From Krypton to Gautham: Superman III (1983)
1983 was a big year for me. I turned six in August. I was finishing up kindergarten that spring and going into first grade that fall. And, most importantly, the third film of my favorite movie series was coming out: Return of the Jedi! I was also excited that there was a new Superman movie. I only got to see one of them that summer, though, and the honor went to Return of the Jedi. Still, I was very much aware of Superman III and even watched the hour-long Making Of special that aired on TV to promote the movie. What a delight for a six-year-old that special was! Superman was going to go bad! That funny dude from The Toy (which had been on HBO), Richard Pryor–whom Mom said told dirty jokes for adults–would be in it. There was a lady named Lana Lang, and Clark Kent would go back to Smallville. And, the coolest of all: Superman would fight Clark Kent…in a junk yard!
When the movie finally came to HBO, I was not disappointed. I thought it was strange that Lois Lane was only in it at the beginning and at the end, but I thought the movie was funny and full of adventure. Sure, even at six/seven I knew it wasn’t as good as the previous movies, but I liked it well enough. So much so that when Dad brought me to an auto salvage yard, I re-enacted the fight scene. Alone. It gave the guy to whom my father spoke a great laugh. And imagine my shock when I discovered, on the dirt next to some scrap metal, a pair of broken glasses. Unaware of just how big the world was, I thought that maybe–just maybe–they shot the movie in that junk yard.
The Salkinds and Spengler rehired their screenwriters from the first two Superman films, David Newman and Leslie Newman, as well as director Richard Lester, to return to the franchise for Superman III. Most of the original cast returned, too. And with Richard Pryor on board, the movie was sure to be a winner. Right?
Christopher Reeve’s return as Superman is the best part of this movie. After all the time playing the Man of Steel from 1976 through 1980 for the first two movies, by the time he returned for 1983’s film, he had it down. Of course, the reason most people are even willing to rewatch this movie is when Superman turns bad. The bad guys give Superman synthetic Kryptonite with one wrong ingredient (this actually happens in 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman) that turns him bad instead of killing him. As a result, we get to see him leer at and try to pick up Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), be mean to people, have sex with the bad guy’s squeeze (played by Pamela Stephenson), and become a drunk. His suit gets darker, too; the same shade as the suits in Superman Returns (2006) and Man of Steel (2013). The best part, though, is the fight between Superman and Clark Kent. It’s pretty deep when you get right down to it. The Bad Superman is a symbol of the feelings that Superman surely puts to rest while Clark Kent is the symbol of the wholesome goodness he tries to live by. Does Superman literally break into two people? Is it just in his mind? Who cares? Even though the special effects are somewhat dated now, it’s fun to watch. Of course, I’ve always loved the idea of an actor playing off him/herself onscreen. It probably goes with my love of dual personalities and the like. Either way, the Bad Superman parts of this movie (which go longer than the Powerless Superman parts of the prior movie) are fun, if not somewhat silly. And you can tell Christopher Reeve is having fun. Not in a silly, slapstick way, but he’s digging his teeth into the chance to go dark.
As a matter of fact, Reeve is the only serious thing in this movie. He takes the character(s) seriously and it shows. And as much fun as it is to see him as Bad Superman, for my money, I think his best performance in this movie is as Clark Kent. It’s established in the first scenes that he would like to return to Smallville for his high school reunion (Class of ’65 representin’!). At the reunion he runs into Lana Lang, his high school crush (she’s actually featured in the first film). Lana is divorced and raising a little boy on her own. There is an attraction between Clark and Lana almost from the go and it plays out slowly through the movie. Unlike the romance between Lois and Superman, which became quite intense, the romance between Lana and Clark is simple, much more innocent. Of course, the big thing is that Lana likes Clark for Clark, whereas Lois accepted Clark as Superman but was pretty dismissive of him beforehand. Reeve understands this and it’s in his performance. Around Lana, Clark isn’t stumbling around. He isn’t the joke. He’s a real man, though he still has to throw people off the scent of Superman.
Annette O’Toole is also pretty good as Lana Lang. She’s not a Lois Lane 2.0, which is a direction the producers, writers, or director could have gone. She’s more innocent but wants to move on, wants to leave her life in Smallville for a life in Metropolis. Fear holds her back, as it does to so many. O’Toole plays the role earnestly. Plus, I just think she’s beautiful. I love her. Don’t tell my wife.
As I write this, I am at about 960 words. I never intend for these essays to go much past 1,000 words. However, the more I dislike something, the longer the essay gets. I’m going to try to keep this minimal, but it’s really not my fault. It’s the goddamn filmmakers’ fault. So….
The move opens, pre-credits, on Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) standing in a jam-packed unemployment office. He’s being kicked off unemployment after a year or so because he can’t hold down a job. When he asks another patron for a light, he sees an ad on the matchbook cover for a school for computer programmers. He grunts as though this might be a good idea, and we’re off.
Think about that opening for a moment. This is a Superman movie. There’s no Krypton, no crime, no Superman. Just Richard Pryor doing Richard Pryor (and doing it well, I might add) and then the loose set-up. If the prologue is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the movie (which it should) then this isn’t a promising start to the third Superman adventure. But okay, cut them some slack. Once the titles are streaming by us in space and we get to Metropolis and Clark, Lois, and the rest of the gang at The Daily Planet, surely things will go back into normal territory and we’ll be on our way. Gus Gorman will prove to be an important villain or ally for Superman and everything will be right. After all, these are the people who made Superman II.
So imagine the surprise that befalls the viewer when the opening credits don’t stream past us in space, but rather in blurry places at the top and bottom of the screen as a slapstick comedy opening ensues. We’re talking mechanical toy penguins running amok (one has its head on fire and is extinguished by Clark Kent), a blind man chasing his seeing-eye dog, a man who’s had a paint bucket fall over his head and then crashes into a gumball machine, the gumballs of which roll under the feet of a mime. There’s even a cream pie in the face of some poor schmuck who’s been weaving his way through this mess since the beginning. Oh! And there’s a bank robbery that goes unchecked and a guy who almost drowns in his car after it strikes a fire hydrant and fills his car with water until Superman rescues him. And that’s not all of it, either. Not by a long shot.
It’s the humor in the movie that essentially hurts it. Superman‘s humor came from character and life. Sure, Lex Luthor and Otis were a little silly, but you had no doubt that Lex Luthor would happily murder millions and not give a damn. Superman II began camping it up under Richard Lester’s control, but with a movie that still had quite a bit of Richard Donner’s (uncredited) work in it, the slapstick campy humor didn’t drown out the drama. Superman III does not have Donner’s or Mankiewicz’s touches on it at all. The script is all David and Leslie Newman, whose script for the first two movies were pretty distasteful to Donner, which is why he brought Mankiewicz on to rewrite them (uncredited, see the first Superman‘s essay). The movie is all theirs and Lester’s, and this is the heart of the problem. It keeps going for the laughs when it shouldn’t, because their laughs aren’t funny. It’s like watching two movies playing simultaneously, a Superman movie and a Richard Pryor movie.
Which leads me to Richard Pryor, a man–a legend–whom I admire a great deal. Richard Pryor has an Every Man way about him that really comes across on film. He was a great actor. Some of his scenes in this very movie are wonderful. Just not when he’s being funny. When he breaks into the Pryor persona, it falls flat. This is not the right kind of vehicle for him or his comedic talents and it sticks out and hurts the movie. I think he would’ve been great had they dropped some of the silliness and had him play it straight. The premise for his character is pretty cool, really. He’s a down-on-his-luck guy who finds out he’s a savant with computers. He makes a mistake by trying to rob his boss (Robert Vaughn) who catches him and is evil in his own way. He decides to use Gorman’s talents for bad and Gorman goes along out of fear. There could have been a really good human story here. Instead, we have Richard Pryor pretending he’s other people, from a salesman to a general, to trick people. We have strange, funny hand gestures. We have him skiing off a building and surviving.
The villains are pretty shabby, too. The rumor is that Gene Hackman refused to work with the Salkinds again after the firing of Donner (it’s said he refused reshooting scenes for Superman II) so instead of Lex Luthor we got Robert Vaughn. I have to look up Vaughn’s character’s name, hold on. He played Ross Webster. Annie Ross plays Vera Webster, his sister. Rounding out the villains is Pamela Stephenson who plays Lorelei Ambrosia. Now, I had to use Wikipedia for those names because I didn’t know them, not through the movie, not now. Vaughn, who’s been around forever, plays the evilish Webster in the way one might expect, sneering, overly dramatic, very different than Hackman’s matter-of-fact villainous ways. Pamela Stephenson’s character is sort of Otis mixed with Miss Teschmacher, only not good at either. I find that they make her pretty intelligent at moments but she hides it whenever her man and his sister is in the room. She’s conning them, and that’s the best part about this trio. There’s no real scheme they’re plotting. After Webster discovers Gus Gorman stealing from him by being a savvy computer guy (remember, this is 1983) he decides to use Gorman’s talents to ruin the Colombian coffee crop for a reason I have since forgotten. Gorman takes over a computer that runs a satellite that has the power to control the weather and–I don’t know. It goes from there to them wanting to control the oil, and there’s a super computer that suddenly becomes alive and Vera Webster becomes a cyborg and–
I know. It’s crazy. Let’s move on.
Lois who? Margot Kidder is convinced that the producers were punishing her for being vocal in the press about firing Richard Donner so they gave her what amounted to a walk-on part. Ilya Salkind refutes that. I say, who cares? She’s not in it, and when she is she isn’t all that great. If she was embarrassed by it, why sign on? Was the paycheck that good? I don’t know, but it does feel strange to have her gone and Clark Kent seemingly fall for someone else, when the last two films were about Lois and Clark/Superman’s love.
Superman doesn’t have black hair. I don’t know if Reeve didn’t want to dye his hair black this time around, but his hair is his dirty-blonde/light brown color. With the stuff they use to style the hair of both Superman and Clark Kent, it’s hard to tell completely, but for a lot of my life, I thought it was gray hair showing. It took the remastered Blu Ray to realize it was dirty-blonde showing. Continuity, man.
It’s mean-spirited. I found quite a bit of Superman III mean-spirited. Maybe it’s the 1980s vibe in this movie, maybe it’s that David and Leslie Newman and Richard Lester are just mean-spirited, but I was unhappy with some of the jokes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there should be limits on humor. Everything is game, if it’s funny. But from the bumbling blind man at the beginning, to the silly happenings as the computers malfunction and we’re shown the effects of these changes on citizens, there’s mean-spirited stuff. Sexist, too. One example of the sexist humor comes during a montage of shots when Gorman has used the computer to create havoc. A man and woman, husband and wife, sit down for breakfast. The man is older, with a mustache, wearing a jacket and tie. The woman is a mousy housewife type. Both have grapefruit in front of them. The man opens an envelope from Bloomingdale’s and finds he owes something like $175,000. He takes the grapefruit and pushes it into his wife’s face. She just takes it and then gives a Lucy-type eyeroll! What the hell? And then there’s Lorelei Ambrosia. She is supposed to be Webster’s Miss Teschmacher and she’s definitely got big boobs that are flaunted as much as possible in a PG-rated kid’s movie. Unlike Valerie Perrine’s performance as Miss Teschmacher, though, Pamela Stephenson plays Ambrosia as trampy, stupid, and selfish. The few times we see that she’s actually pretty intelligent, she quickly hides it for Webster and his sister. And when she seduces Bad Superman, it hits a new low.
After the Battle
I can’t say that I hate Superman III because I don’t. There are some people who do hate it and I understand why. While it never really hits any of the heights of the first two movies, Superman III does have some good, watchable moments. It’s really the performances of Reeve and Pryor that make this movie. The supporting cast ranges from real good (O’Toole) to unwatchable (the lottery winners) but it definitely is a step down from the previous movies.
Coming out a month after Return of the Jedi to lukewarm reviews, Superman III disappointed all around. The Salkinds would try one last Super- adventure on the big screen (1984’s Supergirl) before bringing Superboy to syndicated television in the late-1980s/early-1990s. In interviews to promote the movie, Christopher Reeve said he doubted he’d ever do another Superman movie. If only he’d stuck to his guns….