The Great Scenes: “Clark Kent vs Superman” from SUPERMAN III
The Movie: Superman III (1983)
Spoiler Level: High (But it’s Superman III, so who cares?)
The Setup: You have three options here, in regards to what you need to know before watching the scene. You can take my plot summary, which will follow below. You could also watch Superman III. Or, you could go listen to Earwolf’s Superman III episode of “How Did This Get Made“, guest-hosted by Damon Lindelof. I’d highly recommend this podcast, and especially this episode. They sum up the folly of this movie, which was the humorous Richard Lester deconstructionist Superman take-down that nobody on planet Earth was asking for.
Basically, up to this point, the film has been a Richard Pryor comedy vehicle that takes place in Superman’s Metropolis. Being some sort of idiot savant computer genius, Pryor’s Gus is helping a megalomaniac corner the world’s coffee markets, and has discovered a way to keep Superman from meddling. By creating a synthetic black kryptonite and HANDING IT to Superman, they give the Man of Steel a kind of viral schizophrenia, as he begins to exhibit signs of a dark side. Succumbing to his evil side, Superman not only makes inappropriate sexual advances towards Lana Lang, but he successfully beds the villain’s girlfriend and gets hammered in a dingy bar.
In this scene, the evil and unshaven Dark Superman is having mental agitation, and escapes to a solitary junk yard to hash it out with… himself?!?
Why It’s Great: Somehow, despite all attempts at letting broad comedy reign supreme in what is ostensibly a children’s film, Richard Lester managed to craft the most weighty, dark, and dramatic fight scene in the entire Superman movie franchise. That’s right, I find this to be a more harrowing and high-stakes fight than the super-brawl at the end of Superman II. First off, the tone here is deadly serious. Dark Superman lands and gives a primal scream that empties the facility. A minimal score follows, never getting in the way of the creepy conflict at the center of the scene: Clark Kent materializes out from Dark Superman, and the fight begins immediately, with Dark Superman scoffing and beating the snot out of Clark. This might be Christopher Reeve’s high point in the series as well, as he gets the chance to play a cocky maniac and a scrappy underdog all in the same scene. Reeve evokes Michael Keaton’s “You wanna get nuts” freak-out from Batman, and his Dark Superman is unrelenting in his cruelty and malice here.
Full disclosure: I have watched Superman III more than any other Superman film. I suspect my dad got a kick out of the Richard Pryor stuff when I was a kid, so this was the Superman movie he rented most often. That, or it must have been super cheap to syndicate and was on television a lot. Regardless, the rest of the movie always confused and disturbed me, especially the aforementioned super-villainess tryst and a later moment in which a woman is violently turned into a cyborg.
This scene, however, was pure Superman goodness. About four minutes in, after using some creative practical effects and stuntwork to convey Clark’s beat-down, Lester brings things to a head as Clark is horribly crushed in a trash compactor. Everything is silent for a moment as the victorious Dark Superman stumbles away in a drunken haze, before the trash compactor BURSTS open as Clark bench presses the damn thing apart. This is only one of two great moments in which Clark bursts out of a trash compactor. Eventually, Clark overpowers Dark Superman and eventually CHOKES HIM TO DEATH WITH HIS BARE HANDS. The scene culminates at seven minutes as Dark Superman disappears and Clark reclaims his true identity: He stands up, the John Williams score begins, and he rips open his shirt, revealing a pristine Superman logo. With the theme soaring, Superman flies off to save the world.
Too bad everything after that is baffling. However, for one scene, Superman was at his very best: Fighting not only the injustices of the world around him, but his own demons and identity issues. I’m sure Lester was trying to get at some deeper truth here, but assumedly the script, the intent of the producers, and his own disinterest in the material were working against the film. Let’s hope that some day, we’ll get a cinematic Superman that matches the grit and gravitas that Reeves showed us here.