WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Jobless Gus Gorman discovers he’s a computer genius, bringing him to the attention of new employer and unscrupulous tycoon Ross Webster. Using Gus’s know-how, Webster plans – with the help of sister Vera and ‘therapist’ Lorelei – to control the world’s oil; and when a certain Man of Steel gets in the way, the villain is determined to get rid of him by any means necessary.
In my review of Superman II, I observed that it wasn’t quite the movie I remembered from my childhood. I had no such strong misconceptions about its sequel but I certainly remembered it as a fun addition to Superman’s adventures, with a strong vein of comedy and an action-packed finale. Watching the film as an adult, it’s plain just how much comedy has been forcibly rammed into the story and how much it unbalances the heroics of the title character.
Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) is a loser who takes up computer programming out of desperation, and to his and everyone else’s surprise finds he’s a natural at telling computers what to do. This talent lands him a job at Webscoe, a company run by Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) and his frumpy sister Vera (Annie Ross), with girlfriend Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson) hanging around for moral support and to look nice, although secretly she’s more than an impressive (if squeaky) set of lungs. When Gus uses his skills to surreptitiously siphon off more money than he’s ever seen in his life, he’s called up to the bosses’ room; but instead of dismissal, Gus is ordered to carry out a special project, namely to ruin Columbia’s coffee bean harvest and place the whole coffee market in Webster’s hands. However, Superman (remember him?) turns up to save the day; so when Webster reveals the evolution of his scheme – this time using computers to control the world’s oil supply – he also tasks Gus with obtaining a substance that will rid the world of Superman permanently; or at least, get him fighting his demons while Gus stops the rigs, marshals the tankers and oversees construction of his pet project, the ultimate computer.
From this summary the chief problem of Superman III should be immediately apparent. Comedy veteran Lester has essentially filmed a Richard Pryor show with Christopher Reeve reprising his Superman role as a guest star. Right from the protracted and irrelevant initial sequence, heavy on British-tinged slapstick and light on heroics (Supe rescues a man from drowning in his car by opening the sunroof – wow!), you can tell that the film-makers are ‘having fun’ with this one; and since Superman himself is something of an All-American square, Pryor takes up an enormous amount of screen time. This would be fine except that much of his clowning fails to please, the prime example being the entirely unamusing delivery (in all senses) of his kryptonite-ish compound to Superman in Smallville, dressed in military gear. Far too much time is devoted to having Pryor do silly things (such as skiing off a skyscraper), and his late conversion from amoral idiot to Supe’s saviour and best friend feels entirely contrived. Also, not that it’s Pryor’s fault, but the view Superman III takes of computers is hopelessly naive, both in how you tell them to do things (Gus gives instructions in plain English and they obey!) and what they are capable of doing (weather satellites making weather didn’t work in The Avengers either). Also typical of the film’s regrettable lack of discipline are the scenes where Gus mucks up the world’s computers by night and we instantly see the next day’s resulting mayhem, just for (Lester hopes) a few cheap laughs.
But what of our hero? Clark Kent spends much of the film in his adopted home town of Smallville, covering a school reunion and protecting schoolfriend Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) and her Superman-mad son Ricky from, respectively, sozzled security guard Brad (Gavan O’Herlihy) and a combine harvester. However, when confronted with Gus’s concoction Superman turns mean, the Man of Steel hitting on Lana himself and causing mischief, doing Lorelei’s bidding in return for pleasures of the flesh and making a nuisance of himself in Metropolis bars. Reeve seems to enjoy getting to play against type and Superman’s evil phase is by far the most intriguing part of the film, culminating in the exciting showdown between Clark and ‘bad’ Superman in a scrapyard battle (Clark’s disappearance into the crusher is still genuinely troubling); it’s just a shame Superman’s conscience is nagged at by Ricky, such an annoying presence that Clark in the best of moods would surely be tempted to give him a slap.
The other set-piece of Superman III is the climax which sees Supe doing battle against Gus’s Ultimate Computer, a huge machine that defends itself and not only becomes self-aware but also converts Vera into a cyborg for its own purposes. In principle this is a great idea and Vera’s transformation is very well done, but the execution of everything around it is patchy. The journey down the gorge to the control centre is played for laughs and Webster’s attempt to hit Superman with rockets is literally turned into a computer game (Webster’s low-grade evil is little competition for Lex Luthor). And while Superman’s ploy to destroy the computer with a volatile acid he’d handily encountered earlier in the movie is not a bad one per se, there are a couple of plotting issues if you’re taking the film seriously: first, we have to accept that a computer intelligent enough to successfully synthesise kryptonite is also stupid enough not to successfully analyse the acid; second, we have to assume that heat from the computer turns the acid volatile, although it sure doesn’t look that hot (the look Superman gives the acid, I’m tempted to think that there was meant to be a heat-ray effect from his eyes that never showed up).
Perhaps the greatest shame about Superman III is that it finds Chris Reeve in such good form as both Clark and Superman but throws his potential, and that of the essentially decent story, away on (for the most part) pretty lousy gags. Lester, or whoever was responsible for the scrapyard scene, can direct a superhero movie; if only that concentration had been applied to more than 5 minutes out of two hours, it might be remembered more for its comic-book credentials and less for its zaniness.