The Good: Good acting, Some decent effects, Interesting plot
The Bad: Some cheesy effects, Forced humor
The Basics: Superman is split into two personalities when an industrialist creates synthetic kryptonite in Superman III.
As I finish off a month of Superman-related reviews, I actually found myself fairly excited to return to the movie I had some good memories of from my childhood: Superman III. Superman III is, despite all of its faults, a memorable enough film that includes concepts referenced elsewhere (the half-penny aggregation trick is a cool one alluded to in other works like Office Space among others) and a supporting character who is actually clever in his own right (the speed with which Gus Gorman figures out how to get by the computer that requires two keys to be simultaneously inserted is good). Several of the aspects of Superman III logically progress the Superman character.
Following Superman 2 (reviewed here!), where the hero was rendered powerless, the natural place to push Superman is into a darker place. Unlike the new Man Of Steel (reviewed here!), which has Superman going in his first outing to a crisis point that truly challenges the character and what he believes, the classic Superman movies took a sensible approach and built the character with each movie. Superman III maintains the Clark Kent persona and puts Superman in a personality crisis thanks to the film’s Lex Luthor-like villain (who is not Lex Luthor in this outing).
Opening with Gus Gorman, who is getting kicked off his unemployment benefits in Metropolis, a series of coincident disasters in the streets of the city are undone by Superman. Gorman gets a job at Webscoe where he devises a way to make more money by using the company computer to create a paycheck consolidating the half-cents dropped from everyone else’s pay. This brings him to the attention of Ross Webster, the head of the company. Webster wants Gorman to use computers to reroute the Vulcan weather satellite system to destroy Colombia’s coffee crops (so he can get a worldwide monopoly on coffee). Meanwhile, Clark Kent returns to Smallville for his class reunion and he meets up with Lana Lang, upon whom he has a pretty serious crush. Lang is a single mother who tries looking out for the needs of her son Ricky, but spends an awful lot of time having a pity party and leading Clark on.
After Superman rescues Ricky from death at the hands of a wheat thresher and putting out a fire at a nearby chemical plant, he thwarts Webster’s plan to destroy Colombia’s coffee by turning the tornado Gorman creates upside down. Eager to stop Superman, Webster has Gorman use the Vulcan satellite to find kryptonite in space and evaluate its chemical composition. When Gorman does that, .57% of the meteor is unknown and when the synthetic kryptonite is delivered to Superman it does not kill him instantly. Instead, it makes him lethargic. He then turns angry – righting the Leaning Tower Of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic torch, etc. – and Webster quietly declares victory as he hijacks the world’s oil supply. When Webster builds Gorman’s super computer, both the world and Superman are put in real peril.
While the story and plot progression of Superman III are good enough, the effects are appropriately dated. Even so, it is worth noting that the film has some pretty awesome pyrotechnics in the chemical fire scene and up until the frozen lake element is introduced, the scene is actually amazing filmmaking (before or after CG effects!). On DVD, there are only a few points not cleaned up adequately to make Superman III look good.
What is impossible to clean up in Superman III is the role of women. The four main women in Superman III are the airhead (Webster’s woman Lorelei), the mother (Lana Lang), the bitch (Webster’s evil sister, Vera), and the nonentity (poor Lois Lane is given a vacation almost instantly and sits out virtually the whole movie). Unfortunately, only Lorelei has moments of illustrating greater character than her original characterization as she seems to be playing the dim bimbo, but is reading Kant. Women are not treated very well in Superman III and the way Lana Lang oscillates between whining and . . . gosh, I guess there’s not really an oscillation; she just whines her way through Superman III.
Fortunately, Superman is given a pretty decent arc. While the message of Superman III might be that just under the surface, Superman has an inner douchebag just aching to get out, the film adequately explores the repressed rage of Superman and the idea that Superman is not simply a monolithic good character. In the film’s pivotal scene, Superman and Clark Kent duel and given that Superman had given up on being decent before that, it works on metaphorical level very well. The scene also illustrates well that the effort to maintain a maniacal stance cannot stand up to the power of fighting for a higher principle. Or it shows just how dangerous a junkyard can be and that few people have problems with Superman killing himself.
Medically, it makes no real sense that Superman could overcome the synthetic kryptonite unless his body built up a tolerance to it, which is not contradicted in the film.
The performances in Superman III are actually more consistently decent than in many of the previous Superman films. Christopher Reeve is great as the evil version of Superman and he plays Clark Kent just as well as he did in the previous films. Robert Vaughn is a good successor to Gene Hackman as Vaughn plays the villainous Webster. Vaughn actually is more consistent and plays a more sensible corrupted businessman than Hackman’s Luthor.
Unfortunately, the humor in Superman III is incredibly forced. Richard Pryor, who plays Gus, seems forced into delivering some of the movie’s most stale jokes and director Richard Lester seems almost terrified of giving Pryor moments of real drama to carry. Instead, Pryor plays to his comedic strengths, slouching through most of his performance in the role of a guy who is supposed to be clever but amoral. Sadly, the type of humor Pryor is expected to deliver undermines the idea that Gus is credibly inventive and that undermines the film some.
Superman III is entertaining and it actually has its moments, but is dated and misses the opportunity to deeply explore another version of Superman.
For other third movies in a franchise, please check out my reviews of:
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
The Dark Knight Rises
Check out how this movie ranks against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where films are in order from best to worst!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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