Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 13, 2016

Recent Watches: Superman III (1983)

When the Salkinds chose not to invite Richard Donner back to finish “Superman II,” the future tone of the franchise from this point out had been determined. Camp and goofball comedy would reign. As promised in the end credits of part two, “Superman III” flew into theaters in 1983. Richard Lester would direct the entire production, insuring his goofball approach informed the entire movie. While early drafts had Superman fighting comic-based enemies like Mr. Mxyzptlk or Brainiac, the final film paired the Man of Steel up with a far more insidious threat: Richard Pryor.

The city of Metropolis remains under the protection of Superman, the world’s greatest hero. As mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, Superman finds a new objective. He returns to his childhood home of Smallville for his high school reunion, reuniting with sweetheart Lana Lang. Meanwhile, unemployed slacker Gus Gorman discovers he has a knack for computer programming. This catches the attention of Ross Webster, a ruthless CEO looking to get into supervillany. Webster and Gorman’s plots, which involve weather manipulation and overpowered super computers, soon catches the attention of Superman. The villian’s plan to get rid of the hero has Superman struggling against his dark side.

“Superman III” essentially tosses together a bunch of ideas for a sequel in a rather unorganized fashion. These range from Superman going evil, to Superman fighting an evil version of himself, to the evils of computers. Of these random ideas, one works the best. Clark Kent returns to Smallville. Allowing Chris Reeves to spend most of the movie in the Kent persona lets the actor play up his everyman qualities and his comedic timing. Annete O’Toole plays Lana Lang, Superman’s traditional second option love interest. O’Toole’s wholesome small town girl (and single mom) contrasts nicely against professional lady Lois Lane. Reeves and O’Toole have great chemistry together. This keeps goofy scenes, like Clark helping Lana’s kid bowl or Superman having dinner at her house, from getting too ridiculous. The love story is the heart of an otherwise rutterless film.

Coincidentally, a year after Richard Pryor starred in original “Superman” director Richard Pryor’s “The Toy,” Pryor would appear in “Superman III.” I’m not sure why the Salkinds thought the profane stand-up antics of Richard Pryor were a good fit for the family-friendly Superman series. Gus Gorman, a shiftless slacker happy to play the system to make a buck, is very much a Pryor character. His sudden computer expertise comes out of nowhere, as the character apparently has a natural knack for programming. Once again, Pryor’s comedic style is a rough fit for a movie. In “Superman III,” Gus randomly performs a few big gags. Such as a cringe-worthy military themed speech in Smallville, skiing off a skyscraper, or getting a security guard blind drunk. None of it is that funny and Pryor seems deeply uninterested in the material.

The Silver Age Superman comics had a proud tradition of the hero acting like an asshole. “Superman III” gives us some Superdickery on-screen. Gorman infects Supes with some synthetic kryptonite he’s cooked up. Suddenly, he acts like a dick. He’s ignoring traffic accidents, straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, puncturing a hole in an oil tanker, downing booze in a bar, and getting a booty call with the supervillain’s moll. This storyline climaxes when Superman flies into a junk yard. For some unexplained reason, he separates into an Evil Superman and a Good Clark Kent. Though we don’t know why this happens, the fight between the two Supermen is easily the highlight of the film. Superman drops Kent in a compactor, wacks him with a car fender, while they toss each other around. Aside from the action theatrics, this scene makes the point that both halves of Superman are necessary. Clark Kent’s humanity is what makes Superman a hero, not his massive abilities.

Despite forty years of comic books providing Superman with a proper rogues gallery, “Superman III” felt the need to invent a new villain. Robert Vaughn’s Ross Webster is an evil CEO, willing to break the law to dominate the coffee and oil industries. He has two female sidekicks. His sister, Vera, is overly strict. Pamela Stephenson’s Lorelei Ambrosia, meanwhile, shows off a lot of cleavage and acts like a femme fatale. Even though “Superman III” predates his transformation into an evil businessman, I suspect Webster’s role was filled by Lex Luthor in an earlier version of the script. After all, manipulating world supplies to make money is something Lex would do. He also already had a sexy female sidekick, in the form of Miss Treschmacher. Either way, Vaughn is an uninspired, uninteresting adversary.

Of course, Ross Webster and Richard Pryor aren’t even the real villains of “Superman III.” Instead, the real evil in the film are computers. Home computers were only beginning to enter the culture in 1983. Gus Gorman’s computing skills, with some assistance from satellites, can do just about anything. Like control the weather or redirected entire fleets of ships. This subtext – that computers will kill us all – becomes literal in the last act. Gorman and Webster build a giant, uber-powerful supercomputer. The machine intuitively understands anyone’s weakness, pulling a Kryptonite ray out of its ass. The computer later comes to life. In a moment that traumatized numerous kids, the computer assimilates Vera Webster, turning her into a weird robot. It ties up Superman with wires and cords. Since the script is so scattershot, it has to cobble together a proper threat for Superman to fight in the last act. It’s such a clear example of how poorly thought out a film “Superman III” is.

Even the special effects and music aren’t as good. “Superman III” has Christopher Reeves’ fantastically earnest performance and Annette O’Tool’s Lana Lang in its corner. Otherwise, it comes off as a sloppily assembled sequel, without much focus, assembling too many unrelated ideas. It doesn’t match up to “Superman: The Movie.” It doesn’t even match up to “Superman II.” Sadly, this wouldn’t be the low point for this particular incarnation of the franchise. [5/10]

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