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Review: Superman III (1983)

Superman III (1983)

Directed by: Richard Lester

Premise: The third film in the Christopher Reeve Superman series. A computer hacker (Richard Pryor) begins working for a wealthy businessman (Robert Vaughn), using technology to create natural disasters. The hacker creates a synthetic form of Kryptonite that causes Superman’s personality to split.

What Works: Among everything that is wrong with Superman III—and there is a lot—the film does have a few notable scenes and set pieces. When the story goes back to Smallville, there are some nice bits between Supeman and his high school crush (Annette O’Toole). Also, when Superman’s mental state finally reaches a breaking point there are some very strong images in the junkyard fight. Unfortunately, these isolated bits are brief glimmers in what is an otherwise terrible film.

What Doesn’t: Most movie franchises deteriorate over time as ideas get exhausted, actors begin phoning in their performances, and producers turn to gimmicks. But the decline between Superman II and Superman III is staggeringly steep. The movie is such a departure from the first two movies that it is hard to believe that the same crew responsible for them could turn out this dreck. One of the key successes of Superman: The Movie, and to a lesser extent its follow up, was a mastery of tone. Those movies had their humor but it was pitched exactly right amid a superhero adventure. Superman III gets its tone all wrong and begins making a mess of itself literally from the very first scene. The opening credit sequence is a series of comic errors that look like outtakes of a Blake Edwards comedy and things don’t improve from there. The focus on humor is partly attributable to director Richard Lester, who had previously helmed movies like The Ritz and the Beatles feature Help! But the emphasis on comedy is also largely to do with the real star of Superman III, which is not Christopher Reeve but Richard Pryor. Pryor remains one of the legendary figures in standup comedy and like many standup comics he attempted to transition from the night club to the silver screen. But that transition was a disaster with lame movies like The Wiz, The Toy, and Brewster’s Millions. Pryor’s standup comedy had been edgy but his Hollywood films were an attempt to turn Pryor into a soft, populist movie star and Superman III was a cornerstone of that effort. Comedy does not age well but even when compared to comedies from that time this isn’t funny and it is frequently stupid. The focus on Richard Pryor suggests one of the inherent problems of this film: this is a Superman movie in which the Man of Tomorrow is almost a supporting role. Superman does not drive the action, Pryor’s character does, but both of the roles are poorly written and neither of them is interesting. The result is a movie with no main character and the script problems infect the entire project. Superman III has two storylines mashed together: Superman’s return to Smallville and the computer hacking plot. Either of these premises might have worked on their own but there is no overlap. These stories exist independently of each other and the consequences of one narrative don’t impact the other. The result is a movie that is an incoherent mess and it plays like a random collection of scenes. But perhaps worst of all, Superman III is no fun. The sloppy storytelling, asinine comedy, and cheap production values conspire to suck the joy out of Superman and it fails to entertain. It plays almost like a parody of the earlier Superman movies but despite its attempts at humor no one is laughing.

DVD extras: The Blu-ray edition includes a commentary track, featurettes, deleted scenes, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Superman: The Movie was one of the best comic book films ever made but Superman III is among the worst. Maybe the only nice thing to say about Superman III is its contribution to the plot of Office Space.

Episode: #444 (June 23, 2013)