I spent the last couple of blog posts talking about the production difficulties that went with Superman II. Well, those production difficulties even bled into the production for Superman III. Both Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor) and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) were angry about the way the father and son Salkinds duo treated Richard Donner. Hackman went as far as to refuse to reprise his role as Lex Luthor, even for Superman II. Kidder publically criticized how they treated, and eventually fired, Donner. It’s rumored that this is why she only has a cameo performance in Superman III. However, in a 2006 DVD commentary for Superman III, Ilya Salkind denied any ill will between him and Kidder, and they just wanted to take Clark Kent’s love interests in a different direction. That said, these problems even seemed to affect Reeve, who not only declined to appear in the Supergirl movie, but was very reluctant to star in Superman IV.
While David and Leslie Newman were involved in the writing process for Superman I and II, Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz for heavy rewrites, as he generally didn’t like the Newman scripts. Without Donner or Mankiewicz involved, the Newmans handled all of the writing for Superman III. Commenting on Mankiewicz’s contributions, Christopher Reeve said in his autobiography that the Newmans’ script would have risked having Superman earn a reputation similar to Batman being associated with the campy 60’s show. “In one scene in that script, Superman would be in pursuit of Lex Luthor, identified by his bald head, and grab him, only to realize he had captured Telly Savalas who would remark ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ and offer Superman a lollipop. Dick [Donner] had done away with much of that inanity.”
The initial treatment for Superman III is very different from what we got. It would have included Braniac, Mister Mxyzptlk, and Supergirl. Mxyzptlk would differ greatly from his good natured comic counterpart, and would use his strange abilities to cause serious harm. In the same treatment, Braniac had discovered Supergirl the same way that the Kents discovered Superman, and acted as a surrogate father to her. He eventually fell in love with Supergirl, but she instead fell in love with Superman. Warner Bros did not like this treatment. Considering it flips the morality of Mxyzptlk and Braniac, while making Superman and Supergirl love interests when in the comics, they’re cousins, I can fully understand why Warner Bros wanted nothing of it.
After an appearance on The Tonight Show, where comedian Richard Pryor mentioned how much he enjoyed watching Superman II, the Salkinds quickly cast him in a major role. This came hot off the heels of Pryor’s success in Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, and The Toy (directed by Richard Donner by the way). They also cast Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang, Robert Vaughn as Ross Webster (a greedy industrialist), and Annie Ross as Vera Webster (Ross’s even more evil sister). Meanwhile, Richard Lester directed the entire movie instead of only directing reshoots as he did with Superman II. Ken Thorne also returned to compose the soundtrack, as he did for the Superman II theatrical cut. The original themes in the soundtrack for this movie is noticeably better than what he added to Superman II.
As with the first two movies, most of the interior scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios near London. The junkyard fight was filmed on Pinewood’s backlot. Most other exterior shots were filmed in Calgary, Alberta, mostly thanks to Canada’s tax breaks for film companies. The climactic fight against a supercomputer was filmed specifically on the 007 Stage at Pinewood, while the exteriors were shot at Glen Canyon in Utah. There are also a couple of computer animated shots made by Atari, which at the time was owned by Warner.
Superman III ended up earning $80 million on a $39 million budget. A movie usually needs to make back twice its budget to be financially successful, so judging by that standard, this movie barely made it. It also received generally negative reviews, with a 30% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 4.6/10. A common complaint among the critics noted the overabundance of slapstick humour, an annoying performance by Pryor, and the villain being an inferior version of Lex Luthor. Imagine magazine’s review expanded on this,
“What ultimately spoils the fun in Superman III is not the incoherent story or even the technophobia. It is simply overloaded – too many ideas, too many gadgets, too many stars … the writing all comes loose at the end; an anticlimax, and a rushed one at that.”
Fans of the Superman series put a lot of blame on Richard Lester. Lester had directed popular comedies in the 60’s, including The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. His Three Musketeers series and Superman II had also been better received, but they too were criticized for excessive sight gags and slapstick comedy.
As for my own thoughts, well … let me start by showing you video of the opening scene in Superman.
It’s an atmospheric opening that gives you a taste of John Williams’ brilliant soundtrack, followed by a dignified scene involving Jor-El sentencing Zod and his followers to the Phantom Zone. Superman II starts with a shortened version of that same scene, but here are clips from the first original scene in each version of Superman II.
As much as the Theatrical cut of Superman II does have unnecessary slapstick, the opening is still carries a relatively serious tone. The Donner cut actually takes a bit more of a playful, comedic tone when the rest of the movie is more serious and dramatic, but it’s still relatively dignified.
Superman III on the other hand, well … just watch.
That opening showcases almost everything wrong with Superman III. It’s more of a comedy than anything else, and it’s a bad one at that. But there’s also not a whole lot of Superman in the movie. It’s more about Pryor’s character, Gus Gorman, than it is about Clark. There’s even a scene where Gus falls off the roof of a skyscraper while wearing skis, but he somehow survives. The whole thing is played off as a lame joke.
As much as Pryor was a comedic legend, and is among the few comedians who successfully translated that into a successful film career, his character in Superman III is unlikeable and annoying. He doesn’t really learn that much from his mistakes. It’s not like his acting is bad, but the directing behind his acting just doesn’t work with his style.
On top of that, major plot points are very poorly explained. There’s a synthetic Kryptonite created in the movie that starts turning Superman bad, but at one point he inexplicitly splits into two, his evil Superman half and his good Clark Kent half. They proceed to physically fight each other, and when one wins, the other simply disappears. Nothing about this is explained. Nothing about this makes any sense. There are two alternate types of Kryptonite that do each of those (red and black), but this synthetic kryptonite is still green. It gives the impression that nobody on the production team understood Superman lore that well.
Like the Lester footage of Superman II, Superman also uses a bunch of powers he’s never had in the comics, in fact it’s worse here. Stuff like being able to put a bunch of leaked oil back into a ship with his breath alone, as if that can somehow movie oil without moving the water it’s in. He reflects energy beams with his hands again. Also, despite the fact that Gus works with the villains, and he tried to kill Superman at one point, at the end of the movie he recommends that a mine hires him to work at the computer. Yeah, because being a reference for a super criminal won’t look bad on you at all, especially after your recent selfish behavior because of the synthetic kryptonite. You don’t know him – he hasn’t proven any level of redemption to you.
The story makes no sense whatsoever. It seems to buy into an idea seen in a lot of bad movies from the 80’s and early 90’s, where people seemed to think computers can do anything. The villains use a weather satellite to create super storms. Gus uses a random computer in Smallville to affect financial records, traffic signals (in the 80’s, where they weren’t yet connected to any kind of network), and stocks. On that note, Gus starts the movie off being chronically unemployed, with very little computer experience, yet somehow lands a job as a computer programmer without any education. Not only that, but he’s a complete natural who starts boosting his paycheck via hacking within minutes, and even creates blueprints for a computer that can do “whatever I tell it to do.”
This supercomputer ends up having defences that are even a danger to Superman, and turns a useless bit character into a deadly cyborg.
Yet despite all of this movie’s problems, there are things that work quite well in Superman III. When the movie takes its time to feature a dramatic moment between Clark and his high school crush, Lana Lang, it’s genuinely charming. It’s kind of nice to see a woman who likes Clark for who he is instead of having a crush on Superman like Lois does. It feels cheapened after knowing the production problems in the first two movies and the suspicions behind Lois’s reduced role, but judging the movie on its own, these scenes are well acted and well written.
Reeve’s performance as Superman is fantastic as always. In fact, this might be his best overall performance in this series. He’s got a lot of charisma. He does use his clumsy persona as Clark Kent in strategic ways, some of which even lead to moments that are at least mildly amusing instead of being just another lame attempts at comedy. Last but not least, he is very convincing, and even kind of terrifying, as a selfish and even somewhat evil Superman. These scenes also show off more of Reeve’s range, while the movie still gives time to show Clark being himself, and good Superman saving people.
Superman III is my least favourite entry in the Reeve Superman movies, even if Superman IV is much worse from a quality standpoint. It’s a mess of a movie with too many story ideas and not enough explanation between them. It focuses too much on a group of characters ranging from forgettable to annoying. The comedic tone mixed with lame slapstick comedy makes for a movie with an uneven tone. Last but not least, the movie doesn’t feature enough Superman. That said, it’s not without merits. It still gets the core of Superman’s character right, and Reeve is brilliant as ever in the role. O’Toole is also good as Lana Lang. She’s not as spunky or as daring as Lois, but she’s kind and caring, yet knows when it’s time to stand up for herself. O’Toole later returned to play Martha Kent in the Smallville TV series.
When you put it all together, I find this movie just ok. As much as the original treatment sounds like it could be a disaster, it kind of feels like there are elements of a Braniac plot in the supercomputer climax. If they had been able to get along with Donner, or at least tolerated him and kept him on Superman, perhaps we could have gotten Braniac as the main villain in Superman III, even forcing Superman and Lex Luthor to work together to defeat him. Wouldn’t that be something – rivals forced to combine their efforts for an extinction level threat. But instead, we got Gus doing impossible things with computers and Superman barely being involved in the main story.
I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, even if you enjoyed the first two movies, but I won’t tell anyone not to watch it either. I won’t go so far as to call it a bad movie, but it is a failed comedy, and that tends to be the worst kind of bad movie. Yet Reeve is so good as Superman that even if he’s not in the movie as much as he should be, he alone helps make up for this movie’s many shortcomings.
Next up is Supergirl, which is even more of a mess than Superman III, followed by the legendarily bad Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. Then we’ll begin the Batman Quadrilogy, starting with the two Tim Burton directed movies starring Michael Keaton. At some point we’ll also look at Steel, starring Shaq, and a movie I’m dreading the concept of watching again, Catwoman.