Superman III – an even-handed, totally non-biased review*
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 assiduously 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 specifically (I’d never been a DC fan). Or maybe I’d just read the reviews.
Well, that’s not entirely true – there’s some revisionist thought (looking at you, comicsalliance.com) that Superman III might be a good movie, just light entertainment, the closest thing you’ll find to a Silver Age version of Supes (the Silver Age of comics is considered to encompass 1956 to 1970, approximately; during that time, Superman comics were filled with plot devices like Jimmy Olsen turning into a carrot and 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.
Like the first two movies, Superman III was produced by independent European producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Ilya’s childhood friend Pierre Spengler. The three bought the rights for Superman from DC Comics somewhere around 1973. They eventually hired American director Richard Donner to direct the first movie from a script (originally written by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo) that 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 was an English director who agreed to come on board because the Salkinds owed him money for his work on the two Three Musketeers movies that they had made together previously. Lester figured working on Superman was the only way he could get his money. In fact, there are lots of stories about the Salkinds being something like the Donald Trumps of movie production when it comes to paying what they owe.) because of disagreements between Donner and the producers. After Superman: The Movie, released in 1978, was a hit, Lester was brought back (Donner refused) to stitch together the sequel out of filmed sequences and with new scenes.
After Superman II was a hit, Lester was brought back for the third one (as were veteran scriptwriters Leslie and David Newman). His stamp is all over this oddball mess. Lester directed the two Beatles movies, which I’ve never seen but which I understand are full of slapstick antics, and Superman III is filled with slapsticky antics, including an extended opening sequence of pratfalls in Metropolis.
Things don’t improve from there. Although some might be charmed by the script’s strict (some might say “comic-book-y”) abhorrence of anything related to reality (i.e., the way Gus Gorman, Richard Pryor’s character, discovers he’s a computer genius soon after reading an ad for a computer programming course on the back of a matchbook), over the course of two hours all the nonsense comes to resemble nothing so much as the Roger Moore (RIP)-era Bond films; good for a lark, but kind of ruinous of the previous films. (To be fair, the same could be said of Diamonds Are Forever, Connery’s last outing before Moore took over.)
Anyway, I realize I’m coming off as a bit of a crank here. Suffice it to say, Superman III didn’t work for me. Lester’s fondness for slapstick and Pryor’s shameless mugging and eye-popping belong in another movie, while the action sequences – the money shots in these films – are kind of dumb (Superman freezes a lake so he can carry the ice and melt it to stop a fire at an oil refinery). There are all kinds of weirdly dissonant tones to the movie, too, like when Evil Superman (yep, Superman turns evil, thanks to some home-made kryptonite courtesy of Gus Gorman) gets it on with Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson) moll to the movie’s villain (Robert Vaughn, admittedly channeling William F. Buckley.)
There is one saving grace, though – towards the end of the second act, Superman, dukes it out with his alter ego, Clark Kent. The scene is confused (it’s never clear who has what powers) and nutty (Clark tosses a bunch of tires around Superman, like that’s going to hold him), but in its almost wordless duel it’s one of the few times that the Superman movies get the genre just right. It’s a good idea in a sea of bad ones.
*Well, as much as could be reasonably expected.