"Never underestimate the power of computers." - ROSS WEBSTER
Superhero movies have been with us almost as long as there have been superhero comics. In the early days, they echoed the comic book format by being made in the form of serials which told the open-ended tales of heroes like Captain Marvel, Batman, Captain America and Superman, who incidentally was the subject of the first full-length superhero movie, Superman and the Mole Men, in 1951. Beyond that, stories about men in capes and costumes seemed better suited to the small screen, where the Adventures of Superman flourished in the '50s and a campy take on Batman did the same in the '60s, itself spawning a big-screen adaptation. Then came the '70s, which saw more TV series like Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk and insufficiently funded TV movies like The Amazing Spider-Man, a pilot that led to a short-lived series, and non-starters like Dr. Strange and Captain America which were decidedly underwhelming on the level of spectacle.
The main problem with these productions was, with their limited TV budgets, none of them could hope to duplicate the feats that their characters regularly did on the page -- at least not without looking totally ludicrous in the process. Then came 1978's Superman: The Movie, which showed that all you had to do was spend a little money (a little being roughly $55 million) and you could believe that a man could fly. In the wake of fantasy and science fiction blockbusters like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman showed that comic book heroes also had a place at the table, even if the man from Krypton was pretty much the only game in town for the next decade. In the meantime, there were sequels (and money) to be made and since original director Richard Donner was out of the picture, having burned his bridges with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, they needed to find a substitute and fast.
Enter Richard Lester, who made a name for himself in the '60s as director of the first two Beatles films and had spent the '70s turning out historical swashbucklers and contemporary political thrillers. He had been brought into the production early on as an uncredited producer by the Salkinds (for whom he had previously made The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers) to act as a go-between after Donner stopped speaking to them and, after Donner's dismissal, was asked to complete the second film. (Donner had already completed a good portion of Superman II since both films had gone into production simultaneously -- shades of both the Musketeers and the Back of the Future sequels.) In order for him to receive full credit for Superman II, though, it was necessary for Lester to reshoot some of the scenes that Donner had already done -- a point on which there is a great deal of controversy. (In fact, Donner has since cobbled together his own version of Superman II, which was released on home video in 2006.) Still, the fact remains that Lester's version is the one that was released theatrically and, upon its success at the box office, he was given first crack at Superman III, which he would be able to develop from scratch, thus avoiding any claims that he trampling all over another filmmaker's vision. The prospect obviously appealed to Lester since he eventually went ahead with the project, but he still had some reservations about it. As he told fellow director Steven Soderbergh some years later, "The problem with all the films is that you have to make [Superman] destructible briefly, and then make him indestructible at the end. Now, three times, you're getting a bit bored with that." And, as it turned out, Lester wasn't the only one getting bored with the Man of Steel. (Superman III's domestic take was just under $60 million, compared to Superman II's $108 million. Furthermore, according to Rotten Tomatoes, Superman III has a freshness rating of 23%, a steep decline from Superman II's 87%.)
Just as Jack Nicholson's scene-stealing turn as the Joker overshadowed the title character in Tim Burton's Batman, Superman III is dominated by the comedic stylings of Richard Pryor as bumbling computer genius Gus Gorman, who even manages to snag the opening scene for himself. Of course, if his unemployment hadn't been cut off by a heartless social worker, then he wouldn't have discovered his aptitude for computer programming, he wouldn't have gone to work for Webscoe Industries and, well, there wouldn't have been a movie. (If things were that bad in 1983, one can only wonder how many Gus Gormans are being created by today's economic climate.) Before the plot is set in motion, though, we come to Richard Lester's main contribution to the film: the slapstick opening credits sequence.
Now, there are many out there who believe that slapstick has no place in a Superman movie, and to those people I say "Thbbft!" Not only do I love the Rube Goldberg-inspired credits sequence in Superman III, I even made a point of going back and re-watching it right after the film was over so I could fully appreciate its well-orchestrated chaos. I won't go into a blow-by-blow description of what happens in the scene, because that's the surest way to wring all the joy out of comedy, but I will say that one of the things I love most about it is the way it prominently features Graham Stark, an accomplished physical comedian best known for his various roles in the Pink Panther series, as a hapless blind man. Stark's history with Lester actually goes back even further, to his first short, 1960's The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film, and his second feature, 1963's The Mouse on the Moon. The fact that Lester thought of him 20 years later while in the throes of making one of the biggest films of his career says a lot about him. I also find it quite telling that Lester's director credit appears over a close-up of a man who has just been pied in the face by an oblivious Clark Kent. Take that, Superman purists!
The unwitting catalyst for this chaotic street scene is the buxom Lorelei Ambrosia, played by Pamela Stephenson, a veteran of the English sketch show Not the Nine O'Clock News and a future cast member of Saturday Night Live who makes the most of what could have been a typical "ditzy blond" role. (At one point we see here catching up on some light reading -- Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.) Turns out she's the paramour and "psychic nutritionist" of rich industrialist Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), who's first seen being awarded Humanitarian of the Year, which pretty much means he's contractually obligated to be the film's villain, a role he shares with his mannish "baby sister" Vera (Annie Ross, whose performance always reminded me of Roz in 9 to 5).
But before we can establish the villains, there's business to be taken of in the office of the Daily Planet, where editor Perry White is being pestered by just about everybody. Clark wants permission to attend his high school class reunion ("It's practically an American institution," he says -- much like Superman), Jimmy Olsen wants to go along for some damned reason, and Lois Lane wants to take a vacation to Bermuda so the producers don't have to pay Margot Kidder a whole lot of money. Actually, Lois's part is downplayed so screenwriters David and Leslie Newman can introduce a new love interest, Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole), Clark's unrequited high school crush and former prom queen who is now an unfulfilled single mother marking time in Smallville while life passes her by. (As if we needed a reminder that Superman III takes place in bygone era, at one point Lana says her son Ricky is "the only kid in town without a father.")
Before we meet Lana, though, we find Gus gainfully employed at Webscoe Industries, where he feels shafted by his first paycheck and hatches an embezzlement scheme that funnels all the half-cents left over by payroll into his own pocket (a plan later put into effect by the disgruntled employees in Office Space, who reference this film specifically). And before Clark can find out if he can really go back to Middle America after becoming "a Metropolis sophisticate" (just watch Lois try to keep a straight face while he says this), Superman has to put out a dangerous chemical plant fire, during which Jimmy is injured while trying to get some action shots. (I guess that's one way to prevent him from bending Clark's ear the rest of the way there.)
When he makes it to the reunion, Clark reconnects with Lana, who appears to have organized the entire event herself and has to fend off the advances of former football hero Brad (Gavan O'Herlihy), who's into reliving past glories and drowning his sorrows in booze. (That's better than dwelling on his present, where he's a lowly security guard working the night shift -- why Lana doesn't consider him a catch, I'll never understand.) Clark and Lana eventually make it out onto the dance floor where they slow dance to "Earth Angel" by the Penguins (another Back to the Future connection) and he slowly insinuates himself into her life, much to Brad's dismay.
Meanwhile, in exchange for not having him thrown in jail, Ross talks Gus into using his nascent hacking skills to tap into a powerful weather satellite and rain down destruction on Columbia's coffee crop for refusing to play ball with him. This leads to the point, roughly a third of the way through the film, where our two stars first "meet," even if they cross paths only briefly. Gus's reason for coming to Smallville is so he can use the computer at one of Webscoe's subsidiaries to carry out Ross's scheme, which somehow requires him to get stinking drunk with the night watchman (who naturally turns out to be Brad). This scene goes on interminably (and it includes some shocking close-ups of Pryor's burn-damaged hands), but at least Gus's drunken crawl through cyberspace has some amusing payoffs: an ATM starts spontaneously spitting out wads of money, one woman's Bloomingdale's account balance is grossly inflated, inspiring her husband to reenact the grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy, and some traffic signals go awry, spurring the red and green men on a "Don't Walk" sign to start tussling.
When Superman flies to rescue and saves Columbia from ruin, Ross decides that before he can launch the next phase of his plan -- namely the monopolization of the world's oil supply -- the meddler in blue tights must be eliminated. To this end he has Gus synthesize some artificial Kryptonite (now with 0.57% tar!) which he delivers in person in the guise of a three-star general who blusters his way through a rambling speech, even echoing George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove at one point ("We cannot afford a chemical-plastics gap!") before handing off the tainted Kryptonite, which doesn't kill Superman so much as it turns him into an apathetic dick. This gives Christopher Reeve the chance to have a little fun with the role for once as he spontaneously decides to ruin Pisa's tourist trade by straightening out the Leaning Tower, thus inviting the U.N.'s censure (and a Time cover article with the foreboding headline "SUPERMAN: Goodness at the Crossroads"), and blows out the Olympic torch for shits and giggles. He also takes up drinking (Superman is a mean drunk) and lets himself go to seed, allowing his costume to become dingy and growing a permanent five o'clock shadow.
Things come to a head when, having caused an oil tanker spill at the behest of the alluring Lorelei, a weakened Superman touches down in a junkyard where he splits into two personalities -- evil Superman and virtuous Clark Kent -- leading to a brilliantly choreographed brawl. It's the kind of sustained action scene these movies were built for and Lester carries it off like a champ. It's just a pity that there's half an hour left to go in the film because that would have been a terrific climax. Still, what would Superman III be without his protracted duel with The Ultimate Computer? (If you said "a good movie," the answer would probably still have to be a "maybe.") Even as a ten-year-old kid I recognized how slapdash and over-the-top the finale is (graphics by Atari? cyborg Vera? a computer that can be powered down by simply removing one screw?), but I have to admit the film almost redeems itself with the coal-into-diamond trick and a callback to the outraged Pisa vendor (played by Lester crony John Bluthal), who is none too pleased when Superman returns the tower to its rightful position. That just goes to show, even when Superman restores the status quo, somebody's still mad at him.
This week's movie, Superman III, originally came out in June of '83, the summer before I entered the third grade. I was seven years old at the time, and I still distinctly remember it as one of the formative movie-going experiences of my young life. For one thing, my parents allowed several of my friends to see it with us in the theater, and I felt a sort of proud ownership of the whole affair. This was my movie and my event and my day, and I could not have been happier at how the movie entertained my guests. So impressed was I that I pored over the promotional tie-in magazine, The Great Superman Movie Book, for months afterward, carefully cutting out the pictures and affixing them with Scotch tape to places of honor on the walls and door of my room. Revisiting the film in its entirety for the first time in over 26 years, I was startled by how much of the film had stuck with me. This is a movie jam-packed with memorably insane setpieces, the kind that might make a strong impression on a kid: a villain with an artificial ski slope on the top of a skyscraper, a bowling ball hurtling down an alley with such velocity that it shatters the pins, a woman who gets sucked into a giant evil computer and emerges as a terrifying cyborg (who somewhat resembles Medusa from the original Clash of the Titans), and -- of course -- that memorable scene in which Clark Kent inadvertently eats dog food. Only years later did I discover how poor Superman III's reputation actually was. It certainly seemed like a hit to me at the time.
For the last 20 years or so, superhero movies have generally been expected to deliver all the fun and frivolity of, say, Sophie's Choice or Schindler's List. Take the average summer blockbuster about a costumed crimefighter, and it will generally play like it was written by a relapsing heroin addict, directed by a suicidal glue sniffer, and edited by a paranoid schizophrenic. Nowadays, your typical movie superhero is a critically flawed masochist who spends a good percentage of the running time whining about his personal life in between occasional incoherent action scenes set against a bleak urbanightmare-scape. This is what passes for entertainment in 2010. Audiences apparently now go to superhero movies to see their own anxieties reflected grotesquely back at them. Against that backdrop, a supremely goofy movie like Superman III makes no sense at all to the contemporary viewer. Shouldn't Superman be using that laser vision of his to heat up a spoon in a filthy back alley somewhere? Why hasn't he raped Lois yet? Shouldn't he be stabbing Jimmy Olsen in the face? And why, dear lord, are the action scenes filmed and edited in a way which makes it clear what is actually happening? Isn't the whole point of an action sequence to make us feel dizzy and disoriented, like we just spent an hour in a tumble dryer? Why do I not feel the urge to huff glitter paint and throw myself into traffic? What is going on here?
Relax, dear reader. Superman III is an artifact from a bygone era. That's all. No reason to panic. To understand this movie, you first have to understand that strange, hopelessly backward time in American history: the early 1980s, during the reign of the man they called "The Gipper." It's important to know, for example, that the primitives of that time thought computers to be "magic," even though your waffle iron probably has more memory than all the computers in this movie combined. The idea of a satellite which actually controls the weather -- instead of just reporting it (which is what weather satellites actually do) -- may seem far-fetched to us. But to the people of 1983, you could explain such a logical fallacy by simply stating that "computers did it," and they'd just nod in passive agreement. We had no idea what computers actually did back then. Heck, we didn't even have any video games in which you could stalk through the halls of an elementary school picking off toddlers with an assault rifle, experiencing the bloodshed and mayhem through the eyes of the killer. The closest thing the supposedly "evil" mega-computer in this movie can come up with is a tame third-person shooter in which you can fire some crummy missiles at Superman in the Grand Canyon. Nice try, 1983, but we're trying to raise a generation of sociopaths here!
We certainly had an ambivalent relationship with money back in 1983. The only thing we can agree on is that we were all obsessed with it, even more so than today. The 1980s are rightly remembered as a time of go-go consumerism, avarice, and ruthless ambition. Yuppies were riding high back then, and it seemed like everybody's goal was to become a wealthy son-of-a-bitch with slicked-back hair, a very expensive and unreliable imported sports car, and a closet of fancy suits to be accessorized with ridiculous suspenders and power ties. Countless 1980s movies end with the heroes being rewarded with just such a lifestyle. But movies from this time are just as likely to make old rich white dudes the villains, and comedies frequently mined laughs from taking an individual from the lower rungs of society and catapulting him into the world of wealth and privilege to expose the phoniness of that milieu. "Culture clash" was a major theme of the era, and movies frequently added in a racial underpinning as well. Trading Places with Eddie Murphy is the perhaps definitive artifact of this phenomenon, but Richard Pryor made a couple of stabs at it himself with The Toy and Brewster's Millions. Superman III is essentially a 1980s racial/culture clash comedy somewhat clumsily retrofitted into a superhero movie. What surprised me when I revisited the film is that -- apart from a couple of scenes -- the Richard Pryor part of the movie and the Superman part of the movie do not really intersect that often. Fascinatingly, there's an alternate fan edit of Superman III floating around out there which supposedly excises much of the Pryor material.
Frankly, the Pryor storyline does not really work that well in Superman III, and it drags the whole production down -- a shame, too, because there is some very fine material elsewhere in the film which deserves to be seen. What is Richard Pryor even doing in a Superman movie? The DVD supplements give a little insight into that. Apparently, shortly after the release of the first film, Richard Pryor appeared on The Tonight Show and did a routine in which he acted out the entire plot of the film, much to the delight of the host and his audience. I have not seen that particular clip, but there's an apparent attempt in Superman III to recreate it, as Pryor dons a tablecloth as a cape and proceeds to act out Superman's heroics to the non-amusement of his boss, Robert Vaughn. (Side note: It's amusing to me that Vaughn serves the same basic function in Superman III as he does in Pootie Tang, i.e. to be the ultimate corrupt honky, trying to lead the black hero astray.) The producers of the Superman films were so impressed by Pryor's enthusiasm for the character that they apparently decided this film should be scripted around him. Pryor's stand-up act included a lot of role-playing -- fans may remember his in-character monologues as "Mudbone," for instance -- so in addition to playing jittery computer whiz Gus Gorman, Pryor gets to play dress-up and try out some funny voices now and again. I remembered his big scene as a three-star general, channeling two of George C. Scott's characters: George S. Patton and Buck Turgidson. But there is an earlier scene which has Pryor donning a ridiculous plaid suit and impersonating a fast-talking salesman, which leads to a very broadly-played "drunk" scene later on. This material may actually play better in isolation, but in the context of Superman III it has the effect of stopping the movie dead. "Hey, gang, let's put the plot on hold for a few minutes so Richard Pryor can do some schtick." The DVD commentary reveals that even the producers had some reservations about this, particularly the fact that the "George C. Scott" scene essentially requires Superman to be on-camera but motionless for a good chunk of screen time. The producers might also have asked why Superman is not suspicious when he is given a piece of unidentified green rock by a stranger, but maybe this didn't come up in story conferences. In any event, it's telling that the original poster for Superman III featured that iconic image of Superman flying with a terrified Pryor in his arms (a moment film historian Donald Bogle possibly overreads as racist) but that the current DVD version does not even mention Pryor on its cover. To give the comedian his due, there are a few moments from his performance worth praising. I enjoyed, for instance, the film's relatively low-key opening scene with a down-and-out Pryor trying in vain to bargain with a highly unsympathetic employee at the unemployment office. Similarly amusing was Gus Gorman's exit scene at a remote coal mine, where he tries to impress the workers by boasting of his friendship with Superman and -- when that fails -- summons a mock-casual demeanor as he begins a nine-mile walk to the nearest bus station.
Somewhat forgotten in the fallout of the Richard Pryor debacle is the fact that Superman III features a very good performance from Christopher Reeve in a triple role that gives him plenty to do. Let's start with the basics: Reeve is the only actor -- and I say this without hesitation -- to properly play the character of Superman. No one else, in any medium, has gotten it quite right. Not Dean Cain or George Reeves or Danny Dark or Bud Collyer or Brandon Routh or Tim Daly or any of them. The first Superman movie was famously advertised with the phrase "You Will Believe a Man Can Fly!" (a phrase which Pryor memorably parodies in Superman III), but the posters might as well have used "You Will Sort of Believe That Superman and Clark Kent Are Two Different People!" Because that's always been a sticking point, hasn't it? Apart from those glasses, Superman and his alter ego are transparently the same man. Christopher Reeve is the only actor who seems to have approached Superman and Clark Kent as separate assignments. Superman, as Jerry Seinfeld once wisely noted, is "the man." The costume looks great on him, and he seems at ease in any situation, be it romantic or perilous or both. He is confident without being arrogant, commanding without being stiff or stentorian (a common pitfall for voice actors essaying the role), playful without being silly. He has a sense of gravitas but is not somber. There is a softness to his voice and an old-school elegance in his manner. He is uncommonly graceful; while watching this movie, please take note of Reeve's almost balletic takeoffs and landings. In the "making of" documentary on the DVD, Reeve sums it up: Superman, he says, is a "gentleman." On the other hand, you have Clark -- that poor, sweet, hopeless bastard who at the beginning of this movie is still hungry for the approval of Lois Lane and Perry White. Unlike Superman, who always seems "just right" for any given environment, Clark Kent always looks too big for his surroundings, and he has terrible trouble in this movie holding up his end of a conversation. The filmmakers have toned down some of Clark's slapstick buffoonery, running into doors and such, but he still manages to come off as a shy nerd who has no chance with Lois. I'm sure the costume department was instructed to make all of Clark's outfits a size too small, making him look uncomfortable at all times. And beneath it all, Clark harbors something of a grudge against Superman. He's understandably a little tired of Superman and wishes people could just like Clark for a change. One of the most interesting aspects of Superman III is that it gives Clark Kent a viable, non-Lois romantic option: his high school classmate, Lana Lang (nicely played by the lovely Annette O'Toole), a now-divorced single mother on whom Clark had quite a crush back in his Smallville days. Personality-wise, the guileless and uncomplicated Lana is the opposite of savvy, snarky Lois, and -- miraculously -- she seems to genuinely like Clark almost as well as Superman! Towards the end of this movie, there's a moment which suggests that Lana's interest in Clark may be sparking some jealousy in Lois. Had Superman III been as big a hit as its predecessors, it's likely that Superman IV would have explored this romantic triangle. But it was not to be.
The tension between Superman and Clark Kent is at the heart of the storyline in which Superman, supposedly under the influence of synthetic quasi-Kryptonite, ditches his predictable superheroics and starts acting like -- in the words of the villains -- a "normal" person. He starts drinking, stops shaving, and in one remarkable sequence, even cuckolds Robert Vaughn by sleeping with Vaughn's mistress. Speaking of that mistress -- Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson) -- a feminist film critic could write one hell of an essay deconstructing the female paradigms on display in Superman III. Let's see here. We have two "good" women and two "evil" ones. On the good side, we have take-charge, career-minded Lois Lane (who is sexually threatening) and sweet homemaker Lana Lang (who is sexually inviting). On the evil side, we have Vaughn's mistress, Lorelei, and his sister/henchwoman Vera. While the sexy Lorelei must hide her intelligence behind a faux-Marilyn-Monroe ditziness, the vaguely dyke-y Vera is allowed to be smart and commanding, but at the price of her femininity. (There are several jokes in the film about Vera's mannishness.) Are Vera and Lorelei intended as parodies of, respectively, Lois and Lana? It's something to ponder. Props to Annie Ross, a legendary and innovative jazz singer, for fearlessly playing the unflattering role of Vera. (To see Ms. Ross in a more natural environment, please watch the ensemble drama Short Cuts by Robert Altman.)
The character of Superman is so pure and so wholesome that writers are naturally going to want to pervert him in various ways. The urge is irresistible. We are fallible, and want to project our insecurities onto Superman, the symbol of all that we wish we were but cannot be. Besides the misshapen clone Bizarro, there have been countless storylines over the years about Superman being brainwashed or somehow duplicated or degraded. (Hell, they even killed him once or twice. Remember that?) In the very first episode of the much-remembered 1978 cartoon series, Challenge of the Superfriends, Superman becomes a criminal under the sway of Lex Luthor's "dream machine" and is committing crimes only a few minutes into the show. Superman III was the film series' inevitable exploration of this theme, and they handle it very well, making the storyline just dark enough without being too grim or self-serious. It helps that "evil Superman" mainly just pulls childish pranks (snuffing the Olympic torch, for instance) and that Christopher Reeve makes even "evil Superman" appealing on some level. During the commentary for the film's famous junkyard duel -- a bracingly feral and urgent sequence -- producer Ilya Salkind correctly points out how sexy and cool Reeve is here, playing the bad guy. For once, he gets to swagger onscreen!
Superman III is a movie of contradictions. It's a mess. It's hard to believe one movie could contain that brutal junkyard battle and yet also find time to have Richard Pryor don a giant foam cowboy hat and booze it up with a security guard while a twangy country song blares on the soundtrack. And both of these scenes must co-exist with the gentle, nostalgic sequence in which Clark Kent returns to his hometown of Smallville to attend a high school reunion. (The reunion scene, for me, played a lot like a harbinger of Back to the Future.) And then you have Robert Vaughn as a typical 1980s James Bond villain, a power-mad industrialist with one of those big light-up maps of the world in his impossibly fancy office. But it's all there, somehow, in this one movie! And, ultimately, I was glad of that. This is a movie that manages to take the Superman mythos to some strange, potentially disturbing places but never really feels self-consciously heavy or even approaches pretension. Blockbuster filmmakers should not necessarily use Superman III as a textbook, but there are a few things to learn from it.
Next up: The project takes a turn for the squeaky clean with "Family Movie Month," starting with a look at E.T. But before the cleanliness can begin, let's take another look at the way Superman III subverts American iconography with this sublime shot of "evil Superman" and Lorelei atop the Statue of Liberty: