Superman III (1983) – Directed by Richard Lester – Starring Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Annette O’Toole, Annie Ross, Pamela Stephenson, and Margot Kidder.
A lot of heat has fallen on Richard Pryor’s shoulders over the years for why SUPERMAN III is such a steaming pile of crap, and that’s unfair for two reasons.
The first is that SUPERMAN III really isn’t a steaming piece of crap as much as it is a tedious pile of stupid. There are plenty of small parts in SUPERMAN III that actually work quite well: Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang, for instance, is completely small town lovable, Christopher Reeve is still pretty darn great as Superman, and the “back to Smallville” idea is the right one.
The second reason is that if you hire Richard Pryor to be Richard Pryor (or, at least, a family-friendly version of Richard Pryor) and he does what you want him to do, it’s not really his fault, is it? The man did what he was hired to do. If anything, Pryor is the symbol for the Salkinds coming completely off the rails.
There’s no Richard Donner or Tom Mankiewicz around this time, and without them the effects are both obvious and tragic. With Donner, the humor was used to complement the narrative, not take it over, but without Donner’s guiding hand, the narrative now exists just to get to all the silly jokes. When we’re closing in on three-quarters deep with this film and we get to the genuinely solid Superman vs. Clark Kent fight scene in the Metropolis junkyard, the seriousness of that scene feels out of place because of all the silliness that has proceeded it. Even when the film has dark scenes like Superman tossing back Johnnie Walker Red (the cheapskate can’t even spring for Johnnie Walker Black? Have some respect, Superman), the goofiness of SUPERMAN III gives that scene a really odd vibe. I almost want to laugh at the ridiculousness of Superman flicking nuts at the bottles of liquor behind the bar, smashing each of them in turn.
Is that supposed to be tragic? Because it’s just sort of tedious and silly.
There’s nothing wrong with being silly, of course, but SUPERMAN III never makes it work, never lets the rest of the film exist for too long outside of the silliness. After an absolutely wretched, extended sequence near the beginning of the film that has all manner of goofiness to it on the streets of Metropolis (hey look, a blind guy thinks the road line painter is his dog – man that’s funny!), Clark convinces Perry (Jackie Cooper) to let him write a story about his high school reunion back in Smallville. Clark goes home, meets up with Lana, does his awkward-around-girls routine again, only Lana totally buys into it where Lois rejects it.
They go for a picnic with Lana’s son, Ricky, and his dog, but we get very little interaction between Clark and Lana before Lana notices her car has sprung a leak and Ricky has gone and knocked himself unconscious. I’d rather leave Superman out of Smallville, to be honest. In the bonus features of SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT, Donner explains that one of the prime reasons he did not use the Lester “magic kiss” ending was that Tom Mankiewicz made the point that Clark Kent should never kiss Lois – only Superman should kiss her. Similarly, I favor a set-up where the Fortress of Solitude should be a Superman Only Zone, where Smallville should be a Clark Kent Only Zone, and Metropolis is where both halves of this man need to learn to work together.
The Smallville sequence is the only time in the film where Lester connects with Donner’s mythic Americana vibe. I wish we’d spend more time with Clark in Smallville and more time experiencing Superman through this lens. With the events of the first two films now in the rearview, and with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) gone off to the Bahamas for vacation, this should be a naturally reflective time for Superman, but other than some hints about a desire to rush into a relationship with Lana, there’s no evidence here he’s changed at all by his previous cinematic experiences.
The film also lets the Smallville sequences down by never having Clark reflect on his deceased adoptive parents. Lana tells us that Clark’s mom has died, but he doesn’t go back to the old farm and he doesn’t visit their graves.
For all of the silliness in the film, SUPERMAN III’s biggest crime is its tediousness. The film just lags and lags and lags. It’s not in any hurry to get anywhere and it doesn’t have anything special to do with all the standing around.
The bad guys aren’t horrible, but they’re like rejected villains from a James Bond movie. In fact, they’re the kind of villains you’d get if they made a 1980s James Bond TV movie. Robert Vaughn isn’t bad as evil businessman Ross Webster, but they’ve saddled him with two horrible sidekicks in his sister Vera (Annie Ross) and his sneaky smart girlfriend Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson), who successfully seduces Superman.
It’s not the regular Superman, of course, but a darker version of Big Blue. Webster has ordered computer whiz August Gorman (Pryor) to recreate Kryptonite. He analyzes Kryptonite floating out in space, but there’s an unknown ingredient, so Gus uses tar. The Kryptonite they create (given to Supes in a ridiculous scene where Pryor cosplays as General Patton) isn’t pure Kryptonite, so it doesn’t make Supes instantly weak. Instead, it alters his personality, making him a selfish dick. He gets all lustful with Lana, but she’s not having it. In fact, she’s really not having Supes, at all, in comparison to Clark.
With Clark descending into darkness, the film has this really odd mix of his depression mixed with the bad guys’ glee. What Supes goes through here isn’t tougher to watch than what Peter Parker goes through in Spider-Man 3, but it’s still not fun to watch.
Almost everything about SUPERMAN III pales in comparison to the earlier films in the Reeve run (Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang being an upgrade over Lois). In going for an increased sense of silliness, the film becomes tedious, and Reeve’s fine work is wasted. Unless the Salkinds and Lester saw this strictly as a movie for kids (and they clearly didn’t), including scenes like having Gus ski down the side of a high-rise office building wearing a pink cape just comes off as inane. It’s a dumb movie, too. When Gus gets the computer to pay him all of the “half cents” that are left out of the workers’ paychecks, Webster’s old man adviser laments how in the old days it would be easy to figure out who took the money because they had a book that kept track of transactions, but now … now it’s all on the computer, which doesn’t tell them anything.
Really? They’re missing $85,000. There’s no way for them to, you know, check the payroll to see who got paid an extra $85,000 this week?
SUPERMAN III is not the worst superhero movie ever made, and it is not a steaming pile of crap, but it is not close to being a good film.