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Complicated Portrayal of Supergirl Throughout History

The comic world once welcomed Supergirl as her cousin's rival. But history has shown us that our superheroine still needs to be saved...

By Stephen HamiltonPublished 7 years ago 9 min read

In 1938, a character created by two young men from Cleveland revolutionized the then-early comics industry. Nearly 50 years later, the comics were still going strong, and the character, Superman, looked strong enough to last another 50 years. Today, there is a rival for the public's affection, and this rival comes from Superman's own family—his cousin, Supergirl.

Supergirl has been around the comic pages for a long time—since 1959 to be exact, when she rocketed into the pages of Action Comics as Superman's Kryptonian cousin from the city of Argo, lost in Space since Krypton exploded. Her portrayal over the years has remained rather stagnant, suggesting that perhaps she is not all that revolutionary, after all. Which begs the question: shouldn't she be?

From Stand Alone Character to Super Crowded

Created by Mort Weisinger and Jerry Siegel (one of Supe's creators) Kara (her real name) was made to cash in on the Superman name, to increase the fold. Other 'Super' characters followed—Super Horse, Beppo the Super-Monkey, Streaky the Super-Cat, and even Superman's coterie of Super-Robots (who often went out on dates with Lois while Supe's went off to save a galaxy or two).

In the fifties, Superman was it. As popular and iconic as Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones are today, Superman had that kind of universal popularity then. He's still immensely popular now, but the stage is crowded a bit today. But in the fifties, there was no competition. The Superman TV show, starring the late George Reeves, with Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill as alternative Lois Lanes, and Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, were every kid's other family, their TV family.

Superman was the father figure, Lois was the mother, and Jimmy, the son. (Not expanded upon here, but for the record, two Superman serials filmed with Kirk Alyn as Superman.)

Those who are old enough to remember George Reeves' suicide in 1959 can speak to the shock of hearing of a seemingly invincible hero's death—the newspapers read—“SUPERMAN DEAD.” We experienced a similar sentiment ten years later when Bruce Lee died; a loss akin to how we might imagine feeling if we heard the same about Harrison Ford or Mark Hamill.

George Reeves was so identified with the role of Superman that even a proposed Superboy pilot, starring Johnny Rockwell, was filmed but never bought, because that image of Reeves was simply too iconic. In the sixties, a cartoon show was done for several seasons by Filmation; it featured badly done animation, but the highlight was the use of Bud Collier, who played Superman on radio and the classic 1940 Superman cartoons by the Max Fleisher Studios.

Not until 1975, when Alexander Salkind bought the rights to film Superman as a big budget movie, did anyone seek to carry on the tradition of George Reeves. The image was that strong.

The First Superman

The first Superman was directed by Richard Donner, produced by Ilya and Alexander Salkind and was written by Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman and Tom Mankewictz.

The initial Superman–from the same production team—was released in 1978. Buoyed by Academy Award-winning special effects, not the least of which made gravity appear obsolete, and a critically acclaimed performance by Christopher Reeve, it tallied more than $300 million at the world-wide box office.

Superman II rivaled that mark—the combined total now tops $600 million–breaking America's one-week attendance record in the process. Superman III was inevitable, but the producers insisted it would have to be totally different from what had gone before. “You can't think of a successful 'formula' because that leads to complacency,” explains executive producer Ilya Salkind. "And complacency is more dangerous to Superman than Kryptonite.”

The quest for something different began in story conferences between Richard Lester, who directed Superman II, and David and Leslie Newman, who had co-written Superman, the Movie and Superman ΙΙ. While filming in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the Newmans had been charmed by the town's warm hospitality. That evoked images of Smallville, the heartland community where the infant Kal-El was found, after his journey from Krypton, and raised by simple farm folk, the Kents.

Lester, meanwhile, felt that the next threat to Superman should come from some form of villainy peculiar to our time, such as computer technology. A plot line then evolved including a comic character who was a computer wizard.

At about this point, comedy legend Richard Pryor appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Pryor had just seen Superman II, and proceeded to regale viewers with his own unauthorized version of the movie and the myth. It turned out that Pryor was a Superman freak and he then became a happy and committed member of the cast.

As Gus Gorman, Pryor portrays the sort of fellow who needs bad luck just to have any luck at all. But on the day his unemployment checks run out, Gus spots a match book cover which reads, “Earn Big Money as a Computer Programmer,” and discovers he has a gift. A rare one. He can talk to computers. That talent is not lost on his new employer, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), an outrageously rich industrialist who is trying to get even richer by cornering the world's commodities markets. At present, Ross is furious with Colombia—the whole country—for exporting coffee just when he's been trying to create an artificial shortage.

Now... if Gus could plug into the Vulcan weather satellite and reprogram Colombia's balmy climate, that would wreak havoc on the world coffee market. And if that works, how about a world-wide oil crisis?

For Vaughn, the rapacious role marks a turnabout from his longtime image as the crusading Man From U.N.C.L.E (the TV show, not the film). “The trick to playing a villain, even a super-villain, is that he must never acknowledge how rotten he is,” says the actor. "All the great malefactors in history believed they were trying to help humanity, which simply refused to cooperate.” In the Superman tradition of eccentric dwellings, Webster lives in an Alpine chalet with its own ski slope. It's only odd aspect is that it's perched atop a Metropolis skyscraper.

There, he tries to keep the peace between his mistress, a spectacularly well-stacked closet intellectual named Lorelei Ambrosia, and his sister, Vera, a woman with all the warm femininity of Joe Stalin in drag.

As Lorelei, New Zealand-born, Australian-bred comedienne Pamela Stephenson—the co-star of British television's satiric series, “Not Necessarily the Nine O'ClockNews'' – matches the Newmans' scripted description of the character: “When she walks by, it's like watching the proverbial puppies playing in a sack.” The danger for Superman in Superman III isn't really Vaughn, or Pryor, but Pryor's creation, the super-computer that's gone bonkers. The set itself, which was full-sized and four-stories tall, was created by designer Peter Lamont (Superman II, Man With The Golden Gun, Octopussy) and is armed with Kryptonite lasers designed to kill Superman.

“What we have here,” director Richard Lester proudly told a visitor as the machine took shape on a Pinewood soundstage, “is a criminally insane computer, a silicone psychopath.” When completed, the computer stood four stories tall, a gleaming, whirring, clanking, humming thing of flashing lights, oscillating monitors, grasping tentacles and futuristic gadgetry, vaguely resembling the offspring of some odd mating between a hydro-electric plant and an extra-terrestrial jukebox.

As Gus Gorman, Richard Pryor proudly mounted a metal staircase—like Leonard Bernstein at the Philharmonic–to take the controls.

In a moment, Superman would soar overhead, unaware of the danger awaiting him. The computer, programmed to recognize the Man of Steel as its enemy, would focus all of its fantastic energy on the caped figure.

Ross Webster would exult, “Congratulations, Gus. You're going to go down in history as the man who killed Superman.”

And the ultimate battle between man and machine would begin.

Supergirl Takes On the Big Screen

The computer nearly did kill Superman–at least at the box office. Though Superman III made money, it didn't do what the first two films did—mainly because of the concentration of comedy. What was forgotten was that Superman is an action character (no pun intended) and the fans want to see spectacular action-not funny stuff.

Christopher Reeve stated that SIII would be his last for a while—unless a good script was brought around. (cough Superman IV cough... and a Smallville appearance).

What to do? What about—Super-GIRL? Supergirl had been sadly neglected for years. The character was shuttled about in various magazines, and never established an identity, like her cousin, to call her own.

Supergirl would be then, nearly a completely new character to the public. By using the Superman and Supergirl legends, the producers could create a new screen persona. The first thing would be selecting a Supergirl.

Like Christopher Reeve had been, the new Supergirl would have to be an unknown, but an unknown who would later become a superstar. Auditions were held throughout the nation. Eventually, an 18 year old young woman from Massapequa, Long Island was selected.

Helen Slater had recently graduated from New York's High School of Performing Arts, 'the fame school'.

At school, acting and a superheroine part were the last things on her mind. “Supergirl in the comics had amazonian proportions. I've always been terribly gawky, too goofy to become a high-kicking cheer-leader, with stringy brown hair and bad posture; definitely nobody noticeable.”

Post Performing Arts, the usual ‘cattle calls’- a clutch of television commercials and an uncomfortable month with the Elite Modeling Agency. “I hated it” said Slater. “After a lot of testing became a failed covergirl and was the young lady in mittens in a cookery spread for a potato recipe in Seventeen Magazine."

After initial auditions, Helen was called back by Director Jeannot Swarc, and brought to London. States Slater, “It was a symbolic time. I spent my 19th birthday alone in a tiny cubicle of a hotel room in London. Nobody was saying anything about the role. The five day visit stretched to two weeks. All wanted to do was go home. On the way to the airport was told I had the job. I grew up overnight.”

Preparing for her rigorous role, Helen trained with Olympic champion Daley Thompson, working with weights and so forth.

Supergirl also starred Peter O'Toole as Zaltar, Simon Ward as Zor-El, Kara's father, Mia Farrow, Brenda Vaccaro, Peter Cook, Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen and Faye Dunaway as Selena, the Villaness of the piece.

From Big Screen to Small Screen

For all its stellar production value, the evolution thus far in the CW's Adventures of Supergirl is an unsettling testament to the fact that decades after the character's conception, the super-heroine remains ill-equipped to hold her own onscreen. This says nothing about the quality of the show or the performances of stars Melissa Benoist and Tyler Hoechlin, which happen to be excellent. It's the premise of the show that's inherently flawed; Supergirl's competence to save the world on her own has yet to be proven to us. To that end, the titular character lasted only a season by herself before dear old cousin Clark came back as a series regular. It's an anachronistically dependent female lead disguised by a feminist-friendly TV landscape, and I'm not buying it.


About the Creator

Stephen Hamilton

Definitive movie buff. Quickly realized that it was more financially prudent to write about film than trying to beg for millions of dollars to make his own.

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