HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Not-So-SUPERGIRL

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll cover the Maid of Might’s arrival on the big screen and why the Superman franchise leaving the Salkinds’ hands wasn’t a good thing.

It wasn’t until just recently that the comic book film had any effect on the comic books they were adapted from. Now, it’s relatively common to have the comic book change to better mesh with the film version, but back in the 1980s, it was rare—with one major exception.

The Salkinds, who produced every Superman film up to this point, also held the rights to Supergirl. After Superman III went into production, they decided to make Supergirl next. Only one problem—they thought the Supergirl costume in the comics was old and boring. They wanted DC to change the heroes costume in her series to something the hip, trendy, aerobics-loving young women of 1984 would wear. DC obliged giving the Girl of Steel a new uniform that gave her more coverage up top, more coverage on the bottom, jaunty red accents on her shoulders, a perm and, best of all, a big, honking red headband. The costume might have been hip and modern, but only for about five seconds before it became hideously dated.

Well, at least they used the costume in Supergirl, right? Uh, no. They kept the costume from the waist down, using the same design as Superman for her top. There was no perm either.  One of the worst costume changes in the history of comics and they didn’t even bother using it in the film. Awesome.

The Salkinds and director Jeannot Szwarc followed the same casting formula that the Salkinds and Richard Donner did with the first Superman: cast an unknown in the lead (Helen Slater), a legendary actor with decades of experience as the doomed father of the hero (Peter O’Toole), a respected actor of the time as the villain (Faye Dunaway) and a quality character actor as the villain’s comic relief sidekick (Brenda Vaccaro).

The one thing they did differently was make the tone campy from the get go. If you ever wondered what Superman would look like if the Salkinds got their way back in 1978, well, here you go. But if they did, we probably wouldn’t be devoting so many weeks to the Superman franchise now.

Christopher Reeve appears in the movie only as a poster on the wall of a dorm room. The only character that appears in the film in order to connect Supergirl with the main franchise is Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen. No offense to Mr. McClure, but that’s like starting a Lady Indiana Jones series and casting Short Round as the connective tissue to the main series.

While the film debuted at number one at the box office, it did a quick fade and ended up being a flop. Warner Brothers appeared to be a genius for bailing on distributing the film (it was picked up by Tri-Star) due to the less than stellar returns on Superman III.

Warner Brothers has no excuse for not walking away from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the 1987 film they produced in conjunction with Cannon Films.

After the failures of Superman III and Supergirl, the Salkinds sold the rights to the Superman franchise to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israeli brothers who owned Cannon Films—a studio known for such fare as Missing in Action, Delta Force, and The Last American Virgin, not to mention Breakin’ and the now classic Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

The lead up to filming was positive. Christopher Reeve was wooed back with the promise of script input (the nuclear disarmament plot line was his) and the promise that Cannon Films would produce a film for him. The film Reeve chose was Street Smart, which is most famous for turning Morgan Freeman from “that guy who used to be on Electric Company” to “Oscar-nominated actor.” Golan and Globus were able to hire Gene Hackman back as Lex Luthor and most of the cast back in the roles they originated. Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang is missing, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is back once again only as a cameo, so the romantic lead falls to Mariel Hemmingway as Lacy Warfield, the daughter of the new owner of the Daily Planet. Jon Cryer joins the cast as Lex’s nephew, Lenny.

However, once filming began, even the stars realized the film was going south. Cannon Films had spread themselves too thin with their productions, and were in a desperate struggle to cut costs wherever they could. Superman IV was a classic case of this. The film looks flimsy and cheap.

But that wasn’t the only problem with the film. The film’s Nuclear Man was supposed to be a clone of Superman, but looked nothing like him and had a different set of powers. Superman addresses the U.N., tells them he is going to destroy all the nukes, and gets cheered. The world pretty much goes along with it. “Here, Mr. Powers of a God Guy. Take away our only means of defense against you! We don’t mind!”

The film debuted at #4 the weekend of its release, the lowest ranking of any Superman film. It failed to make its miniscule budget back and killed a planned Cannon sequel. And it also killed the Superman franchise for almost 20 years.

Not that there weren’t attempts to restart the franchise over that time. There were many. That’s what we are going to cover next week, and it’s not going to be pleasant.

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About William Gatevackes 1934 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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