Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 24, 2007)
Call it the “Third Film Curse”, but of the two major superhero movie franchises, their third entries have marked definite declines. Granted, some would argue this tendency in regard to the Batman series. Many folks loathe the second flick, 1992’s Batman Returns and think that 1989’s Batman is the best of the bunch. While I really like Batman, I feel that BR was the most consistent and compelling of the four.
For me, it was the third picture that started the decline. For 1995’s
Batman Forever, Tim Burton ceded the director’s chair to Joel Schumacher, and the films would never be the same. Frankly, Forever was a decent little movie, but it didn’t compare to the pleasures found in its predecessors.
The only subject upon which most parties agree is that the fourth film - 1997’s Batman and Robin - was the worst of the bunch. I like the characters enough to make that flick watchable for me, but I have to agree that it’s mainly a dud.
Within the four Superman films, similar lines become drawn. Most people prefer the first movie in the series, 1978’s Superman. However, the first sequel, 1981’s Superman II maintains a substantial audience of partisans, and quite a few folks believe it’s the best of the bunch.
I’m sure someone feels that either 1983’s Superman III or 1987’s Superman IV is the most satisfying entries in the series, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find them. SIV is a matter for another day. The consensus seems to find it to be easily the worst of the four, but I’ll not deal with that until I get to the DVD. As for SIII, I didn’t think that the movie was a total disaster, but it seemed to be generally weak, especially when compared with the first two flicks.
SIII introduces a fairly large roster of new characters; of the four films, it most substantially rewrites the cast slate. Old favorites like Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), Perry White (Jackie Cooper), and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) make brief appearances, but they play only small roles in the story. We also find no trace of our Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) previously established archenemy Lex Luthor (portrayed by Gene Hackman in the first two flicks).
Instead, SIII focuses on a totally new list of friends and villains. The plot splits along two lines. On one side, Clark Kent - Superman’s alter ego - wants to go to his high school reunion and write a feature article about it for “The Daily Planet”. Editor White agrees, and though Olsen initially accompanies him, a convenient accident gets him out of the way. Once he returns to Smallville, Clark encounters past acquaintances, the most significant of whom is Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Clark maintained a serious crush on her during high school, and it now looks like he might have the chance to get to know her better.
One wonders why he apparently no longer cares about Lois, the established love interest for Superman from the first two films, but whatever the case, Clark and Lana start to develop a modestly romantic relationship. While this occurs, we follow a second plot in which we meet unemployed goofball Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor). After his benefits end, he goes to a computer trade school and there discovers a true talent for the machines. From there he gets a job with a huge corporation owned by vicious tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). When Gus cleverly embezzles a modest amount of money, Ross declines to punish him as long as Gus will use his skills to help enhance Ross’ wealth.
As such, Ross forces Gus to manipulate a weather satellite so that it’ll ruin the coffee crop in Colombia. Unfortunately for them, Superman steps in and prevents the damage. Thus foiled, Ross swears revenge on the Man of Steel, and he makes Gus create a synthetic form of Kryptonite to kill Supes. This doesn’t work as planned because a small portion of the analyzed sample was “unknown”. Gus substitutes tar instead and lets it do its job.
The faux Kryptonite doesn’t kill Superman, but it does alter his personality. Suddenly Supes becomes a member of the “me first” club and he refuses all attempts to do good. Eventually he snaps out of this, of course, and he sets his sights on Ross and Gus. In the meantime, Gus has created a Ross-financed supercomputer that will attempt again to kill Superman.
Got all that? Good - now throw it out the window. None of the story makes any difference whatsoever, as the entire film is nothing more than an excuse to stage some ineffective action sequences. Superman III ultimately felt like it was cobbled together out of a vague concept: Computer vs. Superman. The rest of the story was thrown against a wall and sorted out from there, but no one bothered to develop the characters or create anything of much interest.
Actually, that’s not totally true, as SIII offers a few minor moments of fun. I must admit that the shots of Nasty Superman were a modest hoot. Reeve seemed to relish the opportunity to play the Boy Scout as a scumbag, and while Nasty Supes never became truly vicious, he still could be quite entertaining. Unfortunately, these scenes were almost negated by a truly ridiculous segment in which the two sides of Supes - during which Clark represented his good part - faced off against each other. “Man vs. Superman” was nothing more than a weak piece that seemed inane.
Although the manner in which Lois was disposed of seemed to be illogical and callous - and apparently occurred due to a spiteful attitude the film’s producers held toward Kidder - I will acknowledge that the scenes with Lana were somewhat interesting. I liked this look at Clark’s past, and O’Toole maintained a simple, gentle charm that made her seem endearing. The manner in which the two plots coincide appeared silly, but during the film’s quieter moments, these sequences added emotion to the piece.
Otherwise, SIII fell almost totally flat. Director Richard Lester tried far too hard to invest the film with comedic elements, and these resulted in goofy slapstick that was out of place in this sort of film. Really, the entire Gus side of the story was a waste. By this point in his career, Pryor was in his “please love me” mode that resulted in tripe like The Toy. He used to have a spark and an edge to his work, but by 1983, he presented all of the risk of a teddy bear as he chewed the scenery.
The segments with Gus took up far too much of the film. At times movies that focus fairly heavily on villains can work. For example, the first two Batman flicks offered a lot of coverage of their baddies, and this didn’t harm the result. However, those pictures had a more competent director and they included better actors; Pryor was a fine comedian, but his acting - at least by 1983 - left a lot to be desired. Gus wasn’t even really a villain; he had to act bad to avoid troubles of his own. Clearly Gus received so much screen time because Pryor wouldn’t sign on to the film otherwise. Unfortunately, that meant we spent much of the movie with a character who was a dud.
Ultimately, Superman III managed to avoid becoming unwatchable, but the overall package was quite weak. A few fun moments are negated by loads of silly antics and forced comedy. Though neither Superman nor Superman II were perfect films, they look like works of genius compared to this dud.