Superman III – Review Redux
I know now why I hate this movie so much. I’ve watched it so many times over the years and just accepted that it sucked. It sucked because Richard Pryor was sadly miscast. It sucked because the humor was aimed at the pre-school level. It sucked because the villain is a lame retread of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. It sucked. It sucked. It sucked.
But most of all, it sucked because it wasn't about anything. It had NO story to tell. It had a lot of plot. It had several action scenes. But when you add them all together, they meant absolutely nothing.
In Superman: The Movie, aside from the great origin story, Superman romances Lois Lane for the first time, while Lex Luthor plots to essentially create a whole new west coast of the United States (Lexifornia?) with the help of some nukes. When Lex’s plot goes into full swing, Superman has his hands full trying to put everything right and save as many people as he can. But even a Superman can’t save everyone, now he must decide whether to disobey his Kryptonian father’s edict that he never interfere in human history. Conflict and drama!
In Superman II, Lois finally learns Clark’s secret but to be with her Clark has to give up being Superman forever. Meanwhile, Kryptonian exiles General Zod and his posse show up and decide to make Earth a new Krypton, with themselves as absolute rulers. What can a powerless Clark do now? More conflict and drama! (Yes, Superman II is ultimately undone by having part of the film be by Richard Donner's hand and part remade by Richard Lester, but that's a debate for another review.)
What is Superman III about? The Clark/Lois/Superman triangle is given a rest this time out, and Lois is only given a brief cameo. Lana Lang is the new love interest for Clark, but they have an instant mutual attraction, so there’s no conflict there. Town drunk Brad is after Lana, but she fends him off easily, and with nothing to keep her and her weird son in Smallville, Lana quickly and easily makes the move to Metropolis. There’s no conflict between Lana and Brad, or between Brad and Clark for Lana’s affections.
When Superman is infected by the Camel Cigarettes-brand kryptonite he’s turned into a jerk who sleeps with Robert Vaughn’s buxom blond gf, pops a hole in an oil tanker and straightens the Leaning Tower. He’s later shown in a bar getting drunk and pinging peanuts so hard they hit bottles like bullets. There’s a brief Daily Planet headline shown once that announces to the world that Superman is now a Superjerk, but so what? Superman should have become EVIL. He should have become another General Zod out to rule the world. Instead he’s merely a prick who can’t hold his liquor, and he's a bit of a prankster. What’s next tagging moving subway cars? Big effing deal. The sequence in the junkyard when Superjerk fights Clark Kent really doesn’t add up to much because there wasn’t anything there in the movie to begin with! (The poor schmuck vendor at the Leaning Tower had more conflict that Superman, having his whole business turned upside down (or just straightened out).)
A better writer would have made Superman III about something. Clark would have had to compete with Brad for Lana’s affections. Brad wouldn’t be a drunk (why was he one anyway?); he would be a really nice guy, just like Clark, to make Lana’s decision more difficult. (But as Clark will always be Superman, in the end he would want Lana to be happy and he’d have to let her go. Loneliness is a price Superman has to pay to be who he is.) When Superman is infected by the synthetic kryptonite, he’d want to rule the world - he’d take over Metropolis to start. He would make the people worship him. The gods of old were always demanding tribute from the people; evil Superman would be no different. When – if – evil Superman saves someone, he’d make them pay him for his services; if they resist, he’d take what he wants anyway. He’d humiliate people, he’d make them grovel, like Zod did (maybe he'd "parole" Non and, especially, Ursa to be his sidekicks). The people would hate him, and when he fights off the effects of the kryptonite, Superman would have to withstand the slings and arrows of misfortune and do what he does best, and get the people to love him again.
More than any other film in the series, Superman III feels like a comic book or cartoon, in that the character is simply presented with an obstacle and he has to overcome it. That’s it. There’s nothing at stake emotionally for the characters; they have nothing to gain or lose personally. Watch a Filmation Superman cartoon from the 1960s on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. They are all the same: evil scientist/alien/supervillain wants to rule/destroy Metropolis/the world/the earth with bombs/destructo-ray/aludium-pew-36-explosive-space-modulator (also, they usually kidnap Lois/Jimmy/Perry), and Superman has to save Lois/Jimmy/Perry and stop the threat. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Superman didn’t have a story arc in Superman III. Richard Pryor’s character Gus Gorman had the story arc. He started as an unemployed guy, became a master computer programmer (yeah, back in ’83 they thought programmers were just like computer operators!), went to work for the bad guy, came up with the Office Space accounting scheme, created the synthetic kryptonite, designed the supercomputer (that looked like the 1960s Batman TV show's Batcave on steroids), learned the error of his ways, and helped save Superman and the world.
Superman III should have been titled Gus Gorman: The Movie.