Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
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The Franchise: Superman: following the peacekeeping exploits of super-powered alien Kal-El, who was sent to Earth moments before his home-planet exploded, and was then subsequently raised by middle-American farmers under the name of Clark Kent. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster as a comic book character, the franchise has expanded into pretty much every single conceivable medium, spanning from 1938 to the present. For our purposes here, we’ll only be examining the theatrically released live-action films.
Atom Man vs Superman
Superman and the Mole Men
The Installment: Superman III (1983)
Things are quiet in Metropolis, aside from the daily array of minor slapstick disasters that seem to befall the city. So Lois goes on vacation to Bermuda so she doesn’t need to be in the movie, and Clark decides to go back to Smallville… to visit Ma Kent? Nope. She’s totally dead! Clark is going back to attend his high school reunion, where he ends up reconnecting with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) and incompetently romancing her. Meanwhile, chronic low-life August “Gus” Gorman (Richard Pryor) takes a computer training course and discovers that he is the greatest mind in computer programming the world has ever seen. This catches the eye of his new boss, rich jerk Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), who realizes he can use Gus to control the weather and do all sorts of other crazy things — like making some synthetic kryptonite that inadvertently turns Superman into a total dick. Now Superman doesn’t give a shit about helping people. So who will stop all the minor slapstick disasters?! Not to mention stopping the super computer Gus builds for Webster to take over the world!
Christopher Reeve continues to prove unshakable in this franchise. There is a lot wrong with Superman III, but at the end of the day it is possibly all worth it just to see Reeve play Dick Superman (as I call Superman once he’s poisoned by the synthetic kryptonite). Reeve is so good as boy scout Superman and dorky nice-guy Clark, it is easy to assume that it is just because the parts come so naturally to him. But he seems just as natural at playing a lecherous jackass, and this makes the confluence of Reeve’s three distinct performances really impressive. The subtle yet unmissable acting shift Reeve has always employed when transitioning between Superman and Clark now gets a third transition, and it feels somewhat akin to when a juggler adds a new item. It isn’t that the three performances are so amazing in themselves, but instead how effortlessly Reeve pulls them off. In particular, the first scene in which Dick Superman emerges, when Lana informs Superman that his help is desperately needed nearby, and he proceeds to blow it off so he can try and hook up with her. The reaction Reeve has on his face (confused and clearly a little disturbed) when he snaps out of Dick Mode, after Lana is aghast that Superman doesn’t give a shit about the emergency, makes you realize that the filmmakers could have gone much further with the “Evil Superman” plot device if they’d wanted to. Most fun though is the series of scenes after Superman has gone full-on Dick, farting around Metropolis just being an asshole. Not unlike the Emo Peter montage from Spider Man 3, what makes the whole thing so bizarre and entertaining isn’t that Superman has become “evil.” Because he hasn’t. He’s just become a dick. The worst thing he does is cause an oil spill in the middle of the ocean, which he only does to get some nooky from Webster’s blonde hench-wench Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson). The apex moment of Dick Superman, for me, is the scene of Superman getting shitfaced in a bar, flicking peanuts through booze bottles to amuse himself, while a crowd of gawkers watch through the window. The look and posture that Reeve gives Dick Superman makes it a unique and separate character; he doesn’t need a Van Dyke and sinister dialogue. In fact, Dick Superman says fairly little. Just the look in Reeve’s eyes lets us know this dude isn’t Superman anymore.
And how do we resolve the Dick Superman subplot? With a junkyard brawl of course! It is an utterly nonsensical pay-off, with Superman literally splitting into two characters (Clark and Dick Superman) and fighting, but I can’t deny that it is amusingly entertaining. Like the climax of Superman II, in a Superman film we want super-battles. Not to mention that simply having Dick Superman turn back into normal Superman wouldn’t be that exciting. This is a Superman movie! We need something big. That was my problem with Ms. Tessmacher saving Superman in Superman (when he was bound by Luthor’s kryptonite necklace). It was too easy and too small. It doesn’t make any sense why/how Superman splits into two separate tangible beings, and why one of those beings dissipates into the ether once the other has proven victorious in battle. But whatever. It is the visualization of Kal-El’s inner struggle — maybe the fight was all in his mind? This movie is already off the rails anyway, at least it allowed itself to have a suitable throw-down.
Though she is given very little of substance to do, Annette O’Toole is quite nice as Lana Lang. Similarly, though it ultimately matters little in the overall story of the film, I like the idea of Clark going back to Smallville. As we saw in the first film, Kal-El emerged from the Fortress of Solitude a different man. And from what we were shown, he never went back to Smallville and interacted with those teens he so desperately wanted to impress during the Kansas chapter of Superman. It wasn’t necessary to the franchise, but there is something amusing about seeing that Brad (now played by Gavan O’Herlihy, son Robocop‘s Dan O’Herlihy), the jock who bullied Clark in Superman, turned out to be a huge loser — especially after the epilogue to Superman II established that Superman isn’t above holding a grudge against those who embarrass him in front of girls.
Robert Vaughn is always great at playing heightened villains like Webster. I don’t like Webster’s storyline, but I like Vaughn’s performance.
What Doesn’t Work:
Richard Pryor destroys this film. Which isn’t to say it is Pryor’s fault. He was clearly hired to be Richard Pryor (or at least the actor version of Richard Pryor), and he delivers a comedic performance of roughly the same caliber as he did in films like Stir Crazy or Brewster’s Millions, but it is a comedic performance that shouldn’t be in Superman III in the first place. His presence is symbolic of the terrible decisions that went into this installment. Jesus, just look at the movie’s poster! Seriously? Imagine if the poster to Iron Man 3 was Robert Downey Jr. carrying Zach Galifianakis in his arms. But let’s take a step back for a second…
Superman III makes it painfully clear just how incredibly lucky the Salkinds got with their decision to shoot Superman and Superman II at the same time, because – though I’m sure they would disagree – it meant that they could only screw up Superman II so much after firing Richard Donner. Despite their best efforts, Superman II retained much of Donner’s flavor. Now, with this installment, they could finally make the Superman film they had always wanted to. I don’t know that Donner ever bothered to see III, but if he did he must have felt very vindicated. Just on a practical behind-the-scenes level, the Donner fall-out continues to pollute this phase of the theatrical franchise. Both Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder were vocal in their support of Donner after his dismissal. Hackman refused to be involved with the Salkinds any further, and though it would have been uninspired to have Lex Luthor be the villain yet again so soon after II, Webster, Vera (Annie Ross) and Ambrosia are such blatant carbon copies of the Luthor, Otis and Ms. Tessmacher trio that they actually feel even less inspired. Really, the only major difference between the two trios is that Vera is a hardass, as opposed to the oafish Otis. Ambrosia and Tessmacher are so similar in their purpose and usage that the filmmakers might as well have just gotten Valerie Perrine back. But, far worse than this is the Salkinds’ childish and transparent attempt to “punish” Margot Kidder by virtually writing Lois out of the film. I put punish in quotes because they really did her a favor by allowing Kidder to distance herself from Superman III. The absence of Lois hurts III in a big way. No offense intended to Margot Kidder, but it has nothing to do with her absence as an actress. The story suffers without the character, in two unfortunate ways:
1) The Salkings saw an obvious out for Lois with the ending of II — Superman is moving on; they can’t date. Okay. But removing Lois entirely makes Superman’s sadness a non-issue. With Lois literally out of the picture there isn’t actually any “moving on” required. Superman can’t see Lois with other men, and more importantly Lois can’t see Clark with other women (ie, Lana Lang). The epilogue says it all, at the Daily Planet when Lois returns to town and discovers Lana working in the office. And Lois is clearly a little threatened. It is a perfunctory scene more so meant to bookend the film, so we wouldn’t wonder what the hell ever happened to Lois, but it is probably the most interesting scene with Lana in the whole damn movie — and it lasts mere seconds! Lana Lang is a dull character. The love triangle – and I’m using that term in the most liberal of senses here – between Clark, Lana and Brad means nothing because Lana doesn’t even like Brad. He is a mess. A love triangle between Clark, Lana and Lois could have been interesting, especially because Lana and Lois are so different and both represent different stages in Kal-El’s life.
2) The Reeve films have a perplexing fondness for avoiding obvious conflict. In Superman II, Superman never encounters Zod when he has lost his powers. Here, none of our pre-existing characters encounter Dick Superman. We care about Lana and her son in only the most superficial automatic way, so it is hard to feel too squeamish when they interact with Dick Superman. Even then, after the first great bit between Lana and Dick Superman in Smallville, the two only interact one more time in a super brief moment — Dick Superman walks past Lana and her son in Metropolis and ignores them. Oh no! He ignored them! How awful. Having Lois encounter Dick Superman would have been great. Even better would have been if Dick Superman decided to go to the Daily Planet as Dick Clark. What if Dick Clark banged Lois? At least have Dick Superman meet Jimmy or Perry! Why is Ma Kent dead? Have Dick Clark meet Ma Kent. Someone we already care about! And Webster only manipulates Dick Superman to cause that oil spill because Webster’s plan to hoard oil had encountered a hiccup. Lex Luthor would have intended to manipulate Dick Superman from the get-go — that would have been his entire plan!
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real ship-sinker is Richard Lester’s obsession with turning this franchise into a wacky comedy. And now, without having to tonally mesh himself with remnants of Richard Donner, Lester is free and clear to bring the funny. And boy does he bring it. Nothing in the film serves as a better contrast to Donner’s films than the opening credits. Superman‘s credits, while kind of awesomely monotonous, are one of the most iconic opening credits sequences in film history, pure stylized bravado meant to conjure an epic and important feeling. Lester begins Superman III with a lengthy slapstick extravaganza on the streets of Metropolis, featuring a chain of wacky misfortunes set off by some men ogling Ambrosia. At its best it feels like the opening to a Mr. Bean movie. At its worst, something from The Benny Hill Show. The zany tone here is so acute that it really doesn’t matter if any of it is actually funny (and only about 15% of it is; I do like the bit where Superman changes inside a photobooth and we see the developed pics pop out). Sequels are not necessarily beholden to ape their predecessors. As we’ve seen before, switching things up is sometimes the recipe for longevity. But this just feels insulting to the character of Superman. This isn’t Aliens. This is Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.
If this hadn’t been a Superman film; if it had been a Pryor vehicle with Gus as the protagonist, a lot of the film might have worked. It is fun to watch Gus pull off his hacking scam at first, and even more fun once he gets busted. But way, way too much of Superman III is spent with Gus. Just to begin with — why isn’t Gus already a hacker? Even ignoring the suspension-of-disbelief that Gus could suddenly become a brilliant hacker overnight, having never previously used a computer, it is just a waste of time showing him in the unemployment office, and then showing him taking a computer course, and then showing him start his job at Webster’s company, and then showing him get the idea for his hack, etc. Gus is a side character. Also, he is a villain. But Lester doesn’t think so. He thinks we love Gus, I guess because Richard Pryor is playing the character. This is partially true. Pryor is likable. But not as likable as the film thinks he is. At no point in the film does Gus try and get away from Webster. Frankly he seems more than happy to help Webster destroy an entire country, fuck up Metropolis, and then build an evil computer to help Webster rule the world. Yet, at the end of the film, SUPERMAN LETS HIM GO! Scratch that. He doesn’t just let Gus go, he gives him a ride back to civilization and then TRIES TO HELP HIM GET A NEW JOB!!!!!!! This guy probably killed thousands of people in Columbia when he hacked a weather satellite and caused a bunch of tornadoes to ruin the country’s economy (I’m not even going to touch that one). Lester also greatly overestimates how funny Richard Pryor is as an actor. Pryor was a great stand-up. He is merely a decent actor. Watching Pryor crash a Smallville town celebration, dressed as a military general, and give a rambling speech to the crowd so he can gift Superman the synthetic kryptonite, is supposed to be hilarious. It isn’t. And the fact that the scene exists in this form entirely as an excuse to let Pryor dress up in a silly costume and be hilarious is a perfect example of the headspace Lester was in. Gus could have given Superman the kryptonite is a hundred different ways, ways appropriate for a Superman film, not a Fletch sequel. After a while I just started feeling bad for Pryor, as he was clearly being asked to lay his performance on thick.
I can actually pin-point the exact moment that I gave up on Superman III. It is during a sequence in which Gus is wrecking havoc on Metropolis by causing all the computers to go haywire. There is a lot of silly stuff going on. Then we get a close-up on a crosswalk light. It is signaling to both “walk” and “don’t walk.” Then the walk image gets pissed and climbs up to the don’t walk image and the two images fight. This transcends slapstick. This is profoundly stupid. Why not just have Superman turn and talk to the camera like Zach Morris? Or have Gus get run over by a steamroller and then re-inflate himself by sticking his thumb in his mouth and blowing into it? I almost want to write an entire separate article simply about how much I hate this one joke. It is just so cheap and short-sighted.
Comedy isn’t the film’s only problem. It wastes so much time with the Gus subplot (which in a way is almost the A-story, since without Lois around the thrust of the narrative falls on the villains once we enter the Dick Superman phase of the film), that there isn’t a lot of time for Superman’s storyline to develop. Aside from being the only interesting element of the film, what is the point of the “Evil Superman” crisis? There isn’t anything thematic about it. Nothing in the story relates to Superman being torn between is superego and id. Or even being torn between Metropolis and Smallville (remember, we’d need Lois for that business). He also isn’t getting sick of always having to help people, or of not having time for his personal life. In fact, by this third installment I can officially say I do not understand Kal-El. As we’ve previously talked about, Clark is a performance. Kal-El isn’t Clark. When Kal-El is interested in a woman he uses Superman to court her, while intentionally blowing things as Clark. Why? Cause the filmmakers think it is fun. And it is. Up to a point. In Superman III it is made pretty clear that Kal-El has feelings for Lana. Real feelings. Yet he intentionally undermines Clark at every turn. From what we saw in Superman, Clark wasn’t a doofus in Smallville. He had to hide his abilities, but he was still a normal kid. III retcons that by implying that Kal-El had already developed his Clark character back in high school. So he continues to play it up at the reunion, dancing like an boob and being a general dork. Then, when Lana’s son is in danger, he turns into Superman to save the boy, even though – from what we’re shown – he easily could have had Clark save the kid. But he wanted to inject Superman into the situation. At the end of the film, when Superman turns a piece of coal into a diamond, Clark gives it to Lana with the caveat that Superman wanted her to have it, even though Clark is the one romancing Lana. Why?! There is something subtly twisted about all this. Now, obviously, Lester is just goofing around with the standard Clark/Superman stuff. My complaint here is meant to highlight how easily he and screenwriters David and Leslie Newman could have done something more compelling with Clark and Lana. As it is, everything that happens during the Smallville portion of the film is just filler until we reach Dick Superman — at which point Superman becomes a side character.
Also, on the subject of Dick Superman — while it is funnier to have Dick Superman instead of Evil Superman, that also means there isn’t anything dramatic about the conflict. Dick Superman isn’t stopping crimes, which allows Webster to run rampant. That isn’t good, but narratively it is the same sort of conflict accomplished by having Superman trapped in a cave or something. Having an Evil Superman, going around doing actual harm, is a true conflict. Dick Superman is mostly a nuisance.
Body Count: 0
Number of Times Superman Smugly Lets a Villain Shoot Him in the Chest: 0
Best Villain Dispatching: He doesn’t really fight many villains in the film. Most of Superman’s heroics involve saving people.
Superman’s Superest Feat: Freezing the top of a lake with his super-breath, then picking up the huge iceberg he has made and dumping it on a chemical plant fire — which, instead of crushing the plant like you might assume it would, instead instantly turns into rain as it approaches the flames!
Best Use of His Brains: Uh, I guess crushing a piece of coal into a diamond to impress a chick is pretty savvy. He should do that more often. Hell, if he really wanted to be helpful, he should do that several times everyday to bring down the value of diamonds and kill the ‘blood diamond’ business.
Should There Be a Sequel: I don’t know. Things aren’t going so well anymore. I fear next time Superman is going to get a little kid side-kick or join forces with The Harlem Globetrotters.
Up Next: Supergirl
previous franchises battled
Back to the Future
Planet of the Apes