Revisiting Superman III (1983) 40 Years Later

Plot: Computer programmer Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) is hired by financial tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) to seize control of a weather satellite and annihilate Colombia’s coffee crop. When Superman (Christopher Reeve) manages to thwart the plan, Webster commands Gorman to use the satellite to locate kryptonite, the Man of Steel’s mortal weakness. But a missing unknown element in the kryptonite — replaced by Gorman with tar — causes an unintended side effect when presented to Superman.

Superman III turned 40 years old this past week, so I figured it was time to revisit it; I haven’t seen it for many, many years and even as a kid I remember thinking it was silly (especially Robert Vaughn’s sister Vera turning into a robot at the end) but I always had a soft spot for it mostly due to the Evil Superman scenes which remain the highlight of the film.

Some of the humour doesn’t hold up that well however, you have to look at movies from the period they were released, so despite not being a patch on the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies Part III still has its moments.

As I mentioned the best scene from this movie is Evil Superman fighting Clark Kent in the junkyard. I also like his excuse “that wasn’t me, that was the other guy and he’s not around anymore” which is one I’ll have to keep for future use.

Superman III feels like it has a lower budget than the first two movies with effects that feel dated and even the opening credits are disappointing as we don’t get the John Williams fanfare. Instead we get a farcical scene on the streets of Metropolis with one ridiculous thing after another which would likely have modern audiences shaking their heads.

The tone is very lighthearted, and this is practically entirely a comedy film; Richard Pryor’s Gus provides some genuine laughs and his speech where he’s dressed up as an army general is one of the most entertaining sequences.

Reeve still embodies everything about Superman to perfection and to this day is one of the best pieces of casting in a superhero movie; he brings the right amount of “Gee, Golly” naiveté to Clark Kent but also can be suitably intimidating looking when he becomes the Evil Superman.

It’s a relatively fast paced two hours and Robert Vaughn makes for an enjoyable if not especially threatening antagonist. He’s not a patch on Gene Hackman or Terence Stamp but he still has some choice lines. I do enjoy the character of Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson) who plays the bimbo but is actually the smartest person in the room.

As silly as the finale is, the whole idea of Superman facing off against a powerful computer feels very comic book-y and works better than it should.

Lois Lane is barely in this movie and after doing some research I found out that after Margot Kidder “expressed her disgust about the firing of Richard Donner to producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind, her role was cut to 12 lines and less than five minutes of screen time. In the film’s 2006 DVD commentary, Ilya Salkind says there was little need for Lois Lane in this movie because her relationship with Superman ended at the end of Superman II”. I mean, they weren’t wrong and I actually preferred Lana Lang as a character anyway.

Unsurprisingly Christopher Reeve was apparently unhappy with the film, and often said in interviews that he hated how it turned out. He swore never to play the role again but was persuaded to make Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in exchange for more input on the script. Glad that worked out well…

Death Wish 3’s Gavan O’Herlihy (Dan O’Herlihy’s son) plays the alcoholic former sports star Brad who still wants to get together with Lana and could have been made into a more tragic character rather than just the jerk he ends up being, so it’s a shame that potential was wasted.

Overall, after 40 years Superman III has some entertaining moments with the junkyard fight between Supermen the obvious highlight; a lot of the film has not aged well and modern audiences will struggle to relate to it but it has its moments and all the Evil Superman scenes are the best part.