Title: Superman III
Director: Richard Lester
Writers: David Newman, Leslie Newman, (Characters by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster)
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Annette O’Toole, Pamela Stephenson, Annie Ross, Marc McClure, Gavin O’Herlihy, Jackie Cooper, Margot Kidder
Release Date: June 17, 1983
MPAA: Rated PG
Welcome back to another installment of Movie Mondays’ salute to Superman! Today, we have a rather arduous task laid out before us… wading through the mediocrity that is Superman III. This movie is such a perfect example of several things going terribly wrong combined with a few things going so perfectly right that it’s hard to understand how it all turned out the way it did. But, hey, a movie leaving you scratching your head while still moderately pleased is far better than a movie leaving you sad for having seen it. So, while not the best Superman movie around, there are worse things to happen to the Superman franchise than Superman III. Just how disappointing is this film? Well, let’s find out!
To better understand just went wrong with this film; one must look at its history. Superman I & II were filmed simultaneously, with Richard Donner directing the first film, and part of the second. Due to a falling out with the producers, Donner was replaced by Richard Lester part-way through Superman II and so a lot of what you saw in Superman II was a combination of the two creative teams. Superman III is Superman without director Richard Donner and writer Tom Mankiewicz, and no one to reign in the campier sensibilities of the producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind, director Richard Lester, and writers David and Leslie Newman.
Superman III also brings with it a new co-star for Christopher Reeve, by way of Richard Pryor, who provides the completely unnecessary comedy relief. The combination of Richard Lester and Richard Pryor is the biggest problem with this film. While Lester’s comedy expertise works well in other movies and a film showcasing Richard Pryor’s more ridiculous comedic acting chops would generally be enjoyable, neither of these elements fit in a Superman movie. The scenes where Pryor isn’t offering “comedy relief” and is generally allowed to act, namely the majority of the third act are wonderful and really show what might have been had this movie not been transformed from a Superman film into a Pryor comedy vehicle.
All of the dramatic action and heroic rescues that one might expect from a Superman movie is handled really well and offers a great counterpoint to the “comedy” provided by Lester. I know it may seem like I’m harping on this comedy complaint a bit more than one might expect, but it really does feel out of place. A few of the comedic moments are quite wonderful. For instance a scene were Clark changes into Superman in a photo booth, and rips the last picture off for a kid so nobody sees his secret identity is quaint and earns a nice chuckle. But there are two perfect examples of where this comedy relief goes too far:
One such example involves the scene right after our evil villain uses a weather satellite to attack South America. Rather than just show us Superman saving the day, the audience is “treated” to Richard Pryor doing a goofy Superman impression while wearing a pink tablecloth and telling the audience and the villain just how cool Superman’s heroics were. Not to mention, during the scene, Gus falls off of the top of the skyscraper only to land completely unharmed on the street below. Even Pryor himself looks confused as to why this scene is in the movie at all.
Another such example, and the worst offense of the entire film, comes during our villains attack on Metropolis, reigning chaos upon its citizens. During this scene, our badguys tamper with the city’s computer system and cause pandemonium by screwing up all of the traffic lights. During this scene, the director or whomever was in charge decided to animate the traffic symbols getting into a fist fight. Not only is the scene unnecessary, but it’s utterly cartoony and sticks out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film and only serves to undermine the “seriousness” of the villains attack.
Let’s not dwell on those few but impacting negative qualities of this film, and move on to better things, which is to say, everything else, to be quite honest. The villains this time around are new and entertaining. Robert Vaughn plays Webster, a megalomaniacal businessman posing as a philanthropist who really just wants to rule the world. Richard Pryor plays Gus, a bumbling idiot-savant who happens to be a computer whiz, whose greed allows him to get coerced into being Robert Vaughn’s unwilling lackey. Pamela Stephenson plays Lorelei, Webster’s sexy assistant who helps him with his nefarious schemes. And Annie Ross plays Webster’s overbearing sister Vera.
The film’s main message seems to be a cautionary tale about man’s overreliance on computers, and points out that our growing overdependence on technology that’s rapidly evolving beyond our means will lead to our eventual downfall. The world’s economy and infrastructure is quickly crippled by a bit of planning and a few well-placed keystrokes. At the end of the film, Gus has our main villain build him a supercomputer so that they can take over the world, and in perfect sci-fi fashion, the computer rebels against its creators and tries to destroy them all. In the creepiest scene of the film, the computer builds itself a body by attacking Vera and forcibly transforming her into a cyborg.
The film is given breaks from the main storyline with our villains by way of a sub-plot involving Clark returning to Smallville for a High School Reunion. During these scenes we’re treated to Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang,Clark’s old high school crush. While O’Toole is charming and the Smallville scenes are quaint and entertaining, they don’t really serve any purpose in the film other than giving Clark/Superman a love interest other than Lois. Changing the setting to Smallville doesn’t offer anything to the story aside from acting as a callback to the first film by featuring Lana and Clark’s old high school bully Brad.
The main focus of this movie and the best part overall is the evil of men. Our main villains are motivated entirely by greed and the side story villain, Clark’s old high school bully, is motivated by pettiness. During Webster and Gus’ attempt to get rid of Superman, they attack him with synthetic Kryptonite (the equivalent of Red Kryptonite in the comics) which gives him all of the negative qualities of humanity, such as lust, apathy, cruelty, and so on. Throughout this middle portion of the film is when Christopher Reeve really gets to shine as an actor. It’s really unnerving to see a Superman too concerned with lustful thoughts to bother saving a human life. Seeing Superman fly around the world committing acts of nastiness and spite just to amuse himself is both disturbing and fascinating. At one point, Superman agrees to help Lorelei take over the world’s oil supply in exchange for a night of passion.
Witnessing what Reeve can do as an actor with this wicked and immoral side of Superman is truly amazing to behold. Seeing Superman trying to drown his good nature at the bottom of a liquor bottle is disturbing and fascinating. Reeve’s portrayal of Superman is like a train wreck. You know you’re watching something terrible, but you just can’t look away. There’s a great moment that comes back into play at the end where the “nasty” Superman straightens The Leaning Tower of Pisa, only to “fix” it again when he becomes good again.
Later in the film, the synthetic Kryptonite starts to wear off and Reeve showcases his depths as an actor, portraying the physical and mental turmoil of a man split in two halves. In a surreal scene, Superman literally splits into two people and confronts his dark side. In a sequence predating Fight Club by nearly fifteen years, Superman’s two personalities fight one another and in the best scene in the film, Superman’s good half literally and figuratively kills his dark half, regaining control over himself in time to stop the villainous Webster and save the day.
Not only is this scene the best moment in the film, but for all of the faults of Superman III, this one segment is quite possibly the best scene of any of the Superman adaptations.
Overall, there’s a lot to love about this movie. The villainous Webster is the evil tycoon that the Lex Luthor of the comics and later adaptations would become. The themes of Man VS technology and Man VS the evil within are well done and presented in an entertaining and intriguing fashion.But there are enough awful elements of this movie to really bring it down. The pointless, overly drawn out, and downright obnoxious moments of Richard Pryor’s “comedy relief” and the “traffic light scene” are just enough to ruin a lot of charm this movie might have had.
This film is far from perfect and while not the absolute worst film in the Superman franchise, it’s certainly nowhere near the best. Everything in this film that doesn’t involve Richard Pryor painfully hamming up the screen or Richard Lester’s obnoxious slapstick is great. Christopher Reeve gives an amazingly deep performance as Superman, and the “Evil Superman VS Good Superman” scene alone is probably better than any other scene in the entirety of the Superman franchise. Superman III earns a score of 6.5 out of 10.