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Comicbook Movie Retrospective – Superman III (1983)

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Title: Superman III
Director: Richard Lester
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Jackie Cooper, Margot Kidder
Studio: Warner Bros.
Release Date: 1983


After the phenomenal success of Superman: The Movie and it’s sequel Superman II the Salkind’s were keen to capitalise on the franchise once more while it was still hot. With Superman now a well known name in the film world and with advances in technology the producers had no problem in splashing out a bit on what was to become the third installment in the Christopher Reeve-led Superman film series. Often cited as “the one where Superman started to go a bit shit” the description is both disappointingly true and at the same time needlessly cruel. It’s true the film could most certainly have been better, but that didn’t stop it from being quite a decent project in its own right, mostly for all the wrong reasons.

Superman III originally started out extremely promising with a treatment by Ilya Salkind that included a combination of DC characters and villains including Brainiac, Mister Mxyzptlk and even Supergirl (still a year or two off appearing in here film debut in 1984). Popularity won the day and the final product became half a Superman film and half a Richard Pryor comedy, an extremely bankable star at the time.

Capitalising on burgeoning age of computers, the writers took what was presumably the more tech-y side of the Brainiac story and moulded it to match current trends, while also forging a semi-comedy. We all know the story: a computer Genius gets roped into doing some dodgy deals via computers for a rich boss man and has to eliminate Superman to prevent him from interfering. All the while Clark Kent is rediscovering his roots with Smallville High School sweetheart Lana Lang.

The cast of the film is really good, if a little mismatched. Christopher Reeve once again proves himself to be nothing short of magnificent and was absolutely born to play the role. Reeve really bulked up for this film and he undoubtedly has much broader shoulders and more muscle mass than before as he swans around looking very much like a carbon copy of the comic book character. It’s easy to forget that Reeve himself clocked in at quite an impressive 6’4” and the extra bulk makes him look particularly awesome in the suit.

Annette O’ Toole is perfect as Lana Lang, Clark’s flame-haired high school sweetheart. Richard Pryor basically plays Richard Pryor, and that is a good thing because this is him at the top of his game and his bumbling Gus Gorman is a very likeable character. The rest of the cast include a wonderfully over-the-top Robert Vaughn as the mastermind Webster, Annie Ross as his sister Vera, and Pamela Stephenson as Webster’s “psychic nutritionist”, the blonde bombshell with a hidden brain, Lorelei. More comedy is provided by Irish actor (yes, really) Gavin O’ Herlihy, who plays school bully Brad Wilson, a goofball drunk who plays off Richard Pryor surprisingly well.

Superman III in many ways has some of the best work from the entire franchise. The budget was the largest allocated in the series and while the previous films were without a doubt iconic, they were also a bit dated in feel so having some of that ’80s sheen was what Superman really needed at that time. All the flying and optical effects were top of the range (though probably not cutting edge) at the time and the film has some big action set pieces that basically let Superman do what he does best. These include saving a drowning man, the chemical factory disaster, rescuing Ricky from the combine harvesters among others. All of these are handled well, but owing to the fact that Superman has slightly more cut down powers than his comic counterpart (due most probably to the still limited effects of the time), he resorts to some unusually fiddly methods of solving problems like freezing a lake and carrying it to a fire. This would be like trying to carry an ice dustbin lid with a pair of tweezers, and seems unnecessary for a man who can supposedly ‘Make a Sun’ (Superman #58) ‘Blow Out A Star’ (Superman #91) or ‘Throw a planet’ (Superman #110). One could argue that the chemicals might be endangered with extreme solutions, which is as good an excuse as any I guess.

The sub-story with Clark visiting Smallville again and firing up an old romance with Lana Lang is not only rather a sweet one but intriguing too. Here we get to see a really good slice of Superman’s history in this particular universe where we see the school he went to, the girl next door (next farm?) and even the bully he had to put up with. Lana is not only beautiful but is an extremely likeable character, more so than Lois (who was absent from most of the film due to Margot Kidder having a falling out with the Salkinds over a dispute so they effectively semi-fired her ass). The scenes with O ‘Toole and Reeve highlight their on-screen chemistry, and their scenes have an added element of humour to them in how they keep misunderstanding each other. Lana’s son Ricky is present, presumably to be the on-screen personification of the swarms of bowl cut sporting children that went to the cinema to see the film, much like the writer of this very article, who was one of many at a mere 5 years old and already an avid Superman fan.

The film runs into it’s problems because it suffers from the same issue as Spider-Man 3, in that there was too much going in one movie. It follows what can only be described as a binary (HA!) storyline where we are following two parts of the film – The Pryor/Computer tale and the Clark/Lana/evil Superman sections. Of course, they are interconnected and the strange thing is that director Richard Lester manages to keep everything on quite an even keel. Nothing seems really rushed or wasted and the transitions from comedy to action to some of the darker parts are actually very smooth and unnoticeable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that there are really two films here fighting to get out. There would be a fine Richard Pryor comedy about a computer geek stealing the extra half cents from a big corporations wage role and there would be quite frankly a phenomenal Superman film here too. It’s wasted potential is probably the thing that many people hate about the film. If the producers had kept the story to just the Clark and Lana romance and the bad Kryptonite/evil Superman (possibly via Brainiac), then it would have been grounds for an absolutely stunning and much deeper film, parts of which we do get a glimpse of.

The Evil Superman section of the film is genuinely one of the most intriguing parts of the entire franchise. Here we see the lab made Kryptonite send Superman into a schizophrenic state which strips him of all his morality and conscience as he slowly becomes more and more apathetic and cruel while his suit gradually loses it’s colour and lustre. It’s an absolutely fascinating section that allows us to see what only our imaginations could think of beforehand. Here is a person with God-like powers, normally restrained by a sharp moral compass but is now robbed of that anchor. It’s slightly disappointing in that he doesn’t really do anything particularly bad except cause a little mischief here and there and bang Loralei ,who is the one and only woman aside from Lois he gets it on with in this Universe. There is some mention that Superman has fallen out of favour with the world but it doesn’t go into any specifics. The lack of on-screen destruction aside there are some very iconic moments in this evil Superman section, the coolest of which is the sight of a greasy and grizzled Superman in a bar knocking back shots of whisky before trashing the place. This leads up to what is possibly one of the best sections in the whole series of films

The Junkyard scene is absolutely brilliant and works on so many levels that it’s hard to remember that this was a comedy a few minutes ago. Here we see a tortured and evil Superman land in a Junkyard with an almighty scream while clutching his head and then stands up only to have Clark Kent materialised out of his body. Evil Superman then proceeds to quite frankly beat the shit out of Kent, eventually trying to actually murder him via two types of industrial crusher. The scene works so well because it is without a doubt one of the darkest scenes of the series, which works on a psychological level. Here is Superman LITERALLY trying to kill off his conscience and morals in the form of Clark Kent so that he may become truly evil. Another level is that this is all happening in evil Superman’s mind and the rebirth is just him regaining his old character back after the Kryptonite is purged from his system like some sort of mental Super-acid trip. Great scrappy bits including fights with old tyres, huge magnets on chains, industrial acid and car bumpers all add to the excitement in the same way that the city battle in Superman II did. All this action is accompanied by a variation of the General Zod/Kryptonian music from Superman II by composer Ken Thorne, who also did the arrangements for the this and the second film.

It truly is a wonderful scene and Chris Reeve looks like he is having IMMENSE fun in doing it as between good Superman, Clark Kent and Evil Superman he really gets to stretch his range. He’s absolutely brilliant as evil Superman as he scowls and gurns his way around gleefully knocking seven shades out of Clark as well as verbally taunting him too like some sort of jacked up school bully. The only flaw with the scene, like many of the cool bits in the film, is that it’s over just a bit quicker than one would hope. Chucking bits of metal and rubber about is cool but hardly taxing for the Man of Steel and maybe a few cars being thrown would have been better. Clark also seems to strangely retain some of his powers too but can’t fly or do other certain things which is baffling.

The finale of the supercomputer at the end isn’t an uninteresting one and seems very much like more Braniac leftovers that didn’t really have much time to breathe. Thankfully,  after such a dark scene beforehand, the comedy is wisely kept to a minimum and it’s not exactly out of the comic book realm that Superman would take on such a foe. The lack of a physical presence in humanoid form may have stunted the computer battle ever so slightly, but one can only assume after the Superman vs. Clark battle, another prolonged fight wasn’t necessary, although one cannot help but feel that the load was shot a little early.

Some small compensation was attempted in the scene where Vera gets sucked back into the machine and transformed into a cyborg as a personification of the computer. This section will go down in history as the scene which scared the living shit out of a million children in the cinema. The unnatural movement of what looks like stop motion type or reversed effects coupled with horrible gargling like screams and finishing off with the big scare of a super extreme close up of some horrible metal robotic eyes was truly terrifying. One could argue it qualifies as a mild form of body horror which for the age range of the people in the cinema was often a bit too much and those eyes are still a topic of some uneasy discussion some 33 years later. It’s a shame then that the cyborg doesn’t really do much bar turn on the other bad folk and is offed quite easily by Superman and his “talk to the hand “ super move.

The film finishes with a fairly lengthy ending. Superman dumps Gus Gorman in a coal mine in what sounds like the deep south (possible payback?) and pressures the workers into offering him a job before flying off. Lana now works for the Daily Planet in an interesting direction for the franchise and after teaching bully Brad a small lesson everything is right with the world again.

Superman III is like a continual fight between two people who are quite friendly to each other. Neither one wants to take away the other’s time and both make it comfortable in accommodating it’s counterpart but it also means that they will never reach their full potential as individuals which is the saddest part. What could have possibly been the most lavish and also the darkest Superman film of the 80’s is cut down to it’s bare bones with most of the enjoyment coming from the cool concepts that are presented. Similarly an astounding Richard Pryor comedy, screaming to get out just doesn’t seem to fully hit the belly laughs that it perhaps should.

Superman III is chock full of absolutely brilliant ideas which are sadly not realised due to the timeshare the film has with the Pryor comedy. While it’s all handled with the utmost care to accommodate both sides it ultimately falls short for each theme, which is a real shame, but one that is still fun to watch not only for the good performances all round but to see the multitude of ideas.


profile picThe writer of this piece was: Alan Stares

Alan is a sound engineer, retro gamer, and general all-round geek from Glasgow. You can read more of his thoughts on a range of topics at ‘The Scots Perspective‘ and on retro gaming at ‘The Old Oilhouse‘.


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1 Comment on Comicbook Movie Retrospective – Superman III (1983)

  1. I quite like Superman III, yeah, its not quite up there with the first two films, but its way better than IV. It tries to do something different with the franchise as well, the evil superman / junkyard fight is brilliant, and the scene where the Vera gets turned into a robot – was this meant to be a nod to Braniac? – are both very memorable moments. A good addition to the series and well worth checking out :)

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