Directed by Richard Lester
Written by David and Leslie Newman
Released June 1983
In a way this film is the opposite of Superman: The Movie. As I said in my review of that film, it often feels like it’s blasphemous to criticize any part of it, you’re just supposed to praise it for everything it got right. Well, with Superman 3, it feels like it’s blasphemous to say anything nice about it. You’re just supposed to say that it’s terrible. Now I’ve rewatched it for this series of Superman film reviews (leading up to Man of Steel) and I have to be honest and say…it’s not that bad.
Yes, I know I’m risking all of my credibility here by saying that, so please hear me out.
This is often just remembered as that Superman movie with Richard Pryor in it. Pryor played Gus Gorman, a below-average guy who can’t hold a steady job. On impulse he takes a computer programming course and discovers that he’s some kind of computer prodigy. I should note that this is 1983, when the majority of the public had no experience with computers. Microsoft and Apple were both little private companies, and hadn’t even released Windows or the Mac yet. Things like laptops, smartphones, tablets, and the internet would have seemed like science fiction back then. Hollywood writers didn’t know anything about computers either, and so they were treated in fiction like magical objects that could accomplish pretty much anything if the person using it was smart enough. The film WARGAMES, where a high school kid accidentally hacks into a military computer and almost starts a nuclear war, was released a week before this film. And two years later John Hughes would release the film Weird Science, where a couple of teenagers use a computer to create an actual living woman, who also has super powers. Compared to those film, this one is probably the most realistic in terms of how it portrays the use of computers.
Gus gets a job working for a millionaire named Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn) and quickly uses his newfound computer skills to embezzle thousands of dollars from the company (in a scheme that was put to much better use 16 years later in Mike Judge’s film Office Space), and then is immediately caught by Webster, who decides to blackmail Gus into helping him commit various crimes. First he has Gus hack into a computer that controls a weather satellite to cause a storm to damage some Colombian coffee bean crops (because weather satellites can not only predict the weather, but also create and control the weather, as long as you have the right computer…). But Superman saves the crops by drying them off with his heat vision. So Ross orders Gus to create some Kryptonite that Ross can use against Superman. The version that Gus creates isn’t lethal, because Ross couldn’t figure out the entire ingredients that make up Kryptonite, but it does affect Superman. But I’ll get to that later. The next big step is that Ross uses Gus’ blueprints to design the most powerful computer ever, which could be used to control the world. And, of course, this computer is huge, taking up an entire cave, because we all know that the bigger a computer is, the more powerful it is, right?
Yes, that whole story is played with far too much slapstick comedy. Ross, who seemed like an early model for the evil corporate raider version of Lex Luthor that would appear in the Superman comics three years later, never seems particularly
menacing. Neither does Ross’ sister and business partner Vera (Annie Ross), who spends most of her time sniping at Gus and at Ross’ mistress Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson) while keeping her face in a perpetual scowl. But this plot is just half of the film. People seem to overlook the main plot that Clark/Superman is involved in, which is what keeps this film from being a total loss.
Early in the film Clark goes back to Smallville for his High School reunion, where he runs into his old childhood crush Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), who is now divorced and raising her young son Ricky (Paul Kaethler) alone. He also runs afoul of the old High School bully Brad (Gavan O’Herlihy) now a security guard still living in Smallville, who has set his sights on Lana. The reconnection of Clark and Lana is very well-done here, O’Toole and Reeve have much greater chemistry than Reeve ever did with Margot Kidder (who, has a much smaller role in this film, as Lois goes off on a cruise in the beginning and then only returns at the very end). There’s also Clark’s attempts to relate to Ricky, who idolizes Superman.
Sure, if we remember the previous film, we know that any potential relationship between Clark and Lana is doomed, since he can’t be with a human woman unless he gives up his superpowers, but let’s just ignore that for now.
The Gus and Superman stories connect when Gus, dressed as an American General, presents Superman with his faux-Kryptonite during a ceremony being held in Smallville. Although there are no immediate effects, Superman begins acting irrational, arrogant, and almost evil. He flies around causing mischief, like blowing out the torch at the Olympics. He even sleeps with Lorelei (despite what was said in the previous film about him doing that sort of thing), who convinces him to destroy an oil tanker for Ross. As Superman gets more evil, his costume gets darker (other than the shorts, it resembles the Superman costume Henry Cavill wears in Man of Steel) and he starts getting drunk at a bar. Finally, and it’s never explained how, but I presume it’s just in Superman’s mind, Clark and Superman split in two and have a fight in a junkyard, which “Clark” wins, and he is merged back together as one good guy.
Superman confronts Ross at his hidden cave, and they use Gus’ supercomputer to fight him. Gus finally realizes the error of his ways and shuts down the computer, but the computer regains power on it’s own, and turns Vera into a cyborg to do it’s bidding. The Vera-Cyborg is pretty silly-looking, but the special effects of the time are pretty good. And with a few tweaks this could have been a great origin for Superman’s foe BRAINIAC. Eventually, with Gus’ help, Superman defeats the computer, and Ross is finished. After giving Gus a lift back to the city, Clark returns to the Daily Planet to learn that Lana and Ricky have moved to Metropolis, with Lana being hired as Perry White’s secretary.
Again, I love the Clark/Lana romance and how it develops. The difference between Lois and Lana is that Lana actually likes CLARK, she’s not pining over Superman. And the ending scene, when Lana shows up for work at the Daily Planet, we see a hint of Jealousy in Lois’ eyes, setting up a potential love triangle. I also feel that Pryor was pretty good, all things considered. Comparing this to some of this other films of the 80’s, like The Toy, Moving, and See No Evil Hear No Evil, I’d say this is one of his better performances. I’m not saying this is a great film or anything like that, but it has its good points.
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I haven’t see this film in years and glad you were able to highlight some of the plot points.