Inside 1984's 'Supergirl': How the first female-powered superhero film is relevant again in #MeToo era

Three decades ago, Supergirl made moviegoers believe that a woman could fly. After Superman III premiered to less-than-stellar box-office returns, super-producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind decided to expand the franchise by building the first big-screen blockbuster centered around a female hero. Newcomer Helen Slater, then age 21, landed the role of Superman’s Kryptonian cousin, Kara Zor-El, better known by her terrestrial identity of Supergirl.

Upon its theatrical release, however, the Girl of Steel’s maiden adventure crashed and burned; but the film — which arrives on Blu-ray later this month — has gained a cult following over the years for its kooky fusion of fantasy, feminism, and superhero fun.

“It was a little bit hard that it didn’t do well,” Slater told Yahoo Entertainment when she stopped by our San Diego Comic-Con suite with intrepid Daily Planet shutterbug Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) in tow. “But I also went on and did [movies] like Ruthless People and The Secret of My Success and City Slickers, so to me it was a little bit like a free pass, because I know [Christopher Reeve] struggled very much with too much of the icon on him. In that way, I feel I had a little more facility. But yeah, of course I wish it had done better!” (Watch our video interview above.)

Just as Reeve’s Superman costume hewed closely to the character’s comic book origins, Slater’s Supergirl duds were also classically modest, not unlike the character’s first comic book appearance in 1959. “I remember in the screen test, they tried like a red headband, and before I dyed my hair, they put this very white, curly, wavy wig on,” the actress remembers about the variations her super-suit went through. Her appearance certainly won over McClure: “I got to meet Christopher Reeve when he first became [Superman], and he looked fantastic. I remember my first impression of Helen was, ‘I’m buying this.’”

Speaking of Supergirl’s cousin, the original intention was for Reeve who died in 2004 — to cameo alongside Slater, but he opted out of that plan. That didn’t stop the two onscreen heroes from becoming offscreen pals. Slater remembers one night when the two of them were hanging out near New York City’s Central Park. “There was a fire engine going by like one, two, three fire engines, and he looks at me and he’s like ‘Superman and Supergirl, nothing we can do!’”

These days, Slater is staying in the super-family by portraying current Supergirl Melissa Benoist’s adoptive mother on the titular CW series. “She’s incredible,” raves Slater of her successor. “On the heels of the #MeToo movement, it feels like we’re in a very interesting time [for female superheroes]. One girl was deaf and she said, ‘Will you please tell the producers, “Please, will you make a superhero that’s deaf?”’ And I was like, ‘I will.’ How great would that be?”

Supergirl flies onto Blu-ray on July 28.

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