Superman III (1983)

Superman III is the first in the series without any trace of the guiding hands of director Richard Donner and acclaimed writer Mario Puzo, leaving the franchise completely in the hands of Superman II‘s clean-up director, Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!), and the screenwriting pair of the Newmans (who co-wrote the ‘funnier’ aspects of the first two entries that Richard Donner detested so much that he brought in Tom Mankiewicz to fix them), who set out to make the series into what the producers, the Salkinds, wanted to make them — comedies.  That would be all well and good, as many series run out of steam after the first movie or two, but Superman has lasted the test of time for decades in a variety of forms, so to change up the tone at this stage of the game isn’t just changing the film series, it’s contradicting 50 years of well-known mythology.

The luster and mystique are wholly missing in this entry, as well as the epic scope, sometimes feeling like a direct-to-video knock-off that somehow retained the services of most of the original cast.  Despite getting the tone they wanted, this would be the final proper Superman film produced by the Salkinds, though they would continue on with the Supergirl spin-off the following year, and the “Superboy” syndicated TV show that ran from 1988-92.

Another problem with this playing like a comedy:  it’s not very funny.  Not even Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy), one of the most gifted stand-up comedians of all time, can make it so.  Despite longtime Superman super-fan Richard Pryor publicly lobbying tenaciously for a part in the new movie, and would get it once the Newmans were aware of his interest, this role was obviously not drafted with him in mind, as he mugs and flails desperately to infuse every scene he is in with moments of hilarity to no avail, since the script doesn’t have any wit of its own. 

Three more notable omissions: Gene Hackman takes a pass on returning as Superman arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, and Margot Kidder is relegated to a minor supporting character, both apparently very vocal at the firing of Donner before the second film was completed to the point where the Salkinds considered not even having Lois Lane in their third movie.  Kidder and Reeve, who also had stated he would not likely return, were contractually optioned to appear for a third film, so they reluctantly donned their costumes for one more go-around after some hard negotiations on salary.  Kidder would only appear at the beginning and end of the film, a total of five days of work, while Lois is replaced for a new love interest for Clark. 

Reeve was very unhappy with the sillier direction of the third film, reluctantly agreeing to come back only after some script revisions were made (the Salkinds were mulling over replacing him with Tony Danza(!) but Lester beseeched Reeve to reconsider), and eventually would come to be very critical of the effort a few years later.  Even great composer John Williams’ score is mostly replaced here with that of Ken Thorne, who emulated his work on Superman II only to mostly ditch it here to play as a plucky comedy, and for some synth-pop infused songs by Giorgio Moroder.  The budget for the film is noticeably less, coming in at about a third of what it cost to make the first two entries (which were made back to back, though with substantial reshoots for Superman II), as they merely were seeking to make as much profit as possible, and to sell the property to another production house willing to take it on.  The result was a cooling at the box office once fans determined that this entry would not live up to the former standards, as the film would barely make half of what its predecessor made at the box office.

The then red-hot comedian Richard Pryor plays Gus Gorman, jobless and out of options until he discovers an affinity for computers that ends up with his filching funds straight from the company he works for through his prowess for hacking.  Ross Webster (Vaughn, BASEketball) is the megabuck millionaire owner of the company that sniffs him out, but rather than toss Gorman in prison, he sees the opportunity in him to make more millions for himself by using him to destroy the companies of his competitors.  Then Superman interferes in the plans, Webster sees only one obstacle to complete financial domination, and he must kill the Man of Steel at all costs.  Meanwhile, Clark Kent is in his hometown of Smallville for his high school reunion, where he draws the attention of the town’s beauty, Lana Lang (O’Toole, 48 Hrs.).

Superman III is to the original DC Comics superhero what the “Batman” TV series of the 1960s was — complete camp.  As such, there are a few moments that are funny, most notably a classic cinema-inspired slapstick title sequence to start off the film, featuring a chain reaction of calamities that befall Metropolis citizens that end up escalating to the point where Superman is needed, plus a funny twist halfway through the film where Supes is exposed to a batch of bad “Kryptonite” that makes him a booze-swilling, misogynistic bad guy, mischievously fixing the Leaning Tower of Pisa and blowing out the Olympic torch at the last second.  It all culminates in a symbolic battle between evil Superman and the goodly Clark Kent trying to thwart each other in a junkyard for automobiles.  While not nearly the quality of the first two films in the series, as it is as contrived as can be, for the first 45 minutes or so, it’s not half bad, entertainment-wise.

The story had initially been meant for Supes to encounter his longtime nemesis from the comics, Brainiac, who would split Superman into two entities (good/evil), as well as the impish foe Mr. Mxyzptlk, Supergirl, Kal-el’s cousin, was also slated to make an appearance in preparation for her spin-off film released the following year.  However, Warner Bros. felt they were hitting the science fiction angle too hard and were trying to do too much with characters they felt might be too obscure for the general movie-going audiences unfamiliar with the comic book.  Traces remain in Superman turning bad after exposure to botched synthetic Kryptonite, and the emergence of the sentient supercomputer, but, as delivered here, it results in some unsavory developments that please hardly anyone. 

Once Gorman concocts a scheme whereby he will control the world’s most powerful computer, it’s all downhill from there.  All of the momentum, what little there is, is evaporated in the build-up to a showdown with Superman that turns this comedy into a distasteful, horrific sci-fi fiasco.  Gone is much of the humor, the romance, and all semblance to respectability, in this cheapening of a trademark franchise into the lowest common denominator for paltry excitement.  

In between all of the main shenanigans is a relatively superfluous subplot involving Clark’s high school reunion in Smallville, where he catches up with goodie-goodie single mom Lana Lang, and deals with her drunk ex-husband, once the promising captain of the high school football team.  Annette O’Toole is fetching for the equivalent of the pretty girl-next-door role, which was written specifically for her by the Newmans, who saw her work on stage prior to drafting the screenplay.  As an homage, O’Toole would go on to play Superman’s mother, Martha, in the “Smallville” TV show years later. 

The real issue with Lana Lang as a love interest is that there’s almost none of the chemistry that existed between Superman and Lois in the first two films. Given how easily Lois has been marginalized to mean almost nothing to Superman in this film as compared to Superman’s grief-filled outburst that resulted in turning back the world in order to save the one person he truly loves, it’s depressing to contemplate how quickly such an emotional bond could dissipate.

Although I do admire a couple of the plot developments, and a good performance by Reeve playing a not-so-good version of himself, the bad elements definitely far exceed the good.  I think the creators of this dreck were exposed to their own version of bad Kryptonite, and the empty shell of a film that only resembles the outward appearance of its once mighty nature resulted.  Even die-hard Superman completists probably opt to keep this out of their video collection.  Watch Superman and Superman II and consider the series over.

 Qwipster’s rating: D

MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 125 min.

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Annette O’Toole, Robert Vaughn, Annie Ross, Pamela Stephenson, Jackie Cooper, Mark McClure, Margot Kidder
Director: Richard Lester

Screenplay: David Newman, Leslie Newman