Making a good Superman movie is apparently only slightly easier than convincing a clown to sterilize his chainsaw before he gives you a makeshift vasectomy. There have been six live action attempts, and by my count, we have a grand total of one and a half good ones. While far from the worst Superman movie ever made, Superman III just might be the strangest.
Tagline: Superman vs. the king of computerized crime!
More Accurate Tagline: Superman vs. dignity!
Guilty Party: While Richard Lester fucked up Donner’s vision for Superman II (which, if allowed to happen, would have been the best Superman movie of all time), you can’t really blame him for this. Sure, his weird racism, devotion to unfunny comedy, and conviction that Superman is basically a character from a Monkees sketch, are all on display. But the reason he was given the keys to the Superman franchise are the Salkinds. I don’t want to be hyperbolic or anything, but the Salkinds basically sodomized Superman’s character on top of a Willie Nelson pinball machine.
Synopsis: When you’re making a movie about an all-powerful alien who likes to save people from huge natural and manmade disasters, you really want to open on a grimy early ‘80s unemployment office. Gives audiences that sense of existential despair so integral to escapist cinema. Anyway, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor, yep, Richard Pryor) learns he’s no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. Ooo. I’m getting fucking chills from all the childlike wonder.
Gus happens to see an ad for computer programming training, and it turns out he’s a super genius at it. He goes to work for Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) who is basically the non-union Mexican equivalent of Lex Luthor. Why they didn’t name him Lexo Lutherez qualifies as one of the great missed opportunities of civilization. Gus, unsatisfied with his paycheck, writes a program that steals the leftover fractions of a cent from company transactions. This brings him to the attention of Webster, who wants to use Gus’s computer know-how to hijack the weather.
Yeah, computers are basically magic in this world.
Meanwhile, Lois ducks out of the movie (actress Margot Kidder was in a beef with the Salkinds over Donner’s firing, which basically means a legitimately mentally ill person had a better handle on reality than the fucking Salkinds), while Clark Kent heads to Smallville for his class reunion. There he runs into Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), the woman he was in love with back in high school, now a single mom in a dead end job. He also runs into jerk jock Brad, who is played by one of the actors who played Chuck Cunningham in Happy Days. That had to be intentional.
Gus breaks into a wheat thresher sales office in Smallville to use their computer to network to a weather satellite. This is a plot point in the film, and not evidence that I’m being held hostage right now and am trying to get your attention by typing gibberish. Gus successfully uses the weather satellite to destroy the coffee bean harvest in Colombia, allowing Webster to corner the market.
Webster gets the bright idea that he should corner the oil market too by stranding all the tankers in the middle of the Atlantic. Remember: computers=magic. To get Superman out of the way, Webster has Gus attempt to synthesize kryptonite. There’s a percentage of it that’s unknown, so Gus substitutes tar (the idea came to him while looking at a pack of cigarettes, because fuck it, that’s where we are now) and plants the stuff on Superman while pretending to be General Patton. Look, I can’t explain everything or we’ll be here all day.
The synthesized kryptonite doesn’t kill Superman, but it does turn him into a total asshole. He grows some five o’clock shadow, breaks mirrors, does some daytime drinking, wears a darker costume, causes an oil spill (might have buried the lede there), and straightens the leaning tower of Pisa. He also allows himself to be seduced by Webster’s moll Lorelei who is totally not Miss Teschmacher, so stop asking.
So then Lana’s son Ricky gets Superman to do some self-reflecting, but this is man stuff. So Superman is going to reflect with his fists. He flies to a junkyard, which inexplicably has an open pit of acid in the middle, and has a fistfight with himself. He duplicates into Clark, and it makes exactly as much sense as it sounds like it does. Clark beats Superman and he’s good again. He zips around fixing things up, and we’re spared a scene where he uses supervision to heal Lorelei’s shattered pelvis.
Gus asks to be paid with the construction of a supercomputer that can beat anything. Computers=magic. Webster agrees, and they stick it in a canyon. Superman gets the info about where they are from a video message and goes to punch some goodness into them. Both Gus and Lorelei have second thoughts about being evil, but only Gus actually does anything, smashing the computer’s weapons with a fire axe. Superman takes the computer out with some acid from earlier in the film (not the junkyard acid… there’s just caustic acid like… everywhere in this universe).
Superman heads back to Metropolis, getting Gus a job offer at a coal yard, and Lana a job at the Daily Planet.
Life-Changing Subtext: Computers are straight-up magic.
Defining Quote: Gus Gorman: “I just don’t believe a man can fly.” Superman’s famous tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly!” has become an obsession in shitty superhero movies. It’s not one for one — there are bad superhero movies that never mention it — but if one does, you know you’re looking at a bad one.
Standout Performance: Christopher Reeve will always be Superman. Even when the movies sucked, he was always reliable. His scenes with Annette O’Toole, who is also as good as you could ask for, are the highlight of the film. They have such effortless, lived-in chemistry, they pretty much instantly turned into a Clang shipper. That’s what we’re calling ourselves, right?
What’s Wrong: This is two movies awkwardly grafted onto one another, like if Victor Frankenstein tried to make a monster made entirely out of two different kinds of crap. You have a shitty Superman movie, a shitty Richard Pryor movie, and the connective tissue is that computers are full of tiny wizards who make dreams come true.
Flash of Competence: To be fair, it’s more than a flash in this one. While the movie is terrible, it still has moments that recall what a Superman movie can and should be. For one thing, Superman consistently goes out of his way to save innocent lives, even if it’ll inconvenience him. An early sequence when he puts out a fire at a chemical plant almost recaptures the magic of the first two films, and when the Superman theme kicks in, I can’t deny getting some chills.
Best Scenes: This scene has to be mentioned somewhere, because it traumatized me as a child, which is something that many actual horror movies failed to do. The computer drags Webster’s sister into it and replaces her flesh with electronics. It’s horrifying, and it’s happening in a lighthearted Richard Pryor movie. It’s literally one of the scariest things ever put on film.
Superman going bad is arguably the defining sequence in this installment. His most famous moment is when he straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s the kind of vandalism that could only be thought up by small children and grouchy New York animators. And apparently Kryptonians, because Superman flies all the way the fuck to Italy to do it. He’s not there on business and decides, what the hell, that shit has been bothering me for years.
When he flies over to bang Lorelei after causing the oil spill for her, he basically barges into her place like Will Ferrell in Step Brothers. “I have polluted mother earth and now will fill you with my seed!” As he grabs her, and he just straight up grabs her with hands than can fold steel like notebook paper, she has this flash of terror over her face. Then the screen fades to black. I felt like I was watching snuff. This is not something anyone needs in their Superman movie.
Transcendent Moment: Superman III opens with Lorelei, who possesses this Barbie-meets-Cabbage Patch Kid kind of beauty that was prized in the ‘80s, walking down the street. Things promptly go apeshit, as all of civilization unravels with Rube Golbergian precision. Soon blind men are wandering traffic-choked streets while painting figure eights onto the asphalt, rollerskaters are plowing into hot dog carts, penguins are on fire, and before long, a man is literally drowning in his car.
Now, this is a chance for Superman to save an innocent life, which is good. But on the other hand, what the fuck is wrong with these people? Is Metropolis just covered in slow gas leaks? Are these people morons who would die awful slapstick-related deaths if Superman wasn’t monitoring them 24/7? Is Idiocracy just the Superman movie universe without Superman?
If this thing were a half hour shorter, I’d be recommending it far and wide. As insane as it is, that insanity gets parceled out gradually, so there are stretches of labored comedy where not much is happening. Still, it’s nice to be reminded that bad Superman films are hardly a new phenomenon.