So Richard Donner has difficulty working with the producers of Superman The Movie but makes a very successful film. As a rewards he is fired and the sequel he had mostly shot gets chopped apart and butchered into something else. Richard Lest shoots his version of Superman 2, gets on really well with the producers because they’re all best friends but makes a film that makes half of what the first made. His reward is getting to make another Superman film. Proof if ever it was needed that being best chums with those in charge is more important than actually being good at your job. SO, what kind of film did this partnership create this time? Click the link to find out.
Hey, remember how Superman 2 didn’t do as well as the first because it came out the same week as Raiders of the Lost Ark? What came out the same week as Superman 2? Let us see. There’s Etoile Du Nord, a French Opera and… Fanny & Alexander, a far superior film no-one went to see by Ingmar Bergman. But what’s that!?! The week before Octopussy came out? You mean the Bond film that’s generally regarded as one of the worst in the series and also one of the lowest grossing? Man, June 1983 sucked for films. Well, Fanny & Alexander is great but Octopussy? Nah, not so much. There was Psycho 2 which I maintain isn’t all bad, still not good though. Also Porky’s 2 came out a week later. To be fair, Return of the Jedi came out a month before, but would that really have had the legs to have caused a blockbuster like Superman 3 to flop? I wonder what excuse Ilya Salkind and Richard Lester had for Superman 3 making half of what Superman 2 made and also being reviewed way worse? I’m sure it was all Superman’s fault. Clearly no-one liked Superman. You know, that hero that had been around in some form since the 1930s.
What’s the plot to Superman 3 then? Well, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) is a jobless bum prone to screwing up every job he gets within minutes. One day he sits at a computer for a job and discovers that he can make them do whatever he wants. This is because he is some sort of expert hacker despite, apparently, never using a computer before. This is because of reasons. Later he steals money from his boss in a scheme that would later be reused by Mike Judge for the film Office Space and gets rewarded for it by his boss, Lex Luthor cut-out, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn.). Webster’s plan is to take over the coffee market by having Gus control a weather satellite to control the weather in Columbia. Naturally, this plot is foiled by Superman. Oh, also, weather monitoring satellites can controls weather because of reasons also. Then things happen, Gus skis off the roof of a building whilst wearing a tablecloth cape and somehow survives, Webster decides oil is his goal, then he makes some funky Kryptonite which makes an evil Superman and he’s a jerk and… sigh… This is one of THOSE films isn’t it? You know the ones I mean. Where the story is entirely dictated by things the producers and Director wanted to see. I dislike these types of films.
Let’s take this from the top. Both (all three?) previous Superman films open with a scene on Krypton, a bit of a mystery and wonderment happens and we get a big old flight through space as those iconic credits whizz by our heads in time to the classic John Williams score. It’s almost as quintessentially iconic as the opening of every Star Wars film. Superman 3 opens with Richard Pryor being told he can’t have any job seekers allowance… or whatever the US version of that is. After that the credits slowly blur their way across the screen as a Rube-Goldberg machine of mishaps and goofs occur to a jaunty tune which all builds to Superman eventually appearing from a photo-booth, cos phone-booths are so last season to save a guy from drowning in his car in the middle of the street. Think about this for a minute. Richard Lester must have wanted to have Superman pull someone from a car filled with water so bad that he created this bizarre series of events where, and I shit ye not, phone-booths are knocked over like dominoes, a blind man loses his guide dog (an Alsatian) and proceeds to wonder around with a road line painter instead. This same blind man also walks through a painting and steps on the head of a man that fell down a hole… Gawd… I wish I could find a video so you could just see the horror and I could save myself a few hundred words. Just trust me, this opening sequence is pure Richard Lester, always looking for a gag with little to no context or thought on how a scene like this effects the film as a whole.
The story goes that Richard Pryor really wanted to play his character straight. He was a huge fan of Superman and had hoped he’d be able to come to this project and put in a performance he felt was worthy of the licence. I’m guessing the Salkinds just kept throwing money at him until he gave in though. You can see it on his face the whole way through. This is watered down comedy Pryor. He tries to make Gus Gorman a nervous wreck pulled in way over his head. Each attempt to maintain that is undermined by gags and general all-round japery. Why is his character able to hack so well? Never explained. Why does this shy nervous guy buy a Ferrari and has the random moment of theatrical performance? No idea. Why is he the only one of the group Superman decides to not send to jail? I would say because Superman knew he was a good guy underneath… except it’s established early on that he’s not entirely above board, also, Superman doesn’t know him at all. Here’s the real answers for those 3 questions: Why not? Who cares? And because we want Superman carrying Richard Pryor on the posters.
After the abysmal opening sequence there is about 25 minutes where you might think the film may play out like a normal feature. Clark goes to Smallville for a reunion and meets an old crush of his in the form of Annette O’Toole who is Lana Lang here and would one day be Clark’s adopted mother. Awkward. During this time Superman saves a bunch of guys from a burning chemical plant, and also saves Jimmy after he’s a frigging moron. There’s a few scenes where Clark and Lana interact in a way that gives you a chance to see how others see Clark outside the Daily Planet. And then Gus arrives in Smallville because for whatever reason that’s where Webster has a computer he can use to contact weather satellite with. Then Superman saves Lana’s kid from being run over by a combine harvester. The whole film from this point on plays out with little real character work and little logical storytelling. I’ve used the phrase a few times already but this is all just things and stuff used to give the trailer the shots they want and the director the feeling he’s making a superhero film.
There is one shining moment in the course of the films nonsense though. After Gus uses the weather satellite to scan the deep reaches of space to find a lump of Kryptonite that his boss can recreate to kill Superman with… Yes, that happens… Superman is presented with this artificial Kryptonite which appears to have no effect. Gradually though we realise that Superman is going bad. Some of this sequence of events actually play out quite well, but it is only because Christopher Reeve shows off how good a character actor he was by playing the evil Superman as a total dick. Now, we should ignore the actual actions of evil Superman because they’re all, barring delaying going to save someone with fatal consequences, all pretty stupid. He blows out an Olympic torch, gets drunk… which I can only imagine took a really long time, and even flies half the way around the world just to straighten out the leaning tower of Pisa. Yup, ignore that nonsense. It’s the way Reeve carries himself that sells these scenes. He changes his demeanour and look just enough to actually start to look like a different person entirely. The costume is tinted darker to signify his change. It actually has a very similar colour tone to the suit from Superman Returns. This leads to a fight between Clark and Superman in a junk yard. Now… I can’t really tell if the fight is meant to be a visual representation of the internal conflict existing within Superman at this point, but who cars? It’s the one moment of action driven by the story and characters and it all leads to a triumphant final moment as Clark defeats evil Superman and pulls open his shirt to reveal the brighter Superman costume underneath. Great moment. In fact I’ll save you the trouble of ever seeing the film.
Naturally after that Gus draws the plans for a super computer on the back of a cereal box… again, not kidding… which is built in about 3 days or something. Turns out the computer is the real villain because it just starts beating up everyone during the finale, even figuring out how to make Kryptonite properly. Which is pretty spectacular considering the reason the piece made earlier didn’t work was down to an unknown element, that likely doesn’t exist on Earth. Never mind though, the computer can do anything cos Gus told it it could. That’s pretty much the actual reason too. Did I mention that Pamela Stevenson was in this? If you’re not British and at least 30 years old you’ll likely not get why that is so odd.
So, Superman 3… It’s kind of a mess. At moments it works, just. At it’s best it is adequate and vaguely competent. At its worst it’s embarrassing and awkward. Very little of the humour actually works. Any of the score that isn’t from John Williams’ original suite is forgettable or ill judged. Only Reeves and O’Toole seem to give a shit about their performance, although Pryor may have at some point… he just gave up I think. The really worrying thing is that this isn’t the worst Superman film. Despite how messy this film is it at least has production values and a few moments where it comes close to shining. Superman 4: The Quest For Peace has Milton Keynes doubling for Metropolis. If you’ve never been to Milton Keynes you’ll have no idea how hilarious that is.