Director: Richard Lester
With most successful film franchises, the quality of the sequels start to decline over time until the movies just outright suck or don't even register on the cinematic radar. Such is the case with Christopher Reeve's Superman quadrilogy. While Superman is fun yet somewhat forgettable and Superman II is absolutely awesome, the series began a decent past mediocrity into just plain bad with the release of Superman III in 1983. The movie proves that all the success of the previous two installments was thanks to Richard Donner and "creative consultant" Tom Mankiewicz. Donner's firing halfway through the filming of Superman II prompted the departure of both Mankiewicz and composer John Williams, but the movie was far enough into production that it was safe. Without Donner, Mankiewicz, and acclaimed writer Mario Puzo, father-and-son producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and director Richard Lester (who served as Donner's replacement during Superman II) decided to take the franchise in a completely different direction with Superman III, playing up comedy and camp instead of action and thrills. To borrow an analogy from another reviewer, the movies went from Sean Connery's James Bond to Timothy Dalton's James Bond in the span of two movies. Or perhaps a better analogy is like they went from Tim Burton's Batman to Joel Schumacher's Batman. Something like that.
Our story opens in a Metropolis unemployment office, where we meet August "Gus" Gorman (Richard Pryor). Thanks to thirty-six weeks of chronic unemployment and a severe inability to hold down a steady job, the unemployment office tells Gus he's on his own. He asks someone for a light on his way out, noticing an ad for a computer programming class on the matchbook. He follows up the ad by heading to the Arcibald School of Data Processing, where he soon realizes that he has a knack for computers. He apparently doesn't even know anything about computers, yet he becomes a master hacker when you put him in front of one. He's like Geoffrey Rush in Shine, only with crappy computers from the early '80s instead of pianos.
Gus soon scores himself a job as a computer programmer at WEBSCOE Industries, but is quite unhappy with the amount of money being deducted from his paycheck by taxes. He gets into a discussion with a coworker over the certain percentages taxes take out, and theorizes that there has to be fractions of cents left over. When his coworker says that the checks are rounded down to the closest "half cent," a light bulb goes off over Gus's head. Those "half cents" that aren't being paid to employees have to be floating around in the system, right? He sneaks into the computer mainframe and takes advantage of their bookkeeping snafus, sending all those leftover "half cents" to his own account and earning himself over $85,000 on his next paycheck. If the "stealing half-cents" thing sounds familiar, the same thing was done to much better effect in Office Space.
Okay, folks, here's some advice: If you ever start embezzling thousands of dollars from your employer, start small. Don't go buying a Lamborghini or Ferrari right out of the gate, or someone will get suspicious. I guess ol' Gus didn't get that advice, because his embezzlement draws the attention of WEBSCOE Industries chief Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). Rather than fire Gus or have him arrested, the insanely wealthy Webster sees the chance to make himself even wealthier. He employs Gus's computer skills to help him engage in some competitor elimination, such as leaving oil tankers stranded in the middle of the ocean and destroying a rival coffee crop in Columbia. And how a weather satellite can be used to create massive tornadoes in Central America, I'll never know. But standing in the way of Webster's plan is only one problem: Superman (Christopher Reeve). Webster lays down an order for his butch sister Vera (Annie Ross) and Gus to find a way to kill Superman and allow his shady business procedures to go off without a hitch. Since they know our hero is fatally allergic to Kryptonite, Gus utilizes some satellite technology to scour deep space and analyze a hunk of the green stuff. Since it's out in deep space and might not even float through the Milky Way, Gus analyzes the elements that comprise said Kryptonite... and comes up with an unknown variable as an ingredient. Not having any idea what the unknown portion is, he just substitutes tobacco tar to fill in the gaps and comes up with a reasonable facsimile of Kryptonite.
But Superman has got stuff going on out of town. Clark Kent has returned to home to Kansas so he can attend Smallville High's "class of 1965" reunion. And Clark's pretty smart too, since he scammed the Daily Planet into paying the expenses for his trip by saying he was going to write a human interests piece on it. He's super AND clever. Comically unable to dance and bored to tears by an old teacher who won't shut up, Clark soon finds himself face-to-face with his old high school flame Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole). A single mom after her recent divorce, it's blatantly obvious Clark was her "one who got away." She and Clark begin catching up on old times while he tries to bond with her young son Ricky (Paul Kaethler), while a former classmate named Brad Wilson (Gavin O'Herlihy) keeps putting the moves on Lana every chance he gets. Brad's a raging alcoholic and womanizer that keeps hearkening back to his high school glory days, sort of like if Al Bundy was drunk all the time.
But Lana is undeterred, especially after Ricky warms up to Clark when he learns Clark knows Superman. Lana asks Clark to get Superman to appear at Ricky's birthday party, and when Superman arrives in Smallville, the town throws a big celebration and presents him with the key to the city. Disguised as representatives from the Army, Gus and Vera interrupt the ceremony and give Superman the hunk of synthetic Kryptonite. The fake Kryptonite doesn't kill him, but it does have some unforeseen results that work in Webster's favor. Superman goes from "Superman" to "Superjerk," straightening the Leaning Tower of Piza and blowing out the Olympic torch. He even causes a massive oil spill and becomes a boozing Don Juan. Superman's downfall culminates at a junkyard, where for some reason, he somehow (and I don't know how he did it, either) splits into two different people: the evil Superman and the good Clark Kent. Ever see that one episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk ends up getting split into two people, one good and one evil? It's like that. The two brawl all over the junkyard, but Clark finally chokes out Superman and they merge back into one person. Our movie finally climaxes as Superman storms the gigantic subterranean supercomputer that Gus and Webster have built in the Grand Canyon.
Superman fights the computer, he wins, and everybody goes home happy... except for the audience. The first thing I can say is that at least Superman III is better than Superman IV. But that's like saying a punch to the jaw is better than a kick to the groin. They're both bad, but it's just the lesser of two evils. As a comedy, it's not very funny, and as an action movie, it's not very exciting. There's a horrible script, bad effects (being able to see the wires used to help Superman fly is not good), and ho-hum direction. Richard Lester has directed great films in the past, but it seems here like he has a creative brainfart. Similar to his work on movies like the Beatles vehicle A Hard Day's Night, the movie opens with a slapstick montage that serves as one of the most inane opening credit sequences ever. The bottom half of the frame blurs out of focus when each credit appears, making the credits difficult to read while obscuring any of the details of the action going on behind the distortion. The opening sequence is all action, so why would you want to distort what you're trying to highlight?
And how about David and Leslie Newman's script? Who told them it was a good idea to have "WALK" and "DON'T WALK" street signs get into a fistfight? And did anyone tell them that weather satellites can't create weather, only monitor it? Even if the movie's lead character is an alien with superpowers, they could at least TRY to have a little realism. And the Evil Superman bit, which I would have made the focal point of the movie, is relegated to a short subplot and is resolved rather quickly. Evil Superman, like I said, is really very juvenile at first. He's like an elementary school bully. While blowing out the Olympic torch is a crappy thing to do, I'm sure we've all thought about it once. And straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa? I would have done that as Good Superman, so I don't see what the big deal is. The only knocks against the Vertical Tower of Pisa would be that it puts a dent in tourism and stops those goofy "holding up the Leaning Tower" pictures everyone seems to take. You know the ones.
The only real standout of the movie is the acting. Once again, Christopher Reeve is great here. If there's anything I'm sure of, it's that Chris Reeve is the glue that holds the Superman movies together, and Superman III is no exception. His turn as Evil Superman is fun, even though he seems, like I said, juvenile at first. But once he declares he's out of the heroism business, it's a whole new ballgame. The blues and reds in his costume grow darker, his hair becomes more unkempt, and he starts sporting a wicked five o'clock shadow. I don't know if that was the idea of the writers, but it's genius. Reeves takes the opportunity to become a surly jackass, and he's just plain awesome in those moments. Annette O'Toole is very good and very likeable, as well. She has a great "girl next door" vibe, and I found her to be a much more effective female lead than Margot Kidder. What's funny is that here, O'Toole plays someone who has stayed in Smallville all her life... and then she ends up as Ma Kent on Smallville. Talk about life imitating art. Back on Margot Kidder for a second. You may be wondering why she's only in two scenes in the entire movie. Quick answer: Ms. Kidder was very vocal in her displeasure that Richard Donner was replaced during Superman II, so the Salkinds rewarded her with minimal screen time in the next movie. And that's that.
Meanwhile, Richard Pryor is appallingly miscast. He's one of the funniest and most influential standup comedians ever, but he's stuck in a bleh role that was very obviously not written for him. He does as good as he can with what he's given, but better writing or another actor could have made all the difference. Pryor's character has none of the charm or humor he had in The Toy or Stir Crazy, which just helps no one. Robert Vaughn is just kinda there as overzealous villain Ross Webster, who comes off as just a very, very poor facsimile of the direly missed Lex Luthor as portrayed by Gene Hackman. He even has his own sidekick and consort in Annie Ross as his one-note joke of a sister and Pat Stephenson as Lorelei Ambrosia, a poor man's version of Miss Tessmacher. On the musical end, the score by Ken Thorne is barely there at all. It's missing the epic storytelling feel that John Williams's score had; here, it's just background noise. Speaking of music, the use of the song "Earth Angel" left me waiting for Clark to run up on stage and start playing "Johnny B. Goode." Yeah, I know Back To The Future wasn't released for another two years, but every time I hear "Earth Angel," I get flashbacks to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance. Is that just me? Or am I just going crazy?
While the movie can entertain the ten-year-olds and ten-year-olds at heart, it's just not much for the rest of us. The movie probably would be better off seen by only completists who've seen the first two Superman movies and have to see all four. The movie is straight-up mediocre from start to finish, with only one real scene that stands out and is worth talking about. Nothing else in the movie is really worth talking about. While the movie isn't bad, it certainly isn't good either. Those of you who aren't huge Superman fans, you can just ignore this one. The Clark/Lana scenes were good and the Clark vs. Superman fight was fun, but outside of that, the movie is just hollow. Two stars for Superman III, and I'm gonna leave it at that.
Final Rating: **