Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
2018 marks the 80th Anniversary of when the medium of comic books changed forever when the creation of Superman gave readers the world’s first superhero. After Superman flew through comic book pages, the superhero became an absolute staple of comic books. December 15, 2018 also marks the 40th Anniversary of Superman: The Movie (1978), the film that created the comic-book movie genre. To honor this occasion, I will be examining The Original Superman Film Franchise! In this third installment, we look at a movie series attempting to go in a different direction with Superman III (1983)!
Superman III (1983) if anything, is a prime example of a tonal shift. A shift which comes from a change in the creative forces behind the franchise. Following the difficulties with making Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1981), director Richard Donner was understandably done with the franchise he helped bring to the screen. However, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and their producing partner, Pierre Spengler still maintained control of the series. Obviously, with two highly-successful films under their belt, the producers, as well as Warner Bros. knew there was more to be done with The Man of Steel.
Initially, co-producer Ilya Salkind wanted to delve more into the broad sci-fi aspects of the Superman universe such as Brainiac, Supergirl, and Mister Mxyzptlk. In fact, he wrote a script treatment involving those characters for a third Superman picture. Alas, that concept never took flight. Granted, even if that script treatment had evolved into a screenplay, it might not have been great. But, I’d venture to say it would have been interesting. Oddly enough though, it wasn’t the rich source material of comic books that got Superman III off the ground, it was a comedian.
The late-great Richard Pryor is a comedy legend. As a stand-up comedian, Pryor was revolutionary; turns out, he wasn’t a bad actor either. After sustaining severe burns from a crack cocaine incident, Pryor did what any good comedian does; he turned his pain into comedy. As part of promoting his newest stand-up set, Pryor appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962-1992). After getting on the subject of Superman, Pryor enthusiastically praised and re-enacted Superman: The Movie, and went on to say how much he would love to be in a Superman sequel. Pryor’s spot on Carson captured the attention of Ilya Salkind, who immediately reached out the comedian/actor about co-starring in the third installment. Pryor accepted the offer (which he later admitted was primarily due to $5 million payday he received); at which point, Salkind became focused on designing the movie in review around Pryor.
To build Superman III around Pryor, The Salkinds re-teamed with familiar collaborators from the franchise. Writing duo David and Leslie Newman, who had co-scripted the first two Superman installments were tasked with writing the screenplay for Superman’s third adventure. While assigning writing duties to The Newmans was a perfectly logical idea, it might not have the best decision. Mind you, Richard Donner had large portions of The Newman’s scripts for the previous pictures rewritten. Lastly, Richard Lester was brought back to direct, following his success with Superman II. This time around though, Lester had more clout; not being beholden to anything Donner had done. With this particular trifecta at play, Superman III would prove to be just as much a comedy as it is a comic book movie.
Moving a comic book property into comedic territory wasn’t a direction that pleased everyone. Most notably Christopher Reeve was hesitant to return for a third time as he was not impressed by the screenplay for Superman III. However, the actor changed his mind after Lester begged him to reprise his role. Oddly enough, the actor’s third outing as the world’s favorite boy scout was the first time Reeve received top-billing in a Superman movie, despite being the titular character. With Reeve committed, the focus once again became bringing in new blood with which to surround Reeve and Pryor. Margot Kidder’s role as Lois Lane is reduced to a cameo in favor of giving Clark Kent and Superman a new love interest in the form of Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Lastly, a new villains were introduced as a foil for The Man is Steel.
The comic book-based comedic farce that is Superman III is split between Metropolis, known as “The Big Apricot” in this film, and Smallville. During a weekend visit to Smallville, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) reconnects with his high crush, Lana Lange (Annette O’Toole). However, he soon finds that his city of Metropolis faces a new threat. Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) is an evil billionaire bent on world domination, in the interest of business of course. To achieve such a goal, Ross forces a computer programming savant, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) to help him. As a result, Gus develops a supercomputer and synthetic Kryptonite in hopes of destroying Superman!
As bad of a reputation as this movie has, Superman III has some things going for it. First and foremost, this third film doesn’t even attempt a continuation of its predecessors. Thus, I commend this third entry for doing something different. Heck, Superman III feels like a soft-reboot in many ways. The prime examples of which are pre-existing villains, romantic interests, and plot lines being tossed out for new ones. Then there’s the fact that Reeve reinterprets Clark Kent as less of a bumbler and more of a confident, mild-mannered gentleman. Most importantly, the tone is no longer of a superhero origin epic, but a comic book farce.
The issue with all these new things that Superman III tries to do is that about half of them work, half of the time, including the comedy. In my estimation, the most interesting new element here is an evil Superman controlled by synthetic Kryptonite, and who swills Johnnie Walker. Typically, such would be enough of a plot to fuel a whole flick. (In retrospect, this plot element alone was what Zack Snyder and The DCEU took inspiration from for the current iteration of The Man of Steel.) Unfortunately, as with most other plot points of Superman III, this one quickly loses steam.
Then there’s the agitating romantic subplot of this film; which is ridiculous, thanks to being, well, unromantic. Now, I must admit that I’ve not read many comics featuring Lana Lange, nor did I watch Smallville (2001-2011). However, I can’t imagine that Lana is generally as annoying on the comic book page as she is in this movie. Annette O’Toole plays Lana as a fast-talking, almost manic, and indeed opportunistic individual. Worse yet, not only Lana only seems to be interested in Clark/Superman for what he can do for her. As a result, Lana is a female character with little agency of her own and seemingly has no desire to attain any either. Yes, I realize it was the early-80s, but damn, what a stereotype; a huge step down from the fierce independence of Lois Lane.
When it comes down to it, Reeve and Pryor are what makes Superman III worth watching once if you’re a big enough fan of Superman or Pryor. Even still, Pryor’s character of Gus Gorman overshadows Superman and everything else in this picture. Despite the movie taking its inspiration from Superman comics of the 1950s, this movie is ultimately a failed experiment. One in which Lester pushed his pension for comedic setpieces too far; thus slowing the pace of this silly flick to a near-halt. Superman III is A Franchise Implosion; it’s a film that only works 50% of the time and is only worth your time if you’re a completist. Interestingly, not everyone learns from history as Warner Bros. would go to make similar, albeit, less detrimental mistakes with Batman Forever (1995). But hey, at least Superman III proved that Evil Supes has good taste in scotch.
Join me next time when I review The Man of Steel’s attempt to abolish nuclear weapons in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)!
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