Comic Book Movies 101: Superman III

Now in my estimation this is the most underappreciated comic book movie ever made.  You would be right to think it isn’t as dramatic or powerful as the first two. It’s even a very dated compared to the technology we have today (although ahead of its time back in 1983). But as an enjoyable romp – it was far better than it had a right to be.

Yes Richard Pryor made it more of a comedy, but the guy is funny – and watching his twitchy performance from unemployed through to corporate stooge is entertaining. And yes I love the fact that he manages to ski off a skyscraper roof top (followed by a hilarious yell as he falls) and somehow manages to land on his feet (wandering off (skies still intact) with a whistle and his hands in his pocket). And yes I think the scene where he has to gain access to a computer system, and therefore has  to get the security guard drunk (Gavin O’Herlihy on sleaze-ball form) is hilarious. How can you not laugh at the electronic country music with Pryor wearing the biggest, dumbest hat in history!

I think the opening of this film is what sells the picture. There is an elongated scene in the streets with all sorts of bits and bobs going on as we see the likes of Jimmy, Kent and Pamela Stephenson’s character on the streets.  The perm haired blonde seems to attract the attention of most men she passes and then causes them to get into all kinds of John Hughes syndrome clashes with the world around them. So it’s a funny opening credit sequence. And you now know what you are in for as far as tone goes.

So if you divorce all thought of the first two, this third film is an enjoyable experiment, and one that pays off when you accept the lighter tone. Even the trio of villains play off each other in dysfunctional beauty. And an odd bunch of actors to put together too! Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, The Man from Uncle), Annie Ross (a professional Jazz Singer) and Pamela Stephenson (now married to Billy Connelly and working as a sex therapist).

The film is criticised for being too dumb and not dramatic. But there are two strong threads here that offer plenty of drama. The first being Clark Kent’s return to Smallville and his encounter with Lana Lang (Lois Lane, Lana Lang – I did get confused). But surprisingly the relationship these two spark up is very natural – and did shock me that after Lana moves to the city at the end of the flick that they didn’t continue with something. In fact, from this universe, she all but disappears. No sign of her in part 4! Nevermind – her kid was a whiney little runt.

The other thread is when Richard Pryor delivers a gift to Superman (intended to be kryptonite that should kill him) which turns Superman’s mind slowly to the side of evil. We see his mental state slowly deteriorate as he starts showing up late for work, bends buildings the wrong way, blows out Olympic torches, knocks holes in oil tankers and flicks peanuts in a bar at the display bottles. He even gets jiggy with one of the female villains.

And usually when someone has a mental issue it is up to them to sort themselves out – and this happens when he finally has a breakdown in a junkyard and his personality literally splits open and we wind up with two of them onscreen. But to make things more interesting you have Superman in one corner – representing the bad; and opposite we have Clark Kent on the side of good. We may laugh when actors are forced to fight themselves onscreen; but honestly – this is probably my all time favourite – as we get to see Superman be bad and Clark Kent be Badass. Some critics find it ludicrous the way these two fight each other  (throwing tyres around each other and the like). But I’d say there are some harsher moves on display (like getting subjected to the crusher, or thrown into a vat of acid – hardly child’s play). And the finishing move of it all with an enraged Clark Kent throttling his badder half to literally nonexistence is a film highlight. You’ve never seen Kent look pissed before, and boy does he! And on that note, after he regains his posture, he whips open that shirt to reveal a fresh logo and then off he goes to face down the bad guys.

And we are off to the Grand Canyon it seems for a high-tech ending. Well… for 1983 it is anyway. Yes the ending of Superman III is probably even more ridiculous that the first two. At the time it was perhaps more lo-key but advanced in terms of technology – now it is just terrible. Although a shout out to Annie Ross for the moment she is taken over by the machine and transformed into a robot version of Robot Smith. It gave me a terrible fright when I saw it at the tender age of 7 at the cinema; which was only topped a year or two later when I got round to seeing The Omen (ironically, made by Superman director Richard Donner).

So all is well again – but audiences were left a bit let down. Fair enough, but I’ll always defend this film. I think watching it down the years has kept the joy in my head. I think if I left it from then until now I would have a similar opinion to others today. You have to keep watching those films from your youth down the years if you are to retain your love for them (Especially the bad ones!). Anything you leave for too long you will come back to with sterner vision.

Steven Hurst

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