There’s too much Richard Pryor in my Superman movie.
Who made it?: Richard Lester (Director), David Newman, Leslie Newman (Writers), Pierre Spengler (Producer), Warner Bros. Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Annette O’Toole, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Margot Kidder.
Tagline: “Superman vs. the king of computerized crime!”
IMDb rating: 4.9/10.
Superman III has a sub-plot you should pray Zack Snyder utilises on a massive budget.
After being affected by those dreaded meteor rocks, the Christlike Kal-El suddenly forgets his altruistic ways and becomes a complete bastard. What if the most powerful being on Earth decided he didn’t want to rescue cats from trees or stop megalomaniacal supervillains? What if he turned his powers against us? DC writers have dealt with this many times over the years to give the Big Boy Scout something gritty to do, and it’s a beautiful set-up for a Superman movie. Sadly, such an intriguing premise is trapped in a film so head-slappingly silly that Superman’s evil antics amount to moments like “correcting” the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Jesus.
Put simply, Superman III is the moment a once-beloved franchise became camper than an Alan Carr sweater. Prefiguring Joel Schuchmacher’s neon Batman nightmares by over a decade, director Richard Lester’s second go-around with the Man of Steel puts aside any lofty pretensions to do the comics justice and becomes a farce. The credits sequence completely does away with the epic starfield of flashing names scored to John Williams’ stirring music, and replaces it with a slapstick sequence on the streets of Metropolis. But the cold opening is perhaps the most telling moment in the film. Instead of a scene with the title character, we’re introduced to funnyman Richard Pryor as unemployed nerd Gus Gorman. When it cuts awkwardly to Williams’ score as retrofitted by the less-talented Ken Thorne and the aforementioned sketch, we realise, hopelessly, that we’re not watching a Superman film but a fucking comedy.
The main plot is completely consumed by Gorman. His proficiency with a computer leads him to the attention of corrupt CEO Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) who wants Gus to help him in his extortion plans. What does that entail? Controlling the world’s supply of coffee, of course! We’ve gone from Lex Luthor’s real estate schemes to hot beverages! When Columbia refuse to do business with him, Webster coerces Gorman into controlling a satellite to destroy their crops in a manufactured storm (yeah, right), which the Kryptonian foils effortlessly. Webster then sets his sights on the more-lucrative supply of oil, assigning Gus the all-important task of killing Superman. Because he’s clearly the man for the job!
Meanwhile, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve giving it all he’s got) has successfully convinced long-suffering Daily Planet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) to let him attend his high school reunion in Smallville, Kansas. It brings him back into the life of childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) who now has a young son. His trip down memory lane is soon halted, though, when Gorman turns up in town with a chunk of Kryptonite. But the rock doesn’t have the intended effect of killing him and instead brings out his dark side…
It should be noted that Superman III isn’t an unmitigated disaster, and there are certainly elements of the film to appreciate. Executive producer Ilya Salkind might not have been a visionary with the absolute best intentions in mind, but he didn’t make his movies on the cheap. The film had a more than solid $39 million budget and Robert Paynter’s cinematography as well as the special effects look fabulous for the era. Lester also shoots the set-pieces with a degree of skill, including the fantastic bit where Supes freezes and then disperses an entire lake’s worth of water over a burning chemical plant. Screenwriters David and Leslie Newman needed more grandstanding bits like this and less of a focus on Gorman’s buffoonery. When it concentrates on Kal-El, Superman III isn’t all bad.
I especially liked Clark’s homecoming. Smallville is so much a part of who he is, and the sub-plot should have been the main focus of the film. His relationship with Lana is sickly-sweet, perhaps, but the chemistry Reeve had with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is certainly here, too. The franchise’s signature heroine is notably absent for much of the running time due to her personal problems and a distaste for both Salkind and Lester, but I didn’t really miss her. O’Toole is so good-natured in the part that you want Kent to pick Miss Lang over Lois; Lana loves Clark for who he is and not because he saves people in an outlandish costume. This is used to good effect later on when Evil Superman comes damn near close to raping her in what is surely the darkest sequence of the original four films. It sticks out in what is supposedly a family-friendly comic book romp, but it certainly gives us a peek at where braver writers could have taken the concept.
Superman’s trip to the dark side is a great deal of fun, although surely a Kryptonian’s metabolism would restrict him from getting drunk? Seeing him in a bar with a bottle of bourbon is ludicrous, really, but Reeve absolutely goes for it. This is potentially his best performance as Kal-El; he’s more confident and willing to push the boundaries of his well-worn character. It all leads to a memorable fight in a junkyard between his dual identities that has never made a lick of sense but is the picture’s indisputable highlight. It’s a shame, then, that we’re soon taken back to the boring villain plot for a perfunctory conclusion that incorporates everything from exploding missiles to a deadly supercomputer. Pryor tries his hardest to make the material work just like Reeve, but we’re ultimately left with a comic book film by a director who could care less about men in tights. In a bid to please everyone and himself, Lester produced a film that is narratively unsatisfying and far, far too frivolous.
Thirty years later, Superman III is still a highly flawed and disappointing threequel that could have been so much more in better hands. Its reasonably well-made, inoffensive, and ideal for very young children, but those looking for a serious take on DC’s flagship hero will be left scratching their heads.
At least its better than The Quest for Peace, right?
Evil Superman vs. Clark Kent = best scene in the entire film. Here’s a slightly abridged version.
- The first time Christopher Reeve had top billing in a Superman movie. In the first film, he was behind Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman; for the second he was behind Hackman.
- After Margot Kidder expressed her disgust about the firing of Richard Donner to the producers, her role was cut to twelve lines, and less than five-minutes of screen time.
- The little boy who appears waiting by the photo-booth while Clark changes into Superman was actually the same little boy who played baby Kal-El in Superman (1978).
- Annette O’Toole would go on to play Clark’s adoptive mother, Martha Kent, in TV’s Smallville.