#3: Superman III (1983)
One look at this cover image should probably tell you that something has gone seriously wrong here.
It’s pretty mind-blowing to me that something as bad as this film not only exists, but stars Christopher Reeve. It’s like watching a famously-bad parody, only the lead in the parody is the actual star of the film being parodied. It would be like if Tobey Maguire played Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man. (Too soon?)
This is the only film in the Superman film series to be classified as an action comedy film, which right away seems like a pretty bad idea. Switching genres in the middle of a series can be done (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, anyone?), but it isn’t to be undertaken lightly. Trouble is, “lightly” is exactly how everything in this film was taken.
I usually try to avoid simply summarizing the plot of a film in these reviews, but in this case I actually think it might be the best way to convince you of how terrible this film is. So I’m going to try to describe the plot of this film without it sounding to anyone who hasn’t seen this film like I’ve made this up. (I will fail.)
Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is on a vacation during which the entire events of this film are said to have taken place. (Hold on to that one. It’s going to be hilarious.) Clark Kent attends his high school renunion, not because he is a normal person who can take a few days off to go to his high school reunion like any sane person would do, but because he somehow convinces Editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) that he will get a feature story out of it. No, I’m serious: that’s actually what happens.
So Clark journeys to Smallville, where he is reunited with his childhood friend Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole.) Lana is divorced and the mother of three. The two proceed to attempt to bore the audience to death so they won’t be around to see how bad the rest of the film is. (At least, I’m assuming that was what was going on here. Otherwise I honestly have no idea.)
Meanwhile, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) shows up to completely ruin any possibility this film might’ve had of being good. Gus “takes a computer class” (this lasts a few minutes) and is immediately thereafter a computer genius. Just as immediately, he gets a job and begins embezzling from their payroll by typing a few commands into what appears to be an unsecured computer that will transfer money into your account as long as you misspell most of the commands you give it. (“Hey, he typed ‘overide all security!’ What else was I supposed to do? This is clearly legit.”)
Impressed by his obvious genius, CEO Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) decides to recruit Gus into his scheme to rule the world with (What else?) computers! His plan to implement this is to use a weather satellite to create a storm that will destroy Colombia’s coffee crop. If you’re thinking, “Wait, don’t weather satellites observe weather, not control it?” congratulations: you have put far more thought into the plot of this film than the writers did. Anyway, Superman obviously shows up and destroys the satellite and saves the country’s coffee crops.
Undeterred, Webster decides to use the magic of computers to kill Superman by creating Kryptonite. (“How,” you ask? Don’t be silly. Computers are magic.) They present this artificial Kryptonite to Superman as a gift, but instead of killing Superman it turns him evil.
No, wait, I’m sorry: that’s what would’ve happened if this movie had some small trace of good in it. This movie’s version of an “evil” Superman has him committing petty acts of vandalism. Our “evil” Superman straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa and blows out the Olympic Torch. Hey, you know what would be pretty interesting? If he tried to take over the world. Or, you know, did anything remotely “evil” in a way that made any sense.
Superman next goes on a drinking binge, until a little boy urgues him to stop being evil. He then splits into two people (literally), the evil Superman and the good Clark Kent. The excruciating fight ends with Clark strangling his evil self to death and ripping open his shirt to reveal his Superman costume.
Because this film still has its original villains to defeat, Superman engages in a fight with a computer that Gus has built in the Grand Canyon that defends itself with missiles and Kryptonite beams. (Yeah, don’t ask.) I really don’t want to bore you with the details, so suffice it to say Superman wins, with some help from a remorseful Gus. To thank him for helping him, Superman flies Gus away so he won’t be arrested with Webster and his other henchmen, and drops him off with a job reference at a West Virginia coal mine, presumably to learn a valuable lesson about honest work while he slowly dies of black lung. Shockingly, Gorman opts instead to take his chances elsewhere and walks to a bus stop.
The triumphant Superman returns to Metropolis where he finds that Lana Lang is now Perry White’s secretary. Wait… was that the entire point of this film? Making a Superman/Lois/Lana love triangle possible in future films? Because if so, A) they didn’t do that, and B) it wasn’t worth it. It really wasn’t worth it. Also, remember that thought you were holding onto earlier? Lois is freshly back from her vacation. A vacation to get her out of the way, which seems pretty unnecessary in the first place as Superman was in Smallville… you know what, whatever. The point is, in the space of a couple weeks, Gus Gorman became a computer genius, got a job, embezzled money, got discovered, turned Superman evil, and built a giant supercomputer protected by missile launchers in the Grand Canyon (without anybody noticing.) Yeah.
In the traditional narrative about this film, aside from Christopher Reeves’ acting, Good Superman vs. Evil Superman is seen as its only redeeming quality. I really actually can’t agree with that at all, because that storyline was poorly-written, poorly-executed, and its only redeeming quality was (hey, look at that!) Christopher Reeves’ acting. The traditional narrative also holds that this film’s direct sequel Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, as well as Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, are just as bad. Well… we’ll get into that next time.