After the success of the first two superman films and promising another at the end of Superman II in 1983, producer Alexander Salkind and director Richard Lester brought us Richard Pryor and his good buddy Superman in, yes you guessed it, Superman III! This is the first Superman film I remember watching as a child so I do have a bit of a soft spot for it, but saying that as I get older the jokes in the film stop being humorous and the dialogue between the characters becomes a little more annoying.
After firing Richard Donner from Superman II, Salkind brought in Lester to finish the job. Lester brought a more comedic tone to the movie that didn’t fit the nature of the footage Donner had previously shot. This time around Lester and Salkind were free to do whatever they wanted for Superman III
The film opens with Richard Pryor (character name Gus Gorman, but for this review we’ll refer to him as Richard Pryor) in the job centre being told that because he has been out of work for over six months his welfare will be stopped. In this little opener Pryor does a very unfunny stand-up routine rambling about working in a fast food joint and finds that he can get work as a computer programmer. The whole scene is meant to be comical and help sympathise with the character whereas it comes off just annoying and inadvertently sets the tone for the remainder of the film. You can see where it is heading as we haven’t even cut to the credits yet!
When the credits are reached we are not greeted with the bombastic theme of John Williams, but instead greeted with something that’s not even super themed. Not a good opener for a superhero movie. The credits scroll up from the bottom of the screen like a cheap Star Wars title effect and at the top half of the screen we see some poor attempts at visual comedy, for example penguin toys creating chaos, people running into telephone boxes creating a domino effect with the others, a blind man loses his dog and to top it off we even get a pie in the face! None of this screams Superman to me.
We get to see the Man of Steel when Clark Kent is calmly walking down the street and witnesses a bank robbery. The masked gun man shoots at a police officer who in turn, accidentally shoots the wheels out on a passing car, causing it to crash into a fire hydrant. The car in turn fills up with water, almost drowning the man inside until Big Blue shows up and saves the him. Superman then flies off leaving me a little confused…what about the bank robber?
Back at the Daily Planet, Perry White (Jackie Cooper) is playing bingo (because that’s what you’d expect the chief of a newspaper to be doing?!) It is only then revealed that Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) has been written out of the movie as she is being sent to Bermuda, whilst Clark is convincing the Chief to let him go back to Smallville for his high school reunion celebrations. Perry agrees but Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) has to be given something to do before Supergirl comes out the following year, so he goes with Clark to Smallville. This is such a quick throw away scene that I am surprised it was left in especially since characters such as Perry White, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, are never referenced again.
Though I can criticise the dialogue in the film and the poor attempt at humour, the cinematography and effects are absolutely fantastic. Christopher Reeve is Superman at this point and, as I noted in my Superman II review, he slips into the role fantastically. Here as Superman he has the total package, the screen presence, the physique (looking a lot bigger than in his previous outings) and the commanding voice.
Superman stops a chemical fire by freezing a nearby lake, flying it over the chemical plant and as it melts, it diminishes the fire. See, I would take exception to this, but this is a film series that brought us flying around the world backwards to reverse time and the amnesia kiss, so we’ll let this one slide.
Richard Pryor in the meantime discovers that he can hack into his company’s accounts and make himself richer in his job. This comes to the attention of the villains of the piece, if you can call them that! Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) and his sister Vera (Annie Ross) call up Pryor and persuade him to join their little group as they plan to take over the coffee farms of Columbia? No I’m being serious, that is his master scheme. Webster makes Pryor break into a satellite station in order to create a weather storm that destroys most of Columbia. Coincidentally, the station that Pryor has to hack into is in Smallville, which is exactly where Clark happens to be celebrating his high school reunion.
We see Clark kind of rekindling his relationship with Lana Lang (played by Annette O’Toole who went on to play Martha Kent in Smallville) who has a child with her ex-husband Brad (Gavin O’Herlihy), the high school bully of Clark Kent. I liked the relationship between Clark and Lana as it definitely has that high school sweethearts feel to it and you kind of want them to get together at the end of the film because Lana loves Clark for who he is, having known him the majority of his young life. Whilst on the other hand, Lois only loves Superman and not Clark.
Webster’s next plan is to destroy Superman, but knowing that he is indestructible and can’t get hold of Kryptonite they try to create their own. Pryor dresses up as an army three star General and attends a presentation to Superman. He gives Kal-El a piece of kryptonite hoping it will cripple him into submission yet when it doesn’t all look confused. It didn’t weaken Superman it just actually turned him into a big jerk. From here we start to see Superman do some pretty jerkish things, like straighten up the leaning tower of Pisa and blow out the Olympic torch. Learning of this, Webster and his sister send out their bumbling blonde bimbo Lorelei (played by Pamela Stephenson) to seduce now supposed bad guy Superman into destroying an oil tanker, and he does, he destroys the tanker then goes back to her place and they do the deed. I have to admit that I love the way Christopher Reeve plays this version of Superman and you can tell he enjoyed it and it is interesting that evil Superman has the same kind of darkened red costume that Brandon Routh has in Superman Returns.
Not long after we see a drunk and disorderly Superman coming across Lana Lang and her little boy, who in the best ever understatement tells Superman that he’s, “Just in a slump.” Superman flies off in anger and lands in a junkyard where he fights with Clark Kent in a battle of controlling his inner demons. This fight scene here is by far the highlight of the film. It is pure awesome, and yes, it’s 1983 and the effects look dated but it’s still a really good fight sequence. You can see why it has become a fan favourite of the Christopher Reeve era. What’s great about this scene is that you don’t really know if it’s happening in real life or just inside Clark’s head, which it adds to the sequence. On a slight side note, if you noticed the grey building in the background, that’s the sound studio where they made the James Bond films. The good Clark chokes out the evil Superman to defeat him and rips open his shirt to reveal that he’s back to normal again with the bright blue and red costume. Superman begins to track down the Websters & Richard Pryor who were creating a new super computer in the Grand Canyon. Superman flies in and comes across the new super computer (I’m thinking the original idea for this film was probably to have Brainiac as the main film) that tries to kill Superman before converting Vera Webster into one scary looking cyborg. This scene today is still quite chilling, as Vera is struggling and screaming as we see her being converted (the scene reminded me very much like when Captain Picard was assimilated by the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact). Superman defeats Cyborg Webster and saves the day, with him and Richard Pryor becoming best mates as the film rolls to credits.
This film gets a lot of flak from reviewers and fans alike, though the film is not poorly made, it suffers from the weak script and lack of villain. Despite what people say Richard Pryor DOES NOT have more screen time than Superman, even though it feels like it and his character is very much in the foreground. There isn’t a single bad performance from any actor (much like the previous Superman films) but the lack of villain or villainous plot really leaves you in Limbo as a viewer. All the comedy just falls flat. A lot of that has to do with the writers David and Leslie Newman as they wrote the script for the first two Superman films and Richard Donner hated it so much that he brought in his own writer, Tom Mankiewicz, to rewrite the script. This time around the Salkinds brought in the Newmans and it really gives you an idea of how the original Superman film could have turned out.
Superman III isn’t a bad film, it’s just not a good one, but it’s a shame to say that this isn’t even the worst entry in the series.
What do you think of Superman III? Was it one joke too far or does it soar above the first two?