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Superman III

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In the comic books, Lana Lang has an extensive history. Introduced initially as a teenage version of Lois Lane to be Superboy's pesky nuisance girlfriend in Smallville, she would constantly try to prove that Clark Kent was secretly Superboy. As an adult, Lana eventually moved to Metropolis and even co-anchored the 6:00 news with TV reporter Clark Kent during the mod-1970's.
In the revised history of Superman that retroactively resulted in their never having been a teenage Superman in costume, Lana is the girl Clark leaves behind to pursue his responsibilities. Today, Lana Lang, adult comic book character, is the wife of the Vice-President of the United States, Pete Ross (another childhood friend of Clark's). Lana and Pete just had a child and Lana unilaterally decided to name the baby Clark.



More Trivia from Superman III
If, as I say in my review of "Superman II", 1978's Superman is the "Hall of Presidents", and 1980's Superman II is "Space Mountain", then 1983's Superman III must be "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride". I used to go to Disney World and enjoy Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, but I never quite understood who the heck Mr. Toad was, or what the point of the ride was supposed to be. The analogy to Superman III couldn't be more apt with its poorly-constructed villains, a wishy-washy love story, and the inappropriate use of English comedy in a film about an American icon.

While the film grossed $60 million in the US box office, that represented a significant drop in Superman movie revenues from Superman II, and reviewers and audiences had extremely mixed reactions.

The long, flying, neon credits in outer space are gone, as is the larger than life opening moment. Superman: The Movie takes us to another galaxy and the planet Krypton as the movie opens. Superman II rushes us into a "This is a job for Superman" situation in Paris. And Superman III? The Metropolis unemployment office.

Richard Pryor is August ("Gus") Gorman, a bum who can't keep a job long enough to qualify for unemployment. He's a bit defensive about the way life's treated him. "Don't call me a bum. I am not a bum." he says to the big-haired unemployment chick, to which she tells him "You are, I was about to say, no longer eligible. NEXT!"

Immediately dating this film to the early 80's, Pryor legally sets out to light and smoke a cigarette indoors, seeking a match from a brother. The matchbook tells him to learn about computers and make $$$. And suddenly we're off.

And when I say "off", I mean way off. As the credits blur what we're supposed to be watching on-screen, a series of events unfolds to make the point that strange things happen in the big city of Metropolis every day. While the idea is based on the proverb involving the butterfly's wings that resulted in a tornado, the events that take place are so absurd that, by the time Superman shows up, the Director (Richard Lester) has insulted blondes, blind people, mimes, dogs, sidewalk street vendors, real American vaudevillians, and anyone who appreciated the grandeur and respect given the characters in Superman and Superman II.

Within the first 15 minutes of Superman II, the Man of Steel flies to Paris, catches the Eiffel Tower elevator, saves Lois Lane, flies the elevator into outer space, survives a nuclear explosion, accidentally frees the Phantom Zone baddies, AND flies back to Earth. There are no beginning thrills and chills in Superman III. The unfolding mishaps result in a man being locked in his car as a fire hydrant fills his car with water. Superman saves the day by ripping off the car's sunroof and pulling out the drowned English stuntman. (Director Richard Lester had problems in Superman II and III in casting people who looked and/or sounded American and not English).

(A nice moment takes place as Clark is changing to Superman in a Photomat Booth. He emerges as Superman, the pictures revealing the change from Clark to Superguy, and he rips off the pictures of Clark and gives a little boy the Superman picture. That little boy played baby Kal-El in Superman: The Movie.)

If you think Superman is going to put a stop to the endless parade of allegedly comedic mishaps, you'd be wrong. Clark has to get to work and the final mishap is his: he diverts a pie from hitting vampy Pamela Stephenson (whose vampiness created the initial diversion that started the mishaps) and accidentally pushes it into the face of the man who was selling animatronic penguins on the street. It's a bewildering series of scenes that reeked of an Englishman's cynicism toward Americans and Americana.

With Reeve only onscreen for, at best, two minutes total during the opening scene, it's suddenly beginning to look a lot more like a Richard Pryor film than a Superman movie.

And so, it's natural that the next scene takes place in the Computer School where Richard Pryor has learned to program two bilateral coordinates at the same time. Whatever that means, computer geeks everywhere have pointed out that his "secret formula" for doing this was merely a list of print statements in the arcaic computer language, Basic.

Mixing up the Man of Steel and computers isn't a bad idea. In fact, one of Supey's biggest foes after Lex Luthor is the computer villain, Brainiac. This was a world where the common man and woman didn't have a computer at work and a computer at home, where computers just did stuff and we weren't supposed to get it because, as machines, they can just do stuff we can't.

Continuing down that weary path, Gus discovers that big corporations round down to the nearest whole number when they pay their payrolls and that means the computers have access to little 1/2 cents from everyone's payroll just flitting around the computer system like free money. Had Gus taken the logical path with his computer expertise in 1983, he'd have started a porno web site and become a multi-millionaire.

Instead, Gus convinces the computer at his workplace, Webscoe Industries, to "override all security" and place all 1/2 cent funds into Gus's payroll account.

Meanwhile, back at the Daily Planet (finally something familiar), Perry White, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen are engaged in what has now become their familiar schtick. Cooper, who played Perry White in all four Superman films, made the most of his limited moments on screen, especially in his interactions with McClure's Olsen. "I don't understand you, Olsen. A boring banquet and you bring me 3,000 boring pictures. Yet Superman saves a man from drowning on Third Avenue today and you just stood there watching the whole thing take place without bringing me one picture."

"Chief, I didn't have my camera," Olsen pleads.

"A photographer eats with his camera, a photographer sleeps with his camera ..."

"Glad I'm a writer," Lois Lane quips.

As discussed on the Superman II page, there was no love lost between Margot Kidder and the Superman producers. She spoke out quite clearly against their firing Richard Donner as director of Superman II and bringing on Lester to finish the film. The writers, David and Leslie Newman, took that opportunity to write Lois Lane out of the film and send her off for an unseen Bermuda vacation. Perhaps that vacation is when Kidder instead filmed Trenchcoat with Robert Hayes, an early 80's flick set in the tropics.

Clark arrives and has his own request. He wants to return to Smallville for his high school reunion and, apparently, he's too cheap to use his own vacation time or money for the trip, so he convinces Perry to let him write a feature about returning to middle America. "Can I really return to middle America after having become a Metropolis sophisticate?" he asks, raising the eyebrows of Perry, Lois and Jimmy at the idea of Clark Kent, cosmo-guy.

Taking its cue from the delineated storylines in Superman II, the movie takes off in two directions -- the machinations of the bad guys and Clark Kent's high school reunion -- with everything and everyone coming together for the finale. Except this time out, things don't tie up very neatly like they did in Superman II.

Gus has been found out by the Webscoe accountant, Mr. Simpson, who reports the embezzlement to Ross the boss, Robert Vaughn as Ross Webster. Making one pine for the days of Otis and Ms. Teschmacher, Webster's stereotypically incompetent henchpeople include his sister, Vera Webster (played by Annie Ross), and his "psychic nutritionalist" (i.e., his hanger-on-er), Lorelai Ambrosia, played by (very) short time Not Ready for Prime Time Player Pamela Stephenson. Stephenson plays Ambrosia as a ditz, but the ditz is simply playing her powerful boyfriend so she can go along for the ride.

(Note: Next time you watch Superman III, think of accountant Mr. Simpson as "Homer" Simpson, and look at Ross Webster as "Mr. Burns" and suddenly the scene takes on a whole new meaning.)

Because, as we all know, corporate America's highest echelons are the most corrupt (another English stereotype, Enron notwithstanding), Webster is fascinated by Gorman's ability to manipulate computers. He won't put Gorman in jail provided Gorman tells the computers to put Webster's nefarious schemes into operation.

Webscoe Industries wants to monopolize the coffee industry, but Columbia's not "playing ball". So Webster orders Gorman to order the Vulcan weather satellite to make a typhoon in Columbia intended to wipe out the entire country's coffee crop. "Columbia has two important exports," Webster relates, "and one of them's coffee." Anyone want to gander a guess at the other? Censors knew and cut that line out of the TV broadcast.

Meanwhile, back in the Superman movie ...

Lois is gone, Clark and Jimmy take a bus to Smallville, Superman puts out a factory fire on the way, Jimmy is injured and sent back to Metropolis, and Perry White has awarded the winners of Daily Planet "JINGO" with a trip for two to Columbia, South America.

The factory fire scene has its moments. It reveals a huge flaw in the writing team this time around too. The Newmans were involved in rewrites on Superman and Superman II, but this was their first shot at solo writing sans Mario Puzo and Tom Mankiewicz. The dialogue isn't natural through much of the film, but the exchanges between Superman and the firefighters and scientists make it clear these writers believe the viewers must have every detail spelled out for them.

As Superman flies off to rescue trapped workers on the factory roof, a firefighter says to the Chief -- "What's he gonna do? Fly 'em down one at a time?" That is the writers' way of setting up the conflict, but it's an odd, almost cynical, view of what Superman is doing there in the first place -- helping. The comic book Superman would have used his super breath to blow out the fire and simply would have ripped the roof right off the building and carried all of the trapped people to safety on the ground. Instead, Superman pulls the chimney out of the roof and makes a giant sliding pond for the workers to reach safety on the ground.

Next, Superman meets a scientist who cannot leave his canisters of acid because the fire is heating them up and, should the temperature rise sufficiently, the acid will become volatile and eat through anything. Again, comic book Superman either super-freezes the acid or just superspeeds the canisters outside and away from the fire. Movie Superman does something quite un-Superman-like. He chastises the fire chief that, if he doesn't do something to put the fire out in the East wing, there's going to be a cloud of acid that'll travel up and down the eastern seaboard. Um, hellooo? You're Superman. Fix it.

Just then, things get worse as the water pressure is lost. To ensure that we the audience are following all of this, the fire chief says "How are we supposed to fight a fire with no water?" And to contrive the situation even more, the other firefighter adds: "How? Lake Camooga's five miles from here. We haven't got a five mile hose?" You don't? What kind of firefighters are you people?

Even assuming that Supes would have needed anything other than a deep breath to put out the fire, his next super-feat was a groaner. He flies to the lake, freezes its surface with his super-breath (HOW ABOUT USING THE BREATH TRICK ON THE FIRE?), and flies a huge layer of ice over the factory and drops it. This creates a rain storm which puts out the fire, when it should've just crashed down on the factory, the firefighters, and everyone else (including an injured, saved by Superman, Jimmy), crushing them under the weight of the ice. Then again, one is happy that Superman didn't just use his "I can repair the Great Wall of China vision" power and just think the fire out. (one uses "Great Wall of China vision power" when one runs out of film money -- see Superman IV: The Quest for Peace for a full explanation).

With the emergency over-dramatically handled, Clark eventually arrives in Smallville and his high school reunion in the Smallville High gymnasium. Thankfully showing some respect for the films that have gone before, Clark meets up with redhead Lana Lang, played by O'Toole, and former school jock turned town drunk, Brad Wilson. This "Brad" is presumably the same "Brad" who prevents Clark from going to listen to records with Lana and the gang in the Smallville scenes in Superman: The Movie. In the 1978 original, after the teen overturns the bench where teen Clark (played by Jeff East and voiced over by Chris Reeve) had just finished stacking all the uniforms, Lana exclaims "Oh Brad." Another cynical American stereotype at work -- the high school athlete turned adult loser.

Clark and Lana reacquaint to the ironic (read: THROW THE SYMBOLISM DOWN THE AUDIENCE'S THROATS) playing of the classic "Earth Angel." Clark helps Lana out with cleaning up the gym the day after the reunion. And, in a very interesting and telling moment about the impact that the Lois-Superman relationship had on Clark, she asks him if he'd ever married. "Well, I, uh, ... no." Clark replies thoughtfully as he dabbles at the piano.

Lana had married, however, and her marriage, now over, resulted in the birth of her son, Ricky Lang. Only a non-American director would allow any character to be referred to as "little Ricky" without realizing the American consciousness of the one true "little Ricky" of American pop culture: Ricky Ricardo, Jr. on I Love Lucy.

DC Comics had veto power when it came to what they thought were inappropriate actions taken by their licensed characters and Lana Lang was an established part of Superman comic history. The comic company expressed concerns over Lana being a single mother, but ultimately permitted it provided the child wasn't born out of wedlock. Given the sexual concerns of the Lois-Superman relationship in the last movie, relenting to letting Lana have a kid must've been minor in comparison.

As Lana and Clark discuss their lives, there is none of the chemistry between O'Toole and Reeve that existed between Kidder and Reeve. The years hadn't been kind to Lana. She never left Smallville. She married her high school boyfriend who ran off after her son was born. She's an overworked single Mom. And she had to pawn her engagement ring to pay her utility bills. She was depressing and O'Toole played her as a burdened, tread-upon woman, almost the complete antithesis of Kidder's Lois Lane. That Lana found Clark attractive at all, as mild-mannered as the city folk think he is, was even more telling of how sad Lana's life had been.

(During this scene, Lana refers to Metropolis as the "Big Apricot", parodying NYC's "Big Apple" moniker. The "Big Apricot" reference eventually found its way into DC Comics, where the nickname became the comic book city's nickname.)

After Superman saves Columbia from devastation (I realize we left Columbia a while back, but you knew it'd come back to that eventually), Webster decides the only way to stop Superman from interfering in his plan to use computers to monopolize the oil industry is to kill him. Lorelai lets slip that only Kryptonite can hurt Superman ("or is that Kryptonhammer?"), and Webster recalls reading in the Daily Planet that the only piece on Earth was lost years ago (thrown into the sewer by Ms. Teschmacher in Superman, to be exact).

So Gus accesses the Vulcan weather satellite one more time, it tracks where Krypton used to be, and analyzes orbiting fragments that must be Kryptonite. Just like that, Gus has a recipe for home-made Kryptonite, except for one small problem. The computer tells him that a small percentage of Kryptonite is composed of an "unknown element"; rather than peeve off Ross the boss, Gus substitutes "Tar" (as in cigarette tar) for the unknown element. Webscoe scientists fill his to-go order and it certainly looks like Kryptonite. It's even green. But is it the real deal?

Gus and Vera Webster travel to Smallville where, by this time, Superman is a local hero, having put out the Lake Camooga fire and rescuing "little Ricky" Lang from a shredder while Clark and Lana are having a picnic. Proving Reeve knows his character, when Ricky asks for Superman's autograph, his ad-libbed line of "If I had a nickel for every time some little kid asked me for Superman's autograph ..." was kept in the movie.

Superman agrees to come to Ricky's birthday party, which, by the time the rest of Smallville finds out, becomes an outdoor festival honoring Superman and presenting him with the key to the city.

Just then, Gus arrives disguised as a General. Pryor goes off on a wild series of comical rants that end with him presenting Superman with the Kryptonite as the military's way of saying "thanks" for putting out the fire. Nothing happens.

"I ask you to kill Superman, and you're telling me you couldn't even do that one simple thing," Webster matter of factly retorts at Gorman.

But, slowly, the Kryptonite changes Superman. He becomes reckless, impulsive, and ultimately, downright mean and evil. The bad guys realize Gorman's Kryptonite effected the change. "And now that Superman is out of the nice guy business, we can get to work on my oil scheme," Webster concludes.

The oil scheme: a) Have the computers tell all the oil tanker captains to head to the mid-Atlantic and await further orders; and b) irrevocably turn off all the computer controlled oil rigs.

Gus wants something in return -- a Super-Computer that can do anything Gus tells it to do.

So Webster has the computer constructed in a secret Grand Canyon location, and Gus tells the computers to institute the oil scheme (though he doesn't make the orders "irreversible" as Webster wanted).

One hold-out ship captain (who, coincidentally, went on to play the President in 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace)refuses to listen to the computers and insists that they head to Metropolis anyway. So Lorelai fakes a suicide attempt at the Statue of Liberty to attract evil Superman's attention. She'll give him what he wants if he'll do one little thing first.

He smashes the tanker, causing a massive oil leak, and wings his way back to Metropolis for a night of lust with Lorelai.

Lorelai is obviously quite a woman because she takes what Superman has to give and leaves him a beaten man. He's in a bar getting drunk and using peanuts to break bottles. By this time, Ricky and Lana have come to Metropolis and "little Ricky" screams after Superman that he's "just in a slump" and that he'll "be great again." The message reaches Kal-El's subconscious mind and a drunk Superman lands in the middle of a junkyard and proceeds to split into two: Evil Superman and Clark Kent.

The battle for control goes badly for Clark at first as evil Superman bashes the mild-mannered reporter pretty good. Some reviewers actually suggested that these scenes showing Superman as violent, even evil Superman, were potentially quite frightening to children. Nonetheless, this was one of the film's more memorable scenes with some interesting special effects and inventive camera work so that Reeve could fight himself.

Superman returns. He undoes the evil deeds of evil Superman and flies to Lorelai's pad, realizing she was part of some nefarious scheme. He's told to meet them all in the Grand Canyon.

A cute moment ensues where Webster and his women balloon down to where the computer is but Gorman refuses and uses a burro because "I just don't believe a man can fly."

Superman arrives at the Canyon and the super-computer blasts at him with missiles, bombs, and even an MX missile. Supes perseveres and enters the cavern, meeting Webster for the first time. The computer defends itself, ultimately shooting the Man of Steel with a Kryptonite ray.

But Gorman feels guilty. This isn't what he wanted. "You're going to go down in history as the man who killed Superman," Webster tells him. Gus retaliates against his "baby", eventually cutting off its power source.

Thankfully, in the 80's, computers could do things like "want" and "need" and "feel" and this computer wanted to live and began siphoning off energy from the entire country, throwing all of America into a country-wide blackout.

The bad guys realize they are in over their heads and try to "split" but Ross's sister gets "robotized" and lashes out at Lorelai and Ross.

Superman flies off.

Supes returns with something behind his back -- the computer concludes it's a non-threatening vial of acid. Somehow a computer that can create Kryptonite in laser form is unable to decipher that this acid will become volatile at high temperatures. Superman survives the acid test; the super-computer doesn't. It explodes. Superman has saved the day.

Notwithstanding Gorman's involvement in conspiracy, Superman allows him to go free and even recommends him for a job at a coal factory. Borrowing a chunk of coal and applying super-pressure, he makes a diamond and flies off.

Back in Metropolis, Lana is waiting for her dinner companion: Superman. But Clark shows up and tells her that Superman isn't able to attend, but that Clark would be happy to substitute. Then he gives her the ring and tells her it's a gift from Superman. Drunk loser Brad arrives, ready to beg for Lana's love one more time, and sees Clark on his knees looking at Lana's new ring. When Brad attacks, Clark fakes clumsiness and uses the fold-down bed to spring Brad right out of the room.

Later, at the Daily Planet, Lois returns from her vacation with a great tan and a story "that'll blow the lid off of corruption in the Carribean." Of course, Bermuda is nowhere near the Carribean. Lois meets "Smallville's newest gift to Metropolis" -- Perry's new secretary, Lana. And Clark leaves Perry, Lois, Lana, and the JINGO woman to re-lean the Leaning Tower of Pisa (which he "un-leaned" when he was evil Superman) and flies off into space.

Reeve would not return to the role again until 1987's "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace", the only film in the series not produced by the Salkind father-son team (which explains how Reeve convinced Kidder AND Gene Hackman to come back and play in film #4).

Verdict?

So who is to blame for Superman III? Reeve plays it all straight as usual and knows how Kal-El thinks by this time, but even he seems nonplussed by the whole thing at times. The villains cannot compete with Lex Luthor and General Zod. And the early 80's view of computers as "magic machines" wears very thin today.

Richard Lester had a free hand as director of Superman III, unlike the "head-start" he was given when he took over Superman II for Richard Donner. He, along with the husband and wife writing team of the Newmans, have taken much of the blame for Superman III over the years. However, the signs were there in the final theatrical print of Superman II that Lester didn't hold the hero in the same high regard as Donner (see discussion of Superman II).

The special effects were good this time out, though nothing on the level of the three villains from Krypton using Metropolis itself as a weapon against Superman. Lester intended for this to be a more down to Earth story, but Superman is not a down to Earth hero. He's Superman and none of the problems in Superman III felt like Kryptonian sized emergencies.

But, if you want one person to blame for the mess that Superman III turned out to be story-wise, look no further than ... Johnny Carson.

Lester and the screenwriters, riding high off the success of Superman II, were scrambling for a new place to take the characters in Superman III. And Lester was watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Johnny's guest, Richard Pryor, had just seen Superman II and was raving about how much he loved the film, comedically recreating moments from the film for Johnny and the audience. Suddenly, Lester had a direction: Pryor.

So thanks a lot, Johnny Carson...

Notice any mistakes? Review

Strengths: Superman III brought Annette O'Toole into the Superman world. While Superman III's Lana lacked interest, her stunt casting as Martha Kent on television's current hit, Smallville, was inspired. Also, the Superman/Clark Kent battle had its moments.

Weaknesses? Richard Lester, Richard Pryor, and Johnny Carson.

Our rating: 7.5 out of 10


Review Written by Barry Freiman:  Contact  |  More Reviews by Barry Freiman
Superman III