Superman III (The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection) Review
From the moment Superman III was first released people have laid the blame for its inadequacies squarely at the feet of one man. Popular opinion will tell you that the movie’s fate was sealed the second Richard Pryor came on board, turning what could have been a worthy third chapter in the Superman saga into just another showcase for the comedian’s regular schtick. Indeed, it's an indication of just how much he dominates proceedings that the film is near universally known these days as “the one with Richard Pryor,” not unfairly considering that for all intents and purposes he does play the lead character: it wouldn't be stretching the truth too far to say that this isn’t a Superman film at all, but rather a Richard Pryor vehicle guest-starring the Man of Steel. However, despite that, to lay the blame solely at Pryor’s door ignores one important point, namely that Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the producing father and son duo responsible for bringing Superman to the big screen, had always favoured a more light-hearted approach, right from the moment they decided they wanted to make the first film. It was only when Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz came onboard and started pouring their hearts into the project that the direction of that first movie was changed to become the great film it undoubtedly is. Despite the huge critical and commercial success that came with Superman 1, Alexander and Ilya were chomping at the bit to reassert their vision of what the films should be, and took the first opportunity that presented itself to replace Donner in the director’s chair with their Three and Four Musketeers cohort Richard Lester. As the Dumas adaptation had shown, Lester was far more in tune with their sensibilities, something his reshoots for Superman II underlined, and, greatly pleased with his work on that film, it was inevitable that the Salkinds would sign the director up for the third chapter.
Thus it was that Superman III was the first time the Salkinds had genuine free reign to make a film fully in line with their own sensibilities. Together with Lester, they also called upon scripters David and Leslie Newman, who had helped with the Superman II rewrites as well as contributed to an earlier, jokier version of Superman I, and together, the foursome set about making the movie in the style they had always wanted. Superman III is that undiluted vision and would have been the same whoever was cast and whatever story was concocted. Richard Pryor’s involvement just made it easier to justify the change in direction - and, in a certain way, gave the producers a scapegoat. Describing it disparagingly as “the one with Richard Pryor” might be a fair description, but it's not a fair insinuation: it isn’t Pryor’s fault it’s a terrible film, but rather those around him who employed the comedian as a kind of failsafe to ensure their comedic vision of what it should be was realised. Ironically it backfired; Pryor, a huge Superman fan (he got the role after saying on The Tonight Show how much he’d love to be in the movie), was unusually nervous about being involved and stuck far closer to the script than usual, while his employers were hoping he would work his usual magic and elevate it to the level of some of his biggest hits. Ultimately, that’s why it goes wrong: both parties are expecting the other side to deliver the goods, and in the end neither does. As a result we end up with a film that is satisfying as neither a Superman movie nor as a comedy.
The story follows the exploits of chancer Gus Gorman (Pryor) who discovers he’s a computer genius after taking a series of IT classes (computers being apparently easier to master in those days.) Going to work with millionaire nutter Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) he soon discovers that his new boss has delusions of grandeur who swiftly takes advantage of his talented new employee to involve him in various schemes to gain financial control of the world. Wouldn't you just know it, however, world domination just isn't that easy when the Last Son of Krypton is about and Webster finds each of his nefarious plans thwarted by the Man of Steel. Understandably peeved, Webster sets Gorman a new challenge, telling him that if he succeeds, “You’ll become known as the man who killed Superman.” Dun-dun-der! Gorman then sets about this task, with predictably "hilarious" consequences.
Although in print this doesn’t sound too bad an outline on screen it’s a silly plot and suffers in a number of ways. That Gus Gorman rather than Clark Kent is the lead character is almost indisputable from the moment the film opens with him queuing for his dole money - almost being the word, for occasionally the movie veers off and starts paying attention to Clark’s vague relationship with childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (an engagingly sincere Annette O’Toole). This is a subplot that is sadly wasted and despite a reasonably effective start ends up serving no greater purpose than padding out the runtime, which is frustrating because the early scenes in which Clark travels back to his hometown of Smallville for a class reunion are actually very effective and oddly touching. Here we see him transported back to a world before he discovered who he really was and shouldered the burden of his responsibility, a time when he was like every other gawky adolescent with a crush on a girl and a bully he couldn’t respond to. It’s a rare chance to catch a glimpse of the real man; in Metropolis we only ever see him either playing the fool as Clark or being a hero as Superman, and it’s only in those very few scenes in the middle of Superman II that we see anything comparable to the fully genuine article we meet here. That it’s handled with more dignity and subtly in that previous movie is unsurprising, but what the Smallville scenes in this film do that the Lois scenes in number two don’t is show that the real man is actually a combination of both his Metropolis personas, that he is essentially both Clark and Superman. It’s one of the few genuine misfires in number two that once he’s shorn of his powers Kal-El becomes Clark completely, weakling that he is; here it gets it right. (Of Lois, Margot Kidder only shows up for a few minutes as she was another person deeply miffed at the Salkinds’ treatment of Donner).
Thus it’s annoying when half way through the film this story is tossed aside and all but forgotten about, with Lana and her son becoming mere spectators to events going on around them. It’s unnecessary as well, as the developing circumstances could have incorporated them far more fully in the action developing. Determined to get rid off Superman, Gus attempts to synthesise some kryptonite but, being the loveably inept character that he is, doesn’t get it quite right. Instead of being fatal to him, the substance Gus creates causes an abrupt personality change in our hero, creating an Evil Superman. Christopher Reeve, as with nearly everything else he does in the role, is superb as this evil twin, bringing a real malevolence to the character as well as an unexpected diffidence which makes the transformation seem more than simply two-dimensional. It's even more impressive when one considers what he's given to work with: while you or I might consider illustrating how dangerous an evil Superman could be by going round blowing things up or causing natural disasters on an epic scale, instead the makers decided to have him performing such terrifying actions as smashing bottles in a local bar or straightening the Tower of Pisa (which, to be fair, was a holdover from a Mankiewicz draft of number two). It's silly when it should be scary, which makes the final showdown between Supes' two sides all the more remarkable. It’s hardly revolutionary to say that the fight between the good and bad side of Superman in the junkyard is the best thing by far in the movie, but it’s true nonetheless. A battle for Kal-El’s very soul, one which matters far more than any daft plans which Ross Webster might have, it’s vicious, determined and feels like it’s wandered in from another movie entirely. That it’s there at all is something we should be grateful for (and surprised at, given how different it is tonally from everything that surrounds it); that it isn’t the climax of the film is just a typical illustration of how virtually all the creative forces involved in the project don’t get what Superman is really all about.
Instead we get a climax at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in which a supercomputer Gus designs apparently becomes sentient and starts to wreak havoc. The problem with the sequence, like so much else in the film, is that it all seems so arbitrary and thrown together. Originally Ilya Salkind had planned to have Brainiac be the principal villain in the movie, and this finale is based almost entirely around remnants of that idea that survived through to the final draft of the script. It’s without context: while the idea of Superman battling a human/computer hybrid is actually a pretty good one, that it comes from left-field with little warning, and is despatched so quickly, means it is ultimately superfluous. The previous two films built up the threat our hero, and the planet, gradually, in stages, leading to suitably thrilling conclusions; this one just lurches from one set piece to another with little sign of coherence with this showdown just happening to be the last to come along. Webster’s plans seem to drift. He has a basic plan about what to do, but its execution is vague and unfocused (not helped by the fact that he employs a veritable nincompoop in Gus as his primary operative), making the whole far less satisfying than any of its component parts. (Even the opening bit of heroics, the fire at the industrial factory, is pointless, just a bit of noise thrown in to enliven proceedings early on.) That Bad Superman has nothing to do with the finale is a serious flaw in the film’s narrative structure as after the junkyard fight, everything else is anticlimactic and not particularly threatening, and no matter how much peril is thrown out by the supercomputer the scene can't feel anything but flat. Ultimately, Webster is a third-rate Luthor clone, with third-rate versions of Otis and Miss Teschmacher, and a third-rate evil scheme. Robert Vaughn, as he often does when dealing with substandard material, appears bored with the whole thing, resulting in a film with a useless villain, and little tangible threat. (Interestingly, Vaughn wasn’t the first actor cast in the role; Alan Alda was, and in his commentary on this DVD Salkind comments that he thinks he would have been better).
As a Superman film, then, despite the best efforts of the Smallville sequences and the junkyard fight, it fails. But what about as a comedy? After all, that’s what it pertains to be. If it succeeded in the laughter department - if it managed to combine the dumb-clever smarts of the Adam West Batman series, updated for the early 1980s and incorporating Pryor’s immense talent - then, no matter how much the purists might have shivered, it could have been a successful project. The problem is, and the ultimate reason why it’s a rubbish movie, is not that it’s a rubbish Superman movie: it’s a rubbish comedy. It just isn’t funny. Mistaking the child-like wonder Superman invokes for simple childishness, the humour on view is juvenile to the nth degree, deploying a degree of subtly only Ernest P Worrel could truly appreciate. From the opening sequence, to the oh-so-funny Gus-gets-a-guy-drunk scene through to the sight of traffic light men fighting each other and so on, the comedy falls flat again and again. (On a sideline, it’s also derogatory to the Superman brand, and not just because it’s crap: the scene in which Gus skis off the edge of the skyscraper and lands unharmed tens of floors below is basically a two-fingered salute to Lois’s plunge from the helicopter in number one, and is the single most infuriating moment of the entire film for this reviewer). There are some vaguely amusing lines along the way, of the kind that cropped up in the Roger Moore Bonds - Webster’s “I ask you to kill Superman, and you can’t do that one simple thing” being a good example - but overall it’s not enough, while Lester’s leaden direction doesn’t help; the script, such as it is, needs a far lighter touch than he shows here.
Imagining what it could have been like only makes the whole thing more unbearable. Having now seen the Donner cut of the previous film, one can’t help but envisage the scale and grandeur he and Tom Mankiewicz could have brought to the movie, expanding on the thematic groundwork they had laid in their first two parts while opening up the toybox of forty years worth of Superman comic books to root round and see what new toys they could bring out to play with. Just as we did for years with his cut of number two, it’s very easy to idealise what the two of them could have done in this third part, but it’s not idealism to expect that whatever they did would have been better than what we got. (Even if they hadn’t been invited back, though, Ilya Salkind’s original ideas, which included not only Brainiac but also possibly Mr. Mxyzptlk and even Supergirl, sound more interesting than the finished result. What a shame he went for the funnies instead.) Instead, it's a wasted opportunity, and single-handedly managed to kill off one of the hottest cinematic properties at the time. Unsurprisingly, the box office was a disappointment, bringing in only half of what the first two had made, although 1983 was admittedly an extremely competitive year for popular cinema: there was the battle of the Bonds (the official Octopussy vs the unauthorised Never Say Never Again) and the Jedi were returning for a third bout of excitement. Despite the competition, however, and given the success of the first two, Supes should still have been able to hold his own. Why he couldn't was down squarely to the poor quality screenplay; as viewers were no longer thrilled by the simple belief that a man could fly, it’s a questionable irony that while the first film could have easily got away with being a bit dodgy, as audiences would have flocked to see it anyway, by the time this third film came along the script needed to up the ante story-wise to maintain the franchise. Instead, the exact opposite happened: this is the film that marks the steep decline in Superman’s fortunes, the one in which he entered a nosedive that ended up in the crash-landing of Superman 4: The Quest for Peace four years later. Despite that, it’s not a dead loss, but one has to work very hard to be nourished by the few choice cuts to be found amongst all the spam. Just don’t blame Richard Pryor even if it’s an unfortunate truism that the film improves every time he’s not on screen; I have a nasty suspicion this would have been a dud even if he had never made that fateful appearance on The Tonight Show. A film in which Superman goes bad, in all senses of the word.
On first putting the disc in, one has to plow through the multi-screen language option menu which is always tiring. There then follows the anti-piracy advert which is equally annoying, before things cheer up a bit with two trailers, one for the complete range of Superman on DVD and then the stunning teaser trailer for Superman Returns (all of which can be sped through) before one finally reaches the actual menu. This is a static screen with a generic collage of Superman, Webster and Gorman over an image of Metropolis, accompanied, inevitably, by John Williams’s score. The options are Play Movie, Scene Selections (with 39 chapters), Special Features and Languages.
The film itself and the extras bar the commentary and trailers are subtitled.
The previous release of the film in 2001 suffered from an over-enthusiastic attempt to correct a perceived flaw in the print which was actually entirely intentional. In some scenes the sky was bleached purposefully to hide the wires enabling Superman to fly around; the 2001 print removed said bleaching, revealing wires and perhaps shattering the illusions of small children everywhere. Thankfully, all is back to how it should be in this new version. In general this is an excellent transfer, crisp and clear with nice vivid colours and few digital artefacts and in some ways it looks the best of all four films in the set: it’s difficult to know how to feel about that.
Again, very nice and crisp. It’s only the original 2.0 track (for some reason it wasn’t deemed necessary to remix it to 5.1… I can’t think why) but it belies its age and does the job nicely even if it’s not a film that has a great deal of excitement aurally speaking.
“I wanna say it is fun. It is funny, come on, look at the guy in the hat!” One of the most defensive commentaries you will ever hear. Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler, recorded separately and cut ‘n’ pasted together, spend the majority of the film saying that despite the fact the fans didn’t like the film it actually is very good, going to great lengths to try and justify the unjustifiable. Their approach to the material - that Superman is essentially a fun, light-hearted thing that shouldn’t be taken seriously - shows why the film is like it is, and takes one's breath away at some points with the sheer audacity of the arguments they use (at one point we are told that little traffic light men fighting is actually entirely possible and therefore credible.) The pair are incredibly misguided, believing that the main problem with the film, the thing that stopped it being as successful critically or commercially, is the Superman-goes-bad plot, yet oddly it’s only during the scrapyard showdown that the commentary sounds genuine, with comments such as “This is good stuff” inadvertently escaping. The rest of the time this is a case of “they doth protest too much:” despite constant assurances that this is a great film, one gets the overwhelming impression that they don’t believe it themselves and realise the dud for what it is. Therefore it’s a commentary track both fascinating and also often deeply tedious. Salkind could blather for his country in the Olympics and while initially what he says is worth hearing (if often sounding a load of rubbish) eventually both men’s comments become repetitive in the extreme. Give the first hour a listen just to hear the denials, but you'll find it hard work to go the whole two hours.
The Making of Superman 3 (47:09)
Enjoyably detailed look at the production of the film. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes action as we watch the movie being shot, there’s a suitably cheesy voiceover by someone who sounds faintly like Michael Clarke Duncan and it’s even amusingly edited together in parts. Coming from the time the film was released, the only oddity to modern eyes is just how much of the film is spoiled, even going so far as to reveal that the ultimate baddy is destroyed.
Deleted Scenes (19:43)
You thought the opening sequence of the finished film was odd, wait until you see the catapulted kid here. Hilarious for the wrong reasons, it’s a highlight from this generous selection of excised sequences from the movie, even if it’s not comprehensive of all the material not used. Some may seem vaguely familiar; originally the version of the film shown on television was significantly longer than the theatrical cut and had many differences. One was the afore-mentioned flying child; another was a far longer cut of the scene in which Gus describes to his cohorts watching Superman in action (the one which ends with him skiing off the building). That’s here too, as well as a couple of other small pieces from the extended version and some scenes which, to the best of my knowledge, were never used in any cut of the movie.
Theatrical Trailer (3:01)
“This time is going to be the best time of all!” A trailer which succeeds in showing off some of the more spectacular scenes in the film but fails to disguise the fact it’s a dud film.
Justice League Heroes Videogame trailer (1:47)
A game featuring all the JLA characters, including Supes, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern. An irritating inclusion on all these discs.
A deeply mediocre film gets possibly the best release it could have done. Once again we’re missing the longer cuts of the film that were screened on television but other than that it’s a decent package, raised up by the improved video transfer.
Please note: This Deluxe Edition of Superman III is only currently available as part of The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection and The Ultimate Superman Collection box-sets.