Richard Lester’s “Superman III” (1983) opens with such a strong scene it creates false confidence in its audience about how good the rest of the film is.
A pre-title sequence introduces us to August “Gus” Gorman, played by legendary comic Richard Pryor. Gus is trying to get the upper hand while in line at the unemployment office.
The comedian has always excelled at playing blue-collar workers struggling to make a living; the surprise casting of him in a Superman movie seems to connect in these introductory moments.
Once the opening credits kick in, we witness a terrible phenomenon that is plaguing Metropolis – no, not crime. We witness an all-out attack of Slapstick, as it breaks out on every street corner. It’s far from the only scene here that doesn’t work and is embarrassingly corny.
Gus eventually becomes an employee for Webster, a cruel tycoon played by Robert Vaughn, whose far-reaching goals include stopping Superman (Christopher Reeve) from standing in his way of controlling the world with a super computer.
“Superman III” followed the massive success of Richard Donner’s “Superman – The Movie” (still the most charming popcorn movie of the 1970s) and Lester’s troubled but enthralling “Superman II” (1981).
It not only shows signs of trouble for a once spotless franchise but also pinpoints why other comic book movies of this era didn’t work: a condescending attitude, actors going “big” because they’re in a comic book movie and cynicism in place of awe.
— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) July 18, 2021
There are some choice moments here that are undermined by some truly bad ideas. During Gus’ initial, massive computer hack, he manages to make electronic crosswalk signs join together and inspires a husband to smack his wife with a fruit (an ode to “The Public Enemy,” I guess?).
Later, Gus literally skis down the side of Webster’s skyscraper. There’s also a sequence where Pryor plays Gus impersonating General Patton, an unfunny bit that goes on too long.
To be blunt, Pryor was the greatest stand-up comedian who ever lived, but he rarely found film roles that suited him well. Studios clearly had little idea of how to properly utilize his talent. Aside from “Silver Streak” (1976), “Blue Collar” (1978), “Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling” (1986) and “Harlem Nights” (1989), Pryor was mostly wasted in movies.
When Pryor was cast in “Superman III,” he famously received a payment greater than Reeve and, despite the edginess of his humor, was a household name. A year after appearing in “Superman III,” Pryor starred in another family-friendly project, a weekly TV show called “Pryor’s Place,’ which lasted ten episodes and didn’t turn him into a Saturday morning icon with kids.
Casting Pryor in “Superman III” was an intriguing idea, but the Gus Gorman subplot doesn’t always mix well with the rest of the movie.
It’s not Pryor’s fault that “Superman III” doesn’t work, as he has both some of the funniest and cringe-worthiest scenes in the film. Gus can alter the weather through satellites, an idea that also wouldn’t work 14 years later in the failed “The Avengers” (1998).
Here’s another early ’80s popcorn thriller that wanted to showcase the potential of computers but had no idea how they work.
While the special effects (especially during the flying scenes) remain strong and the massive sets are impressive, much of this fails to capture the magic of the first film. Annette O’Toole is very good as Lana Lang and those scenes of Clark reconnecting with a high school crush truly connect.
However, Vaughn’s Webster is a C-rate Lex Luthor and Pamela Stephenson and Annie Ross are poor substitutes for Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine. Whether Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane was shoved into the background was the result of script changes or, as rumored, due to Kidder’s having a falling out with the producers, her scenes here make little sense.
Maintaining his dignity through all of this is Reeve, who is excellent at playing dual roles and finds the perfect touch for each scene, even when the screenplay is letting him down. Similarly, Reeve would elevate the unsteady “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” (1987).
The scenes of Superman gone bad range from unsettling (his terrorizing a bar is an ugly bit) to hokey (has anyone, good or evil, ever fantasized about straightening out the Leaning Tower of Pisa?). Thankfully, this leads to the film’s best scene, where the morally poisoned Superman has a showdown with Clark Kent.
Comic book movies during this decade ranged from George A. Romero’s radical, ahead of its time and affectionate “Creepshow” (1982) to cringe inducing misfires like “Brenda Starr” (1989).
The Man of Steel franchise began as the sparkling breakthrough for big-budget comic book movies, only to see it wane, which began with “Superman III.” Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) would ultimately return the luster to comic book movies as a genre where works that are daring, faithful to the source material, personal and visionary could be made on a massive scale.
The Superman franchise would come back admirably in 2006 with “Superman Returns” and is currently being reconfigured before the next installment is formally announced. I recommend that the filmmakers find an actor as remarkable as Reeve and avoid the only force more painful to Superman than Kryptonite: