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Superman III (1983)

Superman III #1

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.

Superman III #2

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.

Grade: C-

Superman III is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Superman II (1980)

by Steve Habrat

If action fans were turned off by Richard Donner’s 1978 slow burner origin story Superman, they will find tons to enjoy in Richard Lester’s breathless action extravaganza Superman II, the controversial follow-up to the original film. Pitting the Man of Steel against the dreaded General Zod, a foe that possesses the same powers as Superman, Superman II manages to be more of a nail bitter than its predecessor by really putting Superman’s back against the skyscraper. Out of all the Superman films, Superman II has to be my favorite for how tense some of it can be. There are moments where you really think Supes isn’t going to make it out of this one alive, especially when General Zod teams up Lex Luthor. Superman II also features some really complex emotions, especially when it dives into the relationship between feisty news reporter Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent. Filmed simultaneously with Superman, it is said that Donner, who claimed to have made 75% of Superman II, quit working on this film because the studio pushed him to make it campier than the original, which led to Lester stepping in and finishing the film. Personally, I have always found this film to be a bit darker and lacking in the winks that were heavy in the first film, something that made me like Superman II even more.

Superman II begins with a quick flashback to the events in Superman, which began with wise Jor-El (Played by Marlon Brando) banishing three criminals by the names of General Zod (Played by Terence Stamp), Ursa (Played by Sarah Douglas), and Non (Played by Jack O’Halloran), into deep space just before the destruction of Krypton. He traps them in the Phantom Zone, a glass-like cube that spirals aimlessly through the galaxy. The film speeds ahead to present day with Superman (Played by Christopher Reeve) foiling a terrorist plot to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Supes discovers the terrorists have a hydrogen bomb in their clutches, which he quickly takes to space and detonates. The shock waves from the bomb destroy the Phantom Zone and free Zod and his cronies. The deadly trio soon arrives on earth, where they begin destroying anything in their path. Meanwhile Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder) are on a business trip in Niagara Falls when Lois begins to suspect that Clark Kent is in fact Superman, given the fact that he is never around when Superman is swooping in to save the day. She is proven right and Superman learns that if he wishes to be with a mortal, he must be stripped of his powers and also live as a mortal. Soon, Superman learns of General Zod’s plot to enslave the human race and to make things worse, his arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman) has broken out of prison and offers an alliance to General Zod.

Bigger, louder, faster, and stronger than Donner’s original film, Superman II has an epic final showdown that goes on for almost forty minutes in the streets of Metropolis. Everything that gets in between Superman and General Zod is crushed like a tin can. Cars tumble through the air and buildings are destroyed as Superman tries desperately to prevent Zod, Ursa, and Non from reducing Metropolis to ash. It is a lot of fun with some camp thrown in to keep things from getting too dark for children. To make things worse for Superman, Lex Luthor refuses to lend him a hand in trying to figure out a way to beat Zod, Luthor revealing every single trick Superman tries to use against the trio. He is basically on his own and that adds a lot of anxiety to Superman II.  How does the Man of Steel beat three invincible foes with little regard for human life? Now that is one hell of a sequel if you ask me. Screenwriters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz work overtime to also give the love story a set of teeth. Things are not simple between Lois and Superman, at least not as easy as Superman first figures they are. Responsibility steps in between the couple and forces them to put their love on hold as Zod forces Superman to step out of retirement.

With the screenwriters taking Superman to new emotional heights, the cast is forced to add more depth to their characters. The darkness that crept into Superman’s heart of gold flares up again in smaller ways. He grapples with being stripped of his powers as a hulking bully in a diner roughs him up. He trembles with fear and embarrassment, the nerdy Clark Kent actually helpless for once. The tough Lois Lane finally loosens up a bit, especially when her theory that Clark Kent is Superman turns out to be right. I actually enjoyed that the filmmakers made her character suspect that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. I always thought it would be a cinch to spot the resemblance. The affection between Lois and Superman is out of this world when it is being fully addressed, especially when without hesitation, Superman declares that he is willing to be stripped of his powers so that he can be with the one that he loves. It’s a sweet romance that builds up to a finale of tears and hurt, something that still pierces even after having seen the film multiple times.

Superman II also comes loaded with four villains ready to lay waste to the Man of Steel.  Hackman’s Lex Luthor doesn’t really show much growth outside of the reveal that he is a slight coward. He gravitates to whoever is on top at that particular moment. He seems present just to add a little bit more comic relief to the action and to keep the kids chuckling. It is said that when Donner left the film, he went with him, refusing to work for Lester. Then we have Stamp as the booming General Zod, who speaks in third person and promises anyone he meets that they will “kneel before Zod!” He is so evil that you will want to cheer when Superman shows up and asks him if he’d like to step outside to work out their differences, which is code for throwing a few punches at each other. Zod’s second in command Ursa is a sexy femme fatale who is loyal to her general until the very end. She may just be an enforcer but she still sends chills down your spine, especially her amused smirk as she butchers a group of astronauts. Rounding out the baddies is O’Halloran’s Non, a mute giant who is capable of more destruction than Luthor, Zod, and Ursa combined. He barrels at Superman in midflight and smashes through brick like it was a sheet of paper. The trio gets a fun little destruction free-for-all in a small town where they deflect flamethrowers and break missiles in half as a warm up before the battle for Metropolis.

Much like Superman, Superman II’s special effects are completely devoid of the wonder I’m sure they once possessed. Some of the battles are a bit flat as the actors bob around on wires that don’t allow them to move as quickly as they would like. Still, the moments where cars and buses crash through the streets of Metropolis hold up nicely, adding a wave of apocalyptic dread to the battle. Zod is capable of destruction that makes Luthor salivate, another aspect that is pretty neat to watch. Superman II is also loaded with barefaced jingoism that really fits the superhero that stands for “truth, honor, and American way”. The film fades out with Superman flying to the destroyed White House with an American flag that he places atop the ruins, promising the president that he will never disappear again. It is this beaming pride that makes Superman II endearing and reminds us that ol’ Supes will always be the American good old boy. Overall, a faster pace and trickier romance angle allows Superman II to be just slightly more fun than the influential original, even if it is not as thought provoking with its imagery. It also justifies the very idea of a sequel and proves that a sequel can sometimes be a great thing.

Grade: A

Superman II is available on Blu-ray DVD.