In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’m spending every Sunday of June celebrating the Man of Steel as I expand Superman Day to “Superman Month“.
Released: 17 June 1983
Director: Richard Lester
Distributor: Warner Bros. / Columbia–EMI–Warner Distributors
Budget: $39 million
Stars: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Pamela Stephenson, and Annette O’Toole
Clark Kent (Reeve) returns to his hometown of Smallville and reunites with his old flame, Lana Lane (O’Toole). However, conniving industrialist Ross “Bubba” Webster (Vaughn) hatches a devious plot to control the world’s oil supply by corrupting Kent’s alter ego, Supermen, using the computer genius of bungling programmer Gus Gorman (Pryor).
Although, as I mentioned in my reviews, both Superman (Donner, 1978) and Superman II (Lester, 1981) were critically and financially successful, their production had been not only expensive but also tumultuous; behind the scenes tensions between director Richard Donner and the film’s producers saw him replaced by Richard Lester despite having plans for a third film in the series. Development of a third film continued regardless, with both Vril Dox/Brainiac and Kara Zor-El/Supergirl considered as inclusions; elements of this story, which also featured Mister Mxyzptlk (as played by Dudley Moore) corrupting Superman, remained prevalent throughout the long scriptwriting process. By the time filming began, the production continued to be fraught with bad blood; both Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman had publicly opposed the treatment of Donner and were removed or significantly downgraded for the third film, which was much more focused on slapstick shenanigans. Nowhere was this emphasised more than in the casting of comedian Richard Pryor, who was paid $5 million for his substantial role after declaring his affection for the previous films. With a worldwide gross of barely over $80 million, Superman III was the least financially successful of the series at that point; the reviews were even worse, especially regarding Pryor’s tomfooleries (though Reeve’s consistent portrayal of the Man of Steel (and his turn as the corrupted Superman) continued to be praised).
Despite the fact that I had some issues with the first two films, there’s no denying the quality on display in Superman and Superman II; even with all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, both films have pretty much the perfect balance of action, romance, intrigue, and humour and never veer too far into one element or the other. This means that they both manage to deliver perhaps the most influential portrayal of the Man of Steel while also including just the right level of camp, with both of these aspects being bolstered by some truly impressive and ambitious special effects. Here, things largely proceed as you might expect; with the status quo restored following the memory-wiping kiss of the last film, Clark continues to pose as an awkward, mild-mannered reporter while exuding confidence and reliability as the charismatic Superman.
However, in a change from the last two films, Superman III sees Clark return to his hometown of Smallville for a high school reunion; there, he reconnects with old friend Lana Lang but continues to right wrongs with his superpowers. Crucially, this includes preventing a nearby chemical plant from a potentially disastrous meltdown, which earns the Man of Steel the adulation of the entire town. One aspect about the film that I really enjoy is seeing Superman interacting with ordinary civilians and emergency services more often; when approaching an emergency situation, Superman always defers to whoever is in charge before offering his assistance, which goes a long way to showing how polite and willing to collaborate with others he is and is a great parallel to his later turn towards the dark side. With Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) absent for the vast majority of the film thanks to an assignment in Bermuda, Lana fittingly takes over as Clark’s new love interest. A childhood friend and former flame of Clark’s, Lana is a struggling single mother to young Ricky (Paul Kaethler) who is constantly fending off the unwanted advances of the bullish borderline alcoholic Brad Wilson (Gavan O’Herlihy) and dreams of escaping the suffocating confines of Smallville. Though she’s maybe not quite as loud and feisty as Lois, Lana is a capable enough woman in her own right but still laments that she’s stuck without a husband since all the “good” men in Smallville are taken. Crucially, unlike her Metropolis counterpart, Lana’s far less besotted by Superman and is more appreciative and interested in Clark, whom she sees as a kind and caring alternative to the likes of Brad. Lana admires that Clark has made a life for himself out of Smallville and is grateful for his positive influence on Ricky, who is often shunned for being the only kid in town to not have a father, but there’s really not a whole much for her to do in terms of the film’s overall plot beyond be a pretty face for Clark to converse with and to ponder Superman’s later change of character.
Also absent from the film is Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman); in his place is Ross Webster, a wealthy philanthropist who is, basically, a poorly veiled stand-in for Superman’s traditional archnemesis. Alongside his spiteful and cruel sister, Vera (Annie Ross), and the voluptuous Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson), Webster initially plots to avenge himself on the nation of Columbia after they refuse to do business with him but soon turns his attention towards the more profitable hording of oil, and makes destroying Superman his top priority after the Man of Steel interferes with his coffee plot. While Vera enables Webster’s ambitions and craves the acquisition of further power and influence (it’s her idea to target the oil, for example), Lorelei plays the part of an airheaded bimbo but is actually much smarter than she appears (it’s her idea to use Kryptonite against Superman). Unlike Luthor, who saw pitting his criminal genius against Superman as the ultimate challenge, Webster is largely dismissive of the Man of Steel and believes destroying him should be a simple task since they’re well aware of his weakness to Kryptonite. It can’t be understated how much Vaughn’s presence and allure elevates this film ever so slightly above mediocrity; thanks to him, Webster makes for a charismatic and manipulative villain. Webster is far more approachable and fair-minded than Luthor but no less dangerous and authoritative; he doesn’t care a lick for the lives he endangers with his schemes and is easily able to threaten and coerce the likes of Gus Gorman into doing his bidding thanks to the power and breadth of his wealth.
That, of course, brings us to the ultimate underdog, Gus Gorman, who begins the film as an out-of-work buffoon who finds that he has a talent for computer programming when he lands a job at Webscoe. Gus is a greedy, bumbling fool who believes that the world owes him more than it’s given and who wants to enjoy life now, while he’s young. While it’s child’s play for him to embezzle Webscoe’s funds into his mediocre pay cheque, Gus immediately regrets this decision when he is brought before Webster; however, Webster is as impressed by Gus’s capabilities as he is despondent by the man’s foolishness. To get out of being locked up for this crimes, Gus agrees to redirect space satellites and oil tankers for the industrialist but soon comes to realise that his talents make Webster’s threats obsolete and thus demands that the villain fund and construct a giant super computer of Gus’ own design. A selfish and outlandish figure, Gus only realises the error of his ways when his supercomputer is perverted by Webster into a tool for killing Superman but, sadly, Gus mainly exists to flood the film with all kinds of ridiculous pratfalls; providing both physical comedy and outlandish, energetic rants that appear to be ad-libs on Pryor’s part, Gorman is like a living cartoon and sticks out like a sore thumb as the one buffoon in a film full of mostly straight men.
When Webster orders that Superman be killed, he has Gus synthesise a chunk of Kryptonite but Gus is forced to make some compromises in the element’s construction due to its alien nature. The result is a green hunk of rock that, rather than weaken and kill Superman, affects him more like the red variant from the comics. Initially, Superman becomes distracted and disinterested in his usual duties, which causes him to arrive too late to help out in a minor disaster on a Smallville bridge. Pretty soon, though, he’s flying all over the world and causing all kinds of nuisances, such as straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa (brought to life through the finest green screens money can buy…), blowing out the Olympic Flame, and gulping shots at the bar. Soon, his costume and demeanour noticeably change for the worst; he wears a constant scowl, sports dark stubble and darker eyes, and his suit takes on a muddier, subdued hue. After being sexually manipulated by Lorelei to cause an environmental crisis with one of Webster’s oil tankers, Superman has a violent breakdown in a junk yard and literally splits into two beings! This leads to a violent brawl between the virtuous Clark Kent and his aggressive doppelgänger that ultimately results in Clark emerging victorious and returning as the one, true Superman. It’s quite a bizarre sequence, to be sure, and is mostly hand-waved away but I can’t deny that the fight between the two is a real highlight of the film.
Right off the bat, Superman III shows us exactly what it’s all about: slapstick, goofball attempts at comedy. Skipping the traditional title sequence (though I swear this was included when I first saw the film on television…), the film opens with this convoluted series of pratfalls and accidents as the people of Metropolis get into all kinds of madcap hijinx. These elements are only exacerbated every time Pryor is onscreen and we’re treated to such delights as him acting out Superman’s impressive feats; rather than spending the money on showing Superman stopping a tornado, we get to hear Gus tell us about it while wearing a makeshift cape which, as entertaining as Pryor can be, is never going to be as enjoyable as actually watching these events happen onscreen. Instead, we get to see Gus flailing around like a fool, falling from the roof of Webster’s skyscraper without injury simply because he’s wearing skis, and him getting into all kinds of scrapes such as impersonating a military officer, jumping at his own reflection, going off on wild tangents in an attempt at humour, and drinking Brad into a stupor to access his company’s computer.
These comedic elements are a stark parallel to the film’s darker elements; seeing Superman go from a virtuous paragon of truth, justice, and the American Way to an apathetic and mean-spirited villain is perhaps the best element in this otherwise ludicrous film and really belongs in a far better Superman movie. The dark Superman really gives Christopher Reeve a chance to show his range as an actor and he spits his lines with a real venom and spite and seeing him relish in causing trouble and indulging in his vilest whims really helps the film to keep its head above water. While Superman’s rescue of the trapped chemical plant workers and his solution to freeze a nearby lake and drop it on the inferno is ambitious and impressive, other special effects don’t hold up so well, especially the rendition of technology. Overall, though, the film’s special effects remain largely consistent with those from the previous two films; there’s far more in-camera shots of Reeve being propelled across through the air on wires (though there are some instances where the wires are a little too visible…) and the flying effects, in general, actually hold up a little better than in Superman II, potentially because the film’s budget is being used to slightly better effect or not being stretched across two films that are spiralling out of control.
One of the main themes of the film is that of the growing reliance on computers and technology, which is depicted as being both mysterious and capable of almost anything. With just a few taps of a keyboard and a swipe of a screen pen, Gus is able to make all kinds of ludicrous stuff happen, and the depiction of computer “hacking” horribly dates the film since we know that there’s no way that he’d be able to issue the commands he’s making without utilising proper code. Later, Gus is able to manually reprogram everything from traffic lights to cash machines to send the city into a frenzy, the severity of which is, again, played to cringeworthy comedic effect (the traffic light men even inexplicably get into a fist fight!) Finally, when Superman heads off to confront the villains, Webster manually sends a number of rockets and a large ballistic missile his way using a crude videogame-like interface. While Webster is, in many ways, exactly the same as Luthor except without the same level of personal animosity towards Superman, what helps bolster him and make him slightly more distinct are his sister and lover and his commission of Gus’s supercomputer. Just as the dark Superman is basically a version of Bizarro, this supercomputer is kind of like a dumbed-down interpretation of Brainiac; sure, it doesn’t speak, or look or act anything like Brainiac, but it’s clear that the finale has some roots in the popular villain. The machine is capable of analysing and counteracting with a person’s weaknesses when it feels threatened and is constantly adapting to combat threats; this includes trapping Superman in an odd plastic bubble (that, somehow, manages to choke him even though he doesn’t need to breathe…) and bombard him with pure Kryptonite. Seemingly gaining sentience through its battle with Superman, the computer turns on its creators and even transforms Vera into a cybernetic avatar in a truly horrific scene. Ultimately, Superman takes a page out of Luthor’s playbook and opts for mind over muscle by utilising a highly corrosive acidic substance to fool the machine into destroying itself. Since Gus tried, in his own way, to help Superman in the finale, Superman spares him imprisonment (a favour that Gus immediately squanders) and Kent sets Lana up at the Daily Planet, ending the film with a hint towards a rivalry between her and Lois over Clark’s affections that, sadly, would be completely ignored in the sequel.
Honestly, this is a hard one for me. I remember really enjoying this film as a kid because it’s not like we had superhero films coming out of our asses like we do these days; however, as so many have said on many occasions, Superman III can’t be seen as anything other than a massive disappointment. There are some positives to be found here, though: Robert Vaughn adds a great deal of gravitas to the film and Christopher Reeve continues to be excellent in the title role and Superman III gives him some fantastic moments to show new sides of his personality; the fight between him and his dark self remains a highlight of the film, it’s just a shame that it’s wedged into this unfortunate mess of a film. There’s so much potential in Superman III that is sadly never fully realised because it’s more focused on giving the late, great Richard Pryor a chance to practise his stand-up routine; had the filmmakers exercised some restraint and pulled back on some of Pryor’s more outlandish outbursts and scaled back the slapstick comedy, and maybe even gone all-in with the supercomputer to bring Brainiac to the screen then there might have been something here. As it is though, what we’re left with is a film that’s probably enjoyable enough for little kids but is a bit of a slog to sit through unless you’re a big Richard Pryor fan.
Could Be Better
Are you a fan of Superman III? What did you think to Richard Pryor’s inclusion in the film and his attempts at comedy? Did you enjoy the switch from Metropolis to Smallville and what did you think to Ross Webster as the film’s replacement for Lex Luthor? Were you a fan of the dark Superman sub-plot and the fight between him and Clark Kent or would you have preferred a more direct interpretation of Bizarro? What did you think to the themes of computer technology spiralling out of control? Where would you rank this film against Superman’s other live-action adaptations and how have you been celebrating the Man of Steel this month? Whatever your thoughts on Superman III, drop them down below and check out my review of the much-maligned fourth entry in the franchise.