Superman III

THREE times the idiocy!
Released:
1983

Director: Richard Lester

Starring: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Annette O'Toole

The Setup:

The producers make every available effort to abort their profitable franchise.

Discussion:

I really can't say why I decided to watch this. It had always been on my list, and I think something about watching the Batman films nudged it up to the top. I recall seeing this in the theater when it was out, and even at age 14 knowing that it was a totally idiotic piece of utter crap with no redeeming value whatsoever. So let's backtrack. Somehow these producers the Salkind's got ahold of the rights to Superman. They were involved in the first two films, but somehow--in retrospect it is looking to be entirely due to Richard Donner--they were able to produce a first film that was charming and delightful. So obviously they had to get rid of Donner, which they did on Superman II, replacing him, mid-film, with Richard Lester, who added the moronic slapstick the Salkind's apparently thought was necessary. (PS: If you like the first film, DO NOT MISS the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, as it removes all the idiocy and brings it very much in line with the tone and power of the first.) By this film, it's only the Salkind's and director Lester, and... well, we'll see what it resulted in.

The commentary track on this is by the Salkind's, and I must say that it addresses the problems with the movie head-on, which I respect. Of course, it defends their decisions, but it acknowledges that many people hate this film, and is quite illuminating about what happened to make it this way. One key concept is that they considered Superman to be "for the children," and obviously, in their minds, kids' films by definition MUST be idiotic. We heard the same thing from George Lucas when beginning the prequel trilogy--that these are kids' films--and look how that turned out. Anyway, turns out the reason Richard Pryor is in this, and gets so much screen time, is that he was on Johnny Carson saying how badly he'd like to be in a Superman film. That's the reason, folks. If Farrah Fawcett had said she wanted in, we'd have a movie with her (although how fabulous would that be?). They had a script, but threw it out and wrote one with Pryor specially in mind. In terms of why Pryor gets so much screen time, Salkind likens it to an episode of a TV show, where there are one-off episodes focusing on minor characters. Yeah, one might respond, but the reason TV shows can do that is that we KNOW they're going to continue, not get canceled because one episode bombs. And really, if you don't know the difference between feature films and TV episodes, should you really be making films?

Okay, so we open with Pryor in a nasty urban unemployment line. His benefits have run out, and he sees an ad to learn computer programming on the back of a matchbook. This film hails from the dawn of computers reaching the public, when it could still be supposed that they could do pretty much anything. Then we have a long credits sequence that may have cost as much as seven dollars altogether. The precipitous drop in production values is shocking. What is supposedly Metropolis looks like Des Moines (it was actually filmed in Calgary, Canada), with huge wide streets and suburban buildings. There is a long series of just plain IDIOTIC coinkidinks, like a roller-skater hitting a line of phone booths that fall like dominoes, as we have bargain-basement credits that obliquely refer to the whooshing credits of the two prior films, inexplicably blurring half of the screen for long periods, and looking, frankly, like shit. In the melee, some guy has driven over a fire hydrant, and looks in danger of drowning in his car on a busy city street, which you must admit would be an unusual death. The guy sits there doing nothing as his car slowly fills with water, and, wouldn't you know it, the outer handle on his door breaks. Don't you just know all those times when a metal door handle just suddenly breaks at the most inopportune moments? Dang it all! Anyway, Superman saves the day, blah, blah.

During these credits I suddenly sat up straight at the promise of original songs by Giorgio Moroder! Unfortunately, I made it to the end without recalling ever hearing a single one.

So then we have a shot of the outside of the Daily Planet, recycled from the first film, and it's jarring because suddenly we're in Manhattan again. We're in the office long enough for Margot Kidder to say hello and goodbye, and for Clark to make an excuse to go back to Smallville for his class reunion. In the meantime, Pryor has become a computing genius simply by taking night courses, and soon turns to crime. The movie treats this with nonchalance: he's black, therefore he must be a criminal. His schemes soon draw the attention of the evil head of the company, Robert Vaughan as Webster, who has a bimbo and a henchwoman, neither of whom are worth mentioning.

So Clark goes to Smallville with Jimmy Olson, who--am I wrong?--NO ONE wants to see for more than three minutes, total. At least it's not as bad as in Supergirl (of course, what COULD be?) where the actor who plays Olson was the only one from the original series they could convince to appear. Anyway, they're barely in town when--chemical fire at the, you know, chemical plant! I was a little surprised to hear Superman's appearance in Smallville treated with an offhand "Oh, it's you," but who knows, maybe he gets around much more than we think. So there's a ton of bullshit around this fire, but then the moment that made me completely turn against this movie as a young lad of fourteen, when Superman douses the fire by freezing a lake, lifting the lake, flying it over, and dropping it on the fire. It actually seems less stupid now, but then again, I'm ready for anything. And--is water always the best thing to dump on a chemical fire? You tell me.

So Clark reconnects with his childhood sweetheart, Lana Lang (he can only date women with alliterative L names), and re-meets some bully, whose name I forgot. Apparently they were both in the first film. Lana is an unwed mother, which was apparently somewhat progressive at the time, and you can find a review on IMDb decrying this film as an assault of moral decency, which may in fact have the power to rend society asunder, because of this. Meanwhile, Webster gets Pryor to take control of a weather satellite and use it to CREATE a huge storm, which, as anyone knows, is ridiculous. But no matter. Pryor is sent to--guess where?--Smallville, where he hack into the grid or whatnot and wield total power over the world, all from some tiny weather satellite. If you take the logic of this film, I guess we're lucky Accuweather never decided to deploy its infinite power over mankind. YET, that is. YET.

Wondering how embarrassingly stupid this movie is? Wonder no more, as soon Clark is eating dog food at a picnic for yuks. He and Lana rekindle their romance in the fields of wheat, when suddenly Lana suddenly SENSES a radiator leak in her car. Around this time you might be like "Yeah, but have you seen your CHILD lately?" Turns out the wee tyke is unconscious, having konked his head against the one (1) rock in the middle of this field, and is lying directly in the path of the whirling blades of death, in the form of some tractor bearing down on him. Superman appears just in time, blah, blah, and soon is committed to appearing at the child's school on Bring Superman to Work day.

Meanwhile Pryor breaks into the supercomputer which just happens to be right there in Smallville, and just happens to be presided over by Clark's bully dude. Pryor has a funny scene where he's doing an imitation of a yuppified black guy, which is the only comedy bit here that has a bit of edge. He then gets drunk with the bully, ho ho, hilarious, then gets into the computer, which involved idiotic comedy of him having to drag the unconscious bully around and use his body as a tool. Around this time you'll notice a lot of incongruous placement of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which turns out to be because that company was headquartered in Calgary, where this was filmed. Apparently the touchy subject of associating a black character with fried chicken was not so much of an issue then. Pryor uses the weather satellite to create tornadoes in Columbia, ruining the world's coffee crop. He also creates traffic mayhem in Metropolis, and the last moment you, me, or anyone is able to take this movie even remotely seriously is torpedoed when you see a traffic light where the Don't Walk guy climbs up to the Walk guy and they fight.

Should you make it through that moment without shooting yourself in the head or otherwise giving yourself some sort of debilitating brain injury, you will see Pryor join Webster and company on the alpine ski village he has created in his Metropolis rooftop. Kind of funny, as evil lairs go, but then the movie announces its lower budget as Pryor merely TELLS of Superman saving Columbia--basically using his heat-vision to dry the place out (in retrospect, maybe it's better we DON'T see much of this)--then back to "comedy" as Pryor skis right off the side of the skyscraper, "skis" down its side, and lands safely in the street. See? You're not in the clear from that brain injury yet. If you wish to continue the movie, now is a good time to scan your viewing area for any sharp objects or blunt instruments you might be tempted to injure yourself with. Because, if you can believe it, the movie simply continues to get more and MORE idiotic!

So Pryor uses the weather satellite to scan space for the location of any errant kryptonite, and provide a chemical analysis. Boy, there really isn't a thing this simple weather satellite can't do! Pryor creates synthesized kryptonite, but there's a trace ingredient he can't identify, for which he simply substitutes tar, getting the idea from a package or cigarettes. He delivers the resulting rock to Superman while on stage accepting an honor in Smallville, and Superman doesn't see a thing amiss with accepting a green crystal with 99.5% of the properties of kryptonite. I mean, people are just giving him green crystals all the time, you know? Anyway, it's supposed to be funny that he just stares at it blankly, unaffected.

Then Superman is at Lana's house when he has what seems to be a moment of indigestion. Lana gets a call that a truck has driven off a bridge, but Superman doesn't really care. He finally leaves, but gets there too late. Then he's cruising over Italy, for some reason, and straightens out the leaning tower of Pisa. These two antics are enough to generate a Time magazine cover story that Superman has turned evil. He then... blows out to Olympic torch! SENSE THE EVIL. Gee, can mankind ever recover from these really bad, you know, nuisances? I guess seeing him incinerate the crowd at a baseball game with his heat vision would make him unsympathetic. But mankind better watch out, or he might touch rock bottom and start jaywalking soon.

Meanwhile, Webster has had Pryor direct all the oil-carrying tankers to go and park in the middle of the Atlantic, creating a gas shortage that he can profit on. Webster's floozy gets Superman's attention by creating a suicide scare from the top of the Statue of Liberty, causing him to swoop by and tell her not to expect to be saved, because he doesn't do that anymore. She offers him her body if he'll go rein in this one tanker that won't meet up with the others, and--despite the fact that I think Superman could do better--he goes out, punches a hole in the tanker and creates a big oil spill. He then flies back and joins the blonde lass in her bed. Ummm, didn't we determine in the last movie that Superman would have to be made mortal before he... you know... with an Earth woman? Wasn't there some worry that the force of his... ummm... well, let's just not get into it. The floozy survives, that's all we need to know.

Meanwhile, Pryor has asked Webster to give him money to make a self-defending supercomputer in the desert. If it is attacked, it can learn how to repair itself and fight back. What does this have to do with anything? Why, nothing, except we need a villain strong enough to be a challenge for Superman. But where is Superman? He's drowning his troubles in a bar, which creates a kind of funny sight. Now his suit is very dark, and he has gray hair at his temples. We are to understand that Superman is feeling some degree of self-loathing. He gets drunk, but doesn't do much damage. Wouldn't you like to see drunk Superman casually destroy a bunch of shit? But no, all that happens is that Lana, brat in tow, has come to Metropolis, still looking very much like Des Moines, and just HAPPENED to have made her first stop in the city RIGHT outside Superman's watering hole. This is so her little boy, who idolizes Superman, can call out to him that he can do better, causing an existential crisis in our bad Superman.

SPOILERS > > >
Around now you might be asking--is there some REASON Superman is acting this way? The best explanation is that synthetic kryptonite, but he held it without a problem and then we just cut away and we never heard mention of it again, so it can't be that. One keeps waiting to find out why Superman suddenly turned evil, but the reason never comes. It was only the next day after going online and reading synopses that I realized we're supposed to understand that although the synthetic kryptonite had no effect, it actually IS responsible for his turn of character. There's just nothing in the movie that would tell you that.

So Superman flies to the local junkyard, the stinging words of Lana's little boy still ringing in his ears, whereupon his internal struggle is visualized by Clark splitting out of him, making it Clark Kent vs. Superman, and they have a big fight. Well, not as big as you might think, and fairly lame, but apparently Superman fans like this part of the movie best, and some say it is the best sequence of any Superman film. I think what they like best is the concept, because the reality is fairly lame. Anyway, as you can imagine, Clark defeats evil Superman and--identity crisis solved! Now Superman's costume is bright again. He goes and BLOWS on the spilled oil from the tanker, and it all just goes RIGHT back in the hole in the side of the ship (that is some precision blowing) whereupon Superman mends the tear. The reality is, unbelievably, even stupider than it sounds.

So now the supercomputer in the middle of the desert is built, and Webster, his two molls, and Pryor are there. Superman flies out, Webster shoots some missiles at him, and now the final blow that seems to have made anyone who had still been managing to take this movie with a modicum of seriousness give up on it forever. Webster gets at the controls of what seems to be a Superman video game in which he is trying to shoot down Superman with the missiles. The game is one of the era, so it looks like it was produced about the time of Defender and Missile Command. One also suspects this is a budget-saving device, as we don't actually have to see the missiles, we just see the video game. Surprise, Superman lives.

Superman joins them in the cave with the computer, at which time he is hit with the kryptonite beam. Strangely, the beam is cut for almost a minute, but during that time Superman doesn't so much as roll out of its way. Then Pryor has a crisis of conscience, and feels bad for Superman. This has actually been building for a while, it's just that the movie is too inept to make us realize it. So he cuts the power. BUT! Remember this computer is self-healing, so it starts sucking up all the power in the world, and we see the lights on the East Coast black out. Then the dowdy moll feels bad for Superman, and attacks the machine, and is suddenly turned into a cyborg zombie! I think it's hard to just casually introduce a cyborg zombie into the proceedings at this late time, but you know, why not? Why not have some Ewoks, too? Why not have a special appearance by Cher? Why not add The Blob? And maybe the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise? Anything would make sense at this point.

Superman flies back to Smallville to the site of the chemical plant, and gets a jar of this goop he learned of earlier. The idea is--not bad, although completely lost by the movie--that the supercomputer won't see this goop as a threat, although when heated, the turns to acid. The computer is destroyed, and then Superman rescues Pryor, and do not miss the cool bro, African-American handshake they give each other! Because sure, Pryor committed numerous crimes and stole a ton of money and devised a supercomputer to control the world, but that's all okay because Superman is DOWN with the BROTHERS! He then flies Pryor to the site of the chemical factory and gets him a job. Which, after Superman leaves, Pryor refuses as being beneath him. After a short coda at the Daily Planet, we're out.
< < < SPOILERS END

Wow. It really goes from bad to worse. Then just continues, against all odds, getting worse. The main question it leaves one with is: Why did the producers want to torpedo their own franchise like this? The drop in production values from the previous film to this is shocking from the start, as if they thought they could just throw whatever out there and it would still do fine. But the main thing is their conception of these movies as the equivalent of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, for stupid kids who will take anything and don't know any better, which throws out all of the appealing seriousness and attention to big themes of the previous films. As if they've finally wrested the property out of the taint that Richard Donner gave it, and were finally free to make it as idiotic as they thought it should have been all along. In retrospect, Richard Donner comes out as the tragic hero of the whole thing (especially in light of his fantastic cut of Superman II), the one who successfully made great pop films from this character, but who was shunted aside in favor of the cheap and flat-out moronic.

Which is not to say it's a horrible experience to watch. Especially if you like bad movies, this one, as noted, keeps finding new ways to continually get worse. But it's all still amusing enough, and the last hour is enlivened by the bad Superman and then the horrid fight against the supercomputer. Poor Reeve does his best to maintain the charm and dignity he brought to the role, which he does handily, emerging as tragic hero number two. He is the one who insisted that the next film have some sort of redeeming social value, which is why it has a world peace message. Too bad he couldn't grasp that this was really the least of the series' problems.

Should you watch it?

If you want to see a really awful movie.

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