No. 12: Superman III

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

Like most people born in 1983, I’ve never felt particularly connected to the Superman movie franchise. By the time I was old enough to watch and appreciate movies, the Superman movie franchise founded by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had devolved into a parody of itself with movies like Supergirl and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace becoming cinematic punch-lines rather than box office heroes like their predecessors. On top of that, the only other silver screen impression I have of Superman in my lifetime is Bryan Singer’s bland misfire Superman Returns, a movie that aspired to make you believe a man can fly…and still be uninteresting.

Many comic book enthusiasts (a group which does not include yours truly) hold Superman up as one of the truly great, if not the greatest, superhero characters in the history of the medium but it’s a character that’s had a hard time finding success in movie form, even during the 21st Century boom of comic book movies. I can’t speak to the comic books themselves, only to the character’s existence in the world of movies, but personally I’ve never felt Superman is a terribly interesting character and I think his lack of dimension has really held back DC and Warner Brothers from moving forward with a Superman film that can capture the attention of audiences in the 21st Century. I’m sure I’ll get some argument on this point from Superman fans and comic book enthusiasts of all kinds but I think the problem with Superman lies with the fact that he can do absolutely anything and has only one weakness, which itself is a rather uninteresting and all-too-convenient MacGuffin. Many writers will tell you that restrictions and boundaries are what lead to true creativity and the problem with Superman is that the boundaries are far too broadly drawn. There’s no problem Superman can’t solve, except of course Kryptonite and the problem there is that Kryptonite just is what it is and has no interesting properties or characteristics other than being “the stuff that kills Superman”.

Roger Ebert was skeptical at the very idea of making superhero stories into films even after the success of the first two Superman films. In his 1983 review, Ebert said “What’s amazing is that the first two Superman movies avoided that description, creating a fantasy with a certain charm. They could have been manipulative special-effects movies, but they were a great deal more. With this third one, maybe they’ve finally run out of inspiration.”

All that said, the Salkind’s first attempt at a Superman film in 1978 remains a fantastically entertaining and successful movie as does Superman II, in spite of some of the most chaotic behind-the-scenes activity in movie history. Director Richard Donner was hired by the Salkinds to direct Superman and Superman II simultaneously, an ambitious production idea that ended with Donner being fired after completing about 75 percent of the second film. The Salkinds hired Richard Lester (who directed the Salkind-produced Three Musketeer films in the ’70s) to complete Superman II and after seeing that film rocket to financial success once again, decided to keep Lester on for a third Superman film.

The problem was that although the Salkinds were extremely happy with their move to replace Donner with Lester, nearly everyone else involved in the production of the first two films were less enthusiastic. Gene Hackman, who many would argue was the most popular star from the cast of the first two films, refused to reprise the role of Lex Luthor following Donner’s dismissal. Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who was hired by Donner to rewrite what he thought were rather silly screenplays for the first two films, also refused to participate in the franchise without Donner and while she denies it, many believe that public comments by Margot Kidder regarding his displeasure with the move led to Lois Lane’s role in the third movie being reduced to a laughably small cameo.

In my opinion, the loss of Mankiewicz may have ended up being perhaps the single-biggest loss that came from the fallout of the Donner-to-Lester move. That’s because the screenplay for Superman III, written by David and Leslie Newman, is so utterly ridiculous and unnatural feeling that no director, whether it be Lester or Donner, stood a chance of adapting it into a decent movie. Ilya Salkind’s original idea for Superman III involved Superman returning to the world of Krypton, facing off against cosmic supervillain Brainiac and teaming up with fellow Kryptonian Supergirl but Warner Bros. quickly shied away from what probably sounded like a special effects budget of unparalleled proportions.

Instead Warner Bros. came back to the Salkinds with their own idea. I imagine the pitch went something like this:

“Hey guys, listen that idea about Superman in space fighting evil aliens and teaming up with a super-hot girl version of himself – yeah that all sounds great. But what about this instead: Richard Pryor plays a computer geek who uses kryptonite to turn Superman evil! It’ll be cool AND hilarious at the same time!”

Frankly, however the idea was pitched it’s hard to believe that any adult with half a brain who was in the room thought it sounded like a good idea. Why turn Superman into a comedy? Why turn the ultimate good guy into a bad guy? I guess I can see some of the appeal of putting Richard Pryor into what’s supposed to be a fun, summer action movie. Pryor had already proven to be a major box office draw and he was tremendously fun to watch, the kind of actor you can just let roam around in a movie and he’ll find a way to be funny.

With Hackman and Kidder out, I also see some of the logic behind bringing Robert Vaughn in as the villain and Annette O’Toole as love interest Lana Lang. Vaughn’s villainous Ross Webster is clearly the same type of villain as Lex Luthor, a smarmy and clever corporate thief for whom greed is the only superpower. He’s a comedic villain and Vaughn does a great job of making his ridiculous and highly expository dialogue still palatable. O’Toole strikes me as fairly goofy at the beginning of the movie (the running joke of her being completely misunderstood by Clark gets old pretty fast) but actually starts to grow on me as the film goes on. She’s definitely not a conventional beauty and her chemistry with Reeve is nowhere near what we saw with Kidder in the first two films but she’s still ultimately pretty likable.

I really can’t complain about the cast much. I’d say given the dreadful screenplay they had to work with, I’d say they did a pretty good job. The story, which involves Richard Pryor being recruited by the evil Ross Webster to hack into satellites and change the weather, is so muddled and absurd that it’s not even worth fully recapping here. There’s also a somewhat controversial element to the story that involves Superman turning evil after being exposed to small amounts of, you guessed it, kryptonite. This “evil Superman” storyline really isn’t ever given any kind of explanation and has no consequences on the rest of the story elements. It’s mainly just a chance for the producers to film a scene in which Clark Kent fights with Superman (whether this is an actual physical split of Superman’s being or just a psychological battle being creatively expressed on screen is never actually made clear).

Probably my favorite moment of the “evil Superman” sequence (and by favorite I mean the moment that made me laugh the hardest at its utter absurdity) is a scene that almost perfectly expresses the complete lack of self-awareness or irony that Superman III has. It features a wonderfully stereotypical Italian man who is doing what all stereotypical Italian men do – selling statues of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s a joke that gets another callback at the end of the movie, where it actually made me laugh even harder the second time despite the fact that I knew it was coming.

This clip almost perfectly sums up the overall tone of Superman III, a movie that doesn’t ask to be taken as seriously as the first two Superman films and certainly succeeds at accomplishing that. It’s OK to have fun with a classic hero and it’s even OK to parody that hero outright (see the James Bond spoof Casino Royale for a great example) but if you’re going to do that, the rules of action/adventure film no longer apply. You are in the realm of comedy and if Superman III is to be judged as a comedy, it’s not a particularly funny or original one.

Next Up: The Griswold family makes its screen debut in National Lampoon’s Vacation.