It’s been hotly debated over the years whether Christopher Reeves’s second to last incarnation as the Man of Steel is actually a worthwhile movie or not. You either love or hate it, according to some people. I, myself, happen to fall somewhere in the middle but, when it comes to evaluating the technical and artistic merits of this movie, there’s no denying that this is, without a shadow of a doubt, the last dignified entry for Reeve as Superman. What happened afterwards and its later consequences for the franchise, which I have already discussed in a previous article, is something that, in a whole, is best left forgotten.
Superman II, as predicted, and in spite of all the behind the scenes mayhem, proved to be a huge financial success, not only for Warner Bros, but especially for producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya and Alexander Salkind. It was obvious that another sequel would be made and that, this time, it would have to be a separate entity compared to the previous two.
It was actually Alexander Salkind who came up with the idea of doing something completely different to what had be done before. He wrote a draft that, regrettably was never used, but contained some very interesting ideas. In the original draft the new story had Superman dealing with not just one, but two Supervillains, namely Brainiac and Mr Mxyztplk, it also involved a fair amount of time travel and counted with the participation of Supergirl to help Superman face his foes. After taking this idea into consideration, and determining that the total cost of the film would sky-rocket as a consequence, the producers went for a more grounded, but in the end, very different approach.
Come in Richard Pryor
It was around this time that the Salkinds happened to catch a viewing of the Johnny Carson Show, where actor and comedian Rychard Pryor was being interviewed; during which he expressed his desire to some day appear in a Superman movie, who happened to be his favourite comic book character. After hearing this, and being as they were on the lookout for a new idea for the next movie in the franchise, the Salkinds hired once again screenwriters David and Leslie Newman to build a story around Pryor that would end up having him as the main attraction of the movie and mistakenly relegating Superman to the role of supporting actor in his own movie. And that’s my main problem with this movie. It’s not the outlandish plot, the silly gags and the weird overall tone of it, that makes it so markedly different from its predecessors; it’s just that there’s just not enough Superman in it. And this being a movie titled Superman III, is a big problem.
This, for the reasons above mentioned, is not the best of Superman movies, but it’s not a complete write-off either, for a whole bunch of other reasons. Let me explain.
From the off, it’s quite clear that this is not going to be your run-of-the-mill Superman flick. The prologue in which we first see Rychard Pryor’s August Gorman character in the Unemployment Office about to cash in his next check, and the unusual placing of the opening credits over what is, for all intents and purposes, a sequence replete with gags and slapstick humour, that clearly belongs in another film; a full-on comedy, for instance, sets the tone for what is to come later on.
That aside, and the fact that Pryor’s character becomes a computer wizard overnight for no apparent reason, and consequently falls in the clutches of the next Lex Luthor wannabe, Ross Webster, who wants to use Gorman’s computer skills to control the global markets of both Coffee and Oil, there’s some very interesting developments regarding the Clark Kent/Superman character that are the whole reason why the movie ultimately, and against all odds, works.
Clark Kent returning to his home town of Smallville to write a piece about his High School reunion, and rekindling his relationship with his old High School flame, Lana Lang, played by Annete O’Toole, give the movie a quaint and touching feel that hearkens back to the first movie. The fact that Lana seems to be genuinely interested, from a sentimental point of view, in Clark, is also quite nice. Those scenes between both actors are very well performed and some of the nicest adult oriented scenes in the saga.
But what really takes the cake here, and really makes this movie stand out against all the rest, is the storyline about Superman becoming evil. Well, I wouldn’t say full-on evil, but selfish and self-absorbed. And this is what really sells the movie for me, especially through a very nuanced performance by Christopher Reeve. I honestly think that he is at his best as Superman on this movie. He really does deliver as both Superman and Evil Superman. Not only does his demeanor change, but also his hair and even his costume turns a darker shade of blue. His antics are quite amusing too; like blowing off the Torch during the Olimpic inauguration ceremony and righting the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And on this note, we get one of the most amazing action set pieces ever seen on a Superman movie; that of the Junkyard fight between Clark Kent and Evil Superman. That sequence alone is worth the ticket price.
Then we get the other big action set piece of the movie; when Superman faces off against Gorman’s Supercomputer. Here we get to enjoy the great Production Design on this movie with the big scale building of a life size model of the Supercomputer built on a set in Pinewood. One thing can always be said about the Salkinds; they were never known to cheapen out when it came to bringing spectacle to the big screen. And here we also get the other stand-out moment of the film; when the Supercomputer turns Webter’s sister, Vera, into a homicidal robot. The transformation sequence is a truly creepy moment of the film, and one that gave nightmares to more than one kid afterwards.
Those are the moments that give this movie good footing, and have also made it stand the test of time against so many other Superman movies which, as technically superior as they may be, will never compare with the first three movies from the Reeve era.
Then we too, unfortunately, get the out-of-place goofy sense of humour, the one dimensional villains of the piece, and a weird, but somewhat quirky performance by Richard Pryor, that all but overwhelms and relegates Superman to the sidelines in his own movie.
Just try and enjoy the little things.
Thanks for reading.