Krypton Kountdown – Superman III (1983)

After the tremendous success of the first two Superman movies, it came as no surprise that the summer of 1983 saw the release of Superman III. And after the opening credit sequence, it was clearly established that the tone of this movie would be dramatically different from what we had seen in the first two adventures.

Superman IIIRichard Lester was back as director and his comedic influences were now in full force, for better or worse. Instead of a grand opening credit sequence with the now familiar theme as arranged by Jonathan Williams, we get a comedy of errors all started by the roaming eye of pedestrian in downtown Metropolis. Granted, it is somewhat funny but seemed out of place. However, considering that we were introduced to Richard Pryor’s character of down-on-his-luck Gus Gorman right before that, it truly set the tone for a more lighthearted adventure.

Our story centers on Gus Gorman who, after being told he could no longer collect unemployment checks, discovers he has a talent for computer programming. After he is disappointed by his first paycheck, he decides to put those computer skills to work for his benefit and embezzles money from his new employer. Enter CEO Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), who puts Gus to work in a scheme to rule the world through financial manipulation. Part of Webster’s “gang” includes his sister Vera (Annie Ross, Throw Momma from the Train) and Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson, Bloodbath at the House of Death). Webster forces Gus into creating a fake version of Kryptonite, which is imperfect and, after a failed attempt at weakening Superman, is thought to have no effect on him. Ultimately, Webster plots to control the world’s oil supply, which leads to Gus building a super computer.

Meanwhile, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) has returned to Smallville for a story on his high school reunion. Once there, a romance begins to develop between Clark and his childhood sweetheart that never was, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Lana’s son Ricky also befriends Superman until Superman begins acting strangely. It turns out the fake Kryptonite did affect Superman, causing him to begin angry and destructive. After a series of incidents, he splits into two people, an evil Superman and a nice Clark Kent. The battle between the two is odd but the most action we’d see in this movie besides some random super heroic acts (several of which we see the lines carrying Christopher Reeve, something I didn’t notice in the first two movies). Superman III 2

After good wins out, the restored Superman goes about righting all his wrongs and facing the super computer. Another odd battle follows which sees Vera turned into a cyborg and Superman winning out using an acid from a chemical plant he saved earlier on in the movie. Gus gets a job at a coal mining company and Lana moves to Metropolis with a new job as Perry White’s (Jackie Cooper) new secretary. And yes, Margot Kidder is back as Lois Lane in what really is a glorified cameo role with less than five minutes of screen time. Kidder had been very vocal against the Salkinds over their treatment of director Richard Donner during the production of Superman II, which would explain her small role. Gene Hackman allegedly refused to return as Lex Luthor for the same reason. Personally, I’ve never been able to take Robert Vaughn seriously in any role he’s played and his character of Ross Webster comes across as a pale version of Luthor.

Superman III had far too much humor for my tastes, especially considering how serious the first two movies were overall. I’ve also never been that fond of Richard Pryor and his portrayal of Gus Gorman just seemed out of place in the universe they had created. I did enjoy the battle between Superman and Clark, for which Christopher Reeve did receive a lot of recognition. I did enjoy Superman III more than I should, mostly due to nostalgic memories of my youth.

Superman III 3Reportedly, one original idea had the villains Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlk headlining the movie, which I would have loved to see. The plot also had Superman meeting his cousin Supergirl, who eventually saw her own movie spin-off in November of 1984. For whatever reason, Warner Brothers didn’t like the idea and moved forward with what we eventually saw on screen.

Superman III is readily available on multiple DVD sets as well as Blu-ray. To date, only the theatrical version has been made available for home viewing. TV versions added an extra 16 minutes of forgettable footage as well as changing the opening credits to resemble the first two movies and eliminating the comedic penguin opening.

Superman III turned out being far less successful than the first two films. A lot less enjoyable than the first two but definitely better than the mess we were to be dealt with 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which I’ll take a look at tomorrow.

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4 thoughts on “Krypton Kountdown – Superman III (1983)

  1. At the risk of being self-indulgent, here is a review of the film I wrote several years ago for another site.

    Superman III originally came out in June of ’83, the summer before I entered the third grade. I was seven years old at the time, and I still distinctly remember it as one of the formative movie-going experiences of my young life. For one thing, my parents allowed several of my friends to see it with us in the theater, and I felt a sort of proud ownership of the whole affair. This was my movie and my event and my day, and I could not have been happier at how the movie entertained my guests. So impressed was I that I pored over the promotional tie-in magazine, The Great Superman Movie Book, for months afterward, carefully cutting out the pictures and affixing them with Scotch tape to places of honor on the walls and door of my room. Revisiting the film in its entirety for the first time in over 26 years, I was startled by how much of the film had stuck with me. This is a movie jam-packed with memorably insane set pieces, the kind that might make a strong impression on a kid: a villain with an artificial ski slope on the top of a skyscraper, a bowling ball hurtling down an alley with such velocity that it shatters the pins, a woman who gets sucked into a giant evil computer and emerges as a terrifying cyborg (who somewhat resembles Medusa from the original Clash of the Titans), and — of course — that memorable scene in which Clark Kent inadvertently eats dog food. Only years later did I discover how poor Superman III’s reputation actually was. It certainly seemed like a hit to me at the time.

    For the last 20 years or so, superhero movies have generally been expected to deliver all the fun and frivolity of, say, Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List. Take the average summer blockbuster about a costumed crimefighter, and it will generally play like it was written by a relapsing heroin addict, directed by a suicidal glue sniffer, and edited by a paranoid schizophrenic. Nowadays, your typical movie superhero is a critically flawed masochist who spends a good percentage of the running time whining about his personal life in between occasional incoherent action scenes set against a bleak urban nightmare landscape. This is what passes for entertainment in 2010. Audiences apparently now go to superhero movies to see their own anxieties reflected grotesquely back at them. Against that backdrop, a supremely goofy movie like Superman III makes no sense at all to the contemporary viewer. Shouldn’t Superman be using that laser vision of his to heat up a spoon in a filthy back alley somewhere? Why hasn’t he raped Lois yet? Shouldn’t he be stabbing Jimmy Olsen in the face? And why, dear lord, are the action scenes filmed and edited in a way which makes it clear what is actually happening? Isn’t the whole point of an action sequence to make us feel dizzy and disoriented, like we just spent an hour in a tumble dryer? Why do I not feel the urge to huff glitter paint and throw myself into traffic? What is going on here?

    Relax, dear reader. Superman III is an artifact from a bygone era. That’s all. No reason to panic. To understand this movie, you first have to understand that strange, hopelessly backward time in American history: the early 1980s, during the reign of the man they called “The Gipper.” It’s important to know, for example, that the primitives of that time thought computers to be “magic,” even though your waffle iron probably has more memory than all the computers in this movie combined. The idea of a satellite which actually controls the weather — instead of just reporting it (which is what weather satellites actually do) — may seem far-fetched to us. But to the people of 1983, you could explain such a logical fallacy by simply stating that “computers did it,” and they’d just nod in passive agreement. We had no idea what computers actually did back then. Heck, we didn’t even have any first-person shooter video games which allow us to experience the bloodshed and mayhem through the eyes of the killer. The closest thing the supposedly “evil” mega-computer in this movie can come up with is a tame third-person shooter in which you can fire some crummy missiles at Superman in the Grand Canyon. Nice try, 1983, but we’re trying to raise a generation of sociopaths here!

    We certainly had an ambivalent relationship with money back in 1983. The only thing we can agree on is that we were all obsessed with it, even more so than today. The 1980s are rightly remembered as a time of go-go consumerism, avarice, and ruthless ambition. Yuppies were riding high back then, and it seemed like everybody’s goal was to become a wealthy son-of-a-bitch with slicked-back hair, a very expensive and unreliable imported sports car, and a closet of fancy suits to be accessorized with ridiculous suspenders and power ties. Countless 1980s movies end with the heroes being rewarded with just such a lifestyle. But movies from this time are just as likely to make old rich white dudes the villains, and comedies frequently mined laughs from taking an individual from the lower rungs of society and catapulting him into the world of wealth and privilege to expose the phoniness of that milieu. “Culture clash” was a major theme of the era, and movies frequently added in a racial underpinning as well. Trading Places with Eddie Murphy is the perhaps definitive artifact of this phenomenon, but Richard Pryor made a couple of stabs at it himself with The Toy and Brewster’s Millions. Superman III is essentially a 1980s racial/culture clash comedy somewhat clumsily retrofitted into a superhero movie. What surprised me when I revisited the film is that — apart from a couple of scenes — the Richard Pryor part of the movie and the Superman part of the movie do not really intersect that often. Fascinatingly, there’s an alternate fan edit of Superman III floating around out there which supposedly excises much of the Pryor material.

    Frankly, the Pryor storyline does not really work that well in Superman III, and it drags the whole production down — a shame, too, because there is some very fine material elsewhere in the film which deserves to be seen. What is Richard Pryor even doing in a Superman movie? The DVD supplements give a little insight into that. Apparently, shortly after the release of the first film, Richard Pryor appeared on The Tonight Show and did a routine in which he acted out the entire plot of the film, much to the delight of the host and his audience. I have not seen that particular clip, but there’s an apparent attempt in Superman III to recreate it, as Pryor dons a tablecloth as a cape and proceeds to act out Superman’s heroics to the non-amusement of his boss, Robert Vaughn. (Side note: It’s amusing to me that Vaughn serves the same basic function in Superman III as he does in Pootie Tang, i.e. to be the ultimate corrupt honky, trying to lead the black hero astray.) The producers of the Superman films were so impressed by Pryor’s enthusiasm for the character that they apparently decided this film should be scripted around him. Pryor’s stand-up act included a lot of role-playing — fans may remember his in-character monologues as “Mudbone,” for instance — so in addition to playing jittery computer whiz Gus Gorman, Pryor gets to play dress-up and try out some funny voices now and again. I remembered his big scene as a three-star general, channeling two of George C. Scott’s characters: George S. Patton and Buck Turgidson. But there is an earlier scene which has Pryor donning a ridiculous plaid suit and impersonating a fast-talking salesman, which leads to a very broadly-played “drunk” scene later on. This material may actually play better in isolation, but in the context of Superman III it has the effect of stopping the movie dead. “Hey, gang, let’s put the plot on hold for a few minutes so Richard Pryor can do some schtick.” The DVD commentary reveals that even the producers had some reservations about this, particularly the fact that the “George C. Scott” scene essentially requires Superman to be on-camera but motionless for a good chunk of screen time. The producers might also have asked why Superman is not suspicious when he is given a piece of unidentified green rock by a stranger, but maybe this didn’t come up in story conferences. In any event, it’s telling that the original poster for Superman III featured that iconic image of Superman flying with a terrified Pryor in his arms (a moment film historian Donald Bogle possibly overreads as racist) but that the current DVD version does not even mention Pryor on its cover. To give the comedian his due, there are a few moments from his performance worth praising. I enjoyed, for instance, the film’s relatively low-key opening scene with a down-and-out Pryor trying in vain to bargain with a highly unsympathetic employee at the unemployment office. Similarly amusing was Gus Gorman’s exit scene at a remote coal mine, where he tries to impress the workers by boasting of his friendship with Superman and — when that fails — summons a mock-casual demeanor as he begins a nine-mile walk to the nearest bus station.

    Somewhat forgotten in the fallout of the Richard Pryor debacle is the fact that Superman III features a very good performance from Christopher Reeve in a triple role that gives him plenty to do. Let’s start with the basics: Reeve is the only actor — and I say this without hesitation — to properly play the character of Superman. No one else, in any medium, has gotten it quite right. Not Dean Cain or George Reeves or Danny Dark or Bud Collyer or Brandon Routh or Tim Daly or any of them. The first Superman movie was famously advertised with the phrase “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly!” (a phrase which Pryor memorably parodies in Superman III), but the posters might as well have used “You Will Sort of Believe That Superman and Clark Kent Are Two Different People!” Because that’s always been a sticking point, hasn’t it? Apart from those glasses, Superman and his alter ego are transparently the same man. Christopher Reeve is the only actor who seems to have approached Superman and Clark Kent as separate assignments. Superman, as Jerry Seinfeld once wisely noted, is “the man.” The costume looks great on him, and he seems at ease in any situation, be it romantic or perilous or both. He is confident without being arrogant, commanding without being stiff or stentorian (a common pitfall for voice actors essaying the role), playful without being silly. He has a sense of gravitas but is not somber. There is a softness to his voice and an old-school elegance in his manner. He is uncommonly graceful; while watching this movie, please take note of Reeve’s almost balletic takeoffs and landings. In the “making of” documentary on the DVD, Reeve sums it up: Superman, he says, is a “gentleman.” On the other hand, you have Clark — that poor, sweet, hopeless bastard who at the beginning of this movie is still hungry for the approval of Lois Lane and Perry White. Unlike Superman, who always seems “just right” for any given environment, Clark Kent always looks too big for his surroundings, and he has terrible trouble in this movie holding up his end of a conversation. The filmmakers have toned down some of Clark’s slapstick buffoonery, running into doors and such, but he still manages to come off as a shy nerd who has no chance with Lois. I’m sure the costume department was instructed to make all of Clark’s outfits a size too small, making him look uncomfortable at all times. And beneath it all, Clark harbors something of a grudge against Superman. He’s understandably a little tired of Superman and wishes people could just like Clark for a change. One of the most interesting aspects of Superman III is that it gives Clark Kent a viable, non-Lois romantic option: his high school classmate, Lana Lang (nicely played by the lovely Annette O’Toole), a now-divorced single mother on whom Clark had quite a crush back in his Smallville days. Personality-wise, the guileless and uncomplicated Lana is the opposite of savvy, snarky Lois, and — miraculously — she seems to genuinely like Clark almost as well as Superman! Towards the end of this movie, there’s a moment which suggests that Lana’s interest in Clark may be sparking some jealousy in Lois. Had Superman III been as big a hit as its predecessors, it’s likely that Superman IV would have explored this romantic triangle. But it was not to be.

    The tension between Superman and Clark Kent is at the heart of the storyline in which Superman, supposedly under the influence of synthetic quasi-Kryptonite, ditches his predictable superheroics and starts acting like — in the words of the villains — a “normal” person. He starts drinking, stops shaving, and in one remarkable sequence, even cuckolds Robert Vaughn by sleeping with Vaughn’s mistress. Speaking of that mistress — Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson) — a feminist film critic could write one hell of an essay deconstructing the female paradigms on display in Superman III. Let’s see here. We have two “good” women and two “evil” ones. On the good side, we have take-charge, career-minded Lois Lane (who is sexually threatening) and sweet homemaker Lana Lang (who is sexually inviting). On the evil side, we have Vaughn’s mistress, Lorelei, and his sister/henchwoman Vera. While the sexy Lorelei must hide her intelligence behind a faux-Marilyn-Monroe ditziness, the vaguely dyke-y Vera is allowed to be smart and commanding, but at the price of her femininity. (There are several jokes in the film about Vera’s mannishness.) Are Vera and Lorelei intended as parodies of, respectively, Lois and Lana? It’s something to ponder. Props to Annie Ross, a legendary and innovative jazz singer, for fearlessly playing the unflattering role of Vera. (To see Ms. Ross in a more natural environment, please watch the ensemble drama Short Cuts by Robert Altman.)

    The character of Superman is so pure and so wholesome that writers are naturally going to want to pervert him in various ways. The urge is irresistible. We are fallible, and want to project our insecurities onto Superman, the symbol of all that we wish we were but cannot be. Besides the misshapen clone Bizarro, there have been countless storylines over the years about Superman being brainwashed or somehow duplicated or degraded. (Hell, they even killed him once or twice. Remember that?) In the very first episode of the much-remembered 1978 cartoon series, Challenge of the Superfriends, Superman becomes a criminal under the sway of Lex Luthor’s “dream machine” and is committing crimes only a few minutes into the show. Superman III was the film series’ inevitable exploration of this theme, and they handle it very well, making the storyline just dark enough without being too grim or self-serious. It helps that “evil Superman” mainly just pulls childish pranks (snuffing the Olympic torch, for instance) and that Christopher Reeve makes even “evil Superman” appealing on some level. During the commentary for the film’s famous junkyard duel — a bracingly feral and urgent sequence — producer Ilya Salkind correctly points out how sexy and cool Reeve is here, playing the bad guy. For once, he gets to swagger onscreen!

    Superman III is a movie of contradictions. It’s a mess. It’s hard to believe one movie could contain that brutal junkyard battle and yet also find time to have Richard Pryor don a giant foam cowboy hat and booze it up with a security guard while a twangy country song blares on the soundtrack. And both of these scenes must co-exist with the gentle, nostalgic sequence in which Clark Kent returns to his hometown of Smallville to attend a high school reunion. (The reunion scene, for me, played a lot like a harbinger of Back to the Future.) And then you have Robert Vaughn as a typical 1980s James Bond villain, a power-mad industrialist with one of those big light-up maps of the world in his impossibly fancy office. But it’s all there, somehow, in this one movie! And, ultimately, I was glad of that. This is a movie that manages to take the Superman mythos to some strange, potentially disturbing places but never really feels self-consciously heavy or even approaches pretension. Blockbuster filmmakers should not necessarily use Superman III as a textbook, but there are a few things to learn from it.

  2. I’m mostly with Joe. Though I haven’t seen it in a while, the Clark/Lana scenes and Bad Superman really worked better for me than anything in Superman II, which seemed to just amp up everything they thought worked in 1, and then added powers to Supes and the Krytponians, like they couldn’t figure out how to make ultra-powerful characters interesting on their own. (See Man of Steel for some of the things you can do with Kryptonians without extra powers.)

    Pryor didn’t bug me as much as he did a lot of people — maybe because he was a brilliant comedian, and I always liked him. But, yeah, it might have been a better film without that added star. (Though, remember, he may have had more box-office draw than Superman at the time.)

    In the end, I like this better than the non-Donner 2, because I like the relationships better, and even the comedy aspects better. And Reeve is fabulous in all 3 roles.

    Interested in how you’ll like the rest of the Super films — though, frankly, the Big S has gotten much better treatment on TV, both live and animated. Well, maybe until the new film… (No spoilers!)

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