Friday, December 21, 2012

The Films of 1983: Superman III

I wrote recently about the summer of 1983 -- the season of my “geek discontent -- in regards to Return of the Jedi.  Exhibit B in that geek discontent is Superman III, directed by Richard Lester and written by David and Leslie Newman.

You can read my reviews of Superman: The Movie and Superman II as preamble to this piece if you haven’t already done so already, but in short, I consider them two of the finest superhero films ever made, even in 2012.

In comparison to these films, Superman III is a colossal fall from grace, and a huge disappointment. 

With director Richard Donner completely out of the picture by now, it’s clear that a fundamental and vital respect for the Man of Steel is missing in action in this under-cooked sequel.  The series’ overarching symbolism (comparing the Kryptonian messiah to Jesus Christ) is gone, as is any sense of scope or majesty.  

Instead, Superman III lurches straight into comedy with lame physical gags and a dithering Richard Pryor in a starring role.

The third time is not the charm for the Superman series, and it has been called “the worst of the Superman visualizations” (Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend, Octavia Books, 1987, page 75).  

And while Sheila Benson at The Los Angeles Times appreciated the film’s sense of humor and noted that director Lester was “at the top of the physical sight gag form,” she also recognized that any sense of “innocence and invention” had been replaced with a “slight edge of nastiness.” (June 17, 1983).

My sense of Superman III, having watched it again recently for this review, is that the film’s humor -- while problematic -- isn’t the only significant hurdle for this sequel.  A much more rudimentary problem involves the nature of the screenplay.  It flat-out doesn’t make sense in terms of Superman’s history and decision-making process regarding a romantic relationship.  Furthermore, the script doesn’t make sense in terms of the capabilities of its central threat, a computer.

A “lighter” take on Superman might not necessarily be a bad thing in principle, but the vetting of that lighter material must be strong so that the “reality” of the character’s world remains intact even during jokes.  Superman III fails that test. 

And yet I do find some elements of the film quite laudable. Annette O’Toole is such a charming screen presence, and she’s great as Lana Lang in Superman III.  Additionally, there’s a compelling scene near the end of the film in which Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, duke it out for psychological/physical dominance.  Christopher Reeve is terrific playing the dissolute Superman here, and he gives the film the punch it so sorely lacks at other junctures.

Writing for Time, Richard Corliss wrote: “Superman is a role that offers as many pitfalls as opportunities: surrender to parody and the part becomes as two-dimensional as newsprint; emphasize the stalwart heroism and the audience falls asleep. Reeve brings both a light touch and sufficient muscle to Superman. And when he goes bad, he is a sketch of vice triumphant, swaggering toward the vixen Lorelei for a sulfurous kiss.”

To a significant degree, Reeve and O’Toole rescue Superman III from being a total loss. Still, nearly thirty years later, the film still disappoints, especially in comparison with its two high-flying predecessors. Superman III is a low-brow, low-impact, scatter shot  “blockbuster.”

“Never underestimate the power of computers.” 

With Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) leaving the Daily Planet for a vacation, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) returns to Smallville for a high school class reunion.  There, he catches up with his old flame, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) and her young son, who needs a father figure in his life.

While Clark plays family man and finds time, as Superman, to douse a chemical plant fire, a new evil rises in Metropolis.

An unemployed con-man, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) learns that he has a facility with computer programming and goes to work for unscrupulous tycoon, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn).  When Webster finds Gus embezzling money from his corporation, he puts the genius to work on his tyrannical plans to control the global economy.  Using a U.S. satellite, Webster manipulates the weather to destroy Colombia’s coffee harvest.

Standing in Webster’s way is Superman, but Webster uses Gus to create a deadly variant of Kryptonite that transforms the Man of Steel into a drinking, whoring, carousing “normal guy.”  Superman eventually overcomes this deficit, and duels with his own id in the process. 

Once recovered and whole once more, Superman learns that Webster has built a super computer that can control the world.  With Gorman’s help, Superman fights to stop Webster and the computer.

You know a wise man once said, I think it was Attila the Hun, "It is not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail."

In short order, Superman III dispatches with the Lois Lane/Clark Kent relationship.  Lois gets sent away on vacation, and appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the film.  I fully understand and appreciate the creative decision that a renewed focus on this romance was likely problematic, given how things turned in out in Superman II

That film had seen Lois discovering Superman’s secret identity, and the two embarking on a romantic relationship.  Clark even surrendered his Kryptonian heritage to be with her as a normal, mortal man.  But by film’s end, Clark came to understand that, in fact, by loving Lois he was actually jeopardizing her life and abdicating his responsibility to the planet Earth.  It was a sort of Last Temptation of Christ reckoning for the character.  At the end, he promised never to let the President (or us) down again in this regard.

So, certainly, Superman III had to make an important decision regarding Lois and Clark.  Was Clark just to pine away for her throughout the film?  She had lost her memory of their time together, so would some of the lost memory start to come back, to seep into her awareness?  These were questions the film might have answered, all while vetting a new story.

But instead, Superman III takes the easy way out and just sends Lois away -- as though punishing her for something -- and so Clark has a new romance…with Lana Lang.  I guess this qualifies as loving the one you’re with.

The problem, of course, is that Superman’s issue with romance was not purely about Lois Lane, or indeed, about any specific person he romances. 

It’s not about “her.”  It’s about him.

He can’t be Superman and have a “mortal” or “normal” love life.  That was the previous film’s point.  So why on Earth does Clark start romancing Lana Lang here?   If he were going to give romance a second try, wouldn’t it be with Lois, whom he genuinely loves?  Doesn’t he understand that he’s just going to get to the same point with Lana that he did with Lois, and have to make the same difficult choice?

Basically, to see Clark Kent/Superman engage in a romance with another character in Superman III makes no sense given the journey the audience has taken with the Man of Steel.  The last film showed Superman (and viewers) that love was not going to end well for the character.  That’s his cross to bear, I suppose you could say.  But here he is, trying again.  And insultingly, he’s not trying again with the woman he knows really loves him: Lois Lane.

It’s sort of a shitty thing to do, isn’t it?

Frankly, I don’t know that a “romance” needs even be featured as a primary aspect of the third film at all.  We know Lois and Clark work together and are in love.  There are plenty of Superman stories to tell outside the arena of romance.  This movie could have gone much like Superman: The Movie, with witty repartee and hints of deeper affection, all while Clark alone carried the burden of the truth.

Superman III seems to have no memory of the previous film, even though Lester directed (part of) it.

The year 1983 was also the year of the computer in blockbuster films.  A super-computer turns out to be the big threat in Superman III, and it was also the danger in War Games (1983), for instance.  But you get the distinct feeling watching Superman III that nobody really understands or cares how computers actually work. 

For one thing, in 1983, not all computers could communicate with one another directly as they do here, under Gorman’s guidance.  For another, there are instances in the film where people could rely on their judgment (or indeed, their eyes) rather than computer print-outs, but decide instead to blindly obey the machines.

In particular, all the oil tanker captains on the planet follow Webster’s instructions to remain in the middle of the ocean instead of bringing their supplies to port.  Only one captain chooses to disregard the instructions.  This sequence just doesn’t seem likely, given our understanding of human nature, and given the fact that oil tankers don’t possess infinite fuel, or infinite supplies.  Couldn’t a helicopter from the oil company just fly out to the middle of the ocean and deliver the message personally to high-tail it home? 

Similarly, Gus Gorman takes over a U.S. Government satellite that boasts the capability to control the weather, and nobody seems upset, alarmed or even particularly surprised that the government has developed a weapon that could, literally, destroy the Earth.  It’s just accepted as fact.

Oh yeah, you know that weather controlling satellite we have in orbit…let’s attack Colombia with it! 

If the U.S. did possess this awesome power in 1983, don’t you think the Soviet Union would have liked to know about it?  Or might even have had a weather control satellite of its very own as counter-balance? 

It’s just weird and very sloppy how Superman III raises the specter of a weather control weapon, and then acts like it’s no big deal at all that it exists and is used for evil.  It’s almost like the film’s writers feel like this is a technology we actually had in 1983.

The whole movie’s approach to computers is similar to the one we see in the opening credits sequence, wherein a street crossing/traffic signal comes to life, and the “no walk” and “walk” icons start battling each other.  This makes no sense whatsoever, isn’t particularly funny, and reveals that the movie is more interested in dumb easy laughs than in crafting a consistent and believable world. 

The presence of Richard Pryor in Superman III in such a prominent role adds to the problems about easy jokes.  There’s no doubt that Pryor was a great comedian.  But the problem is that in Superman III’s he starring in a PG-rated family film and thus can’t really deploy his edginess to comic effect.  Instead, Superman III gives Pryor dopey gags to execute, like skiing off a skyscraper while wearing a pink tablecloth as a cape, or pretending to be General Patton. 

Give him some credit though: Pryor swaggers through Superman III so confident that he’s funny that you nearly believe him.  Instead of actually being funny, he presents the aura of funny-ness (a corollary, I suppose of truthiness).   I don’t know how many comedians could -- with such weak material -- actually come as close to pulling it off as Pryor does in Superman III in a few notable instances. 

Funny or dire?

Funny or dire?
Still, Pryor’s presence sucks all the air out of the room, and all the menace out of the film.  There’s no feeling in Superman III that the Man of Steel is really in the fight of his life, or particularly challenged by anything.

When you couple the dumb slapstick humor with the fact that there’s no overarching idea or conflict in Superman III, the film’s narrative unravels.   It becomes a series of loosely connected incidents.  

Now we’re at Clark’s class reunion.  Now there’s a hurricane in Colombia.  Now there’s a chemical fire at a factory outside of Smallville.  Now there’s a sentient super-computer, and so on.

I should add, this kind of loosely-structured approach to narrative can work in a superhero film if there’s some ambitious, consistent overall vision for the world itself.  Look at Tim Burton’s  Batman (1989) by point of comparison.  In high school, one of my friends correctly pegged it as “pretty darn plot-less,” and yet the movie hangs together brilliantly because of the overarching vision of Gotham City and the thematic connection between Batman and The Joker.  It was “I Made You/You Made Me/Gotham made Both of Us,” essentially. And it worked like gangbusters.

Superman III possesses no such dramatic hook on which to rely, or build a compelling story.  It’s just a bunch of gags strung together, along with a nice but uninspiring romance between Clark and Lana.

It’s not a surprise, perhaps, that every now and then one gag works just fine in the film.  In Superman III, the gag that works involves Superman going “bad” for a time.  His blue suit gets dirty (or soiled), he grows stubble on that handsome face of his, and starts making global mischief.  Reeve is a delight in these scenes, giving us Superman…the horn dog alcoholic.  The idea is good, because it concerns Superman’s very character. 

What if Superman didn’t want to be, essentially, a messiah? What if he just was out to…feel good?  When you are the most powerful man on the planet, that becomes a problem, doesn’t it?

But again, scratch the surface a little, and even this idea doesn’t work all that well in terms of the overall plot specifics.  You tell me that Superman going bad wouldn’t be a global story of tremendous importance?  And that Lois Lane -- the one reporter who interviewed Superman -- wouldn’t race back from vacation to find out what was happening with him?  Again, it just doesn’t seem true to Superman’s world or history.

Still, even without super powers, we all have “sides” of ourselves that we must confront and vanquish.  I like the literal idea here, of Superman and Clark -- a split-personality -- physically duking it out for dominance.  It feels like an appropriately Superman-styled scene, even if it seems to need some more explicit connection to the narrative. 

All superheroes are in some sense men divided against themselves, but this idea doesn’t get any play in Superman III except after Superman’s bad Kryptonite trip.  If this idea had been a leitmotif throughout, perhaps it would have worked a lot better. Still, no need to deny it…it’s a high-point of Superman III.

Superman goes dark...

...and must confront himself.

The gravest problem with Superman III is that its makers mistake a comic-book world for a cartoon world.  You see that misunderstanding in the opening slapstick sequence, wherein we get a blind Mr. Magoo character, a man with an over-turned paint-can on his head, a mime, and even a pie in the face for one unlucky Metropolis denizen.  These aren’t comic-book ideas; they are cartoon ones. 

And if you reduce Superman’s world to a cartoon, then all of his travails and all of his struggles ultimately don’t matter.  A cartoon resolution will save the day, and in cartoons, anything can happen.  By contrast, comic-book stories involve history and continuity, and a strong sense of internal logic.  Those are all qualities missing from this film.

Blind men, mimes and the destruction of fine art: Comic book world or cartoon world?

A paint bucket on the head: Comic book world or cartoon world?

Stop and Go at war: Comic book world or cartoon world?

And a pie in the face: Comic book world or cartoon world?

The first two Superman films are almost like cinematic religious experiences in terms of symbolism and approach.  The third Superman film is like a bad Saturday morning cartoon with stupid pratfalls, dumb jokes, and gags that don’t work.

In the film, Robert Vaughn’s (dull) villain Ross Webster informs Gus Gorman that he would go down in history as “the Man who Killed Superman,” and that comment may be as close to any sense of reality or truth as this sequel ever gets.

You’ll believe a man can cry…


  1. I saw this at the movies, but not a total loss as there was a double feature Road Warrior

  2. Anonymous11:25 AM

    To quote Charles Schulz character Charlie Brown "Arrrrrrrgggggghhh". Superman III was yet another third film in a trilogy that was an creative epic failure.


  3. Interesting, but of course the main reason the logical humane narrative of Superman's personality stutters is that this film isn't the sequel the Salkind's intended to make.

    The resolution in Superman II of Lois and Clark's relationship was actually 100% from the books - Bronze age Superman and Lois finally dated and decided it was a no go. In the book Lana who was then working as part of the WGBS/Daily Planet family made a move on Clark and the books explored that relationship.

    This however couldn't happen in the Movie-verse, as Lois had already crossed the Rubicon in Superman II, breaking down the wall between Clark and Superman.

    Given this romantic narrative was finished, the Salkinds solution was tap the Mythos for III with a really big story featuring an original take on Supergirl.
    When I say original I mean it harked back to Supergirl's first appearance - and I don't mean the cousin from Krypton, rather the one where Jimmy Olsen wishes for Superman to have a perfect life partner. Which was the strong subtext of the golden/silver/bronze books that Superman needed a super powered companion if he was to remain Superman.

    To that end the Salkind script imagined a Kryptonian Supergirl who wasn't his cousin. This side-steps the problem of II where to get romantic Superman is shown having to choose between the Super and the man.
    This Kryptonian would have been raised by Brainiac, who was to be the main villian of piece, bringing the big scale computer destruction, the machine as the villain made it through the Hollywood Process in the broadest terms.

    Granted calling the new character Supergirl would have been problematic ( given the public familiarity with the cousin Kara ) - had Warners gone with the Salkind ideas rather than looking for a vehicle to promote Richard Pryor, that title may have changed - and we might have gained another interesting female Kryptonian to the Mythos.

  4. Well at least it had the cool final battle, the way awesome Clark vs. Superman scene the scene that followed. Otherwise a misfire.