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Re-evaluating SUPERMAN III

Back in 2010, I decided to revisit the Christopher Reeve Superman film series, which I’d had a negative view of in the past, under the impetus of the release of the Richard Donner cut of Superman II.  Watching Donner’s films again (or for the first time in the case of the recut S2) gave me a renewed appreciation for them, while my opinion of the theatrical version of S2 that was largely reshot by Richard Lester remained as low as ever, if not lower.  As for the third and fourth movies, I dismissed them out of hand as not worth my time.

But ComicsAlliance’s columnists Chris Sims and David Uzumeri have been doing a weekly series of vintage-movie reviews lately, offering opinions on familiar superhero movies that are often surprising and unconventional but always interesting.  They were actually a lot harsher on the first Superman movie than I was, and didn’t think much of S2 either; but their review of the much-maligned Superman III (Part One, Part Two) is emphatically positive, and it inspired me to revisit the film myself.  I recommend reading their review in full, and feel it would be redundant for me to go into too much detail, but I thought I’d offer a few comments of my own.

I think Sims and Uzumeri are right about this film — it really does perfectly capture the goofiness of Silver-Age Superman stories from the ’50s and ’60s.  And it is a lot more unified in script and tone than the prior films, which suffered from extensive rewrites and director changes.  This film may be fluffier and more overtly comical, to be sure — and yes, it’s largely a Richard Pryor vehicle (though the majority of deleted scenes on the DVD are his material, so it’s less so than it could’ve been) — but it has a clear, cohesive vision and is tightly scripted and directed throughout.  There’s a ton of stuff happening in the film, lots of little bits of business in the very complex scenes, but it all fits together and is deftly orchestrated by Lester.

There’s good character work here too.  Clark matures into less of a bumbler and more just a nice guy, and Superman gets more facets while getting plenty of opportunities to do good, solid superheroing (the chemical-plant sequence is superb).  Lois is barely present, but what there is of her is just right.  Jimmy is well-handled in his brief role as well, showing some of the intrepidity of the comics character.  Pryor’s Gus Gorman doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers hoped, but the other new characters work very well.  Lana Lang was a fantastic character; Annette O’Toole was lovely, warm, and luminous as a love interest who actually preferred Clark to Superman.  I’ve always remembered her fondly (more so than Margot Kidder, in fact) and considered her a highlight of the film and the whole franchise.  Robert Vaughn’s Ross Webster, as Sims and Uzumeri point out, is a prototype for the corporate-magnate version of Lex Luthor who would emerge in the comics about four years later, and he pulls it off well.  I actually find him a more credible villain than Hackman’s Luthor, who was just some goofball hanging around underground with an idiot sidekick and obsessing about real estate.  Webster actually owned a huge conglomerate and had the resources to dominate the world.  He’s a cartoony villain, but a cartoony villain who works better than movie Luthor did.  (And the set design of his office/lair is ingenious, with all these elaborate gags for displays hidden behind the fireplace and the fountain and such, a hilarious parody of Bond-style supervillain lairs.)  His sister Vera is kind of a wasted character, but his requisite moll Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson) is sexier than Miss Teschmacher and her “genius pretending to be an airhead” act is kind of funny (if you can tolerate the squeaky Judy Holliday voice she puts on).

It’s far from a perfect film, to be sure.  In particular, the “Clark vs. Superman” sequence went on too long and could’ve used more dialogue and character interplay, not just physical action to symbolize the conflict; having the two halves just fight each other undermines the good-vs.-evil theme.  Plus I have issues with its look; some of the effects are kind of cheap, the opening titles are very badly done, and there’s something weird going on with Reeve’s hair color in a lot of the film, light streaks that make Superman look rather odd.  But a lot of it does work, especially the Clark-Lana material, and it’s mostly a very competently directed and structured film.  So I was wrong to discount it before.  I think it stands up there with Superman: The Movie and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut as a pretty solid, if flawed, trio of films, even if it’s very different in tone from the first two.

(And how does it fit in with my preferred viewing approach to S2:TRDC where I stop it just before the recycled turn-back-time sequence, so that Lois still remembers that Clark is Superman?  I think it fits fine, since we see so little of Lois here that it’s possible she’s just pretending not to know.  If anything, it makes her subtle jealousy toward Lana at the end work better, since otherwise Lois would’ve had no reason to be interested in Clark.)

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  1. May 25, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    I think there’s too much Lester footage in the Donner cut of II to really be able to judge it on it’s own merits. It throws the tone of the film off too much. It’s just enough to tease one with the taste of the missed opportunity. Great director commentary track, though.

    I haven’t watched III since the cinema. Or IV. Must fix that.

  2. Physics
    January 19, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    I agree completely. Gus Gorman was mis-cast. It should never have been Richard Pryor or comedic for that matter. Vaughn’s role could have easily been Luthor as we know him now. This movie could have been the best if the first three if not for Pryor’s characterization. I am a fan of Pryor (he co-wrote blazing saddles for gosh sakes!) but he just didn’t fit here.

    • Physics
      January 19, 2014 at 3:49 pm

      Best of the first three

  1. June 8, 2015 at 10:51 am

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