November 11, 2013

Looking back on “Superman III”

So, “Superman III”….

I expressed my feelings on this film at the end of my “Superman II” review, and I would like to reiterate that my feelings on the idea of seeing the film again still consist of the following:


As you can probably surmise by now, I don’t care for “Superman III”. In fact, as a lover of action films, of the character Superman, of superhero films as a genre, and generally of things that are not bad, I quite loath “Superman III”. When fans rank the original five “Superman” films, it is commonplace for “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” to be classified as the nadir of the Christopher Reeve series, and among the worst comic book films ever made. And I’m here to tell you that those who would make this claim are wrong. In fact, MASSIVELY wrong. I’ll go more in-depth on my feelings on the fourth film when I review, but for now, suffice to say that, for all it’s faults, the makers of “Superman IV” at least took it seriously.

“Superman III”, on the other hand…. Let me put it this way. Taken completely out of context, what would you say if I told you that the following clip is from a Superman movie:


Or how about this one:


Or how about this little diamond in the rough!


If you’ve never seen “Superman III” and think that anything as campy and goofy as the aforementioned clips couldn’t POSSIBLY find their way into a Superman film, well, Lex Luthor has something to say to that:


And I have some even more distressing news for those of you lucky enough to have never stumbled upon “Superman III” in the thirty years since its release – Those three clips represent a good ninety percent of the film. We can all agree that certain elements of the other three films in the Reeve series don’t hold up today as well as they did in their own time, but that’s nothing more than films showing signs of their age. And as I pointed out in my “Superman II” review”, while the Lester cut of the second film in the series has its odd moments of distracting and rather unnecessary comedy, the Lester cut works as a whole because the Donner version was still it’s template.

“Superman III” takes the series in to straight-up “Batman and Robin” territory, and did so a full 14 years but that film kneecapped the Dark Knight’s cinematic career for nearly a decade. Where “Batman and Robin” was submerged in an ocean of bad ice puns from Mr. Freeze, “Superman III” is almost entirely a comedic misadventure focusing on Richard Pryor’s character, and for the first two-thirds, Superman himself is barely in the film at all. Now, I’m not saying there’s no room for comedy in superhero films. The Marvel films as a whole and especially “The Avengers” have no shortage of comic relief, much of it provided by the likes of Tony Stark or Peter Parker. But the thing they have consistently understood that “Superman III” simply does not is how to comparmentalize the humor and integrate it into the story in such a way that it doesn’t distract from the main action or feel like it’s completely dominating the film.

That and the fact they actually focus on whichever characters have their name in the title! The whole arch of “Superman III” revolves around Richard Pryor’s character Gus Gorman, a goofball computer programmer who gets roped into a plot orchestrated by Lex Luthor – er, I mean, some wealthy semi-evil tycoon who wishes he WERE Lex Luthor – to use his satellite to cause a brush fire in Colombia so that he can manipulate the price of Colombian coffee and get a little richer.

Yes, after thwarting Lex Luthor’s plot to blow California off the map with a nuclear missile in the original film and ending General Zod’s reign of terror in the second, the writers decided that thwarting a coffee scheme looked like a job for Superman.

Naturally, the Man of Steel puts a stop to the Colombian brush fire, and the bad guys decide that no Get-Rich-Quick scheme they plot is gonna work with Superman around, so they decide to take Lex Luthor’s course of action and get ahold of some Kryptonite. And with the green rocks being decidedly short supply, they task Gorman with finding out what elements make up Kryptonite, and when he discovers that there’s a small unidentifiable element present, he does what any of us would do – just toss in some tar from a pack of cigarettes, and hope for the best!

Now, to be fair, this leads into the one and only thing that I think is praiseworthy about “Superman III”, and that’s Christopher Reeve’s performance as a whole, and specifically his performance when he’s exposed to the synthetic Kryptonite. Yes, I wish both were part of a better movie, but the fact that the film on the whole is so horrible just serves to make Reeve stand out that much more. No other actor would reprise the role of a comic book character as much as Reeve did until Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine, and it shows. From his trip back to the Smallville for his high school reunion and his rekindling romance with Lana Lang (ironically portrayed in the film by the future Martha Kent of “Smallville”, Annette O’Toole), to his descent into irresponsibility, violence, and evil later in the film, Reeve is the ONLY reason to sit through “Superman III”, and indeed, the effect that the synthetic kryptonite has on him leads to a scene that nearly makes sitting through all the garbage that makes the rest of the film worth it.

Instead of weakening or killing him, the synthetic kryptonite turns Superman is a self-absorbed jerk who shirks his duties as a superhero and flies around the world vandalizing historic landmarks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And eventually, it all leads up to the ONLY worth while scene in the whole film:


Don’t ask me how that worked, whether he really split into “good” and “evil Superman, or whether it all was just taking place in his mind. All I know is that, in the middle of one of all the phenomenal stupidity of the body of the film, “Superman III” not only decided to get serious, but crafts what is one of the most memorable scenes of the entire Reeve series! It’s about the closest we’ve come to seeing the villain Bizarro on film, and it’s the one time Christopher Reeve gets to turn his signature role into a villain, and he is just splendid at either extreme! I dare say that if the rest of the film was this good, “Superman III” might well rival “Superman II” for the crown of the best of the series!

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is NOT that good, and that becomes very clear once the junkyard fight is over when the film falls back into the bottomless pit of campy comedy that it managed to climb out of for a few minutes. Superman goes to foil the villain’s plot to drive up the price of oil, only the find that they armed themselves a supercomputer that isn’t nearly as cool as Brainiac would have been. That leads right into one of the two most gaping plotholes of the first four films, and both of them surprisingly involve the act of breathing:


So, apparently, Superman can fly through the endless void of space with no difficulty, but being trapped inside of a big rubber balloon might cause him to suffocate:


Anyway, Superman beats the villains, destroys the machine, drops Richard Pryor off at a construction site in the hopes of getting him an honest job, and flies off into the sun for his next adventure, leading us at last to the question of the hour:

In Hindsight, was “Superman III” REALLY that bad?

No, it wasn’t THAT bad.

It was WORSE than THAT bad.

Far, FAR worse.

Hands down, THE worst Superman movie EVER made, and without a doubt in the top ten, and maybe the top five, worst comic book movies ever made!

And that largely has to do with the fact that it just isn’t a Superman, at all. The Man of Steel, the guy who has his name in the title, is sidelined for the majority of the film to showcase Richard Pryor, who isn’t given anything material on par with the hilarity that made up his stand up act to work with. The film is barely concerned with Superman at all until the last third, at which it point it gives us one of the best parts of the whole series, before diving head first back into the unwelcome non-comedy that preceded it. Watching “Superman III” is like surviving the worst day of your life, then having the most amazing dream there ever was in bed that night, only to wake up and realize that the same misery’s that plagued you the day before await you once more. If you’re in a masochistic mood and find yourself watching “Superman III”, watch it entirely for Christopher Reeve’s typically spectacular performance as the Man of Steel and for the junkyard, and just hope and pray that there’s a Rifftrax of the film on its way in the near future. At least then, we’ll have comedy in the film when we actually want it to be there!

About the Author

In ancient Greece, they told legends of Odysseus, Theseus, and Hercules. Our heroes on the silver screen today serve the same purpose. I grew up devouring martial arts movies from Hong Kong, action flicks from Hollywood, and superhero movies from DC and Marvel. You can bet your bottom dollar that if it's got any one of those, I wanna see it! I also write for, a site dedicated to all things martial arts; check out my stuff there, as well!



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