R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Superman III

With the trials and tribulations of X3 it becomes apparent that many Comic Book films have a hard time with the second sequel. The third X-Men has had two directors leave the project and has now hired a man that sends alarm bells ringing in the ears of fanboys everywhere. Brett Ratner has had some success in the past, but has never really proven himself before, nor has he ingratiated himself with comic book fans. Unfortunately, X3 now seems to be following a pattern that has hurt previously successful Comic franchises.

In 1983, the Superman franchise was a thriving series of films. Superman: The Movie was an awe-inspiring epic and still stands as perhaps the best of the genre. The film took itself seriously, but still had an otherworldly quality that was well matched for the type of film it was. Superman II had a darker tone, but audiences still loved it because it was high on action. The film suffered because of the firing of director Richard Donner. In Donner’s absence the film became uneven at times due to the often heavy handed directing of replacement Richard Lester. Superman II still survived on great performances from Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman.

When it came time to start production on a third adventure for The Man of Steel, Producer Alexander Salkind was ready to hand over the reigns to Richard Lester for an entire feature. Roadblocks would come up as the Salkinds received criticism from cast members such as Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman, who took offense to the firing of Richard Donner. While Hackman would not be seen in Superman III, Kidder’s scenes would be trimmed to just the first five minutes of the film.

The film had to move in another direction. Whereas the second film was full of action and suspense, the third film would focus on comedy. Richard Lester had made a name for himself with films like A Hard Day’s Night and The Three Musketeers which had high quotients for laughs. Superman would also have to find a new love, with Lois Lane not in the mix.

Helping with these would be the addition of Richard Pryor and Annette O’Toole to the cast. Pryor was one of the most popular comics in the world at the time. His brash comedic style made him a huge box office draw and the casting was a real feather in the cap of the production. Annette O’Toole was to play Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s first love from his hometown of Smallville. O’Toole was to play Lana with a small town innocence that really appeals to Clark and she would be able to do so convincingly. Everything was set for the Superman franchise to keep the ball rolling, but instead the film would start a downward trend that would plague Comic Book Films for years to come.

Superman III Starring Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor. Directed by Richard Lester.

After a small introduction to Richard Pryor’s Gus Gorman, the film actually begins quite nicely. Director Richard Lester shows his flair for comedy with a tour de force opening sequence of pratfalls and sight gags. While the mixture of broad comedy and seriously toned action of Superman II did not always work, here it fits in quite nicely. The entire sequence builds to Christopher Reeve making his famous transformation from Clark to Superman in a photo booth. A funny little joke involves Reeve looking at the pictures just taken in the booth, discarding the ones showing his identity and giving the rest to a child standing there in awe. John William’s familiar fanfare sneaks out just momentarily as Supes saves a man drowning in his car.

From there the story moves to the Daily Planet for Margot Kidder’s only scenes as Lois Lane. She’s written out of the script as going to Paris (maybe to find another atom bomb like in Superman II) but these scenes are merely expository. Clark explains that he’s off to go to his high school reunion, and even takes Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) with him.

The other half of the story revolves around Pryor’s Gus Gorman. Gorman is basically a loser. He can’t keep a steady job and his unemployment has run out. He takes a job with a small computer firm and finds that he’s actually a kind of “idiot-savant”. Gorman is a whiz with the computers and even comes up with a scheme in which he can roll fractions of pennies into a personal bank account. When the total is much more than he originally expected, it catches the attention of the company’s owner, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn).

Instead of prosecuting Gorman, the billionaire recruits him in a scheme that will take advantage of Gorman’s computer skills. Gorman is able to manipulate satellites that the company owns to create havoc with weather and other disasters that will benefit the company financially. The only problem is that with every disaster Webster cooks up, Superman is there to stop them. The two think of a scheme to turn Superman’s powers to their advantage.

Superman himself is busy as his Clark persona is finding new love with an old friend. Kent’s high school crush, Lana Lang, is now a single mother and the two have started to make up for lost time. Clark has even gotten close to Ricky (Paul Kaethler), Lana’s young son. In a very exciting scene Superman saves Ricky from a horrible farming accident in one of the film’s best action scenes.

Things really start cooking in the film when Webster and Gorman come up with a synthetic Kryptonite. Instead of killing the Man of Steel, as the substance was supposed to do, it turns him to the dark side. Superman begins wreaking havoc, and committing horrible crimes for personal gain. Big Blue is completely selfish, ignoring those crying for his help.
The film’s greatest moment comes as Superman’s inner goodness splits with his evil self and manifests as Clark Kent. Superman and Clark duke it out in a fight for the ages in an abandoned junkyard. The battle rages as good and evil try everything to win out, from crushing one another in trash compactors to throwing themselves into acid. While most scenes like this are tedious, this epic struggle represents one of the best scenes in the entire series and maybe the best fight of the franchise. When Superman’s good manifestation wins out, he flies off in search of the evil doers that changed him.The film ends with Superman fighting a giant Supercomputer built by Gorman and Webster. While the scene is okay, the showdown is eclipsed by the endings of the previous two films and the Clark Vs. Superman battle that had happened moments before.

Superman III had the makings of a really great entry in the Superman saga. The film already had the momentum of the previous two films, but loses steam in its meandering pace and carbon copy bad guys. The choice to move toward more comedy would have been an inspired one if the film had big laughs, but other than the humorous opening, the chuckles are few and far between.

Sharing some of the blame is Director Richard Lester, who’s handling of the material just isn’t very inspired. The pace of the film is just too leisurely and the experience is just so uneven with the opening being good and the Clark/Superman battle being spectacular, but everything else being kind of bland. Also sharing blame are the screenwriters David Newman and Leslie Newman, who did so well on the other installments of Big Blue, but here seem lost. The loss of Director Richard Donner and Writer Tom Mankiewicz can be felt in the heavy handed feeling of the film, where as the first Superman picture felt brisk and lighthearted despite its long running time. Mankiewicz’s snappy dialogue is sorely missing here also and would have improved the film tenfold. The film does have its bright spots though.

Christopher Reeve once again proves that he was born to play Superman on screen. Reeve’s work here nearly pulls the film out of mediocrity as his inner fight to stay true to himself is very intriguing and highly entertaining. Reeve’s turn as Clark Kent is also very good once more as his new romance with O’Toole’s Lang is quite convincing and heartfelt. To think that the most powerful being on the planet would need a second chance to get the girl he loved is a device that makes him seem all the more human and easier to identify with for an audience. Although not playing the role for nearly four years (The first two films were shot back to back), Reeve steps into the role like he’d never had the lay off.

Annette O’Toole also does great work here as she has a natural chemistry with Christopher Reeve. It’s really too bad that Lana was introduced into this film, as she would have been a nice permanent addition to the cast. Fortunately in a twist of fate, her involvement with the TV series Smallville allows O’Toole to have a permanent place in the Superman mythos.

Beginning the disappointments with the casting is Richard Pryor. With the right material Pryor is a brilliant comic with excellent timing, but here he looks uncomfortable and restrained. Pryor is able to get out a few scenes of antics, but the laughs are all timid at best. What was supposed to be a homerun for casting the picture just turned out to be a major dud.

Worse is Robert Vaughn as Ross Webster. Gone is the sinister comic timing of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, replaced by a hollow wannabe showing none of his usual charisma. Vaughn’s henchwomen (Annie Ross and Pamela Stephenson) are no better, although Pamela Stephenson’s buxom blonde, Lorelei Ambrosia, provides the series’ only real sex appeal.

Superman III was a major disappointment to audiences hoping for another great adventure after the stellar first two films. Through meddling by Producers and sub-par performances by many of the cast and crew, Superman III is a film that many fans want to forget. One of those fans is Bryan Singer, Director of the new Superman Returns. Singer’s new film will take place after the events of Superman II and try to provide a proper sequel to add to legacy of Richard Donner’s magnificent originals. Hopefully, those in charge of other franchises in the Comic Book world will heed what happened to the Man of Steel. Otherwise, they may face a force too powerful to overcome; angry critics and fans.


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