Tuesday, June 11, 2013

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's... Superman III (1983)

    Countdown to Man of Steel, Part 4, in which we add Richard Pryor into the mix, because why not?

THE SUPER-FILM: I firmly believe on judging a movie on its own merits. That is to say, to walk into a film blind without any preconceptions of what it must be and base its quality on not what the film attempts to do, but on how well it does it. So while my personal proclivities for a Superman film would be something that takes itself a little more seriously (well, at least as serious as a Superman film can be), I’m also not against the idea of a comical approach to Big Blue. It’s every bit as valid a take, and if the filmmakers’ are successful in executing a comedy that is actually funny... Well, then why not? But while I am not immediately inclined to dislike the slapstick-laden Superman III, the simple fact of the matter is that it's poor showing, and far below the previous two entries. Dull, dreary and full of nonsensical moments anchored by a lazy script, Superman III is a failure on just about every level.

    The story concerns Gus Gorman, a down-on-his-luck loser who one day discovers he has a pretty strong aptitude for computers. Despite landing a nice job at a big company, it isn’t long before he resorts to his old ways and starts extorting money from his company on the side. The CEO of the company Ross Webster soon catches wind of his activities, but instead of firing Gus he offers him another job: hacking into a satellite to cause storms in countries that refuse to cooperate with his company’s negotiations. Of course, it isn’t long before Superman gets involved, which provokes Webster and Gus to synthesize their own kryptonite, which has the rather unexpected effect of turning Superman evil and stuff. Meanwhile, Clark Kent attends a high school reunion in Smallville, which sees him rekindling his feelings for an old crush, Lana Lang. Antics ensue, and we all suffer as a result.

    Richard Lester returns to the director’s chair, this time in complete control of all directorial duties. While part deux was something of a mixed bag of clashing styles, Lester’s full reign over the narrative sees the director let loose with unending slapstick and other silliness. The problems of the entire film can be summed up in the opening credits, which sees one gag leading into another ala Rube Goldberg. As a sequence on its own, its an impressive bit of slapstick, but there’s no narrative reason for any of - its just a collection of gags. This desire to cutaway to these gags that really have no impact on the story hampers the film throughout, making it both unfunny and unexciting.

    Most of the actors survive unscathed, most especially Christopher Reeve, who at this point I’m ready to say was born to play Superman. The early scenes in Smallville are some of the film’s best, and that’s largely due to Reeve. The actor also gets to have some fun when Superman turns evil, which we know because he stops shaving and commits such unforgivable sins as fixing the Leaning Tower of Pisa and blowing out the Olympic torch. Margot Kidder only has two scenes as Lois Lane, which feels like some sort of travesty, but I do like that the film tries to usher in some new blood with Annette O’Toole as Lana. Their chemistry isn’t anywhere near as electric and affecting as Reeve and Kidder, but the dynamics between Lana and Clark are just interesting and different enough to make an impact. Too bad the script sabotages them at nearly every turn.  

    Look, Richard Pryor is quite possibly the funniest stand-up comedian of all time - it’s virtually impossible for him to not be funny. But his placement here just reeks of crass commercialism and studio executive thinking at its worst. In other words, there’s nothing terribly wrong with the character of Gus Gorman or Pryor’s portrayal, other than that he shouldn’t exist in the first place. The rest of the villains fare about the same, including Robert Vaughan as Lex Luthor-lite, Ross Webster. It’s even more of a goofball character than Gene Hackman was in the previous two, but at least Vaughan gives off an undercurrent of menace from time-to-time.

    Even moreso than Lester’s slapstick direction, the film is hampered by a script so lazy, its almost embarrassing to watch. Between Webster and Gorman and the satellite and Lana Lang and Superman gone bad, there’s just too many elements at play, and all of them handled in increasingly lazy, dunderheaded ways. Let’s take for instance the scene where Pryor disguises himself as a general and presents Superman with the synthesized kryptonite as a gift: why wouldn’t they shape into something like a medal or statue to fool Superman into taking it, instead of just presenting it basically as a rock? And why does Superman just accept this thing that very clearly resembles the only substance known to man that can kill him? The script is filled with such idiocy, which all could have been fixed with a simple rewrite or even a modicum of care.

    Ultimately, I can’t mark Superman III as a failure for being a comedy, but I can mark it as a failure for just about everything else.

SUPER-THOUGHTS: Margot Kidder is only in the opening and closing scenes, as Lois is explained away by following a story in Cuba. Kidder was very open in her displeasure at the way the Salkinds treated Richard Donner, so the producers scaled back Lois’ role in retaliation. Having Lois as a more central character definitely could have livened up the Clark and Lana relationship.

    The bad Superman is eventually split in two, resulting in Clark Kent squaring off against his alter-ego. While kind of fun, the resulting fight in a junkyard ultimately boils down to little more than the Roadrunner vs. the Coyote.

    There’s also a missed opportunity to play up the Jungian psychology of a good and bad Superman, and how ultimately both sides need each other (ala Star Trek’s "The Enemy Within") but of course, the scriptwriters do nothing with it.

    I thought Otis and Miss Tessmacher were bad, but they’ve got nothing on Webster’s cronies, Lorelei and Vera. Although the scene at the end where Vera is possessed by the computer and becomes some sort of cyborg is kind of cool.

BEST USE OF POWERS: Superman freezing the lake and then carting it off to dose the fire is something straight out of a Mort Weisinger comic.

THE LAST WORD: Richard Pryor may have been the funniest man alive, but not even he can save the middling failure that is Superman III.

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