Superman III is bizarrely similar to Batman Forever: they both focus on comedic appeal rather than a devout adaptation, they have weird new villains that weren’t met with the most praise, and they both try to do something new with their respective mythos. The difference is, while Batman Forever raised some interesting ideas, Superman III didn’t. The film suffers heavily from jarring choices to reexamine the character of Superman, and overly complex story elements that are confusing at best and boring at worst. It also wastes one of the greatest comedy legends of all time. The film is not good, and commits the crime of establishing the public perception that Superman is boring.
Richard Lester returned to direct, and screen writers David and Leslie Newman returned to generate a script that could evolve Clark Kent and his adventures. So, where do you take arguably the most famous of superheroes? What daring exploits could the invulnerable, all-powerful Superman find himself in? His high school reunion… I wish that was a joke (Though I do suppose that it’s a slight step up from prom, but not much of a step). Of course, after the awful opening slap stick sequence involving a blind guy, a mime, and a literal pie in the face, I’m not sure why I’m disappointed.
So, yes, Clark Kent pitches a piece to his editor, Perry White, about the all American tradition of the high school reunion. It is an interesting concept to see Clark go back to his roots, but there are so many opportunities and places for the character to go that sending him to something as mundane as a high school reunion just squanders any excitement the film might’ve had. Did anybody really want to see Superman interact with the cliché high school bully who’s now a pathetic loser? Or reconnect with the girl who got away?
Speaking of the girl who got away, Lois Lane has a very small part in the film because Margot Kidder vehemently disagreed with Richard Donner being replaced with Richard Lester during the production of Superman II. So instead of seeing more of the great interaction between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, we get actress Annette O’Toole (who also played Martha Kent on Smallville) as high school sweetheart Lana Lang. Lana does have a long and varied history in Superman comics, so it’s nice to see her on the big screen. However, O’Toole plays Lana Lang like a character from a romance novel. She’s very wistful, and yearns for something more in her life, but has responsibilities and just doesn’t know how break free from the invisible chains Smallville has wrapped around her. Her scenes definitely slow the movie to a crawl, but they aren’t bad necessarily, they just feel like they’re for a different movie.
While Clark is at his high school reunion, a new villain enters the picture with a convoluted plot to start importing coffee from Colombia, but then it evolves to importing oil, then evolves to killing Superman, and then finally evolves to creating a computer that can do anything, which in turn creates artificial intelligence. The plot is so baffling and confusing compared to the simplicity of the other stories. The villain behind it all doesn’t sell the ridiculousness of the plot as well as Gene Hackman did. His name is Webster, played by Robert Vaughn, and he diet Luthor; same evil millionaire, half the interesting. It wouldn’t be as glaringly thin if Webster was puppet master for another villain like Metallo, or Parasite, or Toyman, but he’s the main bad guy…
Along with Richard Pryor.
Pryor’s role in this film is a bit of a sore spot for me. Richard Pryor was one of the funniest people to ever live, is still one of my comedic idols, and a huge influence for dozens upon dozens of comedians. So, being a huge fan of the stand-up legend, it is beyond painful to see him perform a character that is basically Jar Jar Binks… Yes I said it. There is nothing funny about his performance, every joke he makes is awkward and easy to predict, his timing is completely off, and he is the worst part of this movie. Maybe it was a terrible script and bad direction to blame, but honestly it doesn’t matter. The movie wasted a great talent on this performance. I suggest we find a way to edit him out of the movie as a benefit to Pryor’s legacy and not the Superman franchise.
Pryor’s role in the film is a bumbling computer genius named Gus who steals from Webster to try to make ends meet. Webster notices Gorman’s computer abilities and forces him to help with all the nefarious deeds. It’s worth repeating the plot is convoluted and unfocused. We’ve got the Smallville connection, Gorman’s story arc, Webster’s evil plot against Colombia, Gorman carrying out Webster’s evil deeds, Webster’s evil plot to get oil, Lana Lang as a potential love interest, Webster’s sister and his girlfriend/secretary/hooker included in the story, the creation of fake Kryptonite, Superman still saving people, and on top of all that, we have Superman becoming a jerk.
That’s right, the kryptonite Gorman and Webster create isn’t true kryptonite. It’s red kryptonite (except it isn’t actually red) and red kryptonite turns Superman into an asshole. After he gets exposed, Superman flies around blowing out torches, straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa (isn’t that a good thing though? I thought the tower was supposed to fall some time soon), sleeps with a woman, destroys a boat, and even gets drunk. This all leads to a showdown between the new, douche bag Superman, and his alter ego Clark Kent. Goodness eventually wins out over evil, and Superman is just the way he was.
Again, while the concept of Superman facing his alter ego is intriguing, there’s never a feeling that this conflict is taken seriously. We as an audience all know Superman will win and overcome his dark side. The first thirty minutes of the movie is of Superman being same old cookie cutter, American boy scout, and then when he becomes this jerk it just feels disingenuous and a desperate attempt for feigning interest. This is partly because, Superman never does anything that cruel except destroy an oil tanker. Maybe this is partly due to Christopher Reeve, we just can’t see him be a mean Superman partly due to the fact that we’ve seen him play the ultimate nice guy superhero. And of course, because the film goes back to the status quo, it makes the character less interesting. I never feel like Superman learned anything other than, “don’t touch any green rocks anyone gives me.”
The one plus this film has is that it’s a technical marvel just like the previous two. The flying scenes are nice to see and still very seemless, the practical effects make every stunt and action look realistic, and admittedly some of the action scenes (particularly the final climax) is fairly entertaining. Though they all raise a lot of logistical questions, the Superman films threw out logic a long time ago. Overall, this is definitely a Superman movie you can skip.
Next time, on the “Road to Batman V Superman” I look at the film that killed the Batman film franchise. That’s right kids, next on my list is Batman & Robin, starring everyone’s favorite Batman, George Clooney…. Crap.