Supergirl has a timing issue. In her most commonly used modern backstory, Kara Zor-El is the teenage cousin of Kal-El (better known as Superman), and like him, she was sent to Earth from a rapidly dying Krypton. But Kara’s ship was thrown off course, and by the time she reached Earth, her once-younger super-cousin was a fully grown man, while she emerged from stasis still a teenage girl.
Her film appearances suffer from a similarly unfortunate tardiness: Supergirl arrived in theaters on the heels of the ill-received Superman III, just in time to play as a cheesy, unwanted spinoff of a withering series. Now, DC’s 2023 movie The Flash has introduced a new Supergirl — but after a decade-plus of development and delays, she’s hitting the screen right before a reboot of the whole DC cinematic universe. Once again, Supergirl showed up late. This time, though, she’s also right where she belongs.
[Ed. note: Significant spoilers ahead for The Flash.]
To be fair, the 1984 Supergirl wasn’t the kind of movie that could have set the world afire, no matter when it was released. Still, it’s more a victim of mistimed circumstances than an outright disaster. It isn’t appreciably worse than Superman III or Superman IV; it has some of their cornball-fantasy charm, and less of their disappointment. (It also has an unusual parallel with several Zack Snyder superhero movies, in that there’s a director’s cut that offers both a fuller experience and a test of viewers’ patience.)
In the 1984 movie, Helen Slater maintains a sweet gee-whiz energy as Kara, and she finds some charming notes to play, like the deep voice she winkingly affects when she’s telling a dopey love interest that yes, she can bend steel bars with her hands. Ultimately, though, she’s playing a more generic, retrograde version of Supergirl, released into the world not long before the comics version was killed off and removed from continuity via the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” storyline, suggesting that general interest in the character was at a low ebb.
The Kara iteration of Supergirl wasn’t really a going concern in comics for another 20 years, and the various comics tweaks she’s undergone since her introduction are reminiscent of the ever-shifting DCEU that’s now about to be abandoned, though possibly stripped for a few parts. The film series started out shepherded by Zack Snyder via Man of Steel, his now decade-old take on Superman. Superman has been a notoriously difficult character to crack in movies (though plenty of comics writers seem to do just fine); Snyder focused on a vision of Kal-El conflicted over his godlike powers and his role on Earth.
As plenty of people have pointed out over the past decade, MCU movies are often about the dilemma of how best to use superpowers to do good, while DCEU movies are often about whether it’s possible to do good at all, a concern raised early and often by Man of Steel. At its best, this idea infuses some dramatic tension into characters who might otherwise feel remote in their strength. But it’s also an odd fit for the touching idealism of Superman, who appeared to settle into his adopted home at the end of the uneven Man of Steel. “Welcome to the Planet,” Lois says to Clark Kent on his first day in the Daily Planet newsroom. “Glad to be here, Lois,” he says with a smile. It’s a perfect Superman ending, muddled by the weird pivots of Snyder’s subsequent films, including an abrupt, eventized death and equally sloppy resurrection.
But the inner conflict that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice metastasizes into seething alienation actually works pretty well for Supergirl. The Flash zips back to Man of Steel for a quasi-do-over: Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) gets stuck in a time-travel-generated alternate timeline where General Zod (Michael Shannon) still arrives to demand Superman’s surrender. Only now, the rogue Kryptonian hiding out on Earth is Kara Zor-El — and she hasn’t been adopted by a kind Kansas couple, or traveled the country as a do-gooder hobo, like her cousin in Man of Steel. The Flash and an alternate Batman must rescue her from a black site where she’s being held prisoner. Sure, it’s an excuse for an action set-piece, but it’s also a fitting introduction to Supergirl’s divided loyalties.
There are plenty of modern comics where Supergirl shares some of Superman’s optimism and goodness. But more often, her equivalent of Superman’s moral center is appropriately more of a cousin than a duplicate. Kara has a greater sense of loss — she remembers Krypton, her parents, and everything else that was taken away from her. (In some 2000s-era stories, where New Krypton is established and we see plenty of Kara’s Kryptonian family, she eventually loses her parents again.) In post-Silver Age comics, Kara is more of a genuine alien than Clark Kent. She saves people, but she doesn’t always feel accepted on their planet. She’s torn between worlds. Her power set is as vast as Superman’s, but there’s a sense that she still has to work more at heroism.
This is the version of Supergirl who emerges in The Flash, in a form that’s even rawer and less cheerful. Sasha Calle’s Supergirl seemingly never had the chance to establish a real human life before her capture, and Calle sells Kara’s wounded determination with her body language. Though she isn’t given enough screen time or enough lines, The Flash zeroes in on a moment of softening for Kara: her emotional reaction, starting with genuine confusion, when she realizes that Flash stuck his neck out to save her. (He thinks he needs her to defeat Zod, but even so, he expresses an authentic kindness toward her, even though she’s a complete stranger.) This gives her the ember of hope in humanity that becomes a raging fire in her big battle sequence.
Making a superhero character angrier, more jaded, and more violent is a tired comics trope that Snyder tried translating to the screen, but it’s the perfect multiverse variation for this particular Kryptonian. The way Kara is characterized in The Flash pushes back against a de facto wholesome-young-lady image, and infuses her with a sense of genuine righteousness. In this case, watching Supergirl do something Superman already did — punch the holy hell out of General Zod — is satisfying, rather than secondhand. The Superman-versus-Zod fight in Man of Steel is an endless, overwrought slog. Calle’s Supergirl takes on the properties of a sleek, vengeful bullet with a broken heart beneath the casing.
Unfortunately, the story The Flash is telling doesn’t have room for a Supergirl who lives to fight another day. By design, the Flash must learn that no amount of time-travel tinkering can save this particular version of Supergirl from dying at Zod’s hands — at least, not without wreaking havoc on the whole damn multiverse. (A heartbreaking-bordering-on-misguided moment in the movie leaves the audience watching as Kara dies over and over.) The disappointment of this Supergirl’s inevitable demise, though, fits with The Flash’s conception of past cinematic superheroes, a topic it’s oddly but interestingly fixated on.
In the movie’s big climactic fan-service montage, we peek into other variants of the DC universe, and it’s the perfect opportunity to pause for a series of applause breaks as past superheroes are briefly resurrected or created via CG. Surprisingly, this includes a version of Helen Slater from 1984, flying alongside Christopher Reeve’s Superman. (As morally dicey as it was to pull him in posthumously, at least he doesn’t speak any AI-generated lines, which leaves this cameo as more of an uncanny-looking reuse of old footage than a ghoulish resurrection.) These versions of Superman and Supergirl did technically occupy the same universe, but Reeve famously declined to appear in the Supergirl movie, so the major connection between his Superman movies and Supergirl is a creepy version of Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) hanging out with Kara and her teenage friends (including Lois Lane’s younger sister!).
In The Flash, though, Reeve and Slater are paired together as icons of the past, restoring some luster to Slater’s tarnished rep. And given The Flash’s actual themes, there’s a wistful awareness of both the eternity and the limits of these characters’ cinematic incarnations. The Flash writers Christina Hodson and Joby Harold and director Andy Muschietti seem to understand that big movie series do end, in some form or another, even when it seems like they’re in a constant comeback cycle. Christopher Reeve is gone. Helen Slater will not be playing Supergirl again in any meaningful way. And that makes their brief visual cameo as much of an acknowledgement of cinema history as the shot of George Reeves in his own Superman role.
Sasha Calle may not be playing Supergirl again in a meaningful way, either. Some fans may yearn for revivals of all these past incarnations of beloved characters. Some may even see such dreams briefly realized, in an age where Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield get to play Spider-Man again and Michael Keaton returns as Batman.
But there’s no real way to go back and fix curtailed series or compromised movies without also changing them. The Flash spends much of its last hour seemingly coming to terms with both the infinite recombinations of superheroes and the finite nature of life, as the DCEU slips away, on track for disappearance no matter how well The Flash does in the long term. The DCEU never found consistent footing with audiences — it produced some terrific and popular movies, and some embarrassing flops. James Gunn’s incarnation of the DCU could eventually produce another Aquaman or Wonder Woman movie with the DCEU stars, or they could be washed away. Supergirl is a great fit for the Man of Steel moment, but that moment has passed.
And missing that moment does feel weirdly true to the character. In addition to being a strong and (in the best stories) complicated woman, Supergirl is also a symbol of the sometimes undignified flexibility of so many second-tier superheroes. On the comics page, she lacks a Superman-style clean, instantly recognizable, rarely altered backstory that almost everyone knows and can understand. There have been so many comics versions of Supergirl that even purported fans like me have trouble keeping them straight; I own half a dozen Supergirl trades whose proper reading order I have to check constantly.
Even in a property as simple and direct as the kid-targeted DC Super Hero Girls books and shows, Supergirl is still the core hero whose personality changed the most — from sweet naïf to punk-rock bruiser — when the franchise switched up its stylistic approach. She’s never been especially popular on the big screen, only really hitting on a CW TV series.
It makes sense. Supergirl is a cynical knockoff character, first introduced at a time when seemingly every superhero had to have, at minimum, three sidekick equivalents — a woman, a young boy, and an animal. She’s simultaneously a figure of great resilience, occasionally starring in great stories that work within her bizarre Superman-derivative constraints.
The most recent of these was Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, the Tom King/Bilquis Evely miniseries that reimagines Supergirl as a Rooster Cogburn figure in a kind of intergalactic riff on True Grit. It was earmarked for adaptation in the first round of DC’s new James Gunn regime, and Sasha Calle has already expressed her interest. (Not surprising to hear that an actor would like to hang on to a role in the face of a reboot.) It would be great to see Calle afforded more room to flex in a leading role, rather than being limited to service as a cog in the Flash’s story. It’d also be great to see any Supergirl starring in a big, successful movie. (We’ve certainly given Batman near-infinite variations, now sometimes within the same movie.)
Supergirl fans deserve more of her than 30 or 40 minutes in a Flash movie that half-sunsets the DCEU. But anyone paying close attention to the Girl of Steel should understand how fleeting those opportunities can be.