Following the success of 1980’s Superman II, in spite of some considerable behind the scenes issues, the film was a commercial and critical success. Richard Lester would return to direct the third film in the series but after seeing the script by David and Leslie Newman, Christopher Reeve wasn’t eager to return and serious consideration was given to recasting him until he was talked around into returning to the role that would define his career. The one caveat he made was that he could revise elements of the script he didn’t like, of which one would imagine there were more than a few.
The other big casting issue was one that would fully skew Superman III into the realms of comedy, something it had skirted close to in the previous film. Richard Pryor was the comedic hot property of the time and he was cast as hapless computer hacker August ‘Gus’ Gorman. Considering that this is a Superman film, Pryor’s character gets an unusually large amount of screen time. In fact he’s the first of the principal cast we see in the film leading to Lester’s opening slapstick montage which lets the viewer know what they’re in for. For make no mistake, Superman III has a light, comedic air about it that is in stark contrast to the often dark and dour tone of modern day DC films. In fact it’s in stark contrast even to the tone of its predecessors and often to the film’s detriment. Camp, goofy, out of place slapstick hasn’t really got a place in a Superman film and even though Superman III was considered a financial success it was much less so than the first two films.
Much of what was great about the previous films is absent here. Gone is the ever wonderful Gene Hackman and in his place is Robert Vaughan playing a similarly greedy, power-mad mogul, Ross Webster but unfortunately he’s nowhere near as memorable as Lex Luthor. Margot Kidder is reduced to a mere cameo after the conclusion of Lois and Clark’s relationship in the previous film but this paves the way for a new love interest, Lana Lang played by the wonderful Annette O’Toole.
Superman III is something of a departure from the previous films in that very little time is spent in Metropolis. Early on Clark is sent to Smallville to write a story about his own high school reunion. On the way there with Jimmy Olsen in tow, as is the usual for our hero, he comes across a disaster in progress and we are treated to the chemical plant set-piece. To the film’s credit, it’s a well shot action scene and sets up an important plot device that we’ll see near the film’s end.
When we get to Smallville Lester gives us some well needed scenes of character development. Clark’s reunion with his high school crush, Lana Lang, provides some of the film’s most enjoyable moments. There’s a great chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Annette O’Toole and they really convince that there’s a history between them and a regret that they never got together and let life get in the way of something that could have been. It’s nice seeing Reeve given some scope to broaden and expand upon the character of Clark Kent yet there’s still a great little scene involving combine harvesters to remind viewers that this is still a Superman film.
Meanwhile Ross Webster’s ridiculous plan to destroy Colombian coffee plantations invokes the interference of Superman, much to Webster’s chagrin. By now he’s hired Gorman to do his dirty work and Drunken Gus’ computer hacker mayhem is just too far beyond the absurd not to be ridiculed and would insult the intelligence of anyone who had even a modicum of knowledge of computers even in 1983. Gus is tasked with hacking into a state of the art weather satellite that can be reprogrammed to actually control the weather. It’s frankly ridiculous and one of a number of absurd elements that really hampers one’s enjoyment of this sequel.
Fortunately this absurdity leads directly to Superman III‘s trump card and that’s the impure, manufactured Kryptonite that Gorman makes as a ‘gift’ to Superman. This artificially created matter slowly poisons Superman resulting in something of a change in mood to say the least. It’s here where Superman III‘s most memorable and effective act takes place, the corruption of our hero.
As Superman succumbs to the effects of the poisonous green rock we see the always virtuous, god-like figure stripped of his strict morals and inhibitions. Relishing in his powers he goes on a spree of mischief and mayhem. Reeve is given a welcome new direction in which to take Superman and relishes the opportunity. It’s the same figure in the same suit but vastly different and Reeve pulls it off splendidly. His entire physicality seems to change as if the character is being played by a different actor with a previously unseen range of facial expressions. His suit blackened and leached of the once bright colour. The scene of him drinking in a bar, all menace and grimacing like a nasty drunk, flicking peanuts at the bottles like bullets is just great stuff and Reeve, as always, is brilliant.
It concludes with a half-mad, raging Superman facing off against his pure and incorruptible alter-ego Clark Kent in a brilliant scrapyard showdown between the two. For those wondering how there’s now two separate physical entities, the answer really is quite simple, there isn’t. What we, the viewer are actually seeing is a Fight Club-esque battle between the two disparate parts of Superman’s psyche that have been split apart by the poisoning effect of the fake Kryptonite. It’s an incredibly enjoyable scene and adds a very unique and entertaining angle to an otherwise nonsensical second sequel. Sadly this portion of the film only amounts to a quarter of the film’s running time before Superman literally pulls himself together in time to stop Webster.
The final act has Superman facing off against Webster’s supercomputer, built from plans made by Gorman. It’s all fairly risible stuff save for the scene where Webster’s sister Vera is transformed into a cyborg by the now out of control computer. It’s a scene that, whilst a bit ridiculous to say the least, my younger self found very disturbing and it really pushes the boundaries of the PG rating.
Overall Superman III is a very mixed bag of extremes. The Smallville stuff with Lana and Clark is great and the Bad Superman stuff is the true high point of the film. It’s also very well shot with some excellent cinematography from Robert Paynter. Elsewhere the film gets bogged down by a puzzling emphasis on goofy humour with Gus Gorman taking up far too much screen time. The truth is that Richard Pryor’s humour is very much out of place here. His inclusion in a Superman film and with such a significant amount of screen time has confounded fans, myself included. He’s also the least convincing computer hacker you’ll likely ever see.
The bad stuff in Superman III really is bad which is such a shame given how much fun other aspects of the film are. Yet in spite of some really glaring flaws, far more so than in the previous films, that same constant is present, Reeve’s outstanding performance. There’s a lot to like in Superman III but it’s also easy to empathise with its many detractors as it really is cringeworthy in far too many areas. One must wonder if some of that fake Kryptonite was actually on set when they made Superman III as it’s a strangely enjoyable mix of very good and very bad and therefore is a film that is rather hard to wholeheartedly recommend to those unfamiliar with the Reeve-era Superman films.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 5/10