As the so-called superlative comicbook hero, the godfather of tights, the expectations were always going to be huge. And for “Superman: the Movie,” I think the better number of butts in the buckets agreed – Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, director Richard Donner (“The Omen,” “Goonies”) and crew delivered. Not only did they make us believe a man could fly but that no, Paul Newman rebuking Luthor with lines like “Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks?” probably wouldn’t have worked. The gamble with a virtual unknown however, Reeve, had worked. The film grossed 300 million in 1978 dollars and finally gave the letter “S” the respect it deserved (no thanks to you, Sesame Street). The followup, “Superman II,” has its own backstory, as theatrical as select parts of the series, involving Donner, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler. In brief, Donner was to film Supermans I and II in tandem and almost did before matters of budget, scheduling and professional chafing resulted in him relinquishing his role to director Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night”). Lester merged segments of pre-lensed footage from Donner and his own into the sequel we have today. Sometimes deftly dramatic (probably Donner), occasionally jesting (likely Lester), the movie was again a hit. Audiences were pleased, popcorn was munched, end of story (until The Richard Donner Cut).
So what the heck happened? For better or worse, Richard Lester returned for “Superman III,” confirming his fondness for camp in spades. According to Wikipedia and Christopher Reeve, “[He] was always looking for a gag – sometimes to the point where the gags involving Richard Pryor went over the top. I mean, I didn’t think that his going off the top of a building, on skis with a pink tablecloth around his shoulders, was particularly funny.” We hear you Chris. But the skiing-off-a-skyscraper scene wasn’t the only of Lester’s abuses. Supes straightening out the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Supes getting sauced and flicking peanuts at a bar mirror. Clark eating dog food. At the very least this was a Superman of firsts.
The film begins on the streets of Metropolis with a domino parade of sight gags that writer Peter Nicholls calls “probably finer than anything since Mack Sennett.”
I’d call it an embarrassment. As the last domino falls, Superman is given a chance to strut his stuff, his first of the movie. Unfortunately, and this adverb loves this movie, leaping to a rescue that could have been resolved by a paperboy leaves a dangerous first impression, that this hero’s myth is worth sullying for laughs. Recall Joel Schumacher’s “Batman and Robin.” No, don’t do that.
The story has grains of familiarity. When down-on-his-luck Metropolite Gus Gorman (comedian Richard Pryor) discovers a talent for computer programming, and computer theft, he’s recruited by corporate magnate Ross Webster (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”‘s Robert Vaughn) to manipulate trade in whatever world commodity will make him richer. To assist is Webster’s priggish sister (Annie Ross) and the squeaky, hourglass bombshell Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson), as obvious a stand-in for Ms. Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) as Webster is for Lex Luthor. Coincidence? Don’t know. And if Google can’t find the truth I move on. Either way the results speak for themselves. The film’s villains are a tawdry imitation, as worthy a challenge to the Man of Steel as Elmer Fudd to Warner’s rabbit.
Gorman too is similar to Luthor’s sidekick, Otis (Ned Beatty), bumbly and accommodating until he demands more. When a hunk of synthetic Kyrptonite fails to kill Superman, only make him really grumpy, Gus has Webster build him a supercomputer that promises to do the job. Sounds cool, and in 1983 it was at least current. Home computing was in its infancy and the Commodore 64 in vogue, but where “WarGames” used its technology intelligently, at least believably, Gorman’s computer was able to make cyborgs with Joan Jett hair. Out of nowhere, I should add. But Pryor is funny at least, albeit misplaced, and clean enough for family viewing. Consider ourselves lucky that it was he who was cast, a performer who could squeeze laughs from a church bulletin, and not a lesser comedian…I guess.
But even today, “Superman III” isn’t a total loss. Once acclimatized to its cartoonish tone, there’s some residual charm at work here, mostly thanks to Reeve. In a story that runs parallel to the Webster/Gorman line, Kent travels to his boyhood town of Smallville to write a story about his high-school reunion. Things have changed. The football captain is a drunk and Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), Clark’s high-school crush, is now a single mother. An uncertain romance begins. Reeve doesn’t miss a beat here, still the lovable absent-minded nerd as Clark Kent, still impressing humanity to a higher standard in the cape. But critic Roger Ebert nailed it when he remarked on humanity’s impression of Superman in the film. It’s rather matter-of-fact. “The movie and the people in it take this incredible creature for granted. After the bird and the plane, it’s ‘Superman’ when it should be SUPERMAN!”
Kal-el’s been through a lot in his 75 years – orphaned, adopted, celebritized, revered, killed, resurrected and married. No single superhero film needs all of that, of course, or even life-changing events, but it should at minimum respect the myth: Superman as alien immigrant, Superman as moral compass and Superman as a being of both personal needs and duty. “Superman: the Movie” set the bar high on all three counts. Which brings us to the junkyard brawl. Yeah, you know the scene. The scene that kills rewind buttons? That wonderfully bizarro scene where the bad, how-did-my-suit-get-so-dirty-so-quickly Superman and the white-collared Kent duke it out for the rights to Kal-el’s soul? Terrific. (I like the tire throwing bit.) In spite of all the sequel’s missteps, writers David and Leslie Newman were onto something there, an original way to examine the myth, challenge the character, inspire new effects sequences and dignify the legend. Ooops. Somebody dropped the ball. Maybe “The Man of Steel” can pick it up.