This is an odd one, though less odd if you watch the Richard Lester version of Superman II before it. Lester liked more slapstick comedic elements, and when he got complete control of Superman III, he went full Three Stooges with it. Coming on the heels of the Richard Donner Cut, which used comedy here and there throughout a more or less serious film, the sheer goofiness of Superman III is staggering.
It feels like a Muppet movie. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t love the Muppets, but that sort of comedy just seems out of place here. The opening credits feel like they’re from a kid’s movie, ending with a literal pie in the face, and things just get sillier from then on. A number of elements that are played for laughs could have easily been given more depth, especially the alcoholic Brad whose pursuit of Lana Lang is one of the things that encourages her to move to Metropolis. He’s portrayed as a goofy bumbler who gets taken care of by pushing him into an elevator on a food cart, but his story could have been much less silly.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments. In terms of comedy, Richard Pryor is so fun as the hapless genius Gus Gorman. If the movie had been his and not Superman’s, then it would have worked well as a comedy centered on a chronically unemployed guy who tries his hand at embezzlement only to get drawn into a criminal scam about which he has second feelings. But because he’s relegated to a flunky of the far less interesting villain, he’s sorely underused. In the early production phases, Gus Gorman was originally going to be a disguise for Brainiac who was going to reveal his identity later on. I’m glad they didn’t go that route because Pryor’s character works better as his own original character.
Lana Lang is another wonderful character, a single mom who realizes that she doesn’t just want to spend her whole life paying bills and wishing for something better for her and her son. She’s such a sweetheart and she and Clark have great chemistry, though he’s understandably much more cautious this time because he doesn’t want to hurt her the way he hurt Lois when they realized they could never be together. But Anette O’Toole does a great job with giving the character a genuineness that makes you really care about her. When she moves to Metropolis and gets a job at the Daily Planet, you are genuinely excited for her.
I also like the rescue at the chemical factory. It’s genuinely tense and the production values are high. Superman’s solution involves some hinky visual effects, but the scene overall is really well done. I wish they’d kept THAT tone for the rest of the film.
And then, of course we’ve got the battle between Clark and his evil Superman alter ego, one of the more iconic fights of the franchise. There are silly moments like Clark doing a tire ring toss with Superman, but overall it’s a great scene and we really get to see Clark’s inner strength as well as the capacity for great violence that he keeps in check, which is fun.
These don’t necessarily redeem the movie fully, but it does have a guilty pleasure sort of feel to it. It’s uneven and feels like a huge step back from Superman II, but the comedy is pretty entertaining at times. I’m quite fond of Lorelei reading and questioning Immanuel Kant in her spare time when she’s not pretending to be a ditzy bimbo.
The movie wasn’t actually a flop, contrary to popular opinion. It didn’t make as much as its predecessors, and public opinion was overwhelmingly negative, but the film made enough of a profit that the studio went ahead with another sequel, which I’ll look at the week after next (because I need to take a segue into the Marvel universe to watch Doctor Strange which comes out week).
What are your thoughts on Superman III? Love it? Hate it?
See you next week!