Superman III Review

(1.5 STARS)

With the off-screen problems connected to Superman II out of the way, there was no reason Superman III couldn’t have been another thrilling adventure. Sure, Gene Hackman was out, furious at producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind over what happened with Superman director Richard Donner. But the Salkinds lured comedian Richard Pryor into the cast—a coup by an definition, right?

Sadly, the move is indicative of this film’s biggest problem. Superman III‘s reliance on slapstick is horrifying. This film makes no sense at all, yet the story proper is much preferable to director Richard Lester’s constant insistence on turning everything into a cheesy visual gag.

The film doesn’t open with Clark Kent or Superman (Christopher Reeve), but rather Gus Gorman (Pryor), a chronically unemployed Metropolis resident who’s sharp but unlucky and always looking to take a shortcut to the top. He answers an ad to become a computer programmer at a large technology company, and he proves himself quite adept at hacking. He embezzles more than $85,000 from the company’s coffers with just a few clacks at the keyboard.

His bad behavior catches the eye of the company’s head honcho, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), but not for reasons you’d expect. Webster, you see, is a bit of a megalomaniac. Though he’s seemingly worth billions, he, his conniving sister Vera (Annie Ross), and his “psychic nutritionist” Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson) want to use Gus to hack a weather satellite and use it to destroy Colombia’s national coffee crop, an action that would increase the value of Webster’s international coffee holdings exponentially.

Clark, meanwhile, travels back to his hometown of Smallville for a class reunion. There, he reconnects with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), the most popular girl at Smallville High. He, as Superman of course, even rescues her young son, Ricky (Paul Kaethler). Superman also manages to steal away and save the Colombian coffee crop that Webster is so hellbent on destroying. But that puts Superman squarely in the billionaire’s crosshairs, and some craftiness on the part of his #1 techie leads to a Super case of multiple personality disorder.

After introducing us to Gus, the film gets right into the awful jokes. The fantastic credits sequences of the first two films that zoom through space are replaced by an Earth-bound credits sequence featuring flaming penguins, pies in the face, and a bumbling blind man. And those are some of the better gags. Later, we get Gus literally skiing off a Metropolis skyscraper and acting like a hardened military man. Pryor, it goes without saying, is one of the greatest comedians to ever live, but this is not a vehicle that plays to this strong suits. He’s never dull in Superman III, but for the most part, he jumps off the screen for all the wrong reasons.

The film’s villain and his evil plot for world domination are, sadly, the only things funny about Superman III. Webster at one point builds a super computer that’s capable of finding anyone’s weakness and exploiting it. In the case of Superman, it’s a beam of kryptonite that severely debilitates him. What must one do to activate this computer? A complex hack? Nah, just push a button. Nor does it take Gus long at all to steal tens of thousands of dollars from his company or, get this, create the worst storm in mankind’s history that nearly destroys an entire country. (How this all-powerful weather satellite isn’t part of the plot to take over the world past this point is beyond me.) Superman III was made at a unique time in human history when computers weren’t totally understood by anyone. So the filmmakers here preyed upon that ignorance and tried to make a film that hinges on a computer’s ability to literally do anything (and to do anything with incredible ease). Today, the infallibility of these machines feels almost insultingly stupid, despite the ironic fact that computers really are capable of so much more than those watching this movie in 1983 would have guessed.

Lois Lane makes a token appearance in Superman III (twice, to open and close the film), and while Margot Kidder’s presence and chemistry with Christopher Reeve is missed, the decision to step away from that relationship was probably an objectively good one. There just wasn’t any need to mine that territory again, so Lester and his screenwriters, David and Leslie Newman, introduced us to Lana Lang. She’s a fine character; it’s nice to see Clark back in Smallville, interacting with simpler folks. The way his relationship with Lana plays out, however, is a real slap in the face to fans of the first two films. What he had with Lois just isn’t addressed in an acceptable way, and Superman (of all people) comes across as kind of a dick.

The film’s standout scene is a garbage dump-set fight scene between Superman and Clark Kent. Yes, you read that right. It comes after Superman starts to undergo an unwanted personality change and becomes both derelict in his duties and a big-time creep. Superman represents the bad. Clark represents the good. The two fight, and it’s cool, but it might just be Superman III‘s only positive quality. There’s nothing else here to grab on to, and because of that, the series would never recover. What a shame.

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