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Wondrous Women: Supergirl vs Captain Marvel

  With Marvel's Avengers: Endgame crowned as the all-time box office champion (for now), toppling James Cameron's Avatar from that spot, it is clear the global audience cannot get enough of superheroes: even the much-maligned DC earned a billion dollars with the wacky Aquaman. It took a while for the genre to be accepted on the scale it was, but ever since Superman in 1978 it seems the stage was set for an entertainment takeover. However, as ever the main comics film departments were dogged with criticism that they were lacking in diversity, and though some complained there was too much (!), female superheroes did take a while to establish themselves.

As a box office draw, rather than television largely for kids in cartoons (Spider-Woman had her own toon, and Firestar was invented for Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, but they didn't really catch on). One case in point was Supergirl from 1984, made as a follow-up to the Superman series. With Clark Kent star Christopher Reeve reluctant to return to the role that made him famous yet again, producers the Salkinds made the most of their options, specifically the one for Supergirl, a title designed to appeal to teenage girls who were not the traditional audience for superhero comics, and for a while had done respectable business, though always in the shadow of her fictional cousin.

Nevertheless, creating a distaff movie to follow on the next year from Superman III, which had done decent box office but not on the level of the first two, seemed like a good idea at the time, and they went ahead, ploughing money into it and again casting an unknown for their protagonist. This time she was Helen Slater, a nineteen-year-old who had little acting experience, but a lot of enthusiasm: she clearly loved the idea of Supergirl and was endearingly positive about the part in her publicity. As it turned out, looking ahead to the massive successes of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel thirty years later it seemed it took a long while for audiences to get used to the idea.

Of a superheroine, as opposed to a superhero, and the behind the scenes issues, with the film suffering distributor problems and a number of cuts against director Jeannot Szwarc's wishes, put paid to Supergirl having anything like the success of the Superman movies - even the dreadful fourth instalment from Cannon made more profit. Predictably, it became both a whipping boy (girl?) for anyone lamenting the ridiculousness of profligate eighties, and a cult movie, mainly among those who saw it when they were kids and fell for Slater's sweet, goody-two-shoes interpretation. She was certainly the movie's chief strength, never anything but committed to morality.

Without a hint of irony and refreshingly otherworldly, in what was, rather than a science fiction story, embracing a more fantasy approach in what could have opted to rip off a franchise like Star Wars, which had recently completed its original trilogy. Yes, it was jarring to see the likes of Peter O'Toole and Peter Cook appear in roles (the latter recommended by Dudley Moore - make of that what you will), but the much criticised Faye Dunaway was actually a whole lot better than given credit for, what did you want in a comic book movie, subtlety? You were not going to get it here. The knives were also out for Hart Bochner as the himbo who becomes a battleground for Supergirl.

The villainous Selena wanted to win him over and used sorcery to do so, but there was a tongue in cheek quality to rendering the obvious hero a mere pawn as the women tested their abilities once they had gained the upper hand over the menfolk. Supergirl, as it turned out, was not the way forward for the lady protagonist in any kind of science fiction or fantasy effort, simply not knowing enough as a character when so much relied on the importance of her innocence - you could not imagine her acting up, or even acting in any way sexually aggressive as Selena did, but come the next century, the superhero style was gaining traction on television as well as movies.

That was the eighties, but pop culture was not done with her yet. Supergirl was portrayed next century in long-running Superboy saga Smallville by Laura Vandervoort, and later in her own series, the like-titled Supergirl where she was played by Melissa Benoist, more proof that audiences preferred DC on the small screen in later years. But male-centric The Dark Knight Trilogy aside, it was really Patty Jenkins' take on Wonder Woman that paved the way for stronger-than-strong women on the big screen, and though Marvel had been planning their Captain Marvel instalment for some time, you can well ponder if it would have hit as huge without Gal Gadot's sterling work.

Cynics might point to the fact that the Carol Danvers character, as played with renewed prestige by recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson, was a surefire hit since not only did it bear the Marvel brand, but it was part of the ongoing plotline in between two Avengers items, yet as something targeted at the female audience it succeeded as anticipated. It's not as if they were more easily pleased than the men, for Captain Marvel saw the studio settled into a groove where they would handle any of their characters with confident professionalism, and if almost any talent involved were moulded to apply themselves to the Marvel design ethic, they had found a prevailing formula.

This was an origin story that set itself in the nineteen-nineties, though really what it did was interpret your typical early twenty-first century eighties nostalgia and add nineties pop culture in place of Rubik's Cubes and Pac-Man or whatever. Therefore we got the expected records from the charts of the day (mostly with female singers, not a bad idea), and references to nineties touchstones like the alien autopsy hoax or dial up internet, all to add a dash of colour and texture to what was the accustomed Marvel runaround after the glowing McGuffin and epic fights breaking out at regular intervals; but then, 1984's Supergirl had all that as well.

And that was an eighties movie. So were Midnight Run and Top Gun, among others from that decade which Captain Marvel was reminiscent of, so it seemed the eighties were not done with the future just yet. Nevertheless, Larson had a neat line in sardonicism, mostly in her giving anyone she was not too impressed with some withering side-eye, though it was nice to see when she was fully powered up how much Carol loved being a superheroine, whooping and soaring and thoroughly enjoying herself in a way that her male counterparts were not, as they were more given to gloom and introspection over their "great responsibility". This made her refreshing for Marvel.

The plot was the usual space opera business that Supergirl was not a million miles away from (or a million light years), but the visual effects had come along in superleaps and superbounds since the eighties: witness the de-aging treatment on Larson's co-star Samuel L. Jackson (and his sidekick Clark Gregg for that matter). Initially it appeared we were in territory well-worn in science fiction television, the evil doubles plot, as seen in everything from original flavour Star Trek to The X-Files and indeed Gregg's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., another Marvel property, which used it more than once, but there was a variation here which seemed obvious yet not many had tried it before. Yes, you could predict double crosses, but if Captain Marvel did not hold the same historical weight as Wonder Woman, it did the simple things just fine: depicting female empowerment with disarming directness. Which Helen Slater had laid the groundwork for, and Larson took to the stars.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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