So I have come to this conclusion: Since Superman is pretty much unbeatable (Kryptonite only weakens him, otherwise nothing seems capable of harming the guy), the feature films surrounding Superman have to either present him with a comparable foe (as in Superman II and Superman IV), or make the film less about his fights, and more about his love affair with Lois Lane, and how his Super-ness (with a secret identity thrown in) gets in the way of having a real relationship.
The problem with this approach is that Lois Lane (as played by Margot Kidder, and, later, Kate Bosworth) is not a terribly interesting character. She’s presented as a star reporter, and willing to go great distances to get a story, and Margot Kidder really tries to make Lois seem sassy and independent, but Lois only comes across as a horribly unlucky and not terrifically smart character. Last week in The Series Project here on CraveOnline, I talked about the first two Superman movies, and included a rundown on both versions of Superman II. This week, we’ll look into Superman III and beyond, and, in these movies, we’ll see a rotating bevvy of potential mates for Superman who are much more interesting and dynamic than Lois Lane. Seriously, I don’t see what Clark Kent has for the woman. She’s brash, a bit mean, not a very good reporter (despite what we’re told in dialogue), and only seems to have fallen in love with Superman because, well, he’s pretty much a better mate than any other man on the planet, meaning her standards are pretty damn high.
The tone of these next few movies is all over the place. Many fans of the series consider 1983 to the present to be the “suck” period for Superman movies. And while there are a lot of hugely enjoyable bonkers moments along the way (hang on tight for both a killer robot and Faye Dunaway), I can see the argument. The first two Superman movies are pretty awesome, and I still stand by my statement that the 1978 original is still a kind of golden standard for all superhero movies. The sequels are all hacky, weird affairs that either tie in to topical elements, present oddball fantasy conceits or, in the case of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, amount to a highlight reel more than an actual film.
Strap in, kids. Get the grapefruits and the lube. We’re in for rough waters. The cycle of weirdness begins with…
Superman III (dir. Richard Lester, 1983)
Richard Lester also directed the theatrical release of Superman II, and also did Help! and A Hard Day’s Night. He’s better known for comedies, though, and in Superman III, it shows. Right up front, you may recognize that something is wrong. The credits sequences for the first two Superman movies featured John Williams’ bombastic grand music, and had us flying through space. This film opens on Earth, in Metropolis, with a long bizarre sequence of comedy set pieces that plays like a living Rube Goldberg device; a blind man accidentally grabs a road painting machine, a roller skater flies out of control, a penguin toy walks around on fire. These events interconnect to an event where someone almost drowns inside their own car. I understand that Lex Luthor was more comedic than threatening (a conceit that already angered some of the hardcore Superman fans), and that comedy was always a kind of subtle extra element to the superhero shenanigans, but the broad comedy elements are the centerpiece of Superman III.
Another thing you may have noticed: The film stars Richard Pryor. Pryor is a revolutionary comedian, and has been behind some awesomely funny movies, but in this film, he mugs and sputters and completely abandons all of his comedic acumen to present unsuspecting audiences with a completely obnoxious character. Did I mention that he’s the film’s central bad guy? That’s right. In case Gene Hackman’s comedy stylings didn’t bother the Superman fans enough, now we have a wisecracking computer expert at the antagonist reigns.
What’s more, the film’s plot is all over the map. Essentially two things are going on: Clark Kent (still the perfect Christopher Reeve) has returned to Smallville, KS for his high school reunion, and reignites the romantic flames for his would-be teen paramour Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole, although previously played by Diane Sherry in Superman). Clark’s mom is dead (she died in between movies) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is hardly in the film, as she’s on vacation in Bermuda. Kidder only appears at the film’s beginning and at the end in an epilogue. Thank goodness. Now the much more dynamic single mom Lana can get the attention she deserves. While in Smallville, he saves a chemical plant from burning down which would have released a cloud of super acid into the atmosphere. Remember that detail, as it’ll come into play in the film’s climax.
Oh, and an aside, while I’m on that chemical plant: Superman puts out the fires by flying to a nearby lake, freezing the top few inches with his breath, and lifting the enormous frozen disc over the flames. I understand Superman is strong, and could lift something that heavy, but wouldn’t a big disc of ice a mile across break under its own weight? Actually, that’s a conceit that comes into play in all of the Superman films (with the exception of Superman Returns): Superman carries things by parts that couldn’t support that thing’s weight. Ice discs, helicopters, buildings. Keep an eye out for the Statue of Liberty in a bit.
Anyway, the other thing going on, i.e. the actual plot of the film, revolves around the unemployable weirdo Gus Gorman (Pryor) who talks too much to the people around him, and even chatters when he’s alone. I imagine Pryor ad-libbed most of his dialogue, but none of his gibbering is funny. Gorman, as far as I know, is not a character from the Superman comics. Gorman, on a whim, applies for a job as a computer programmer in a high tech office. Computerization was still something of a novelty in 1983, and computers were still kind of inscrutable and vaguely menacing machines in action movies. Take a look at, say 1985’s A View to a Kill for a bigger illustration. Gorman, when he sits at a computer, finds he intuitively knows how to make it work, and, indeed, is soon using computers to hack into bank databases and steal money. He just sort of knows how programming works. Now, the most advanced level of computer programming I have personally done was a brief fantasy game I wrote in BASIC back in the 7th grade, and even I know that you can’t “intuit” a computer. That is the central conceit of the film: that anyone can accidentally be a computer expert. Gorman, when his skill comes to light, is hired by his evil boss Mr. Webster (Robert Vaughn) to hack a weather satellite and ruin coffee crops, making Webster’s own coffee more valuable. Hey guy: small potatoes.
Clark is meanwhile bonding with Lana, and having a rather sweet reunion. He does do some heroics, but mostly, he’s just trying to suss out his feelings for Ms. Lang, a single mom who is being pursued by Flash Thompson, or whoever that guy was. I like Lana a lot. She’s pretty and sweet and seems a good match for the aw-shucks hayseed that is Clark. She’d make a much better mate for Clark than Lois ever would. I’m sure the various iterations of Lois made her more interesting over the years (Teri Hatcher from the 1993 TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, for instance, was much more catty and exciting; and hotter), but in these movies, to reiterate, she’s just not that interesting.
Anyway, Robert Vaughn and Richard Pryor, along with Vaughn’s Hitleriffic sister Vera (Annie Ross), and his dumb-as-cheese ditzy blonde girlfriend Lorelei (the squeaky-voiced Pamela Stephenson from Not the 9 O’Clock News) hatch a new plot: Since Superman ended up saving the coffee crops they were trying to ruin with their hacked weather-controlling satellite (and the saving of the crops is frustratingly told in anecdote by Gorman, and not actually filmed), they decide to use the same satellite to scan for some rogue Kryptonite in space, reproduce some in a lab, and use it to kill Superman so they can get back to controlling the weather. Clear as mud. Gorman does find the makeup of Kryptonite in such a way, but finds that a percentage of the ore is unknown to humans. On a whim, Gorman fills in the missing pieces with “tar,” a substance he saw on his cigarette package. Remember kids: smoking can kill anyone. Even Superman.
In a truly bizarre scene, Gorman dresses up as General Patton, and presents his cigarette-laced Kryptonite to Superman at a local Smallville ceremony. The new Kryptonite doesn’t kill Superman, but it does immediately make him forgetful. He neglects some people in crisis so he can flirt with Lana. So it’s making him kind of rude. Also horny. Also a jerk. Also evil. Yup, the cigarette Kryptonite makes him evil. He stops saving people and starts getting drunk. His outfit gets dirty. He bones Lorelei. And just when you thought a Superman movie with an evil Superman and Richard Pryor couldn’t get any more bonkers, there’s an extended scene in a junkyard wherein Superman splits into “good” and “evil” halves, and fights himself to the death. We have seen the enemy, and he is us. The fight is cool, even if the conceit is a little dumb.
The climax is [insert noise of frustration]. Gorman, having sketched it out on a cocktail napkin, has designed the ultimate computer, which is essentially a Borg ship capable of repairing itself and adapting to attack. Vaughn builds the thing, and Superman goes to have a showdown with it. It uses lasers and weakening beams to get Superman. Gorman, however, being kind of a goofball and not so much a villain, decides to help Superman at a crucial moment, and gives Supes the upper hand. But not before the computer assimilates Vera into its programming, and turns her into an android. Read that sentence a few times for the full impact to sink in. Superman ends up using the boiling acid from before to melt the machine. Gorman is absolved, Clark gives Lana a big ol’ diamond ring (which he made by crushing a lump of coal in his fist), implying that they will wed. Sadly, this is the last we’ll hear of Lana.
Also Lorelei is a dumb blonde, but who’s secretly smart. She reads Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Does this pay off in some way? Nope.
Superman III is an extended WTF moment. It’s just bizonkers. It’s easily the oddest of the Superman films, and I include Supergirl in that statement. It’s also the one that goes for the most comedy, and is, ironically enough, the least funny. You’ll watch in confusion as the story gets more and more baffling. Remember just two films ago when Superman was epic and wholesome and awesome? What happened? What? How? What the f****************ck???
Breathe deep. Calm. Seek peace. Better now. Surely the next film can’t be all that baffling…