The Christopher Reeve Superman films were game-changing – respectful, high-budget adaptations that engaged adults as readily as children – and have since served as the foundation of the modern superhero movie. Reeve defined the character for a generation, while the first two movies' combination of knowing humor and loving homage became the template on which future directors based their four-color fantasies.
That said, it ended with shocking ignominy, starting with the misfire of Superman III in 1983 and ending with the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987. Both films occupy low spots in most fans' opinion polls, and, to add insult to injury, they’re not the only movies that brought the groundbreaking franchise to a halt. Supergirl revealed the series in creative free fall, and, although DC fans may not wish to admit it, the 1984 feature takes place in the same universe as the Reeve films. It’s easy to dismiss the connections as continuity errors -- and sandwiched between the bad Superman III and terrible Superman IV, there is a good deal of poor filmmaking on display. That makes it tempting to simply cut the movie out of the equation – Reeve himself doesn’t even appear in Supergirl – but the connections are too deliberate. Whether fans like it or not, they're inextricably linked.
According to the film’s entry at afi.com, Supergirl was envisioned as a direct sequel to Superman III. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind felt that the arrival of Kara Zor-El would invigorate the series after its disappointing predecessor. The project began with Reeve’s Superman playing a cameo role, allowing the actor to make an appearance without being tied down to a role he was growing weary of. He ultimately departed the project, and Supergirl did the best it could to make up for his absence, including offering an explanation that Superman was undertaking a mission far away from Earth.
Reeve’s absence was only the beginning of the film’s problems, of course. A nonsensical plot, shoddy exposition, terrible pacing and an overall sense of laziness doomed the script almost from the start. Strange cost-cutting measures were instigated, including several unseemly product placements and sub-par special effects. Except for star Helen Slater’s winning performance, and another strong soundtrack from composer Jerry Goldsmith, it was a disaster from start to finish. It sank without a trace at the box office, and future Supergirlmovies were placed on hold.
Amid the wreckage, its connections to the Superman films contain several major continuity errors. The biggest is Argo City, Kara’s home, which survived the destruction of Krypton and now supports an entire society living in “inner space.” That flies directly in the face of the Reeve movies, which state clearly that Kal-El is the last of his kind. Supergirl might have explained that away as Clark Kent simply being unaware of Argo City, but it undercuts that potential explanation with Kara’s knowledge of intimate details about her cousin and his dual identities. Without Reeve's presence, or more detailed exposition, there is simply no way to justify the continuity error.
It doesn't stop there. Supergirl constantly reminds viewers of its connection to the earlier films. That includes a scene of Kara admiring a Superman poster, as well as supporting characters like Jimmy Olsen – played again by Marc McClure – and Lois Lane’s sister, Lucy. Furthermore, Kara knows few details about Earth, despite her intimate knowledge of Clark, throwing the film into further confusion just so the character can make a few fish-out-of-water jokes. It becomes impossible not to connect it to the rest of the franchise, which in turn only reinforces the incompatibility of its backstory
Continuity was the least of the film’s failures and mattered a great deal less in 1984 when superhero movies were far thinner on the ground. But the quality of the product still mattered then, as it does now, and Supergirl’s supremely awkward effort to insert itself into previous content without due diligence demonstrates exactly why continuity is so important. Comic book movies seem to have learned their lesson on that front. For this tragic '80s misfire, those lessons came too late.