THE HISTORY OF DC COMICS ON FILM
PART 6 – SUPERMAN III
For part 6 of our journey through DC Comics on film, we come to a film that is loved and hated in equal measure, Superman 3!! Released in 1983 on a $39 million dollar budget, its $80 million dollar box office take was a step down from the first two Superman films, and the critical reaction was also a far cry from the lavish praise heaped upon those two wonderful movies. Directed by Richard Lester and produced once again by the Salkind family, all the elements were in place to continue along the path set by Richard Donner’s initial masterpiece, with the majority of the principal cast returning to reprise their roles. The initial story treatment was to see Brainiac and Mr Mxyzptlk as the villains and the introduction of Supergirl to the franchise, although those lofty plans were eventually scrapped (Supergirl was to debut in her own film the following year). Instead, the film takes a different path, with a very comedic tone employed at times to understandably utilise the talents of the great Richard Pryor. Despite that shift, there are at least two moments in this film that I consider to be absolute classic scenes, albeit for very different reasons! More on that later….
Gus Gorman discovers a talent for computer programming, and is hired at Webscoe. Gus embezzles from his employer, bringing him to the attention of his boss, Ross Webster. Webster is intrigued by Gus’s potential to help him rule the world financially. Joined by sister Vera and “psychic nutritionist” Lorelei Ambrosia, Ross blackmails Gus into helping him with his nefarious plans .Infuriated by Colombia’s refusal to do business with him, Ross orders Gus to command Vulcan, an American weather satellite, to create a tornado to destroy Colombia’s coffee crop for the next several years. Though Vulcan creates a devastating storm, Ross’s scheme is foiled when Superman neutralises it, saving the harvest. Ross orders Gus to use his computer knowledge to create Kryptonite, so Gus uses Vulcan to analyse Krypton’s debris; he discovers that one of the elements of Kryptonite is an “unknown” compound, and substitutes it with tar (pure guesswork!).
Superman becomes depressed, upset, and casually destructive, committing petty acts of vandalism, such as blowing out the Olympic Flame, and straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This is due to his exposure to the synthetic Kryptonite, instead of hurting him it turns him into a selfish, cruel person. (Maybe this makes him more human than ever?….)
Gus, feeling used, gives Ross crude plans for a supercomputer and Ross agrees to build it in return for Gus creating an oil embargo by directing all oil tankers to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean until further notice. When the captain of one tanker insists on maintaining his original course, Ross has Lorelei seduce Superman into waylaying the tanker and breaching the hull, causing a massive spill of oil into the ocean.
Superman goes on a drinking binge, is overcome by guilt, and suffers a nervous breakdown. In a junkyard, Superman splits into two personas: the immoral, corrupted Superman and the moral, righteous Clark. They engage in a battle, ending when Clark strangles his evil identity. Restored to his normal self, Superman repairs the damage his counterpart caused. Then, off we go to Glen Canyon for SUPERMAN vs SUPERCOMPUTER!!
This film is an absolute tour de force for Christopher Reeve in my opinion. In addition to reprising his pitch perfect portrayal of Superman/Clark Kent, he also gets to flex his acting muscles when portraying the corrupted Superman. Snarling, cruel and violent, the character is a complete about face from the classic Superman, and he manages to genuinely convey a sense of danger through his performance. This brings me to one of the key moments I touched upon earlier, when Clark’s true and just nature emerges from the corrupt shell of the Man of Steel for a scrapyard smackdown. One of the absolute greatest fight scenes ever committed to celluloid, as much for the acting as the choreography, it is truly genius. I defy anybody not to punch the air when Clark finally gets the upper hand at the end of the confrontation. Watch below and enjoy.. Classic Moment number 1!
Richard Pryor is great fun in the film as Gus Gorman, the misguided and ultimately redeemed antagonist. Lighting up the screen whenever he is on camera, his comedy genius is undeniable. I do think that he feels somewhat shoehorned in, as perhaps the producers were casting him for his star power rather than his suitably for a part in the Superman universe. Nevertheless, Pryor is great fun to watch. However, he does feature in the most ridiculous scene in the film, as Gus goes off the top of a skyscraper, on skis, wearing a pink sheet round his neck, and lands on his feet like it was nothing! (Yes, really!)
Robert Vaughn is typically smooth and charismatic as Ross Webster, the evil CEO hellbent on world domination. It does feel as though his character is a second rate substitute for Hackman’s Lex Luthor though, as he seems to share the same philosophy without having the same gravitas. Annie Ross is suitably sour faced as his sister Vera, sharing his evil ambition but not his charm (more on her later).
Margot Kidder is back as Lois Lane of course, but is barely in the film, featuring in just two scenes at both ends of the film. Her absence is explained by her travelling to Bermuda for a vacation. Behind the scenes, popular theory has it her role was drastically cut down due to her vocal criticism of the Salkinds for their firing of Richard Donner during production of the first two films. This has been denied by Ilya Salkind, but conspiracy theories still endure. Love interest is provided by Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang, Clark’s high school crush that reenters his life when he attends his high school reunion in Smallville. She provides a lovely performance, as she and Clark grow closer. It is a nice juxtaposition with Lois, who is smitten with Superman but not Clark, whilst Lana is the complete opposite. On a side note, I would love to know where Lana is during the events of Superman IV, as this film concludes with her taking a job as Perry White’s secretary, and wearing a lovely sparkler on her finger courtesy of Clark. What happened after that, did she and Clark fall out and she fled back to Smallville? Of course, in later years she became a permanent fixture in the Smallville TV series, playing Martha Kent to great effect.
The tone of this film is such a mixed bag. It varies from slapstick comedy to moments of real darkness. For every skyscraper ski jump, there is the scrapyard super-powered fight. It flits between the two extremes, almost as if the filmmakers couldn’t quite decide what tone they wanted to consistently use as a through line for the film. A prime example of the diversity on offer is the film’s opening scene couple with the transformation of Vera into a cyborg. The opening scene of the film is a seemingly endless array of sight gags involving a blind man, exploding wind-up penguins (Batman reference?) and Benny Hill style pratfalls galore. Set to a jaunty score, it is quite bizarre..
At the other end of the spectrum, the transformation of Vera into a lethal cyborg, whilst a bit hokey by today’s standards, petrified me as a child, and still does to this very day! A real hide behind the sofa moment, it chilled me to the bone!! Watch below if you dare, classic moment number 2!…
This film has been given a rough ride over the years, by critics and fans alike. I feel that a lot of that is justified, as it rides roughshod over the magnificence of Superman I and II by over egging the comedy pudding. It does have some moments of brilliance in there too, which can be enjoyed over and over again, perhaps in isolation though. Reeve is perfect of course, cementing his reputation as the best live action Superman to date. A real hodgepodge of a film, it’s not the nadir of Superman IV of course, but it is very up and down. Enjoy it for what it is, a mix of lightweight froth and dark gravitas, that doesn’t quite balance the scales. But hey, it is Superman after all, so they have my money no matter what!!!
In the next history of DC Comics on Film…..Supergirl!