Richard Lester’s Superman III begins with one of the weirdest opening scenes of my recent memory and then spirals downwards into chaotic muck until at last, when the climax arrives, Superman is forced to defeat a giant super computer that “can do everything a normal computer can do, and a thousand things none of them can do”. This slogan would also work for Superman, who in this movie can do everything the comic book Superman can do, and a thousand things no one ever knew he could do, like blowing toxic oil off the surface of the ocean and back into its injured tanker, leaving not a drop left.
The first Superman film also contained preposterous miracles like this — Superman flew round the Earth so fast he turned back time — but it was endearing in the way it tried to be serious. Christopher Reeve played the Man of Steel with a wink, which worked within the context of the story. But in Superman III, the entire movie is played with a wink. Sometimes two winks. And two winks is dangerous. I can’t tell if it’s trying to be serious, or seriously trying to be funny. There are slapstick elements and superhero elements, whimsy and drama, action and romance. The movie is so confused with itself, why, even Clark Kent has an identity crisis.
From my knowledge of the Superman folklore, I am deducing that Superman III tries to hide Superman villains in plain sight, dropping hints but never going all the way with their characters. There is a satellite that controls the weather, and the satellite is controlled by a man. I believe his name should be the Weather Wizard. The giant computer adopts a mind of its own and threatens to destroy the Grand Canyon. I believe this is an incarnation of Brainiac. And the identity crisis Clark suffers lays the foundation for Bizarro, a wacky byproduct of Superman’s dark side. The symptoms are clear, but the movie is too afraid to realise what they are and drop names.
And then there is the casting of Richard Pryor as Gus Gorman, a bum who gets fired from a fast food joint in 28 minutes. Pryor would be perfect for a slapstick comedy that had its head on straight, like Airplane!, but in a movie unsure of its own personality, he loses himself to the material and ends up being uncomfortably annoying. Gus finds work as a data processor for Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), a multimillionaire who owns a chain of data processing companies. I think. Upon receiving a meagre salary cheque one day, Gus deploys his newfound computer savvy and embezzles a solid 85 thousand in unwanted half-pennies from the company, a dastardly deed that attracts Ross’ attention. Ross gives him an ultimatum: Carry out his dirty work or he’s fired. This dirty work is intended to be Superman III’s bread and butter, the plot that will propel it to Krypton, but I fear it makes a more compelling children’s tale — Ross wants to destroy Colombia’s coffee export, because Colombia is not, as we all know, a cooperative nation. Make all the coffee workers children and you’ve got yourself a nursery rhyme.
What with this plan and that plan being thwarted by Superman, Ross retreats to the desert and constructs Brainiac, but not before delivering a Kryptonite variation to Superman that causes him to black out and become bad. Just how bad? He flies to Pisa and makes the Leaning Tower straight, much to the irritation of an Italian souvenir seller. What a hooligan! But don’t worry; the joke pays itself off at the end. Or at least it thinks it does.
At the end of it all, that’s really Superman III’s problem — it doesn’t do enough thinking. Lester, once responsible for classic British films like A Hard Day’s Night, makes this effort look lazy, as if he’s expecting Reeve to take over from his break. The only scene of any true inspiration is the one in which Clark fights bad Superman in a car junkyard arena, and even that goes on for way too long. Here’s an idea: Why not blow the entire film back into the minds of writers Leslie and David Newman, and hope to god they come up with something better? If that fails, there’s always spinning the Earth back in time.
Best Moment | The end credits.
Worst Moment | Most of Pryor’s scenes.