Superman III (1983) / Action-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Annette O'Toole, Robert Vaughn, Annie Ross, Pamela Stephenson, Jackie Cooper, Mark McClure, Margot Kidder
Director: Richard Lester
Screenplay: David Newman, Leslie Newman
Review published June 19, 2004
Superman III is the first in the series without any trace of the guiding hands of director Richard Donner and acclaimed writer Mario Puzo, leaving the franchise completely in the hands of Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, Help!) and the Newmans, who set out to make the series into what the producers, the Salkinds, wanted to make them -- comedies. That would be all well and good, as many series run out of steam after the first movie or two, but Superman has lasted the test of time for decades in a variety of forms, so to change up the tone at this stage of the game isn't just changing the film series, it's contradicting 50 years of well-known mythology.
Another problem with this playing like a comedy: it's not very funny. Not even Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy), one of the most gifted stand-up comedians of all time can make it so. This script was obviously not drafted with Pryor in mind, as he mugs and flails desperately to infuse every scene he is in with moments of hilarity to no avail, since the script doesn't have any wit of its own.
Three more notable omissions: Gene Hackman takes a pass on returning as Superman arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, and Margot Kidder is relegated to a minor supporting character, both apparently very vocal at the firing of Donner before the second film was completed. Even great composer John Williams is replaced here for some songs by Giorgio Moroder.
Pryor plays Gus Gorman, jobless and out of options until he discovers an affinity for computers that ends up with his filching funds straight from the company he works for through his prowess for hacking. Ross Webster (Vaughn, BASEketball) is the megabuck millionaire owner of the company that sniffs him out, but rather than toss Gorman in prison, he sees the opportunity in him to make more millions for himself by using him to destroy the companies of his competitors. Then Superman interferes in the plans, Webster sees only one obstacle to complete financial domination, and he must kill the Man of Steel at all costs. Meanwhile, Clark Kent is in his hometown of Smallville for his high school reunion, where he draws the attention of the town's beauty, Lana Lang (O'Toole, 48 Hrs.).
Superman III is to the original DC Comics superhero what the "Batman" TV series of the 1960s was -- complete camp. As such, there are a few moments that are funny, most notably an inspired slapstick sequence to start off the film, plus a funny twist halfway through the film where Supes is exposed to a batch of bad "Kryptonite" that makes him a booze-swilling, misogynistic, bad guy. While not nearly the quality of the first two films in the series, as it is as contrived as can be, for the first 45 minutes or so, it's not half bad, entertainment-wise.
Then it starts to get ugly. Once Gorman concocts a scheme whereby he will control the world's most powerful computer, it's all downhill from there. All of the momentum, what little there is, is evaporated in the build-up to a showdown with Superman that turns this comedy into a distasteful, horrific sci-fi fiasco. Gone is much of the humor, the romance, and all semblance to respectability, in this cheapening of a trademark franchise into the lowest common denominator for paltry excitement.
Although I did admire a couple of the plot developments, and a good performance by Reeve playing a not-so-good version of himself, the bad elements far exceed the good. I think the creators of this dreck were exposed to their own version of bad Kryptonite, and the empty shell of a film that only resembles the outward appearance of its once mighty nature resulted. Even die-hard Superman completists probably opt to keep this out of their video collection. Watch Superman and Superman II and consider the series over.
©2004 Vince Leo