The important thing to remember about Superman III is that he’s not evil. He’s just bad.
The Superman movie series is an on-going exercise in people just not getting it. Somehow, director Richard Donner and “Creative Consultant” — that is to say, cannot be legally credited as writer — Tom Mankiewicz managed to cut through all the four color camp clutter to essential truths about Superman and his core supporting cast. Superman is virtuous, but capable of poking fun at the image he projects to the world both behind the glasses of Clark Kent and as Big Blue. Lois is a headstrong, take no shit kind of lady, but all that jumps out the window when she meets the Man of Steel. Perry White is the classic newsman, more or less disconnected from this whole Superman business, except for the headlines it can get the paper. Jimmy is Jimmy and Lex is …
The Lex Luthor of 1978, but still true to the basic notion of a supergenius who feels unfairly pushed aside by Superman’s arrival and will do anything, or kill anyone, to get the attention back on himself.
While some people may find 1979’s Superman a little stogy, it’s the only film to really get it right. The subsequent films are always just a little off. Superman II features an injection of camp and that infamous s-shield saran wrap moment. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is just a misguided attempt on all levels and even Superman Returns, while reverent for the first film, manages to cock it up by making the Man of Tomorrow a deadbeat dad.
Superman III‘s problems are largely an extension of its predecessor. The second film is a weird fifty-fifty frankenfilm utilizing portion of II directed by Richard Donner during the long production block meant to generate the two films. When Donner and the producing father and son team of Ilya and Alexander Salkind could not see eye-to-eye on various issues, he was replaced with American-born Richard Lester, known for A Hard Day’s Night and Help. I point out Lester’s birth nation because his films are better known as stalwarts of the British film scene. His sensibility is markedly European and a more European take on Superman arrives with his installation as director.
Prior to Donner’s involvement, the Salkinds hired Guy Hamilton of the Bond series to take the reigns. Hamilton’s version was high on camp and low on the charm of the eventual film. The Salkinds always saw Superman as a camp figure akin to the Batman TV show of the late sixties. Keep in mind just how pervasive that thinking is even to this day when producers talk about getting the “comic-bookiness” out the property they’ve optioned. While Alexander Salkind denies this now, he approved alterations to the II storyline to include more of Lester’s trademark comedy. Much of it comes at the expense of characters we’re emotionally invested in, like Jimmy, Lois, and even Clark. When compared to “The Donner Cut” of II, Lester provided only one improvement, a single line of dialogue from Zod: “How can you say this to me, when you know I will kill you for it?”
As II proved to be a bigger financial success than the first film, the Salkinds, Lester, and the writing team of David and Leslie Newman felt secure that the world wanted to laugh at Superman, and so they brought in another superstar to help facilitate this ambition.
Make no mistake, Superman III is a Richard Pryor film masquerading as a Superman film. The movie opens with Pryor, as down-on-his luck Gus Gorman, waiting for his unemployment check. Again, I know the Eighties were secretly crappy — particularly if you weren’t white or Daniel Larusso — but there’s something quite dated about this scene. It’s as though Lester hadn’t heard Pryor perform in years and ordered the Newmans to write a scene ripped from “Good Times” because he couldn’t tell his lead actor apart from Jimmy “J.J.” Walker.
Y’know, I just realized this is a “Best of” review. I’m supposed to be telling you why the movie is enjoyable in spite of itself. That comes down to a handful of things. One is Annette O’Toole’s take on Lana Lang:
In this version of the character, she’s a grown up single mother who starts to see Clark for the good Mid-Western husband stock he’s actually made of. She’s a sweetheart, makes excellent pies, and, most importantly, DOESN’T GIVE A RAT’S ASS ABOUT SUPERMAN. Also, not to be Randy Pan, the Goatboy, she’s clinically proven to be 136% hotter than Margot Kidder’s Lois.
The other thing than makes this movie worthwhile is the criminally underused invention of Bad Superman.
During the plot, Gus brings a synthetic Kryptonite he devised to the Man of Steel. It appears to be ineffective, but shortly thereafter, Superman experiences a sort of fever. Well, a fever for Lana Lang. She tries to tell him that a truck is about to fall to off a bridge. He puts the moves on her and says, “I always get there in time.” While I’m fond of the straight-laced Boy Scout, there’s something to be said for the careful application of a rogue Superman. Here, he’s just bad. He wants to drink, screw, and maybe fight an oil tanker or two. He also stops shaving because that’s for squares, man.
Bad Superman also calls back to the era when Superman was a dick. In the 50s and 60s, after comic books came under the boot of the strictest censorship ever exacted on an American art form, Superman was left in a strange mad stasis where his power kept growing, but his emotions stopped cold. His greatest enemies became Lois and Lana as they ransacked the sci-fi closet for more outlandish ways to trap him into marriage. Comics guru Grant Morrison suggests the era was an attempt to reconcile the loss of potency men felt when returning from the war and discovering their wives/girlfriends had found agency. From our perspective looking back, Superman just became a giant douche preventing Aquaman from getting water.
In many of these sorts of stories, Superman fell under the thrall of Red Kryptonite. Like Gus’s artificial substance, Red-K made Superman turn bad. By the end of the story, Superman would right all the wrongs and Status: Q (thanks, Grant) would be restored, making the world safe for white heterosexual democracy.
I doubt the Newmans, Lester, or the Salkinds had any clue that they were invoking any of this. They just hadn’t seen a Superman comics since 1963 and assumed this was still how it worked. By 1983, Superman had grown out of dickish phase as his reality became increasingly dark and mundane. Two years later, his comic book world was torn asunder and he himself was replaced by a thoroughly modern Superman with human-sized problems and Schwarzenegger-sized pectoral muscles.
Not that anyone outside of comics noticed, mind you.
Bad Superman also allowed Christopher Reeve to extend some muscles as he attempts to essay being irresponsible. I imagine that must’ve been quite a struggle for him as he was practically Superman in real life. The end result is a kid’s idea of harmless evil: stubble, beer, and a weird fascination with the thingies on the pretty lady. The whole Bad Superman sequences ends with a nightmare-inducing fight between Bad Superman and Clark. It takes place in a junkyard and even now, I find it to be one of the better, and creepier, scenes. Clark appears to be crushed TWICE by BS. His coat gets burned off by acid and in order to regain control of his body, Clark has to choke a bitch … or BS, as the case might be.
Imagine me, all of five-years-old watching this in a theater. The first Superman already produced a fear of being crushed that was visited on my child-mind by reoccurring nightmares and here, it’s happening to fucking Superman. But, for any kid that watched this movie at the time, there was one thing more shit-in-the-pants terrifying than Superman having a Tyler Durden episode.
Now, I can almost laugh at it, but this is, without a doubt, the single most traumatizing thing I saw in a theater until Staying Alive later that same year. Gus Gorman’s not-Brainiac computer CONSUMES a woman and turns her into a goddamn robot. I mean, seriously? That was okay for kids? What was my mom thinking? Oh right, she didn’t know to expect it either because it’s a Superman movie. For kids.
It’s okay. I’m okay.
While one of our longer Best Of films, clocking in at two hours even, Superman III has a pleasant enough pace; the stuff that works — like Bad Superman — balances out the wrongheaded thinking. Example: Gus needs to break into a building in Smallville (don’t ask). He accomplishes this by buying an absurd “southern gentleman” suit he sees in the window of the local men’s shop. When the security guard lets him in on the promise of liquor, Gus adds a GIANT FOAM COWBOY HAT to the mix.
Honestly, I think this movie delayed my appreciation of Richard Pryor’s actual talent for fifteen years.
Oh, one last note. I find it interesting that this movie clearly inspired not one, but two turn of the century office-place malaise epics. Office Space quickly announces where it got the idea for the apparently real practice of Salami Slicing from, but I think the Clark/Bad Superman fight is a direct antecedent of Tyler Durden and Jack’s Wasted Life.