Here’s the point where the Superman films really started to decline. Superman II worked because most of it was directed by Richard Donner, who had a clear idea of how the films should work. But he was fired from the project (I think he didn’t get on with the producers, judging by his comments in interviews and commentaries) and replaced by Richard Lester, an Englishman who didn’t have the same cultural awareness of Superman, and whose attempts at comedy were a little broader than Donner.
So we come to Superman III, where Lester is the sole director, and whilst it’s not a disaster, like Superman IV, it’s nowhere near the greatness of the first two.
I’m watching this on my shiny Blu-Ray version, but the first thing I notice is that the TV version opens completely differently. It has a regular title sequence up front, a bit less impressive than the titles in the first movie, with reused backgrounds from the first film, an arrangement of the score that just sounds a bit wrong, as the music for this film was by Ken Thorne, using all John Williams’ themes, but none of Williams’ skill at orchestration. This title sequence doesn’t appear in the Blu-Ray, it was obviously an addition for TV, as in the movie (and the Blu-Ray) the titles play over a later sequence.
The film proper starts with Richard Pryor being told he’s no longer eligible for unemployment.
He decides to do what I did, and make big money as a computer programmer. Well, except for the big money bit. I feel like this matchbook is symptomatic of the whole film – look at the telephone number. “12345678” It’s like they’re not even trying.
After this short sequence, we get to the sequence that, in the original, is the title sequence, and which here is mostly just a bunch of non sequiturs. We get our first look at Pamela Stephenson as Lorelei Ambrosia. Her character is very odd. She’s introduced properly, later, as a ‘psychic nutritionist’, and on the surface is supposed to be a bubbly airhead, but she keeps giving hints that this is all a front. It never really goes anywhere, but I guess they were trying. I suppose she’s there as a replacement for Valerie Perrine. But really she’s just wasted here.
You can tell this sequence was shot in Britain by the number of recognisable British performers to be seen. Here’s Graham Stark as a comedy blind man.
Gordon Rollings is the kind of face who we see a lot.
Comic actor Bob Todd
Back to Richard Pryor as Gus Gorman, taking his computer courses. Almost everything to do with computers in this film seems to have been written by someone who has never seen a computer. In fact, I’d not be surprised if they’d never even heard of computers, so terrible is every instance of computer use. In this scene, one of the students asks “What if you want to program two bilateral coordinates at the same time?” “You can’t do that. It’s impossible. Computer technology is very advanced, young lady, but it can’t do that.” But, in order to show that Gus is a computer genius, he does exactly that. Trouble is, when his instructor asks how he did it he answers “I don’t know, I just did it.” Which isn’t a great answer, even if you believe that you can have an innate ability with programming.
What’s even funnier is that it shows the code listing, and the code does literally print what’s on the previous screen, then waits for three keypresses, printing out a character each time, to simulate input, then prints a whole bunch of output. It’s literally the program that is running to simulate whatever the actual system is supposed to be.
I will be returning to this movie’s treatment of computers again. And again.
The Daily Planet office, once the home of sparkling banter, feels wooden and lifeless. This is our first of only two glimpses of Lois Lane, as she goes off on holiday to Bermuda. There’s a really leaden running joke about Perry picking bingo numbers. None of this lands.
Well, there’s some good stuff, like Clark showing off his old school jumper.
Gus has got a job at big corporation Webscoe, and he’s hacking the Webscoe accounts system to funnel all fractions of a cent from employee paychecks. He hacks their system by typing the words “OVERIDE ALL SECURITY”. And it works. I guess it has spellcheck.
He gets access to the secret admin menu.
And now, suddenly, he’s using a light pen to select from the menu.
And this is how he instructs the system to funnel the money into his account. That’s a very sophisticated natural language parser they’ve got there.
Clark and Jimmy are on the way to Smallville so he can attend his school reunion and write about it. But there’s a fire at a chemical plant. There’s Shane Rimmer as a state trooper.
The fire chief is played by Al Matthews, Sgt Apone in Aliens and former Radio One DJ.
This isn’t a bad action setpiece. It’s no helicopter rescue, but it has a certain amount of jeopardy, as there’s a room full of acid which, if it overheats, will become hugely reactive and eat through everything.
The fire trucks run out of water, so Superman has to freeze the water in a nearby lake and drop it on the plant, which luckily is enough to put out all the fires.
Jimmy was injured taking photos of the disaster, so Clark is on his own when he gets to the reunion. This feels like a story contrivance – some small bit of business for Jimmy before they ditch him.
But once Clark’s back in Smallville, that’s where the movie really works. Christopher Reeve gets to do his thing as Clark, still the only modern Clark Kent to play the nerdy klutz.
His old schoolyard crush was Lana Lang. We saw her in the young Clark part of the original movie, and now she’s played by Annette O’Toole, who’s just delightful in this movie.
Also brilliant, but hardly delightful, is Gavan O’Herlihy as Brad, the school jock (also glimpsed in the first movie) who’s never really achieved anything since his school triumphs, and these days is just an annoying drunk. O’Herlihy is the son of the great Dan O’Herlihy, by the way.
Back in Metropolis, Gus’s embezzlement of company money has been noticed, and brought to the attention of Webscoe CEO Ross Webster, played by Robert Vaughn. He’s fine as the evil CEO, and only really suffers because we’re comparing him with Gene Hackman.
Annie Ross plays his sister. We’ve already seen Pamela Stephenson as Webster’s psychic nutritionist.
I quite like the gag where Webster thinks they’ll never find out who’s using the computer to embezzle funds. “He’ll keep on quietly taking the bread from our mouths, he’ll keep a low profile and won’t do a thing to call attention to himself. Unless of course he is a complete and utter moron.” Cue Gus screeching into the company car park in his new sports car. He doesn’t even park it in a parking bay.
Back in Smallville, Lana and Clark have gone bowling with her little boy Ricky and his friends. He’s not very good at bowling (which makes me wonder why they didn’t go and do something he does enjoy, but I guess Smallville has limited options). Brad is also there, still trying to convince Lana that he’s her only option in their small town, and, because he’s a jock “A natural athlete can play any sport.” I love the calm, polite way Clark gets him to back off from embarrassing Ricky in front of his friends. He’s not cowed by Brad for a second, but neither is he belligerent back. It’s lovely stuff. And there’s the super-breath propelling Ricky’s ball to smash all the pins to cap off an amusing scene.
During a picnic, little Ricky manages to walk into the middle of a wheatfield then fall and hit his head on a rock, putting him in the path of the harvesters. You’d think a boy raised in Kansas would know to stay out of fields.
Webster summons Gus to his penthouse office, and offers him a chance to use his amazing computer skills for more than embezzlement. They want to use a new weather satellite to devastate the coffee crop in Colombia, so he’s sent to an out of the way Webscoe company to use their computer to hack into the weather satellite. It’s out of the way so it can’t be traced back. Except it’s still a Webscoe company. Nothing about this plan makes sense. But it gets Gus to Smallville, and he has to get Brad drunk as he’s the nightwatchman.
Talking of things that don’t make sense, check out the security around the company’s computer. This is a farming company. With the same security protocols as NORAD has for launching a nuclear missile. You have to wonder what’s on that computer normally that requires such security.
Anyone recognise what Gus is typing here? I’m inclined to say it’s gibberish, but I guess it could be something like APL, which I don’t know at all.
There’s a montage of all the computer-controlled things going wrong around the country, as Gus distracts from the satellite stuff. The timescale is a little weird here. We see a credit card company printing wildly inflated credit card bills, then, somehow, see a husband and wife receiving one of these bills. It’s Sandra Dickinson (married to Doctor Who at the time) and Ronnie Brody, a very familiar face from British comedy, particularly Dave Allen and Dick Emery. What’s less funny is when he looks at the size of the bill, then gets a half grapefruit and rubs it in her face. Ho Ho, let’s all laugh at a little domestic violence.
I’m not even angry about the computer controlled traffic signals that malfunction by having the red and green men have a fight. I’m just disappointed.
Even the fact that they’ve got Longitude before Latitude is annoying me. And he’s not specifying NS or EW, so when you put those coords into Google Maps you get to somewhere south of Sri Lanka. You have to use negative coords to get anywhere near Colombia. It’s still wrong, as it’s in the north of Peru, but at least it’s the right continent.
A newsreader tells of the devastation in the area – it’s Philip Gilbert, the voice of TIM in the Tomorrow People (as well as Timus and others on the same show).
Webster has a ski slope on top of his building. I buy this 100%.
They’re all happy about the devastation, which means they’ve cornered the market in coffee, until Gus turns up and explains how Superman arrived and dried off all the coffee plants. I’m puzzled as to why so much of the comedy business Pryor has been given plays so badly. Would having him play an actually smart character have been so bad? Reeve gets comedy out of Clark without having to play stupid. This seems like a wasted opportunity. And let’s not even mention that he falls about twenty stories from the roof before landing on a lower glass roof slope, and then landing safely on the ground.
So to get Superman out of the way, Gus has to create some Kryptonite, which he does by asking the same weather control satellite to locate and search Xeno galaxy and analyze Kryptonite. Science is so easy.
Here’s the formula for Kryptonite, in case you want to make some yourself. I am genuinely amazed that those percentages add up to 100%. And you’d better believe I just typed them into Excel. Also, what the hell is Dialium? Wikipedia says it’s a legume.
Ah, green lined printer paper. Can you even get that any more? During my (truncated) university career, I’d occasionally print out stuff and have to collect it from the ops room. Once, I’d donwloaded a list of jokes from somewhere on the network. What I hadn’t realised, because I’d only read it on screen and couldn’t tell, was that each joke was separated not by line feeds but by page breaks. So each joke was printed on a single page. And there were hundreds of them. The printout was several inches thick when I went to pick it up, with a note on the top simply saying “Please do not print this again.”
Lana phones Clark, who’s back in Metropolis, telling him that Ricky was so excited about being rescued by Superman that he’s been telling his friends that Superman is coming to Smallville for his birthday. So Clark promises that Superman will be there. Except it gets a bit out of control, as the whole town want to get into the act.
During the presentation, Gus arrives dressed as a General, and gives a strange speech about chemicals, and presents Superman with an award for saving the chemical plant – the award being the synthetic Kryptonite. Now, given that it’s not supposed to be real Kryptonite, I wonder why the makers didn’t make this Kryptonite Red, to fit in with the comics, where Red Kryptonite has ‘strange’ effects on Superman, just as it does here. I know that non-comics fans know about the green, but a single line of dialogue could have sufficed, and it would have been a nice reference for fans. But I fear that the writers and director hadn’t really read much Superman.
Gus has to report back that the Kryptonite appeared to have no effect on Superman, giving Robert Vaughn his best line. “I asked you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one, simple thing.”
But it did have an effect, the first inkling of which is when Superman is visiting with Lana, and she gets a call about an emergency on the local road bridge, but he’d prefer to stay with her. It’s a combination of out of character and social embarrassment that works really well.
Then, he starts acting very strangely, doing things like straightening the leaning tower of Pisa, including comedy cameos from another couple of British faces, John Bluthal, stalwart of Spike Milligan’s TV shows.
And George Chisolm, who used to pop up on various TV programmes playing the trombone.
Now Gus has designed a supercomputer. On napkins and cigarette packets. Because a computer genius doesn’t have any design tools or anything. I guess this was the 80s, but still.
Webster’s next plan is to send all the oil tankers in the world into the middle of the Atlantic, so he controls all the oil. No, I don’t understand how that works either. But all the ships obey the orders. All except one of them. This is almost a good joke.
But they ruin it when we see the Captain, and he appears to be American. So I’m not quite sure that joke was fully joined up.
Lorelei attracts Superman’s attention by sitting on the top of the Statue of Liberty, flirts a bit, then gets him to punch a hole in the rogue vessel’s hull. None of this really hangs together as remotely convincing.
Lana, sick of getting phone calls from Brad telling her ‘she should start appreciating’ him because there’s nothing else for her in Smallville, takes a trip to Metropolis, which is lucky, because it gives her and Ricky a change to see the now very drunk and grumpy Superman smash up a bar by flicking peanuts. But Ricky still believes in Superman. “You’re just in a slump” has says. Because who wouldn’t be moved to overcome internal demons by being lectured by a ten year old?
What follows is a scene that is not only impossible to parse narratively, but which is also the emotional heart of the film. With Ricky’s weak platitudes ringing in his ears, Superman falls from the sky into a junkyard, then, somehow, he splits into two people, evil Superman and Clark Kent.
I have no idea if this is something the film wants us to believe physically happened, some kind of super-power we’ve never seen, or whether this is a kind of a dream sequence, showing us a visual metaphor for something that’s happening inside Superman’s head. It doesn’t really matter, beyond a nerdy need to understand, because this sequence does what it needs to – it shows us conflict inside Superman, and the eventual triumph of the good side, as the evil Superman in the grubby suit fades away, leaving Clark Kent to stand, rip open his shirt and show the pristine Superman costume underneath. It’s the closest this film comes to the mythic grandeur of the first two films.
As an aside, it’s always bothered me that in the Zach Snyder films, Superman’s costume had the same muted, dark colours as bad Superman’s suit in this. But then, those films were such a massive misjudgment about what a Superman film should be that it’s not surprising they can’t even get the costume right.
Having got better, Superman now has to follow the Websters to their new hideout, where they have built Gus’s supercomputer. There’s some nice production design going on in this set.
Superman comes for them, to the canyon where it’s been built (don’t get me started on the timeline of this movie) but the Websters have missiles. Even better, the missiles are controlled by a videogame, complete with an 8-bit Superman.
After he’s made short work of the missiles, Superman confronts the Websters, and Vera hits him with a Kryptonite beam.
Gus grows a conscience, and unscrews the tiny screw that controls all the power for the computer. Webster sees him, so Gus swallows the screw, then Webster gets him in a chokehold, which isn’t a good optic.
But the computer is too powerful, and finds another source of power.
After Gus finally stops the kryptonite beam by hitting it with a fire axe, Superman leaves. The bad guys try to leave, but Vera is grabbed by the computer and turned into a robot. Could be something scary.
Could be, but isn’t.
Superman returns, having brought a cannister of the acid from the chemical plant at the start. He’s immediately menaced by two transformers. I buy this scene 100% as this is what I imagine would happen to me if I ever went into one of those substations with the signs on the door saying ‘Danger of Death’.
Superman is attacked by the computer, and smothered by Ribbon Cable.
But the acid reacts to the heat and starts splattering everywhere, causing the whole set to blow up, as is right and proper for all good blockbuster movies.
We don’t get to see if the Websters or Lorelei are still alive after this, but Superman rescues Gus, then stops at a coal mine to pick up a lump of coal with which to fashion a diamond. At last, something from the comics.
Gus doesn’t like flying, so asks if he can just stay on the ground. Superman asks the coal miners if they have a computer, and suggests they hire Gus. One of the coal miners is Larry Lamb off of Triangle and other lesser BBC soaps.
Clark gives the diamond, now in a ring, to Lana, telling her it’s a gift from Superman who was sorry she had to pawn her wedding ring. At that moment, somehow, Brad has also come from Smallville to Metropolis, thinks Clark is proposing to Lana, gets belligerent and ends up on a food trolley in a lift. More humour that doesn’t really land.
Then it’s back to a code in the Daily Planet offices. Lois is back from holiday, having secured a scoop on ‘corruption in the Caribbean’ which is quite a feat, given she was on holiday in Bermuda, quite a distance from the Caribbean. And they’re still going with the Bingo jokes.
Then, apart from a trip back to Pisa to make the tower lean again, much to the chagrin of John Bluthal, whose stock of plaster models are all now straight, there’s just time for the film to reuse the same shot of Superman from the end of the first film, then it’s over. It’s not a catastrophe, it’s just a waste. And if I’m honest, Man of Steel makes me angrier than this, because frankly they should have known better.
The tape ends right after the film.