s direction, Reeves proved worthy of the role, and, with apologies to Batman and Spider-Man, the real first superhero film came to being.
But after the success of Superman: The Movie and Superman II (filmed semi-simultaneously), and the somewhat successful Superman III, the Salkinds signed off on a spinoff starring Superman’s cousin, Supergirl. The only returnee from the crossover series, Marc McClure returned as Jimmy Olsen – ironically telling Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy) that he’d always loved her, instead of Lois. Reeves didn’t cameo, and the film was lost for decades, with Helen Slater’s turn as Clark’s cousin left to a solitary Saturn award nominee.
Slater ended up in Ruthless People, The Secret to My Success, and City Slickers, before popping up on The CW Supergirl show, but she wasn’t the big draw in 1984. Now, thanks to Warner Brothers Archive Collection, we see the prime versions of Faye Dunaway (The Thomas Crown Affair, The Three Musketeers, Chinatown, The Towering Inferno) and Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter, My Favorite Year), who play the witch Selena and Kara/Supergirl’s fellow Kryptonian Zaltar, who sets all of the misfortune in motion by losing the Omegahedron onto Earth by way of deep space.
While the film has plot holes big enough to fly through (how does Kara show up in Supergirl costume on Earth), there’s something quaint about watching another film from the universe where there really is good versus evil and we can tell the difference. While Zaltar makes a terrible, reckless mistake, he’s also capable of great sacrifice and beauty. While Selena lusts for power and possession of all of the things that everyone else has – dominion over all the Earth? – Supergirl is another Christ-like figure who is willing to lay it all down for others to live. (She even goes to the land of the dead and is ‘resurrected’!) This isn’t the greatest superhero movie ever, but it’s entertaining, and a reminder of the way we actually used to be able to distinguish the heroes from the villains.