Summer of the 80’s: Superman III

Summer of the 80′s is a weekly column that will run until the end of August in which I watch a movie released during the summer movie season of the 1980′s that I’ve never seen before.  Every Friday, I’ll write about an 80′s movie that came out on the same day, or near the same day, that correlates with the post here on the site.  So follow me as I travel back in time to discover my lost summer at the movies.

About the movie

Superman III was released on June 17, 1983 by Warner Bros.  It was directed by Richard Lester, who is most famous for directing The Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night as well as for being the director who relieved Richard Donner of directing duties on Superman II.  The film was written by David Newman and Leslie Newman, who were writers on the first two Superman pictures.  The film stars Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Annette O’Toole, Robert Vaughn, Jackie Cooper, Mark McClure and Margot Kidder.  The film’s budget is unknown but it opened to $13.3 million before going on to gross $59.9 million.  It did not reach the $100 million plus levels of the first two films but was considered profitable.  Superman III is currently available on DVD and is available on Blu-ray, though only in the Superman: Motion Picture Anthology box set currently.

Tagline

If the world’s most powerful computer can control even Superman…no one on earth is safe.

My thoughts

I’ve avoided Superman III (and Superman IV) like they were the plague.  Even as a kid, I felt that the movies would be unwatchable and never wanted to check them out.  Well I’m happy that I avoided seeing Superman III (or as I will now forever call it, Superman Gets Drunk) until now as my taste in bad cinema has grown and I can now take joy in some of cinema’s misfires and ill-conceived films.  Let it be known, as I’m sure some of you already know, Superman III is a TERRIBLE movie.  This movie sits on the level of The Return of Swamp Thing bad.  However, much like that film, it is still fun to watch as it reveals to you its own brand of insanity.

The film’s opening credits is an elaborate slapstick sequence with people in phone booths getting knocked over, a blind man mistaking a piece of machinery for his seeing-eye dog and furry toy penguins being set loose through the streets of Metropolis.  It doesn’t make much sense, though admittedly I found it funny, and sets the precedent that Superman III isn’t going to be anything you can take seriously.  I mean, how else can you take a movie where the villain uses computers to control the weather in Columbia just so he can set the price of coffee?  That’s the villain’s “evil plan” in a nutshell except he doesn’t know how to use those “blasted computers” so he gets Richard Pryor to do his dirty work since he randomly has a talent for pushing buttons of which he has no understanding.  I almost wish that in the movie I had seen Richard Pryor, while operating a computer, push buttons on the keyboard in exaggerated strokes while saying “bee boop boop beep boop bee boop.. hey look!  I got the computer to make a live chicken!  It just popped out of the screen and then laid an egg!  I’m a genius!”  Surprisingly enough, that random illogic would fit right in with the rest of the movie.

There are quite a few examples of how utterly illogical and batshit insane Superman III is.  I won’t go into all of them, otherwise this would turn into a 4,000 word post, but there are some worth mentioning.  For instance, a fire breaks out at a chemical plant of some sort and firefighters run out of water as the fire gets out of control.  Superman decides, despite the fact that he could just blow it out with one gust of his super lungs, to find the nearest lake, use his breath to freeze the water, pick it up and fly it over the fire where he drops it and it magically melts into rain as the giant ice block falls to the ground (instead of what would be the reality of it falling the short distance from the sky crushing all the buildings and killing all the people beneath it).  But hey, it doesn’t have to make sense.  There’s another instance where Richard Pryor is using a computer at the WHEATKING factory in Smallville and somehow manages to accidentally cause ATMs in Metropolis to start spitting out money, alter Bloomingdale’s credit card billing and change traffic light and crosswalk signal patterns.  It even causes the “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” crosswalk symbol figures, which aren’t real living creatures by any means, to literally start fighting and wrestling each other… what?!?  One of my favorites examples though has the villain of the movie skiing atop his skyscraper, thanks to a weather altering satellite, which has placed snow atop of it in the middle of what looks to be summer.  Richard Pryor finds himself on the snow-topped skyscraper with skis on and goes down the snow hill, at a very slow and manageable speed mind you, and skis off the side of the building falling to the ground in what would result in certain death.  Instead, he lands on his feet in the middle of the street, unscathed and only causing a minor annoyance to traffic.  Oh and did I forget to mention that Superman can turn tornadoes upside down and clean up oil spills in the ocean with his breath?

My favorite aspect of Superman III is drunk Superman.  This comes about because of the villain and Richard Pryor trying to recreate Kryptonite using elements from Earth in order to kill Superman (so that they can continue on their coffee price scheme and get into the oil business as well).  What they produce doesn’t kill Superman but instead turns him into a giant jackass, a giant horny jackass at that.  This change in Superman’s demeanor apparently also has the ability to change the red color on his costume to a darker maroon.  Perhaps his costume acts like a mood ring in this one?  While in drunk Superman mode, he randomly flies to Italy and decides to straighten out the Leaning Tower of Pisa, just to be a dick.  He also blows out the Olympic torch just as the final runner climbs the stairs to light the cauldron.  Superman just gives him a smirk and the Olympic runner is like “aww shucks.”  This “drunk Superman” segment is also where a big breasted blonde seduces Superman into stopping a ship carrying oil by busting through the side of it and causing the oil to leak into the ocean (he cleans it up later when he’s feeling better).  I also cannot forget to mention this is the portion of the movie in which, at one point, a bright spark appears in drunk Superman’s head and out pops Clark Kent.  They battle each other, in a rather long and drawn out fight, until one is the victor.  It’s amusing to watch because it’s just flat out ridiculous.

I did find a few things interesting, like the lack of Margot Kidder as Lois Lane.  She appears in the beginning of the film for a few minutes and at the end for a few minutes more.  Her absence is excused by Lois going on vacation.  This may have been to Kidder’s benefit for getting to sit out of a pretty terrible film, but nonetheless, I would have liked to see her in it more.  I’m a fan of Margot Kidder, don’t judge.  I also thought it was interesting that Annette O’Toole played Lana Lang in the film.  For those of you unaware, O’Toole went on to play the mother of Clark Kent in the Smallville TV series.  The visual effects were fun to watch and piece together how they created them.  Sometimes they looked pretty good and other times they really showed their seams.  There were a few moments where I literally could see the wires holding Superman up as he took off or landed.

Superman III is by no means a film of quality.  In fact, if I were a bigger fan of Superman and had seen this in the theater, I would have been downright pissed at how crappy the movie is.  But I’m not a huge Superman fan and the passing of time has made me look at the film today, for the first time, in a different light.  It’s bizarre and atrociously written but it manages to be fun in a bad movie kind of way.  I do not understand how this movie ever got made but I’m glad it did.  I got to see things like the villains trying kill Superman with rockets controlled through an 8-bit video game interface, complete with earned points for direct hits.  But most of all, I got to see Superman sitting at a bar, knocking back some shots and being a hilariously bad douchebag.  If you like bad cinema, I highly recommend checking out Superman Gets Drunk.. er, I mean, Superman III.

Trivia

Margot Kidder’s role as Lois Lane was cut to 12 lines, and less than 5 minutes of screen time, after she expressed her disgust about the firing of Richard Donner to the producers.

The original title for the film was Superman vs. Superman.  The producers of Kramer vs. Kramer threatened a lawsuit, refusing to believe the Salkinds’ explanation that it was intended as a play on various “Superman vs…” comic stories.  Eventually Pierre Spengler suggested that Superman III would be a more sensible title anyway and the issue was dropped.

The little boy who appears waiting by the photo-booth while Clark Kent changes into Superman was actually the same little boy who played baby Kal-El in Superman.

According to producer Ilya Salkind, an earlier version of the script included the comic book villains Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlk teaming up. It also had Superman meeting his cousin, Supergirl, which would lead to the potential Supergirl spin-off.

Jennifer Jason Leigh was originally set to star as Lana Lang but turned down the role because she was too young.

by Ben McBride

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7 thoughts on “Summer of the 80’s: Superman III

  1. While a huge Superman fan, myself, I find I cannot disagree with you about III, IV, on the other hand, while cheesy, did cling more to the comic book look and feel than the first three.

    I also have to admit being eager for Man of Steel about a year from now. The new Superman looks pretty good, and oddly, I’m not upset about the costume change.

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    1. Yea I’m curious to see some footage from the new film to get a better understanding of what it’s going to be like. I’m hoping for the movie to be resemble traditional live action films and less CG created environments like Snyder did with 300 and Sucker Punch.

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  2. I also must agree. I often wonder what the writers were thinking for most of the film; they must have had a different vision in their heads. Or, it was just one of the early examples of Hollywood not having any understanding of technology.

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    1. What’s odd is that the writers wrote the first two films and this one seems just so out of left field. I can’t help but wonder how much of it is Richard Lester’s own influence as the director and whether or not the writers were on board or if they were rolling their eyes at Lester’s ideas. I mean just look at the difference between the Richard Donner cut and the Richard Lester cut of Superman II, you can definitely tell he brought a lot of silly ideas to it. I like Donner’s cut much better.

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  3. Superman 3 is an absolutely entertaining CF. It defies all logic (that is saying a lot in the Superman Universe) and has no real redeeming qualites, but damn…..I do love this movie. I saw it in the theater with my mom the day it came out in the afternoon, and even at the age of 5, I remember thinking that there weren’t a lot of people seeing a Superman film. In all fairness, it did open during the same summer of “Return of the Jedi”, so really, how much better could it have done? I did enjoy the introduction of Lana Lang into the story, especially because she falls in love with Clark while Lois is in love with Superman. The writing is hacky and it began to show that Richard Pryor was hired as a characterture of himself (see “The Toy”) and not for his true talent. At the time this film came out, computers were new to the average moviegoer, so to be fair, a lot of viewers may have truly believed the concept of a satellite controlling weather. It was unknown and innocent and the producers knew that. Lester was the wrong director for this vehicle and essentially killed the Christopher Reeve franchise. However, I do remember being terrified of Vera when she becomes a machine.

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    1. I laughed when Vera became a machine. I could see it being a little scary as a kid, but now, I just laughed out loud. Superman III, while it is an utterly terrible film, is definitely one of my favorite so-bad-so-good movies.

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      1. You laugh now, but imagine when you are 5 years old and she looks like a cross between Rod Stewart, Ziggy Stardust, and Ace Frehley of KISS and she’s on a huge screen. Superman III is epicly bad. The poster even exudes that setiment. Richard Pryor is, well, Richard Pryor. However, Christopher Reeve in the poster is essentially saying with his face, “Kids, I’m sorry……this one is going to hurt. I apologize.” On a sidenote about the poster, I think it’s hialrious that they had to actually put “zoom” marks trailing behind Superman……just in case you lived under a rock and didn’t know he flew.

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