Nowadays it seems like each major studio can’t get out of their own way in trying to craft the latest and greatest in franchise filmmaking. Whether it’s Warner Bros. having trouble getting its DC Universe off the ground (yes, it’s finally happening now, but they’re very much behind the curve) or Fox’s problems with the Fantastic Four and other superhero properties or Sony’s failed attempt at an expanded Spider-Man universe, the intersection of art and commerce that is franchise filmmaking has its fair share of accidents and bloody wrecks.
But these problems aren’t anything new. The modern superhero film really got its start with Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, an ambitious project that would have the first installment and the sequel filmed back-to-back. But things quickly went astray, and Donner was fired from Superman II before its completion, with Richard Lester taking over the reins of the sequel. But the behind the scenes turmoil didn’t affect the onscreen product, as both Superman and Superman II were box office hits that were well-received by critics and audiences alike. But the behind the scenes turmoil would finally reach a head and find its way on the screen, and that happened with Superman III, a sloppy and lazy sequel that is overflowing with complacency.
In the comics, when a character has been around for 55 years (as Superman was in 1983), it’s easy for the character to be stuck in outlandish and repetitive plots. But movies don’t always have to descend into staleness in with the third installment, though it has happened before (*cough* Batman Forever). Superman III plays out like a comic story from a crew out of ideas. Having vanquished General Zod and Lex Luthor in the previous two films, Superman (Christopher Reeve) is set to battle another maniacal industrialist. Superman isn’t just forced to fight a Lex Luthor wannabe Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), he’s forced to contend with the dark side of his own personality, which plays out in an unintentionally hilarious fashion. The behind the scenes issues that plagued the first two films also deprives the film of Lois Lane, with Margot Kidder, who protested the firing of Donner, reduced to a few lines before a trip to Bermuda removes her entirely from the picture and replaced by Lana Lang (played by Annette O’Toole). (Obviously, Superman has a fetish for women with alliterative names.)
Most of all, Superman III plays out like a very bad comedic take on the character. The comedic elements of Superman have always been broad, as evidenced by Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty in the previous films, but here the comedy is so broad that anyone over the age of seven is likely to groan at the flailing attempts to earn laughs. The opening scene of Superman III presents a city of calamity, like a slight breeze may set off a series of pratfalls that will leave 40 people dead if not for the well-intentioned meddling of Superman. Or perhaps the denizens of Metropolis have become complacent and their personal safety takes a back seat because they know that when things eventually go wrong Superman will swoop in and save them.
The comedic failings of Superman III are really evident by the casting of Richard Pryor as Gus Gorman, an unemployed schlub who backs into a career of super-villainy through computer programming. Pryor, the greatest stand-up comedian ever, tries to elevate the content of the material bestowed upon him, but the great comedian can’t make toothless gags works. Donning a military uniform and delivering a Patton-esque speech or passionately recounting the heroism of Superman fail to work at all. As Pryor confessed, this was a gig taken for the large paycheck. It would be crazy to expect elements from a Richard Pryor stand-up routine to find its way into a PG-rated superhero film, but there is room for a sharp edge of social commentary in Pryor’s Gorman as a man who’s constantly taken advantage of. All Gorman does is bumble about in different aspects of villainy before growing a conscious and taking Superman’s side – not exactly a strong character arc.
One area where Superman III does find ample comedy, albeit unintentionally, is when Superman is presented a chunk of synthetic kryptonite. While the substance doesn’t kill him, Superman slowly morphs into an arrogant prick, one only slightly less callous than Zack Snyder‘s interpretation. He destroys an oil tanker, causing an ecological disaster; he also gets incredibly petty, blowing out the Olympic torch because he can; and he straightens out the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Everything about the character is darker, his attitude, his costume, and even his skin are all a shade darker. Superman’s bad behavior culminates in the Man of Steel sitting on a barstool, a bottle of booze in front of him. He pours himself shot after shot before causing all sorts of damage by flicking peanuts at the bottles behind the bar. This descent into darkness is just a minor vignette that concludes with the two sides of Superman fighting each other until, of course, the good one wins. There’s no real character struggle at play, just a bit of nonsense to pad out the running time.
That’s the dire problem with Superman III – there’s no real storyline that propels everything throughout, just a series of loosely connected vignettes. (Sounds familiar.) No single actor is the comedic relief, they’re all the comedic relief. Every actor is playing it up to 11 hoping to earn just one little chuckle, but it quickly becomes tiresome. Even with the dismal Superman III and the woefully incompetent Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Christopher Reeve is still the best actor to don the tights and cape. (Henry Cavil finds no new charms in the dismal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.) Superman III is the movie for those who always wanted to see the icon of American heroism attend a high school reunion and do the twist to some hackneyed Chuck Berry cover. This is a superhero movie that has more pratfalls than action, more failed attempts at laughs than moments of heroism. Hey, at least we finally get so Superman get drunk. Now that I’m done with Superman III, I just might need to join him for a stiff drink.