As part of my ongoing research into Superheroes vs. the Megaplex, I’ve been watching movies that I’ve seen, movies that I’ve been meaning to see and movies that I have been avoiding.
I’m not sure what category Superman III belongs in. Its 1983 release came three years after Superman II – a lifetime for a teenager, even one in Winnipeg. So, I’d either felt I’d outgrown superhero movies in general or Superman (I’d never been a DC fan). Or I’d read the reviews.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Some revisionist thought has it that Superman III might be a good movie. (Here’s looking at you, comicsalliance.com.) Perhaps, goes this line of thinking, the film succeeds on its own terms. The logic reasons that the third entry in the Superman series is the closest a comics fan will come to a Silver Age version of Supes. (Note for non-comics fans: the Silver Age encompasses comics produced between 1956 to 1970. During that time, writers filled Superman comics with plot devices like Jimmy Olsen turning into a carrot. Not to mention characters like Jerko the Wonder Slug.)
Well, don’t be fooled. Take it from someone who watched with something like an open mind. Then again, maybe I just don’t like Richard Lester’s direction, or Richard Pryor’s acting. Anyway, first things first – here’s a brief history lesson on Superman III, and how (and why) it came to be.
Why and how, Superman III?
Like the first two films, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, along with Ilya’s childhood friend Pierre Spengler, produced the film. The three independent European producers bought the rights to the character in 1973. They hired American director Richard Donner to direct the first movie from a script by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo. That script held enough material for two films.
Donner shot approximately 60 per cent of the script. But at some point the Salkinds brought in Richard Lester to serve as liaison with the director.
Lester, an English director, agreed to that deal because, it’s said, the Salkinds owed him money. He had worked with the producers on two Three Musketeers movies. Lester figured working on Superman was the only way he could get the money owed him for those earlier films.
(There are lots of stories about the Salkinds being the Donald Trumps of movie production when it comes to paying what they owe.)
After Superman: The Movie, released in 1978, was a hit, the Salkinds brought Lester back. (Donner would have none of it). The director stitched together a sequel out of filmed sequences and new scenes.
Say ‘no’ to Richard Pryor
Superman II’s success led to the re-employment of Lester. Free of Donner’s influence, his stamp is all over this oddball mess. Lester directed the two Beatles movies. I’ve never seen either, but I understand they are full of slapstick antics. Superman III’s tone is set in the opening sequence. It’s an extended series of pratfalls on the streets of Metropolis.
Things don’t improve from there. For two hours, Lester and his scriptwriters pile on nonsensical claptrap. (Veterans Leslie and David Newman wrote the script.) For instance, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) discovers his genius for programming after reading a matchbook ad.
Some viewers might find the script’s strict abhorrence of anything related to reality charming. For this viewer, all the nonsense comes to resemble nothing so much as the Roger Moore-era Bond films. Good for a lark, but kind of ruinous of the previous films’ attempt to take the character at least semi-seriously.
Anyway, I realize I’m coming off as a bit of a crank here. Suffice it to say, Superman III did not work for me. One of the worst offences is Richard Pryor. The comic actor’s unrestrained eye-popping and mugging belong in a different movie.
The action sequences are kind of dumb. One sequence is comic-book-y in its absurdity. To stop a fire at an oil finery, Superman freezes a lake so he can carry the ice and melt it overtop the raging inferno.
A saving grace as Evil Superman fights Clark Kent
The movie cobbles together all kinds of weirdly dissonant tones, as well. At the request of the movie’s villain, Gorman makes some kryptonite. After the home-made substance turns him evil, he gets it on with Lorelei Ambrosia. (Played by Australian actress Pamela Stephenson, Lorelei is moll to the movie’s villain. Robert Vaughn plays the villain. He admitted to channeling rightwing commentator William F. Buckley for the role.)
There is one saving grace, though. Towards the end of the second act, Clark Kent dukes it out with the Evil Superman. The scene is nutty and confused. It’s never clear who has what powers. At one point, Clark tosses a bunch of tires around Superman, as if that’s going to be effective. But the almost wordless duel is one of the few moments where the Superman movies get the genre right. It’s a good idea in a sea of bad ones.