Superman III (1983)
by Steve Habrat
Way before Tim Burton’s Batman franchise fell into the hands of hack director Joel Schumacher and was turned into a giant neon toy commercial with nipples; a similar fate struck another DC Comics superhero hero. In 1983, comedic director Richard Lester shifted Richard Donner’s Superman franchise from serious-minded optimism into full-on sight gag camp. The result was Superman III, a comic book movie that isn’t nearly as horrible as some may have you believe but is by no means a cinematic masterpiece. On its own, Superman III is a fun action comedy that will keep your ten-year-old son preoccupied while you take a nap, but when compared to the stellar Superman and its awesome follow-up, Superman II, the film is a humongous disappointment that only intermittently entertains. While every single one of the players tries their darndest, the one who is solely responsible for running the franchise into the ground is Lester, who flat-out refuses to take the Man of Steel seriously. To make things even worse on Superman III, Lester casts funnyman Richard Pryor as the thorn in old Superman’s side. As if he sensed this was a giant turd, returning star Christopher Reeve steps in front of the camera with fire in his eyes and he single handedly makes the entire thing, well, sort of watchable.
Superman III introduces us to Gus Gorman (played by Richard Pryor), an unemployed goofball who lands a job as a computer programmer at Webster Industries. Unhappy with his pay, Gus begins embezzling money from Webster Industries, but it doesn’t take long for him to grab the attention of the power hungry CEO, Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn). It turns out that Webster, his sister, Vera (played by Annie Ross), and his mistress, Lorelei Ambrosia (played by Pamela Stephenson) are out to take over the world financially and they plan on blackmailing Gus into helping them out. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (played by Christopher Reeve) and Jimmy Olson (played by Marc McClure) travel back to Smallville for Clark’s high school reunion where he reunites with his old childhood friend and recent divorcée Lana Lang (played by Annette O’Toole) and her young son, Ricky (played by Paul Kaethler). After being led to believe that Clark knows Superman, Lana pleads with him to convince Superman to attend Ricky’s birthday. Smallville turns the appearance into a celebration but Gus and Vera crash the party and present Superman with a chunk of synthetic kryptonite in an attempt to weaken him and prevent him from stopping their evil scheme. At first, it appears that the synthetic kryptonite has had no effect on Superman, but soon he becomes depressed, angry, and selfish, just when the world needs him.
Superman III begins with a chain reaction of slapstick disasters and sight gags that are all painfully unfunny and just way too drawn out. As if this isn’t bad enough, the sequence almost feels like it is poking fun at the hero we are supposed to be rooting for. The mocking tone never fully disappears, but every so often, Lester cuts through the carefree camp with a perky rescue sequence, but for the most part, the film is a far throw from the thrilling Superman II, which he worked on when Donner was fired. When we are introduced to the villains, things don’t get much better for Superman III. There is no Gene Hackman as the barking Lex Luthor and there is no Terence Stamp as the authoritative General Zod, but rather three screwballs who cower behind a giant super computer as Superman stomps their way. You could almost mistake them for Bond villains. Together, they wouldn’t make an infant tremble and they sure as hell don’t seem like they could do much damage to old Supes but somehow, to the horror of this viewer, they actually manage. While their plan is beyond stupid, it actually opens a door for Reeve to save the entire picture from crashing and burning.
It is undeniable that Reeve is the heart and soul of this entire Superman franchise and it makes me shiver to think what it would have been like without him. Even in Superman III’s worst moments, Reeve is almost too good. When the script asks him to be bad and play a bunch of juvenile pranks around the world (he straightens the leaning tower of Pisa and he blows out the Olympic flame), Reeve manages to keep his composure, which is really something special because anyone else would have been on the ground laughing at how idiotic these moments are. As Clark Kent, he is still the sweet and bumbling fool we all know and love, but this time around, he actually gets to throw a few punches. In the film’s highlight scene, the corrupted Superman projects the good Clark Kent and then gets into a fistfight with him in the middle of a rusting junkyard. Naturally, the scene is loaded with unnecessary laughs, it goes on for about five minutes too long, and it is wildly unclear as to how exactly Superman exactly split into two people, but it is really fascinating to see Superman, a force of complete good, at odds with himself. I didn’t think I’d write this, but well done, Lester!
Then we have Pryor as the film’s reluctant baddie, Gus Gorman, and really, he isn’t that bad, he is just grossly miscast. Pryor does drop a few laugh bombs along the way, but he seems like he is on a short leash by the director and the producers. He also really has no business being anywhere near a superhero movie, especially a Superman movie. Still, you can’t really fault him for trying. As far as the other villains go, Vaughn’s Webster practically blends into the woodwork, a cardboard stand-in for Hackman’s diabolical Lex Luthor. Annie Ross brings a bit more mean to her small role as Vera, Webster’s sister who in the final moments of the film becomes an android-like monster that does absolutely nothing (yeah, don’t think too much about it). Stephenson is irritating as Webster’s seemingly ditzy but surprisingly smart mistress, Lorelei, who doesn’t miss a chance to seduce the corrupt Superman. Margot Kidder, who was not pleased when Donner got the axe on Superman II, is reduced to basically a cameo, a shame considering how entertaining and frankly spot on she was in the role. The new love interest here is O’Toole as Lana Lang, a sweet old pal of Clark’s that slowly develops feelings for the bespectacled nerd. O’Toole is good, don’t get me wrong, but is it too much to ask for Kidder’s Lois Lane back?
I wish I could tell you that Superman III has some spectacular confrontation at the end, but instead it is approached like some forgotten Atari video game that was left on a dusty shelf. It takes forever to get to a real showdown between the two parties, with the plot practically stopping to take a nap at certain points. At least twenty minutes could have been cut from the finished product, including the fist-fighting traffic light stick figures bit that will actually tempt you to get up and turn the whole thing off. I wish there was something at stake here or some sort of actual threat looming over Superman’s head as he battled with his demons, but instead the bad guys would rather hang out on top of their skyscraper that has been fashioned into a ski resort and chat about defeating Superman. Through all the bad, Reeve is still the glue that keeps the entire thing from falling to pieces. Overall, it is big, dumb, bloated, and flat lining in the creativity department, but a handful of soaring rescues and Reeve’s irresistible warmth manage to triumph over the long line of groan-inducing jokes that Lester insisted upon. Maybe that Reeve was some kind of Superman.
Superman III is available on Blu-ray and DVD.