[box cover]

Superman III

What a sad fall from grace. Make that a plummet, one that's faster than a speeding bullet. If there's one good thing about Superman III, it's that this clunky mess forces us to really appreciate the Superman series' first director, Richard Donner. Donner gave Superman: The Movie its meritorious style and class, then provided the good parts of Superman II. Yet he still had to fight his producers — the notorious Salkinds — tooth and nail to hoist the Superman saga above camp silliness embodying all the wrong things people associate with "that comic book crap." He succeeded with Superman: The Movie. But that hardfought victory cost him his job directing its sequel. With two-thirds of Superman II in the can, the Salkinds gracelessly fired Donner and replaced him with Richard Lester, who dismantled much of Donner's work and re-sculpted Superman II into a less dignified vision. Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and composer John Williams, in protest, refused to return to work with Lester. Margot Kidder, without their powerhouse influence, could but complain bitterly about how Donner was treated. While still a pretty good movie due to the presence of Donner's earlier influence, Superman II became a significantly diminished product under Lester's hand. It wasn't until our subject here, Superman III, fully directed by Lester under the Salkinds' blessings, that we can witness what the first movie could have been had Donner not saved it from the forces of mediocrity and insults to the audience's intelligence.

For Superman III is both mediocre and an offense to our brains, imagination, and patience. Now retooling the series into unfunny low comedy, the script feels written for no one above the age of nine. As a production it looks cheaply made and thrown together. Worse, this is a mean-spirited piece of work. Lester (who genuinely improved the human condition with A Hard Day's Night) carries the whole thing with cynical, who-gives-a-crap? disregard. Well-known for a goony British sense of humor, here his attempts at slapstick are only painful. Even the opening credits sequence emphasizes tone-deaf yuks for maximum annoyance. With the exception of Christopher Reeve, who, bless him, manages to maintain his dignity no matter how hard other forces in each sequel try to strip it from him, everyone you see here seems to know that the audience is being so ill-served. (Well, you don't see much of Kidder anyway. To punish her for speaking her mind, the Salkinds ship Lois Lane out of the story by sending her to Bermuda, which here is said to be in the Caribbean; maybe this is Bizarro Earth.)

The patchwork plot feels cobbled together from three or more discarded script treatments. Robert Vaughn's dull megalomaniac villain comes with a ludicrous Evil Mastermind Scheme that descends into a scene stolen from the Mexican horror cheapie Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. During scenes set at Clark Kent's class reunion in Smallville, Annette O'Toole is wholesome and fine as single-mom love-interest Lana Lang, though she's all but lost in the clutter. The real crime here is committed against comedian Richard Pryor, one of the most penetrating and trailblazing comics of the 20th century. Like Elvis, his choice of film projects was rarely smart, but he still deserved better than to be cast as computer whiz Gus Gorman, a dunderhead savant employed by Vaughn to aid his plan for world domination. (Pryor's classic satirical "Super Nigger!" standup routine opened with the line, "I always wanted to go to the movies and see a black hero." However, both he and Reeve should look embarrassed when The Man of Steel clasps Gus in a soul-brother jive handshake. We do.)

The one interesting plot thread — a mentally unbalanced Superman, afflicted by a piece of synthetic red Kryptonite, physically splits into a black-caped Übermensch battling his Clark Kent persona — fails to live up to its potential because no attempt is made to explore its greater possibilities. When the same scenario appeared in a 1962 issue of Action Comics, it was handled with greater interest and imagination. As in the abysmal (but less black-hearted) final follow-up, Superman IV, somehow Reeve rises above the crap. But this is the film that guaranteed he'd never fly high again.

*          *          *

Warner's 2001 DVD release has an undistinguished anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), unremarkable DD 2.0 mono audio, and the theatrical trailer. Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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