Exploiting our Archives: Control Nathan and Clint: Superman III (1983)
Welcome, friends, to the latest installment in Control Nathan and Clint, the column where we give the thirty eight living saints who pledge to the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast Patreon page an opportunity to choose between two torments Clint and I must watch, then talk about, and that I will also write about for this here website.
The big motion picture in the multiplexes is of course Avengers: Infinity War. People were so excited that they finally made a movie about superheroes that it scored the top opening weekend of all time.
That, friends, is good. Quite good, in fact. So we decided that we’d offer patrons an opportunity to choose between two much dicier second sequels: the notorious 2004 flop Blade: Trinity and the little loved 1983 superhero romp Superman III.
Patrons chose Superman III, which I don’t think I’ve seen since I saw it in theaters as a seven year old boy. I could be misremembering, but I vaguely recall feeling insulted even at that age by the way the movie dumbed down Richard Pryor’s shtick to appeal to a target demographic of seven year old boys like myself the filmmakers seemed convinced couldn’t possibly be entertained solely by a movie about Superman (because, honestly, what boy likes Superman and wants to watch a movie about him?) and needed to really hedge their bets by having Richard Pryor do all manner of broad, kid-friendly shtick.
Superman III feels like the work of people deeply ashamed to be making a superhero movie in the first place, but particularly embarrassed to be making this juvenile romp. Superman III serves as a reminder that studios have been getting Superman egregiously wrong for a very, very long time.
Remove the wildly successful, influential and beloved first two entries in the Superman live-action saga and what do you have? 1983’s Superman III, of course, followed by the even more disastrous spin-off Supergirl. Then there’s Cannon’s famously bungled cheapo sequel 1987 Superman IV: Quest for Peace.
That marked the woeful end of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and a new era of equally misguided reboots. First Bryan Singer had the nifty idea of making a Superman movie that would be exactly like Richard Donner’s 1978 original, only nowhere near as good or fresh or well-liked in 2006’s Superman Returns.
The film’s title reflects its conceptual confusion: if it’s the first movie in a new series then how the hell can he be returning? Superman Returns made four hundred million dollars at the worldwide box office but that wasn't enough to prevent it from being rebooted yet again as 2010’s Man of Steel.
Zack Snyder's Man of Steel was followed by Snyder's even more hated Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the dud Justice League. That, friends, is a terrible track record. With the exception of Superman and Superman II, pretty much every single Superman movie has gotten mixed to screamingly negative reviews and been reviled by a good percentage of the public, particularly comic book fans.
Watching Superman III in 2018 in the shadow of Avengers: Infinity War’s extraordinary, record-breaking success is a surreal experience. On one level, the film's chilly reception reflected questions and issues and concerns we’re very much still dealing with today, particularly involving tone.
Do you treat this material as sacred Americana, solemn myth-making, or do you play up the absurdity of a dude in tights flying around the world thwarting evil-doers? Do you go serious and gritty or goofy and campy?
Superman III goes all in on wacky physical comedy. That’s not necessarily a problem. Batman Returns is an exceedingly dark comedy and one of my all-time favorite superhero movies. The problem is that Superman III overshoots wildly and ends up at a Batman & Robin level of kitsch that’s embarrassing to all involved, but particularly Richard Pryor.
Pryor is woefully miscast as August "Gus" Gorman, a bumbling, more or less unemployable everyman who can’t do anything right except that he’s also somehow the world’s greatest computer genius, a savant so unbelievably gifted at all things computer-related that in his hands computers become a form of magic that can control weather, turn people into robots and disrupt society in myriad bizarre and nonsensical ways.
So Pryor is essentially a big dummy who can’t do anything except that he can do everything when it comes to computers. Even more confusingly, he’s an amoral dude who does all manner of sinister things at the behest of his evil boss Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) but who hero-worships Superman (not unlike the way Gus' latter-day descendant Electro hero-worships Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and saves his life all the same.
So the character is an idiot except that he’s a genius and Superman’s biggest threat when he’s not saving Superman. Superman III doesn’t particularly seem to care that Pryor’s character is a sweaty, overwrought mess of contradictions held together with mugging, ad-libbing and frantic improvisation.
Superman III’s tonal issues feel very contemporary. Thirty five years later we’re still debating whether superhero movies are solemn myth-making or campy nonsense for children but Superman III’s complete disinterest in cross-promotion and synergy mark it unmistakably as a product of a bygone era.
Ten years of methodical, intense world-building went into Avengers: Infinity War. Superman III, in sharp contrast, feels like it would happily edit Superman out of proceedings except that the film’s title creates certain expectations.
So what legendary super-villain does the Man of Steel face off against here? Is it Lex Luthor? General Zod? Brainiac, maybe? What about that messed-up hulk Bizarro? Nope. Superman III decides that this superhero movie doesn’t need a villain from decades upon decades of Superman comics when it has such wonderful new creations as Vaughn’s Mexican, non-union Lex Luthor equivalent Ross "Bubba" Webster and Richard Pryor’s Magical Computer Genius Gus.
In a performance that screams “Gene Hackman wouldn’t return the producers’ calls”, Vaughn hams it up a megalomaniacal tycoon and Southern-fried buffoon who catches Pryor’s idiot-savant embezzling and blackmails him into using his computer super-genius to basically take over the planet for him, a process that involves everything from figuring out the exact composition of Kryptonite to hacking into a satellite to get it to control the weather.
At one point this overworked, under appreciated young man even has to pretend to be a jingoistic general in order to ceremonially present Superman with the Kryptonite-like stuff that temporarily makes him a huge asshole because apparently Vaughn is running a skeleton operation and Gus is not only a bumbling idiot somehow able to make computers do things they’ve never done before, he’s also his only henchman and accomplice and acquaintance so it falls on him to literally have to do everything.
Superman III subscribes to the curious logic that you should feature as few comic book characters as possible in a comic book movies (apparently imagining that comic book nerds want movies that look and feel nothing like the comics they know and love) and if you do, they should all be professional journalistic acquaintances of Clark Kent’s at his newspaper cover job, not legendary super villains or fan-favorite henchmen or fellow superheroes they can team up with.
So if you’re looking for Brainiac or Mister Mxyzptlk, fuck you, you’re out of luck. This isn’t that kind of comic book movie. It’s not the kind of comic book adaptation that likes or understands comic books. But if you want to see white haired fuck Perry White and his schemes to increase circulation of The Daily Planet, you’re in luck.
Forget tying the action of Superman III to a larger, all-encompassing D.C Cinematic universe: Superman III is barely a superhero movie. The film casts a clearly bored Reeve as a Clark Kent who wows his boss with the lamest pitch in the world: he wants to report on changes in small town life by writing about attending his high school reunion in Smallville.
In Smallville, Clark quietly, respectfully woos Lana Lang (Anette O’Toole), a single mother trying to steer clear of jerky ex-boyfriend Brad Wilson (Gavan O’Herlihy) and raise her painfully precocious moppet the right way.
O’Toole delivers a plucky and endearing performance, but the film’s decision to devote ample screen time to its sleepy portrayal of Clark Kent as a small-time romantic/low key MILF-hunter feels glaringly wrong all the same.
Reeve had an unmistakable Cary Grant quality. He was a beautiful, beautiful man with impeccable comic timing and a sly undercurrent of ingratiating dorkiness undercutting all that whole All-American gorgeousness that made him a natural for comedy. Alas, the only time Reeve doesn’t come off as hopelessly boring here is when Gus gives him some off-brand Kryptonite as a “gift” and the Man of Steel turns into the Amazing Flying Douchebag.
Superman gets drunk. He acts like a perv. He does super-obnoxious things just because he can. I’m not gonna lie: it’s kind of awesome. This is the only time when the filmmakers’ decision to “re-imagine” the Superman mythology as a stupid cartoon for dumb babies actually works.
Superman III director Richard Lester is no mere comedy director. Motherfucker made A Hard Day’s Night. That is some lifetime pass shit right there but his work here is astonishingly, distinctively, memorably terrible.
It’s hard to know where to begin. The first two Superman movies convinced audiences that a man could fly. So why are the special effects here so infinitely inferior to its predecessors? The essence of technology is that it is perpetually advancing. So why do the crowd scenes feel more like a later-day Godzilla movie than Superman and Superman II?
In full-on douche mode, Superman straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa just to be a dick, much to the aggravation of an out of focus Italian bit player cursed to be featured in some of the worst rear projection this side of an Elvis cheapie, whose expression powerfully conveys the sentiment, “Mama Mia! That flying paisano done straightened up the Tower of Pisa! That’sa spicy meatball!”
It’s a moment of eye-roll inducing clumsiness that pays off in an an even more brazenly hokey fashion when Superman tips the Tower back over once he’s come to his senses, once again aggravating the Leaning Tower of Pisa souvenir salesman that I have just decided is my all-time favorite character not just in the Superman universe, but in film history as a whole.
When will he finally get his own movie? I can't even imagine the kind of adventures that guy gets up to, super-powered or otherwise.
Lester is having a laugh and taking the piss out of Superman. Unfortunately, that’s the extent of his take on the material: having a laugh and taking the piss.
Sure, Clark Kent might cut an almost comically American figure else but here he’s a right proper lad who likes having a pint at the pub and scoping out dolly birds, like that Lana Lang, who might not be a Page 6 girl, but is easy on the eyes all the same.
If Lester seems bored with his titular superhero beyond his ability to behave like Charlie Sheen on a bender, it seems just as disinterested in its bad guys, Magical Computer Genius Doofus and Generic Rich White Guy With Evil Schemes.
It seems sadly appropriate that Superman III followed The Toy, another movie that was good for Pryor’s bank account and bad for his soul. Both films call upon a preeminent comic genius who oozes humanity and vulnerability to debase himself in exchange for money. Pryor’s uncomfortable bordering on tragic position as an actor bled into the character that he was playing in ways that are sad and painful without being revealing.
Superman III makes Pryor work up a sweat for his millions. He does a crazy white nerd voice! Now he’s wearing a silly hat and doing a silly voice! He’s doing a drunk act now, or maybe he really is drunk! Now he’s animatedly impersonating Superman with the guileless enthusiasm of a child!
Pryor isn’t just misused and miscast in a role that makes no sense as a good-bad genius-idiot; he’s actively terrible. It’s painful to see him try to sell this kind of dire material through energy and expressiveness alone.
I nominated Superman III because I thought it’d be your typical bloated and confused lesser sequel. I had no idea just how awful and insulting it would be. It’s a laughless, mirthless romp from a slumming legend whose campy, kitschy, brazenly over-the-top take on the superhero comedy unfortunately involved little in the way of super heroics or laughter.
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