Because I Hate Myself - Superman III
Superman III brings us the clearest look at what producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, writers David and Leslie Newman and director Richard Lester would do with the franchise. And that view ain’t pretty. The train wreck of a film that resulted from these nefarious masterminds did more damage to the Man of Steel than any of his rogues gallery. With this also being the first Superman film without any influence from either Richard Donner or Tom Mankiewicz…well, sad to say that this film goes a long way to proving what those two had to say about the troubled production of both Superman: The Movie and Superman II to be very, very true. While not without some merits, the bad far outweighs the good. And while it doesn’t have the reputation of its abysmal follow-up, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, let’s take a look at how much of a smoldering piece of cinematic crap this film is.
As always, or at least seemingly with every Superman film, we have to start off with a behind the scenes segment. After the release and success of Superman II in 1981, there was no denying the popularity of the franchise. Around this release, Richard Pryor on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson talked about how much he liked the films. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind caught wind of this and, lo and behold, Pryor was signed to appear in Superman III. While the franchise was already headed in this direction thanks to Richard Lester’s shift in tone already visible in Superman II [Check out what we mean here. – Ed.], this allowed the writers David and Leslie Newman as well as Lester to go all the way down the rabbit hole. And do you know what’s at the bottom of a rabbit hole, Alice? That ain’t Wonderland…it’s poop. As Ms. Newman said in an interview, “What’s the point of having Richard Pryor if you don’t put him to good use?” And with a comment like that…well, what we got on screen shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, but since I had to watch this damn thing…let’s take a closer look, shall we?
In all honesty, the opening credits sequence is sufficient warning of what lies ahead. Let’s go through it step by step…because if I had to suffer through it…so do you. We start off following an attractive blonde that we’ll later learn is Lorelei Ambrosia, assistant to the film’s main villain, Ross Webster. A man walking down the street…let’s call him Golf Cap because 1, that’s what he’s wearing and 2, because we’ll be seeing quite a bit of him over the next 5 minutes…anyway, while gawking at her he runs into a light pole, falls down and knocks over a table of walking penguin toys. A passing roller skater passes the scene, loses her balance and crashes into a hot dog cart serving our first cast member to make an appearance, Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen, who gets mustard sprayed on his lapel. The hot dog cart crashes into a line of phone booths that tumble down in domino-like fashion. This allows a terrier to get free from its master and it takes off. Remember the penguins? Yeah, they’re still on the loose, one of which catches fire by passing too close to a road flare. Back to our terrier, well, he rushes past a blind man and his seeing-eye dog, a German Shepard…and the Shepard gives chase, knocking over a woman carrying two bags of groceries.
Isn’t this all hilarious so far? Yeah, I don’t think so either…but there’s more of this shit…
A construction worker, painting new lines on the road ends up rushing over to help the woman up and collect her spilled stuff…but our blind man, well he mistakes the construction worker’s painting apparatus for his seeing-eye pooch…and wanders into traffic…because…heh…heh…blind people are dumb. [To make sure we’re all on the same page, yes, that last bit was so rife with sarcasm that your monitor is going to reek of sarcasm for about the next week…sorry ‘bout that. – Ed.] Enter Clark Kent who comes across our flaming penguin and extinguishes it with his super-breath, because, you know, using superpowers in broad daylight on a crowded street…sigh…moving on. Then he goes to buy a newspaper from a vending machine…only to rip it in half…because, you know, in case you didn’t know he was Superman…this is really starting to make my brain hurt. Let’s go back to our blind guy. [Oh, yes, let’s. – Ed.] Well, we can see him closing in on Golf Cap…who just happens to be picking up one of those walking penguins standing right beside an open hole in the pavement. You see where this is going, and sure enough, blind guy pushes Golf Cap into the hole…with Golf Cap getting up just in time for blind guy to walk on his head…oh, how zany is this? Like, can you handle all of this zany? Isn’t Metropolis just the zaniest of places? [You use ‘zany’ or any of its conjugations again and I will be fining you. – Ed.] To keep up with all this wackiness…[You suck. – Ed.]...blind guy then walks into a tree and excuses himself as if he’d run into a person…because, again, blind people are dumb. All the while, construction guy from earlier is just now realizing that his painting thing is gone. In what we’re all hoping is the end for this god-forsaken segment, Golf Cap turns to camera and mugs it up. Boy, isn’t he having just the worst day?
BANK ROBBERY! Finally! This, being a Superman movie, maybe we’ll break from the slapstick and get to business…right? Yeah…no. Our bank robber is being chased by Metro PD…who are firing wildly in his general direction…and end up hitting a passing car in the tire, that then goes careening directly for…a fire hydrant. Naturally, the occupant is trapped inside…because ‘80s cars, amiright? Oh, and water is filling up the car…that is surprisingly water-tight. Do any of the policemen stop to help out? Nope, they’re all after the robber in Keystone Kops fashion…even though you can see at this point, the robber has dropped his ill-gotten goods.
NOW Clark notices! So much for that super-hearing, huh? Well, since the phone booths are trashed, he ducks into a photo-booth just as a kid’s putting money into it. Pretty wacky huh? [Just…stop it. –Ed.] And sure enough, the booth takes pictures of Clark as he’s changing into Superman. Upon his exit, Superman tears off the bottom one and hands it to the kid then takes off to save our drowning man in the car that doubles as an aquarium. The crowd, and Jimmy, cheers and Superman flies off…maybe to go after the bank robber? Nope. Anyway, as he’s flying away, a painter on a scaffold turns to watch and tips over his bucket of paint. A passing business man gets a little splat of this paint on to his shoulder. Thinking that it’s rain, he puts up his umbrella. Honestly, I’m amazed they didn’t capitalize on the bird poop approach to this gag. Maybe it was too low brow even for them. Anyway, business guy here notices that no one else is prepping for rain, so he takes down his umbrella…just to get a big splat of paint on his head…and then the entire pail itself. As he stumbles off, he knocks over a gumball machine, which causes a nearby mime to lose his balance and fall. Har har.
Hey, remember blind guy? He’s back! I know, I know, you missed him. Anyway, he’s still looking for his dog…who just happens to be on the other side of a large painting that two movers are lifting across the sidewalk. Wouldn’t ya know it…he just tears right on through that canvas…because, you know…aw, forget it. But man and pooch are reunited…hopefully signaling the end of this travesty. As though this cinematic piece of excrement can hear my prayer, we’re back to Lorelei with Golf Cap walking behind her. Cut to Clark, who notices the torn painting…but not the bakery delivery guy carrying a tray full of pies. Holy fucking shit…seriously movie? SERIOUSLY??? Yup. Delivery guy trips, pies fly, Clark catches one, but turns to check out Lorelei only to smack poor old unlucky Golf Cap right in the face with the banana cream. Golf Cap, never to disappoint, once again mugs it up for the camera. Could this guy’s day get any worse?
Yes. Yes it could. He could’ve been forced to watch that shit. Now, that went a bit long and if you’re having flashbacks of our Interstellar review, don’t worry…I’m not going to go through the entire movie play by play. No, I only point out this first five minutes to show you how long it took for Lester and company to COMPLETELY destroy the sensibility that Donner and Mankiewicz labored so hard to build over the span of Superman The Movie and Donner’s portions of Superman II. In the first draft of the first Superman film, Donner was terrified of the script he got from the producers…penned by, you guessed it, David and Leslie Newman (along with Robert Benton). In reading the campy nature, wherein there was one scene where Superman’s looking for Lex Luthor, swoops down…and grabs Telly Savalas. Ilya Salkind responds that “The camp was going to go in an instant!” Really? Because in removing the only two people behind the scenes that wanted to eliminate much of the camp, guess what came back in an instant? Superman: The Movie was for comic book/superhero cinema what Action Comics #1 was for comic books/superheroes…a watershed moment that announced to the world that a new form of storytelling was here and it was ready to take the world by storm. In that analogy, Superman III ends up being comic books after Fredric Wertham’s fallacious argument and the Comics Code Authority that it wrought. In fact, it’s weird to draw that analogy out even further…it took comics from its implementation in 1954 all that way until the mid-80s to make any progress as evolving into a storytelling medium sophisticated enough to once again delve into subject matter not just strictly aimed at children. With Lester’s and the Newmans’ Superman III in 1983, comic book films that had been for both children and adults starting with Superman: The Movie, found themselves relegated to things strictly for children until, briefly in 1989 and 1992, Tim Burton arrived on the scene with his two Batman films, Batman and Batman Returns…but this serious approach wouldn’t become the norm until the current era of comic book films started with Blade in 1999. Like comics without the Code…can you imagine where the medium would be had there not been this long period that actively strangled any attempt to evolve?
For as much negativity as I’ve heaped on the movie, it’s not a complete waste. While Ross Webster is no Lex Luthor, he does predate DC’s shift of Lex from mad scientist/ne’er-do-well to underhanded and ruthless business magnate. Reeve’s Clark gets a chance to grow at least slightly out of his buffoon-like nature in his time in Smallville with Lana Lang…and Annette O’Toole as Lana is magnificent casting. Lastly, of course, I have to mention what everyone likes about the movie and that’s Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the corrupted Superman that culminates in a duel with Clark Kent in the junkyard. That alone almost makes this terrible film worth sitting through…almost.
Ultimately, Superman III was assembled by people who had neither any knowledge nor any respect for the franchise or the character and his world. Some examples? Okay, take Richard Pryor’s character, Gus Gorman. He’s a computer programmer (in that magical Hollywood understanding of computer programmers) who ultimately gets Robert Vaughn’s Ross Webster to build him a super computer in a cave…all for the purpose of destroying Superman. Why not call the character Milton Fine? Call the computer Brainiac? Or how about the synthetic kryptonite that turns Superman dark? Why not color it red instead of green? These are simple little things they could’ve done to show that, yeah, we may be hacks, but at least we’ve read a Superman comic or two. Instead, we’re given something “plot” driven…and I know that using the term plot here is an insult to plots everywhere…and riddled with gags that absolutely didn’t need to be there. Christopher Reeve himself said it best of the film: “He [Lester] was always looking for a gag - sometimes to the point where the gags involving Richard Pryor went over the top. I mean, I didn't think that his going off the top of a building, on skis with a pink tablecloth around his shoulders, was particularly funny.” Who am I to argue with Superman?
The shame of it is…in spite of all that, I have fond memories of this movie. It was the first and only Chris Reeve Superman film that I would catch in the theater. It was the first movie poster I ever owned. I owned the magazine, the poster book and the 5-year-old me just absolutely adored the film. Now…that little 5-year-old, still inside me, feels betrayed by those that were supposed to take care of my favorite superhero. It’s because of Superman III and those that made it that Hollywood decision-makers are only now shaking off the stereotype that these films are only for kids or only deserve to be campy. Thanks, DICK Lester. Thanks a lot.