“You’ll believe a man can fly.”
One of the most memorable tag lines in movie history.
What was unique about ‘Superman: The Movie’ at the time was that it took a comic book character, one of the flagship DC characters, seriously. Superheroes weren’t just kiddie fare anymore, even though kids could, and would, watch it and become engrossed. Director Richard Donner brought it to life and made us feel. There was real drama, real action, and real heart. A little something for everybody.
Christopher Reeve’s performance as both Clark Kent and Superman relayed such a sense of dignity, humor and grace that anyone that came after him was doomed to comparison. He wasn’t just effective, he was ICONIC. Watching him in action you didn’t doubt for a moment that this actually *was* Superman. The movie itself had it’s issues, of course, mainly with the “spin-the-world-around-to-reverse-the-earthquake’s-destruction” ending, but by then the movie was over and you didn’t care, because, goddammit, a man really COULD fly.
And what a cast. Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty. There’s even a cameo by Larry Hagman. I always noticed that Brando, famous for being eccentric, pronounced the word Krypton “Crypt-un” for some reason. I take pleasure in imagining Donnor’s frustration in trying to get him to pronounce it correctly before finally giving up in frustration and letting it be.
Since the first movie was a hit ‘Superman II’ came next. Trouble followed. After a good deal of filming was already done, Donner was famously ousted by the producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind. Richard Lester, a guy who once made Beatles movies, was brought in as a replacement. Despite the behind the scenes drama, the movie is still well regarded. Terrance Stamp’s memorable performance as General Zod is frightening and the character serves as a real threat. Someone Superman can, and will, trade punches with. He, along with his two sidekicks, Ursa and Non, had the same powers as Superman yet were basically dicks. They wanted to rule the world with iron, Kryptonian fists and mess about with national monuments. And they did it while wearing what looked to be leather bathrobes.
Meanwhile, Superman was giving up his powers to lay with his lady pal, Lois Lane. I’ve always disliked this aspect of the movie as the Superman I know and love wouldn’t do something as drastic and self-serving as this. Not to mention that the diner fight that comes right after the de-powering is so dumb and over the top. Rocky the bully really beat the snot out of poor little Clark Kent. But again, you can over look the flaws in favor of what works. And the fights were pretty epic and awesome, save for the giant cellophane ‘S’. After all these years I’m still not convinced that even the movie-makers knew what that was about.
So you’ve got two movies that people regard well. The franchise is up and rolling. What comes next?
The end credits of II promised the coming of a ‘Superman III’, which Lester returned for. Why not? The first two were hits and left quite a bit to build on. There’s nowhere to go but up, up and away, right?
By now we know how the franchise pretty much went to stink with part III. Personally, I like III for a number of different reasons, none of which, save for Reeve, are the same reasons I like the first two. It’s similar to the way I enjoy Neil Young’s ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and ‘Trans’ albums in different ways. One is a genuine classic that’s stood the test of time. The other is an amusing oddity. The kind of thing that makes you say “What on earth were they thinking?” Yet, somehow, you still get a kick out of the fact that it exists. That’s ‘Superman III’ to me.
The movie begins with a cold open of Richard Pryor in an unemployment office. If I haven’t already seen the movie several times over the years I’d have probably assumed this was a deleted scene from ‘Bustin’ Loose’. I’m picturing movie goers in 1983 looking around, wondering if they accidentally wandered into the wrong movie. Or if they were wondering when Gene Wilder was going to show up.
Pryor’s character, Gus Gorman, has just been denied for further unemployment benefits. He mugs a little while the lady keeps shouting “NEXT!” Defeated, he goes to light a smoke and bums a match off someone. On the matchbook he sees the logo for Webscoe, main villain Ross Webster’s company. The movie is off and running.
So right away the focus is completely off the main character. Where’s Superman? Why should we give a shit about any of this?
Next up we have the opening credits sequence. Remember the credits in the original and how the Superman ‘S’ just exploded onto the screen to the sound of John Williams’ classic score? How goose bump enducingly awesome that was?
I guess Lester didn’t dig any of that. Seriously, the THEME is barely there. Instead we get a slapstick opening, consisting of a montage of people getting into random minor accidents all over Metropolis. A guy gets a paint bucket on his head, another guy falls into a manhole, a blind guy loses his dog and accidental grabs one of those things that paints the lines on the road. It’s fun and hilarity in the way that only a Superman movie, as directed by Lester, can provide. It also gives us the distinct impression that the citizens of Metropolis aren’t exactly the brightest lights on the tree. No wonder Superman stayed busy. He had to keep saving THESE bozos.
Margot Kidder makes exactly two appearances in this movie. She’s written out as going on vacation to Bermuda. This makes room for her spiritual replacement, and “initial sister” Lana Lang, from Smallville, as played by Annette O’Toole. See, Clark is doing a story about going back to his high school roots. Something like that, anyway. I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t even think too deep about it, either. All I know is that on the way there there’s a fire at a chemical plant and Jimmy Olsen falls off a fire ladder and breaks his leg, like a dumbass, trying to get a picture.
One thing I will say is that Annette O’Toole and Reeve has a pleasant chemistry between them. There’s a lot of heart and a kind of innocent sweetness to the reunited would-be high school sweethearts. The picnic scene was cute, aside from Clark accidentally eating dog food. That was pretty gross. And Lana’s kid, Ricky, somehow manages to fall and bump his head about 5 miles from the picnic site. That little stinker.
Robert Vaughn brings on the ham and cheese as Ross Webster, a poor man’s Lex Luthor. His ultimate plan is to mess with the world’s oil and coffee supplies, which I guess will make him money. Also part of his team are his surly sister, Vera and super-hot “psychic nutritionist” Lorilei. He eventually recruits his employee, Gorman, to help bring his schemes to fruition, utilizing his natural abilities to manipulate computers. Basically he just controls a satellite and messes around with the weather.
In a key scene Pryor disguises himself as a monologing army general and gives Superman counterfeit Kryptonite at a Smallville ceremony honoring Superman (“Conterfeit Kryptonite”, great band name, by the way. Help yourself.). Pryor does the impossible here: he manages to not be funny. Seriously, this is really horrid stuff. Pryor’s suicide attempt was more humorous. I’m not saying that to be a dick either. Go watch ‘Live on the Sunset Strip’ and you’ll see what I mean.
The counterfeit Kryptonite causes Superman to essentially go bad. Not so much bad as much as, well, drunk and disorderly. He huffs out a runner’s Olympic torch, puts a hole in an oil tanker and *GASP* straightens out the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy. As a third generation Italian, myself, I do gotta say that was indeed, what we call in the business, a “dick move”. He also makes the moves on Lorilei and it’s implied that they have relations.
So wait, Superman has to give up his powers to be intimate with Lois but he still has powers when he gets down with Lorilei? This is madness. The “Can Superman have sex with regular girls?” debate has been raging on for decades and I predict will never really end. Kind of like the abortion issue. Wars and economic problems will come and go but people will still say stuff like “The only way he can do it is with condoms made from the red sun!”
Eventually the drunken Superman flies into a junkyard, after a session at a local bar. The then screams in agony before splitting into two people: the evil drunken Superman and Clark Kent. The junkyard fight scene is easily the highlight of the movie for me. It’s just so fun seeing Reeve act like a horrible, scummy loon while he smacks Clark around with car parts. Eventually Clark strangles the evil Superman, who disappears while Clark pulls his shirt open to reveal the super suit. The sober Superman is back. This is the closest thing we get to an iconic moment in this entire wackadoo movie.
The climactic battle takes place in the grand canyon against a giant super-computer designed by Gus Gorman. When they finally manage to floor Superman with Kryptonite rays, Gorman interferes and saves him. I guess after all the trouble he’s helped cause he realized that this maybe isn’t the course of action to take. What a guy.
At this point the computer achieves sentient life and starts leaching off power. It also catches Webster’s dude-sister and turns her into a frightening robot dude-lady. This scene always scared the dickens out of me as a youngster. She screams as circuits get pinned to her face and the effect is indeed pretty good.
Eventually Superman saves the day, flies away with Gorman, goes back to Lana and fucking whatever. Wiki it.
Make no mistake about it: as a follow up to Donner’s work ‘Superman III’ fails horribly. The groundwork laid in the first two movies is simply ignored. Imagine the third Van Halen album if it was made up entirely of Dixieland music. That’s what this movie is, a gigantic veer off-course. Not to mention that the bar was lowered significantly and it paved the way for the far inferior, and horribly troubled next installment, ‘Superman IV: The Quest for Peace’.
But in 2011 you can appreciate ‘Superman III’ a little more for what it is. Stupid fun. In the grand scheme of things this movie did very little to do any damage to the Superman mythos.
Other movies and TV shows have come and gone with various degrees of success. ‘Smallville’, featuring O’ Toole as Martha Kent is about to wrap up it’s tenth and final season. ‘Superman Returns’ got many things right, despite getting a few things wrong. Not to mention ‘Watchmen’ director Zack Snyder’s upcoming reboot, which is sure to be interesting.
But Superman III remains comfortably tucked into the WTF section of the Superman movie legacy. Even if it is Richard Pryor’s least funny movie.
A few things to note:
- the bad guy from DEATH WISH 3 plays Brad, Clark’s bully from high school, and another lesser antagonist. He’s one of those actors who’s just amazing at playing total jerks. Richard Pryor has another “disguise” scene with him.
- Random fact: Richard Pryor and Margot Kidder actually dated once. According to Pryor’s autobiography, ‘Pryor Convictions’, it ended badly. Something to do with a knife and his clothes, if I’m remembering correctly.
- Here’s a story outline of an early proposed version of Superman III, by one of the producers, Ilya Salkind. It’s basically terrible and gets nothing right (Superman and Supergirl are a couple?!? WTFUCK?) but it’s an interesting read: http://www.supermancinema.co.uk/superman3/general/script/s3_original_idea.pdf
- The child actor who played Ricky later went on to fame as porn star Peter North. That would be an interesting bit of trivia if I didn’t just completely make it up right now.