Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Superman III
If you’ve been a longtime reader of Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, you might notice sequels comprise a surprising amount of cheesy cinema. Like the knock-offs of the 1980s, sequels have a certain cheapness to them. They also have that edge of cynicism on the part of the producers, if not the filmmakers, which often leads to unintended entertainment value. Some are straight up schlock, like Jaws: The Revenge, while others attempt to make lighting strike a second or third time. As I mentioned when we discussed Rocky III, Rocky II avoids the cheese factor by recreating much of the atmosphere people enjoyed in the original Rocky even as writer/director Sylvester Stallone tried to process his stardom. Superman II also narrowly avoids becoming cheesy by virtue of scenes filmed at the same time as the original film and incoming director Richard Lester’s comedic sensibility — granted, it makes the film a much lesser work than Superman, but certainly not cheesy.
Lester’s truly cheesy superhero effort occurs on the next production, Superman III. At that moment in history, Superman II was considered a bigger hit than its predecessor and producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler believed that success was due to Lester’s more irreverent take on the characters; a tone Salkind always wanted to pursue. For the third film, they choose to double down on that tone by inviting writers David and Leslie Newman — who punched up the Superman II script for Lester’s reshoots and would eventually write Santa Claus: The Movie — to take Superman on his most comedic adventure.
The plot concerns down on his luck ne’er-do-well Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor). When his unemployment benefit is denied, he takes a computer class and discovers he has an affinity for programing. His skill soon lands him a job as Webscoe, a multinational conglomerate headed by Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). Learning half-pennies from his earnings get folded into an otherwise usable company account, Gus hacks the system in order to deliver the half-pennies stuck in payroll to his paycheck. Soon, Webster’s accountants notice hundreds of thousands of dollars have disappeared from the ledger, but when Webster spots Gus parking a sportscar in the Webscoe lot, he puts two and two together. Instead of firing him, though, Webster decides to use his preternatural programming abilities to dominate the worldwide coffee trade. Gus accomplishes this by hacking a weather satellite and causing a tornado to ruin Columbian crops. The plan is not entirely successful as Superman (Christopher Reeve) arrives to stop the tornado. Stymied, Webster order Gus to find a way to manufacture the only substance that will kill the Man of Steel: Kryptonite.
And if this plot synopsis feels like its lacking for Superman, that’s part of the charm. The character is very much a guest in his own film while Pryor’s character takes center stage. From a producer’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense. Pryor was a hot commodity at the time and giving him a prominent role in a Superman film should be, as they used to say, boffo box office. But since Pryor’s onscreen persona was that of a well-meaning bumbler who used his wits and words to get out of trouble, he really couldn’t be the villain. Thus Gus is trapped in the machinations of a new villain who presages the comic book Lex Luthor’s reinvention as business tycoon by several years. This also means Gus has the biggest arc in the film and becomes the central character.
Not that Superman lacks for story material. Gus’s counterfeit Kryptonite turns the Man of Tomorrow into one of the most impressively cheesy cinematic inventions of all time: Bad Superman. His suit discolors to dull red, yellow and blue. His beard starts to grow in and he becomes a lot more interested in booze and boobs. He’s not evil, he’s just bad. Comic readers will recognize the concept as Superman under the influence of Red Kryptonite, but the Newmans claim they had no idea of the Silver Age concept while writing the script. Nonetheless, Bad Superman makes Superman III a surprisingly accurate recreation of cheesy Superman stories from the 1950s and 60s.
Which, I should stress, is not meant to imply that the comics or the film is bad (thought it is easy to make the argument that Superman III is a bad movie). Both just adhere to a vision of superhero comics fans tend to downplay in the hopes of gaining acceptance and legitimacy. Now that Black Panther owns the box office, Logan has an Oscar nomination and Avengers: Infinity War is the legitimate film you will see this week, the hoped for moment when superheroes are a powerful genre in their own right has been achieved. Consequently, we can look back at Superman III and enjoy it for the Silver Age tone and tropes it accidentally picked up in building a story to showcase Pryor.
For his part, Pryor plays his on-screen persona — worked out in films like Bustin’ Loose and The Toy — to the max here. He even recreates a Tonight Show appearance in which he exuberantly acts out a scene from the first Superman film. I will admit it took me decades and a deeper understanding of Pryor and film in general to appreciate his work here. Gus is a flippant character who damn near breaks the established rules of Superman as defined in the earlier movies. And the fact the character and Pryor just couldn’t take it seriously used to grate on me. Nowadays, though, there’s a genius to him in every scene; even if he admitted to Margot Kidder that he found working on the film very difficult. He’s still out of place, mind, but when you isolate his scenes from their context as a Superman film, he is a winning presence in an otherwise middling film.
Reeve, meanwhile, excels as Bad Superman. As an actor who always took his work very seriously, you can see just how much joy the actor felt in playing this selfish inversion of the character. While many recognize his take on the character as the definitive screen Superman, I think the way he plays this drunk (and thirsty) Kal-El underscores how well he knew the character. Bad Superman, for his love of Johnny Walker Red and cavorting with Ross’s assistant/girlfriend Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson), he is very much a child’s concept of banal evil; a half-understood drunken father. That’s not to say the movie as whole takes the idea as far as Reeve does — Lester, best known for A Hard Day’s Night, just isn’t capable of understanding that sort of pathos — but the collision of Reeve with the film’s jokier tone leads to some amazing cheeseball moments and a terrific fight between Clark and Bad Superman which left many a child emotionally scared following the film’s release in 1983.
Oh, and speaking of traumatizing youngsters, Superman III, for all its cheesiness, features the most terrifying moment in all of 80’s cinema: the robo-fication of Ross’s sister Vera (Annie Ross). As Gus and all of the bad guys escape a massive supercomputer he built in the Grand Canyon to defeat Superman, its wiring literally reaches out to grab Vera and attach electronic components to her. Her wails are horrific and if they weren’t enough to scare a child into hiding under their seat, they would look into the very heart of darkness when Vera opened her new robotic eyes:
So while Superman III is a supreme work of cheese, it comes with a warning: this scene has the ability to terrify a child to their very bones.
Superman III is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms and can still be bought on its own DVD or Blu-ray or as part of the massive Superman Anthology box set.