As you know, this week the movie Man of Steel flies into theaters and fans as well as moviegoers are hoping that this Superman movie will be the movie that the iconic character deserves. And yes I am reviewing it. In the meantime we’re going to take a look at a Superman movie from the existing franchise which starred Christopher Reeve (god rest his soul) as the Man of Steel. And many people are convinced that he was the one and only Superman, especially in the later years of his life after his tragic horse riding accident which left him a quadriplegic and as a result, he became the real-life Superman and a symbol of courage and hope to the world.
However, I don’t want to start this review on a downer, especially since today I am reviewing one of his bad Superman movies. And surprisingly this one isn’t as bad as people make it out to be. And no, I am not talking about Superman IV, that’s next week. Today we are going to talk about Superman III.
To this day, this movie remains the only Superman movie I have seen in theaters. I saw it at the Hyde Park Drive-In when I was a kid back in 1983. And if you don’t know where Hyde Park is, well. I am originally from downstate New York, Dutchess County and Hyde Park is about five minutes up from the road from Poughkeepsie. And I think to this day, the Hyde Park Drive-In is still in operation as part of the few drive-ins that are left in the world.
But enough of my personal nostalgia. Let’s get into the backstory of the movie.
As everyone knows, the first two Superman movies are among the best comic-book movies ever made. Both films received critical praise and have performed really well at the box office. So it was inevitable that there would be a third Superman movie. In the commentary on the Superman III DVD, producer Ilya Salkind revealed that the original plot of Superman III was supposed to take place in space where Superman was supposed to battle Brainiac and another villain from the comics named Mxyzptlk (I’m serious. That’s how it’s spelled.) And it was also supposed to introduce Supergirl into the mix. Unfortunately that plan was abandoned presumably for budgetary reasons but the main reason why the original story idea was abandoned was because of an appearance by Richard Pryor on the Tonight Show which was hosted by Johnny Carson at the time. On the show he made a remark that he wanted to be in a Superman movie. The producers apparently saw the show and said to themselves, “Why not?”
So the writers came up with a story idea involving computers which were slowly starting to dominate every aspect of society at that time and make the movie more about the character Richard Pryor would be playing. As a result, the writers gave Richard Pryor more screen time than Superman. And that is the first major problem with the movie. The end result was this movie grossed only half of what Superman II made and critics had a field day with all the negative reviews, especially on the casting of Pryor and the overly comedic tone of the movie.
So how much worse can this movie get? Let’s get started.
The movie opens with Gus Gorman (Pryor’s character) a chronically unemployed welfare-abusing loser who finally gets his welfare cut off. However, he does get a job with a computer programming firm that is run by humanitarian tycoon Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn and I’ll get to him in a little while because he’s another problem this movie has.) And there is where Gus learns about his hidden talent as a computer genius.
However before that, we have our next big problem with the movie: The opening credits. In the first two, we had the credits flying at you on the screen. Here, the credits are hardly noticeable because they are intermixed with a slapstick sequence where everything in Metropolis gets all screwy. Are you sure we’re watching Superman here or are we watching a parody of Superman?
Anyway on with the story. The story continues with Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) being invited to his high school reunion in Smallville and he wants to do a story about it for the Daily Planet. In the meantime, the love of his life Lois Lane (Margot Kidder who winds up making cameo appearances to bookend the movie, partly as punishment for speaking out against the Salkinds for not allowing Richard Donner to finish directing Superman II) is off to Bermuda on vacation. Aside from a quick stop to put out a chemical plant fire as Superman, Clark arrives at his reunion and reconnects with his childhood sweetheart, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), who is now a divorced single mother trying to fend off the advances of the town drunk played by the same guy who played Chuck Cunningham on Happy Days.
Meanwhile after hacking the payroll and swindling the company out of the half-cents that are floating in the system (an act known as salami slicing that found its way into the movie Office Space by the way,) Gus’ talent with computers attracts the attention of Ross Webster, a humanitarian tycoon who secretly wants to, you guessed it, take over the world. OF COURSE! And as I said earlier, he’s another problem with the movie. He comes off as a kinder, gentler version of Lex Luthor. The producers initially wanted Frank Langella to play Webster but settled on Vaughn, who had already been widely known for roles in The Man from UNCLE and The Magnificent Seven. However, Langella would find his way into the Superman universe years later when he played Perry White in Superman Returns. I still haven’t decided yet if I’m going to review that one. Along with his ugly sister and his hot air-headed mistress, they plot to take over the world’s oil supply.
Realizing that Superman is still a threat to their plan, the trio have Gus try to acquire Kryptonite but not knowing what unknown element was in Kryptonite, Gus fills in the blank by adding an ingredient found in cigarettes. Smoke, smoke, smoke that Kryptonite. And when Gus lays it on Superman, it turns the Man of Steel from the overgrown Boy Scout he’s always been into a super douchebag who goes off and does such terrible things as straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic torch, and causing a major oil spill all in the name of truth, justice, and to get laid with blond bimbos.
However, Superdouche’s antics catch up to him when he ends up splitting into two beings which leads to probably the best scene in the movie: The big fight between Superdouche and Clark Kent in a junkyard. The real Superman wins and flies to the big confrontation with Webster and his super computer in a stunning showdown that includes the Man of Steel becoming part of a live video game involving real missiles. Maybe that scene was the actual inspiration for Angry Birds. The missiles are the birds while Superman is the green pig.
So will Superman triumph? Will Webster reign supreme? What will happen to Gus? Do you even care what happens to Gus? A lot of people would have to say no.
For all its faults, people tend to forget that there are some good things in Superman III. For starters, Christopher Reeve is actually still in top form, even though he had less screen time than Richard Pryor, but with what screen time he had, he makes it count. In fact many would argue that this movie was actually one of his best roles because he’s playing not two roles, but four roles. In addition to his normal roles as Superman and Clark Kent, he plays Clark with a little more of a backbone when he goes back to Smallville and he is even more believable when Superman becomes Superdouche. Also what works is the subplot involving Lana Lang. Annette O’Toole is decent in the role and actually seems like a better fit for Clark than Lois does. It’s kind of ironic that years after this movie came out, O’Toole went on to play Superman’s mother on Smallville. Plus her presence helps bring out Clark/Superman’s humanity a lot better than Lois did. And of course I mentioned before the big fight between Superman and Superdouche was the best scene in the movie. Also the visual effects were still very good, most notably the flying effects including a scene where Superman freezes an entire lake and carries it to put out a fire. If you want bad visual effects, see next week’s review.
Now to sum up what doesn’t work: The main story which was written as a comedy to reflect the fact that Richard Pryor was going to be in it. And considering that the writers for this movie were David and Leslie Newman who also collaborated on the screenplay on the first two Supermans with Godfather creator Mario Puzo, this is inexcusable because these two should know better. The villains were too weak not to mention miscast; the returning cast members’ roles were too short; and did I mention Richard Pryor? And even worse, the person who thought putting him in a Superman movie would be a good idea. Instead, he singlehandedly turned the movie into a joke and not a funny one. If Richard Pryor wanted to be in a Superman movie so bad, give him a freaking cameo. Don’t give him more screen time than Superman. I go to a Superman movie to see Superman. I don’t go to a Superman movie to see Richard Pryor.
Just think. This same fate almost befell Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when Eddie Murphy expressed interest in being in a Star Trek movie. At first it seemed like a good idea but thankfully, the producer of that movie must have had these five words in mind: “Richard Pryor in Superman III.”
However in all fairness, there are some Richard Pryor jokes that do work, such as the scene where he gets Chuck Cunningham so drunk he passes out and also when he disguises himself as an Army general and delivers a silly speech while trying to give Superman the Kryptonite that turns him into Superdouche. Otherwise, too much Richard Pryor comedy in a Superman movie is not always a good idea.
So is Superman III really as bad as people say it is? Well, it’s not as good as the first two, but it doesn’t completely suck. People tend to use the bad to overshadow the good. I guess you can say I kinda view this movie as a guilty pleasure. The movie’s not good but there are some redeemable qualities to this movie. It’s stupid but it’s enjoyable. And as far as enjoyable goes, you could do worse. And you’ll see worse next week. So take this movie for what it’s worth.