DIRECTOR: Richard Lester
May Contain Spoilers!
The last Superman movie to be produced my the Salkinds, with Supergirl (1984) ending their relationship once and for all, Superman III was let off the leash as it were and Christopher Reeve shed many of the tropes from the previous two films, whether directed by Richard Donner or not. But Richard Lester, of Superman II (Theatrical Version) was back, now free to bring his over the top sense of slapstick humour to the franchise in earnest.
This is where Superman’s third outing went wrong. Opening with a credits sequence set over a well choreographed slapstick sequence, which leads to the Man Of Steel’s entrance, sets the film’s tone, but in all fairness, if you take that down a notch, there’s more to Superman III than first appears.
Gone is Lex Luthor and in is Robert Vaughn’s (The Man From U.N.C.L.E) Webster, along with his sister Vera (Annie Ross) and lover Lorelie (Pamela Stevenson), who’s blond bimbo act is just that, as she tips her hands a few times during the movie. But this is as much a Richard Pryor comedy as it is a Christopher Reeve Superman blockbuster. But the plot, which takes Supes away from Metropolis for much of the run time, is well conceived, following multiple strands, including a simple super-villiany scheme to control the price of coffee, and then oil by using computers, which back in 1983 could absolutely ANYTHING, to hack into satellites and what not.
In the course of all this, Superman becomes infected with a poorly manufactured composition of Kryptonite, which is effectively the same as Red Kryptonite as for the effects. For a time he becomes evil, dark and is only cured by the famous scrap-yard confrontation in which Superman splits into his two halves, the other being Clark Kent and they fight it out, with the good Superman winning out.
It all ends up in a fight in the Grand Canyon at the site of a super-computer designed by Pryor’s Gus Gorman and is good fun, but all in all, this is not epic Superman, it’s just fun action Superman. But is that a bad thing? Well, it all depends on what Superman is to you. I love the dark, brooding Christ-like superhero, the savour but Superman has been many things in his 75 year history and Superman III is a throw-back to the simpler, lighter character who is distant from the one established in the 1978 epic, which is arguably responsible for the serious comic movies which we enjoy today.
Before Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), the genre was a joke and this is the direction which Lester was taking the franchise. The jokes were well handled but many were in the wrong movie and the screenplay wasn’t bad at all, just would have been better served with the stupidity of the humour. But not all the jokes were bad and there are some genuine laughs.
But Christopher Reeve plays his role well, often typecast as Superman up until his tragic accident in 1993, he was a very decent actor, capable of handling the split personalities of bumbling Clark Kent and the charismatic boy-scout, Superman as well as making it look easy. Well, it isn’t.
Many will consider this the last of the Superman movies, others a step too far, with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987) being all but dismissed, unfairly might I add. But it’s not always the case that a film must live up to its promise to be enjoyable. Not every film is The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975) or The Dark Knight (2008) but it is often the case that we judge these failures harshly.
Superman III is a step down in class from the first two, but as a child, I loved it! And now, watching it back after 30 years, I still find it to be enjoyable for what it is. Yes, the logic of Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) skiing off a skyscraper is ludicrous but the dark Superman stuff, the action packed conclusion and the Clark Kent’s story of returning to Smallville were all well-played.
Just sit back and enjoy it. Try to pick it apart all you want, it almost unravels in your hands but so will so many films. And Superman IV isn’t half as bad as you remember it either…