Superman III: Falling with Style for 40 Years

It had to be tough to try and follow Richard Donner’s Superman films, but that barely seems like an excuse for what came next. Your mileage may vary on whether Superman III is the worst entry in the franchise or not – a statement of truth for me – but most people who love or hate the movie will agree it’s certainly one of the most interesting times The Man of Tomorrow has donned the cape. Some things here still stick out to me four decades later.

Wait, the average film enthusiast doesn’t remember Superman III? How could anyone forget that insanity, I wonder. But for the sake of argument, let’s recap. Richard Pryor – ah, now the memories are starting to swirl. That’s right, this is the one without Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, so that Christopher Reeve could finally get top billing, and yet, he was still overshadowed by one of the greatest comedians of the time. Pryor’s involvement was huge news and it didn’t take long for this to look like his movie instead of belonging to one of the most established comic characters to grace a page. This supposedly came about from Pryor’s appearance on The Tonight Show, where he mentioned his desire to be in a Superman film to Johnny Carson.

What could go wrong?

Enter August ‘Gus’ Gorman, Pryor’s character. He’s a down-on-his-luck and unemployed man who reads an ad about learning to program off of a matchbook and is either a natural, hidden savant, or simply found out how to get more from one class than anyone has ever before. It isn’t long before he’s paired up with the movie’s villain, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) and begins doing things hackers only dream of. Most viewers remember Gus using his skills and a weather satellite to create tornados, but in seeing everything he does in the film, Gorman may be one of Supe’s most resourceful villains. He’s able to crack the code for creating synthetic Kryptonite (kind of), helps hold the oil industry hostage, and builds a pretty gnarly supercomputer. This doesn’t even account for his social engineering, disguise skills, and the fact that he skis down a skyscraper and lands without a scratch on him. Do we have proof this character is supposed to be a normal human?

Scenes like that are most likely Superman III’s biggest issue for fans. From the very start of the movie, as an extremely poor and hard-to-read title sequence plays, we are treated to what looks like a slapstick version of a Rube Goldberg comedy machine. Reeve wasn’t a fan either, citing the previously mentioned roof-skiing and talking about how they were always looking for gags to add in, mostly for Pryor’s character. The man is excellent in some scenes as Gus, but several bits also fall flat, like his speech before he hands Superman the Kryptonite, or jokes just go over the top in a pointless way. 

We never get a true tone for this character who causes all of the problems and thinks he’s about to kill our hero by handing him a chunk of rock, only for Superman to let him go at the end. Gus was guilty of several crimes, even if he attempted to do the right thing in the end. This isn’t all on Pryor, however, because at one point the images of the red and green people in the traffic light start fighting. That had to be the only time in the movie my jaw legitimately dropped and I questioned my eyes.

Events simply get stranger and weirder, upping the ante in unexpected ways, seemingly lacking focus on what it wants to be. Superman III feels less like a movie about Clark Kent and more something that should have been called “Richard Pryor Meets Superman” or “Superman and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Synthetic Kryptonite.” I was quick to realize that this film wasn’t going to take itself seriously and maybe neither should I, so there’d be more enjoyment, but the more I think about the plot it seems obvious this was written for Captain Atom or Mister Terrific and they just weren’t available that day.

See, Richard Donner was excused from Superman II, but that was after he had already completed most of the film and Richard Lester came in to simply see the project across the finish line and make sure it was released. Lester was completely in charge of the third installment though and his background at the time was primarily with comedies. The first two films were quite similar in some of their beats, but Superman III, for better, or more likely worse, did its best not to dip back into that same well.

Past the comedy, there was an underlined theme of showcasing computers – which were just starting to make their way into the home – and science as a major threat, which didn’t sit well with some. Some haphazard science creates the fake Kryptonite turning Superman evil, a satellite easily causes destruction, and a supercomputer is the final threat, but at least our hero listened to that one scientist early on to help resolve these issues with some well-placed acid at the end. 

Sure, it’s almost comical now, but the movie’s techno threats felt quite outdated the moment it came out, even if they tried to be creative. On the more ridiculous side, there were the contraptions the villains use to fly down the canyon, making them look like James Bond baddies. And how could we discuss any of this without mentioning Vera Webster (Annie Ross). Crime doesn’t pay, and in her case, it resulted in a graphic scene (for 1983 PG) of her being turned into a robot. Don’t worry, the movie seems like it doesn’t know what to do with her after turning Vera into an early version of a Terminator, and although it looks as if both her and Ross die in the final act, we see that she’s not only alive, but back to normal with zero explanation. This was a huge letdown, but it also apparently scared a lot of kids who watched it

That’s another problem, we have some interesting character moments that just aren’t taken advantage of. There are a lot of little personal plotlines that may seem unnecessary, but most of them tie back to something else or are meant to give us insight into the character. Nice idea, but it makes Superman III feel bloated, and at a runtime of two hours and five minutes, it somehow feels longer. Take a character like Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson) who plays the role of the beautiful blonde plaything attached to our main villain. She seems ditzy, non-threatening, and only there to try and use her looks, but there are several hints that she’s actually incredibly smart and quicker than Webster. Nothing major happens with this, but I’d like to think that if she continued without Superman’s interference, eventually she would have found a way to screw Ross and Vera over, taking their empire.

There’s the Lois Lane and Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) issue also. It’s widely reported that Margot Kidder’s role as the iconic reporter was lessened due to her irritation with the treatment of director Richard Donner and some comments she made in interviews about the previous producers, but it seems like there is more to it than that. No matter what, it looks like Lois was already destined to take a backseat here and the earlier version of the script had written her out to an even greater degree, but at least it sounds like whatever adventure she went on off-screen was more interesting.  

Our bizarre adventure starts when Clark Kent tries to go back to Smallville and cover his high school reunion. I appreciated seeing Superman finally doing something for himself — for Clark — after saving the world a few times. He tries to get the girl, Lana, and the awkward social chemistry between them works, even if it isn’t as crisp as what he had with Lois. You know he wants to impress her when Supes is using his power to help her kid bowl.

We do get a memorable side of Superman when the fake Kryptonite brings out his bad side. It’s notable because for a bit, our Boy Scout becomes a real dick who does some petty things on a whim, but more importantly drinks and fucks. He spends most of the film going MILF hunting and ends up banging the bad girl anyway. Scummy Superman is cool, but it leads to a ridiculous resolution where Lana’s son helps shake him out of it, resulting in Clark Kent, or the good side, pulling himself out of the darker Kryptonian. What? There’s an argument of this simply being a delayed reaction of the synthetic rock, but then why did we need the kid to set it off? Any type of explanation would have been welcomed here, but to make matters worse, it ends with the good Superman choking himself out and making the bad one disappear, literally.

The makers of the film knew how cool this fight was going to be, which is why the movie had the subtitle Superman Vs Superman early on, but this potentially metaphysical mess needed a bit more allusion or to just slap us with that classic exposition. So much of this is outlandish, but the original script was prepped to be so much worse. Donner had always seen Brainiac as his next big villain for Superman (which is probably why we got the giant computer at the end), but the original script had a more twisted take on that character. That reimagining would have supposedly featured a love triangle between him, Superman, and Supergirl — a version of Kara we are hoping wouldn’t have been Clark’s cousin but was intended to have been raised by Brainiac. Most of the extra trouble, like what happens at the beginning of this film would, I imagine, have been created by Mr. Mxyzptlk. You know, just in case we need some icing on top of that already odd plot.

We live in a world where plenty of people question how Superman III was allowed, but in some part of the multiverse, that script was approved and there’s no way the finished product isn’t wild. Thankfully, on Earth-Prime it was quickly turned down, but not because of what it dared to do, no, but just the budget it would have required. That and the studio also realized they could potentially make more money if they put Supergirl in her own film, but we know how that turned out. There was briefly a chance for another big change. We almost got a new Superman actor before Reeve signed back on as Tony Danza was heavily considered for the role, and part of me is extremely curious how that would have gone. 

Superman III’s Lasting Legacy

The version of Superman III we received did have a few deleted scenes and an opening with altered credits, but nothing too major. It made a decent bit of money, but nothing compared to the first two entries. Even at the time there were critics who felt the magic just wasn’t there anymore. There were promotional materials for Superman III, and maybe that’s why we have some odd KFC references spread out over the film, but the big tie-in was supposed to come from Atari, who did graphics for the movie and were going to provide a video game as well, but that was never released. No, the lasting legacy for Superman III is really when the plot is referenced in Office Space and how moving the oil tankers may have inspired part of Hackers. I legitimately appreciate anything that reminds me of Hackers.

For as much of a superbly interesting fiasco as Superman III is, as dated as it can be, there are some incredible shots (I still love when he melts the mirror), a bit of great action, and some solid attempts at characterization. It amazes me how many fans seem to genuinely have a soft spot for this movie, even if it’s only for parts of the experience. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may potentially be worse films that get a pass because they feel more like the formula for a character we all know, but those films will never be this interesting.