Synopsis: After Superman: The Movie’s epic storytelling and Superman II’s awesome battles, how could the first two hits be topped? In Superman III, meet Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), a half-witted computer programming natural. For him a keyboard is a weapon and Superman faces the microelectronic menace of his life. Christopher Reeve reprises his most beloved role, deepening his character’s human side as Clark Kent reunites with an old flame (Annette O’Toole) at a Smallville High class reunion. And when Superman becomes his own worst enemy after Kryptonite exposure, Reeve pulls off both roles with dazzling conviction. Incredible visual effects abound – but above all it has heart, heroism and high-flying humor. All in superabundance, of course.
Superman III 7.75
eyelights: Christopher Reeve. Pamela Stephenson. its well-crafted dialogues. its comic timing.
eyesores: the final conflict. the motion picture score’s mix.
“I ask you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one, simple thing.”
I’m probably the only true fan of ‘Superman III’; I know no one who truly likes it. Heck, even stars Christoper Reeve and Richard Pryor weren’t keen on it.
But I guess it’s a question of expectations: Whereas ‘Superman‘ was a hybrid of science-fiction and adventure, and ‘Superman II‘ was a hybrid of action and romance, ‘Superman III’ is a flat-out comedy. And so long as one watches it for the humour, it’s actually a really good film.
But that’s just not what most people want out of a Superman movie.
Of course, it’s hardly surprising that the picture was more of a comedy, given that it was helmed by Richard Lester, whose bread and butter had mostly been movies with a comedic undercurrent (Is 1973’s ‘The Three Musketeers’ a comedy? No, but it does have some slapstick elements to it).
While he had directed much of the footage for ‘Superman II’, which was more balanced, he had come in late in the project and didn’t have the influence that he had when he was given full control of its follow-up. And so we got a Superman film co-starring Richard Pryor instead of Marlon Brando.
The opening credits sequence doesn’t so much set the tone as it mentally prepares the audience for a different type of Superman movie: It revolves around a blonde Barbie-type walking down a Metropolis sidewalk, distracting all the men as she passes by and, naturally, ‘causing all sorts of havoc.
Even Clark Kent gets into the gag, sweeping a flying cream pie out of her way into another man’s face.
Yes, a cream pie!
The story this time revolves around Gus, a nitwit loser who’s at the end of his social assistance cheques and decides to take up a computer programming class for lack of any other ideas. There he discovers that he’s an idiot savant, capable of programming computers to do almost anything.
Soon he catches the eye of a business tycoon who blackmails him into programming a weather satellite to alter weather conditions to benefit his stocks. To prevent Superman from foiling their plans, Gus finds a way to synthesize Kryptonite – although an unknown element changes its effect.
Meanwhile, Clark Kent has returned back home for his Smallville high school reunion, with the intention of writing a piece about it. There he is reunited with Lana Lang, his high school crush. They immediately hit it off and start spending a fair bit of time together, along with her son Ricky.
When Gus takes advantage of an appearance by Superman to Ricky’s birthday to give him the synthesized Kryptonite, our hero merely becomes a shadow of his former self. But Gus has one more trick up his sleeve: he designs a supercomputer that is powerful enough to give him the balance of power.
Ahem… how can Superman stop him now?
Now, I recognize that this picture doesn’t have the stakes of Zod’s world domination. It doesn’t even have Lex Luthor, lame though he may be in this series. But I like that the filmmakers didn’t raise the stakes as they usually do in these movies – the stakes don’t go up or down, they sort of go… sideways.
The biggest mistake huge blockbusters make is indulging in the more-is-more philosophy, which is a fallacy. The follow-up to ‘The Dark knight’, for instance, should have been a subtler film that found Batman working in the shadows, doing detective work, chasing prey and solving a large scale enigma.
Then go for something bigger in the fourth film.
Instead, they tried to outdo ‘The Dark Knight‘ and merely managed to shoot themselves in the foot, putting so many pieces into play that few came together properly; much of the picture made no sense whatsoever. It became a huge letdown in what was, until then, a pretty stellar superhero series.
But let’s take a look at the positives of ‘Superman III’:
- Christopher Reeve. He IS Superman. And he IS Clark Kent. And he IS dark Superman. The guy was really versatile, rather underrated.
- Richard Vaughan is good as a substitute for Gene Hackman. Yeah, yeah, he doesn’t play Lex Luthor, but he might as well have; they’re similar characters.
- Pamela Stephenson as Lorelei. I truly dislike the type of bimbo that she plays, but Stephenson is unmistakably H-H-HOT. Ai carumba. And I like that the character pretends to be a clueless Barbie doll but is secretly genius; it’s her shtick.
- The opening credit sequence is extremely well-choreographed. It’s nonsensical, if not farcical at times, and some aspects are trite, but as far as comedy routines go, it’s pretty damned well conceived. I especially like the gag when Clark Kent goes into a photo booth to change as a kid comes by for his own pictures. Superman comes out of the booth, sees a set of pictures showing him changing, tears off the Clark Kent pictures from the set and proceeds to give the others to the kid. It’s amusing and it says so much about Superman’s character.
- Clark Kent has a couple of really terrific moments in his interactions at The Daily Planet. It continues to prove just how good Reeve was – he could be a superhero, but he was also good at light comedy.
- Gus comes up with a scheme to steal the half pennies that don’t make their way onto cheques and that he thinks fall off the radar. Now, it’s a naive notion that was immediately caught by accounting, but I still liked that he got the idea to do it. I especially like that he’s such an idiot that he went and bought a flashy sports car, drawing attention to himself. Comedy isn’t always about in-your-face gags; sometimes it lies in basic behaviour.
- Clark meets up with Lana Lang. Annette O’Toole, although she plays Lana a bit soft, is a dream! Rowr. I especially love the dynamic between Clark and Lana: they have a great rapport, but they also have these “cross-eyed” exchanges, in which they’re responding to an alternate interpretation of what the other is saying, and then they have to play catch up to know what’s going on. It’s really well thought out and written dialogue.
- While on a picnic with Lana and Ricky, her son gets hurt and Supes has to save him. I loved how they got Clark out of the way just enough that Superman could go about his duty. It strains disbelief, but not enough so that it doesn’t work – and, mixed with the comedy, it actually comes together nicely.
- Gus messes with nationwide computer systems while drunk and it affects a money machine, which keeps giving money out, puts out a distorted credit card bill to a spouse, and messes with traffic lights at a busy intersection. It’s all very silly, yes, but it’s nonetheless amusing.
- The second act, which finds Superman under the influence of Gus’ synthetic Kryptonite, is great because it says a lot about the responsibility that Superman has as a superhero and it was nice to see what happens when he utterly fails – otherwise his actions can be taken for granted.
And it doesn’t change the character, unlike what ‘Man of Steel’ did. This is all Gus’ doing.
-After being invited by Lana, Superman comes by for a visit. But he starts to feel unwell due to the Kryptonite. She gets a call about an accident on a bridge, but his brain is muddled and he’d rather stay and flirt. Unfortunately, due to his delay, the people die.
-Superman now an anti-hero and a bit of a prankster, straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa and extinguishes the Olympic flame just as the the torch bearer arrives, completely spoiling the moment – and the marathon runner’s efforts.
-Superman’s suit is darker. Firstly, it looks less goofy, but it also differentiates him from his usual self. Nice touch. He’s a “dark Superman”.
-Superman gets seduced by Lorelei. Now that he’s no longer a big blue Boy Scout, he acts on his impulses more. Interesting idea. And, man, does he ever score with her!
-At his lowest, Superman is despondent and drinks in a bar. Out of frustration (I can’t imagine he’s actually drunk) he smashes peanuts into the bar’s bottles one by one. Man, what a mental image that is!
-Superman fights Clark Kent. Now, the exact science behind this one is questionable at best, and you’d think that Clark wouldn’t have the power to match up Superman. But let’s assume that the fight isn’t literal, but metaphorical, that it’s actually taking place inside himself – despite the visuals that suggest otherwise. From that perspective it’s quite a scene (and, metaphorically, it makes more sense anyway – trapping a superhero with tires is otherwise a ridiculous notion).
- As though we didn’t need more convincing, the whole second act shows just how good Reeve was – he had such a great emotional range that he could pull off all the nuances of the two Supermen, plus Clark Kent. He’s without a doubt the star of the show.
On the downside, however:
- Richard Pryor. He was never my favourite actor; I’ve never found him either funny or credible. Here, he’s far too goofy for my tastes.
- The opening sequence, while it adequately introduces the audience to Gus, also leaves them wondering what movie they’re in. Has Superman been relegated to being a second banana in his own movie? Almost.
- The opening credits finds a car crashing into a fire hydrant. For some reason, this means that its passenger starts to drown in the car, unable to get out. So Superman’s role is to rip its suspiciously rubbery sunroof off and rescue him. Lame.
- Lois goes to Bermuda on holidays. There are rumours that Margot Kidder had a falling out with the series’ producers and they wrote her out of the picture. Whatever the reason may be, it sucked that she only had a cameo. I’m sure someone could have given her something to do.
- Clark and Jimmy’s bus to Smallville has to stop along the way because of a chemical fire taking place at a plant. Fine. Let’s believe that the road is closed due to this incident right next to the plant, not further up the road. But then Clark changes into Supes in the back of a cop car and no one notices. It’s funny, but patently absurd.
- Superman rescues a handful of trapped workers by having them slide down a metal smokestack, which likely would have torn the crap out them as its insides wasn’t designed for this. Then he freezes the top of a lake so that he can bring water to the site and extinguish the fire. This is impossible as the structural integrity of that slab of ice wouldn’t support the weight. And why didn’t he just use his super breath to cool the fires?
Well, it was a way to add excitement, but in a so-so way.
- Gus is sent to Smallville, coincidentally enough, so he can access/hack a subsidiary’s computer system. Um… because a Smallville computer in 1983 would have the power to hack into a main one? Suuuuure. Too much of a coincidence.
- Gus brings booze and gets the security guy drunk. Then Pryor does this routine in which he puts the security guy on strings so that they can turn both security keys at once. It’s sort of ingenious but I don’t find it altogether credible . Or drunks funny.
- Gus tries to explain to his boss what Supes did to fix a situation they had conspired together on, but does it in an awfully unfunny routine that finds him putting on a pink table cloth and going up an artificial ski hill to emulate Superman. It’s dreadful stuff. And it gets worse: he then falls down the side of the building, lands on an incline and into the street. Unscathed. And proceeds to walk through traffic in his skis. Even Christopher Reeve complained about this one.
- Gus, trying to recreate Kryptonite, substitutes tar for an unknown element. I guess he’s an idiot so he didn’t see that it would make a difference, even in small quantities. But it’s annoying because tar was such a stupid choice.
- After agreeing to visit Ricky for his birthday, Superman is met with a huge Smallville crowd at a ceremony in his honour. Instead of politely bowing out, given that this is not what he’d signed on for, he graciously stays and accepts the key to the city. I guess that’s Superman, though.
Then Gus shows up, pretending to be a General and comes up with some pathetic excuse for giving Superman fake Kryptonite. Supes doesn’t even wonder about it, though he is baffled by the gift. Seems to me that this spontaneous appearance and strange presentation would have me on my guard.
- Superman gets seduced by Lorelei. Seriously, did he put on a Kryptonite condom? ‘Cause, really, there’s no way she should have survived that encounter.
- They build a supercomputer at Gus’ demand and specifications in a canyon. In a canyon. Wouldn’t that be out of bounds? Wouldn’t anyone wonder about what they’re doing there? And if it wasn’t meant to be hidden, then why put it in a canyon – anywhere else would do, seems to me.
- Gus and company balloon down into the canyon on individual balloons that look cheap and sketchy. Oh, Lord.
- Superman arrives and defends himself against a missile attack – an attack that is controlled via a video game. It’s so corny, so 1983. I guess it was cool then, but man, does it ever suck now.
- Superman gets stuck in an airless cellophane bubble. He can hold his breath in space: why would this be a cause for concern, exactly?
- Superman gets hit by Kryptonite ray. They couldn’t figure out Kryptonite before, but now they can. WTF.
- Gus saves the day by swinging down on yoyo to help Superman. It’s really lame, and it’s not helped by Pryor’s pathetic fall to the ground.
- Vera is turned into a crap cyborg. Firstly, it’s a stupid line of defense for a computer that can do anything. Secondly, it looks like garbage.
Ultimately, for me, it’s the third act that totally undermines ‘Superman III’. Until that point, it was an excellent comedy with far more strong points than weak ones. But that canyon bit is just total garbage on all count: it doesn’t make sense, it looks cheap and it’s not resolved satisfactorily.
However, if one allows one’s self to enjoy this movie as a comedy, it’s actually rather enjoyable up to that point.
Date of viewing: April 27, 2016