I consider Richard Donner’s Superman one of the top ten superhero films ever made. I also remember being talked out of seeing Richard Lester’s Superman III after watching Roger Ebert’s review. I’m glad I waited. Like I said regarding Superman II. The franchise is guaranteed money, so why did Warner Brothers decide to spend even less money on this trash?
As Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) goes on a long-deserved vacation in Bermuda, Clark (Christopher Reeves) decides to write a story for the Daily Planet about the differences between small-town life in Smallville and big city living in Metropolis. Clark arrives home in Smallville with Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) in tow, where he reunites with his high school crush, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), and his bully, Brad (Gavan O’Herligy).
Meanwhile, the down-on-his-luck sadsack, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), was just kicked off of unemployment insurance and forced to take an entry-level job in the new world of computers. On his first day, he realizes that his superpower is the ability to program computers with a swipe of a pen and a rudimentary knowledge of BASIC. As Gus embezzles thousands of dollars, his deeds are noticed by evil CEO Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), his second-in-command Vera (Annie Ross), and bimbo sidepiece Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson). Webster soon has Gus program a supercomputer that can mine Kryptonite from the air easier than Bitcoin and control all computers in the world as if some vast network connects them. In an early experiment, Gus places Superman in an existential crisis becoming a more bad/selfish Superman — almost killing a bar full of customers while flicking nuts.
It is with Superman III that I gave up on the franchise. Lester takes all the wrong approaches. Let’s start with a horrible soundtrack that barely pays homage to the brilliant score by John Williams. We should be seeing Superman run faster than a speeding bullet, take on a locomotive, or even leap a tall building in the opening sequence. Instead, Clark is saving a dozen citizens walking through a wacky Rube Goldberg/Three Stooges series of mishaps started by a loose set of wind-up penguins and a blind man losing his dog near a man-hole.
“…in an existential crisis becoming a more bad/selfish Superman — almost killing a bar full of customers while flicking nuts.”
Webster plays like a lesser version of Lex Luthor. Pryor’s talent is wasted in a series of improvised bits about Superman as he dons a pink blanket as his cape and a pair of skis. One thing you can say about Pryor’s performance is that it’s not edgy in the slightest. If you’ve seen his stand-up or watched his films prior, he left all the edgy there and just collected a paycheck in the safest way possible. It’s just sad.
Maybe the most interesting part of Superman III is the fight between good Clark and evil Superman. Interesting is a kind way to describe it. The critical mistake here is not answering the question, “why?” This battle just seems to be inserted into the story as if I read my comics out of order. The appearance of bad Superman happens out of convenience. This fight is never explored and never gives us any insight into Superman’s character. It should say something about the human condition, but instead comes off as “wouldn’t it be cool if…”
Tone is everything, and Superman III is a light comedy, like an unfunny Batman. The only moment that I thought was fun was at the end, where Webster tries to shoot Superman out of the sky with a series of missiles located in a canyon. The entire sequence is intentionally set up like a video game, and the FX’s are not bad for the early 1980s.
Let’s tally the score. Richard Donner’s Superman is great! Watch that one over and over and over again. For the sake of the franchise and Christopher Reeves’ legacy, forget the sequels exist. The poster of Superman III says it all.
"…Pryor’s talent is wasted..."