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You think you know bad Superman movies? You don’t know bad Superman movies. (Part I) – Superman III (The Superman Movie Special #1)

July 15, 2013

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Even though Man of Steel has been a box office success, it has more tha its share of detractors. I liked it despite its flaws, though I can see how some people would get hung up on certain aspects of this new Superman’s first days on the job. (That he has a secret identity at the end but roughly 50,000 people have to know who he is at that point is one of them.) To each their own. But the naysaying got me to thinking: these people don’t know truly awful Superman films, as the penumbral glow of Superman: The Movie has largely (and happily) cast in shadow much of what followed. It’s been so long since Hollywood graced us all with a true abortion of a Superman movie (Superman Returns had its lion’s share of problems, but it wasn’t cover your face heinous), I thought it might be a good idea to look at the two awful entries in the old Christopher Reeve series, at the same time going through the comic book adaptations. The comics are especially fascinating because they have the strange distinction of re-adapting comic book properties back into comic book form, making them a bit like reading a novelization of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Up today: Superman III: Now With 100% More Pryor!, adapted by Cary Bates, penciled by the late, great Curt Swan, and inked by Sal “No Relation to Lawyerin’ Joe” Amendola.  

Some might rank Superman II as the best of the Reeve series, but for a variety of reasons the run was always a steady decline in my eyes, from great to good to not good to unbelievably terrible. After Superman crushed Zod’s hand in the Fortress of Solitude, that’s when suddenly it was (Planet) Houston, we have a problemIII was the first of the lineage to be completely divorced from Richard Donner’s vision. The series was now solely in the hands of Richard Lester, and as such it included much more of the camp that Donner and éminence grise Tom Mankiewicz had so desperately tried to segregate from the celluloid Superman. Nothing broadcast this brand new day more than the top-billed presence of Richard Pryor — not even the Keystone Kops opening credit montage. Let’s get one thing straight: Pryor isn’t the biggest problem in III. I won’t go as far as to say that he was what’s right with the damn thing, but he’s not the torpedo to the hull. But the mere fact that the impresario of That Nigger’s Crazy received billing right after Reeve marks this as one of the stranger interludes in the varied, storied career of the Man of Tomorrow. (It’s a push whether this was more bizarre than Pryor’s shift to a Saturday cartoon bloc anchor.)

Pryor played Gus Gorman, an alliteratively-named (of course) ne’er-do-well who develops a talent for computer hacking and finds himself co-opted by a sinister tycoon, played by Robert “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Vaughn. (One of the great things about Man of Steel was that, apart from corporate signage, their was no trace of Lex Luthor within, making in the first Lex-free Super-film. Even here, Vaughn’s Ross Webster is little more than a Lex by any other name.) Pryor’s presence in the film was one of its major selling points, and he was plastered on everything, including the poster, where he was wide-eyed and cradled in Superman’s arms. Therefore it’s odd that here Gus looks as little like Pryor as possible without making him white:

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Lest you think the lack of resemblance is just Swan saying “screw it” and drawing the characters any way he damn well pleases, and just like he has for decades, that’s not the case. His Clark Kent/Superman does its level best to look like Reeve, and it’s ditto for Jackie Cooper’s Perry White and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane:

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Even Vaughn looks like Vaughn, so I don’t know what the hell happened to Pryor. Maybe they didn’t have the rights to reproduce his image in a comic. Maybe Swan had a block when it came to drawing him. Maybe the inks drowned out whatever resemblance there might have been. It’s probably not something we should get hung up on, though. Moving on.

One of the nice features about the movie’s Return-to-Smallville plot is that it comes full circle with the first act of Donner’s classic, bringing Lana Lang and Clark’s tormentor Brad back into play as Clark attends his high school reunion. But before we get to that, Superman has to douse a raging fire at a chemical plant while on his way home. I recall seeing a “making of” special back in the day that went behind the scenes of how they filmed Superman dropping the top of a frozen lake (like an icy pudding skin) onto the factory inferno. It kind of loses the majesty on the page — we’ve already seen such derring-do in four colors, and many times:

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Annette O’Toole would become a big part of the live-action Superman world with her long run as Martha Kent on the always underwhelming Smallville, but long before that was a glimmer in WB/CW executives’ eyes, she made for a more than decent Lana. She was pretty, she was nice, she was smart, and she had none of the aggressive edge that Kidder’s Lois had. (A scene of the two meeting at the end of the movie hinted at cat-fights to come. Alas, this never came to pass.) Here she’s divorced and has a son, Clark becomes a father figure to the boy, and when Superman shows up, so does the Man of Steel. My Two Dads, in a weird, schizophrenic way. High school big shot Brad is now a going nowhere security guard, he’s trying to horn in on the eminently MILFy Lana, and his old antagonism with Clark is thus reignited.

A night at the bowling alley gives Clark a chance to surreptitiously show off his unique self-esteem boosting techniques. They might as well have retitled this Super-Breath: The Motion Picture:

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Meanwhile, Gus is doing Webster’s bidding, hijacking a weather satellite to sabotage the Latin American coffee crop (the meteorology and physics of such a deed are, naturally, unexplained), though the plan is thwarted by Superman’s intervention. This impresses Gus, who’s a good guy at heart, and in the movie he lets his exuberance get the best of him in front of his evil boss — never a good idea. That scene takes place on a ski slope improbably placed atop a skyscraper, and at the end Pryor SKIES DOWN THE SIDE OF THE BUILDING. AND SURVIVES. This makes the weather satellite crap suddenly seem tame by comparison.

No skis in the comic, though. Just the tablecloth as a cape:

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To get Superman out of the way, Webster has Gus analyze Kryptonite (in space, again using the all-purpose satellites), but there’s one element in it that can’t be identified. Interestingly, the comic leaves out what Gus replaces it with in the movie: tar, an idea he gets from looking at a pack of cigarettes. Couldn’t have cigarettes in the book? What about the chain-smoking Lois? Anyway, the faux-Kryptonite makes for a Superman who isn’t so much evil as he his a selfish prick. The Leaning Tower of Pisa scene is a bit different, with a souvenir peddler keeping his wares in a suitcase instead of a stand, though the sentiments are still there:

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One of the criminally missing elements of Superman’s bad turn is the bar scene, where he drinks, smashes liquor bottles with flicked peanuts and melts his stubbly reflection with his heat vision. No cigs, no booze, apparently. Ricky, Lana’s boy, is still the one to get through to him, though:

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The big takeaway scene of the whole flick is next. The scrap-yard throwdown between Superman and Clark — how many times has this happened in the comics? Millions? — isn’t nearly as drawn out, and it’s much more wordy. To its detriment:

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All this leads up to the final desert showdown between Superman and Webster and his dopey gang. Superman III was one of the earliest movies I can remember seeing in the theater (I was five), and the scene where Webster’s sister, Vera, gets sucked in by the super-computer (built by Gus, making him one of the greatest technological savants the world has ever seen) and turned into Mecha-Vera (complete with Robert Smith’s hair), scared the living bejesus out of me. I think it was the all-white eyes — eyes that aren’t recreated here, though there’s again plenty of dialogue in their place:

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Can’t win them all.

The comic ends rather abruptly after this. Superman flies Gus away, but there’s no Daily Planet scene with Lana in her new job (and meeting Lois). Indeed, there’s no wrap-up of the Lana storyline at all, and the last time we see her is above, when stubble-Superman flies off. There’s just the Pisa reprise, and then we’re done:

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The comic is an oddly truncated summation of the major events of Superman III, leaving out significant bits of the plot (such as it was) and making simple changes that are jarring when you learned something by heart as a kid. It’s even flatter than the movie itself, an all-too common inherent fault with adaptations. The main selling point is seeing Swan work with the Reeve Superman. It’s an interesting mesh of the oh so familiar hero and the actor who brought him so vividly to three-dimensional life. The result doesn’t help you reach nirvana or anything, but it’s a modest match made in heaven. Swan-Reeve has a nice ring to it.

And the movie? Superman III isn’t very good. It’s far too distracted, far too scatter-brained for that. The humor is utterly flaccid, making Pryor, someone on the mythical Mount Rushmore of comedy, a thinly drawn clown. But there’s much to love in III, beyond the outsized goofiness that gives it its train-wreck appeal. It’s an interesting mediocrity, if there is such a thing, toggling between Superman exorcising his inner demons with trash compactors and tires, and Pryor riding a donkey backwards down into the Grand Canyon. Reeve did a lot of great things in the role of Superman, but his finest on-screen moments may have been as the lustful Kal-El. The scrap-yard scene is a great visualization of a clash between a superhero’s id and ego. And, yes, super-ego. Superman III will therefore always retain a bit of watchability, as an in-parts integral portion of a character-defining oeuvre. Reeve looked the part from the very beginning — oh did he ever look the part — and III helped him fully inhabit it, every nook and cranny.

And, of course, Superman III looks like Citizen Kane compared to the next installment. Coming soon: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (or Figuring Out Who to Slap First: Jon Cryer or Mariel Hemingway). Until the, gaze into this dreamy visage, where you don’t know where the Reeve ends and the Superman begins:

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. m.l. post permalink
    July 19, 2013 1:35 am

    I think making a good movie about Superman is right next door to impossible. Hell, making a good movie, period, is incredibly complicated. I think the reason why Superman Returns wasn’t a very good film has more to do with the basic plot and writing, than the actors. I feel bad for Brandon Routh, a really nice guy and a fellow Iowan who I think could’ve done something with that role give the right material.
    I haven’t seen the latest film, but I hope they keep to the basic idea of Superman, as I understand it…a refugee from a place destroyed by hatred and violence who finds a way to make a new start. I think there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
    As for Chris Reeves, he’s always going to remembered for more than a couple lousy movies.

    • Mauricio permalink
      November 28, 2016 10:13 pm

      In my opinion Brandon Routh is as talented as a dummy wearing contact lens. No charisma, no talent at all.

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