After reading so often about how Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace were nowhere near as good as the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies- and this much is true- I avoided both like the plague for many years. I also avoided them, in part, because I happen to love Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which basically pretends as if the last two Reeve films never happened (isn’t that what most fans do nowadays anyway?).
It was only after seeing a copy of this and Superman IV at my local library that I decided, what the heck? Why not give it another try? I took it home and last night just watched III for the first time since I was a kid, and I’m glad I did. Surprisingly, I actually really enjoyed it!
The only things I remembered about the movie from years ago were Clark going back to Smallville, which was still cool, and Richard Pryor in much of the movie, which was still lame. Both are present in this movie, but unlike how I had remembered it, the lame does not completely overpower the cool.
More on that in a minute. First let’s go ahead and do a little retrospective on the film, starting with the bad.
Certainly Richard Pryor’s character is a huge question mark to anyone who had seen the first two Superman films, but the lame doesn’t stop there, either. There is no hint of Krypton or anything hearkening to it in this movie: no fortress of solitude, no holograms, crystals, nothing. There is no sign of the Kents, and there is also very little Lois Lane, maybe a total of 10 minutes. I’m sure this was at least in part because of having Lana Lang in the film, but was it also because of Margot Kidder’s personal struggles at this time?
(I think an IMDB search is in order!)
There is still plenty of Metropolis, and plenty of Jimmy and Perry, albeit a tad more hammed up than the Donner films. Outside of that though, very little of Superman’s supporting cast is in this film, which doesn’t help the story much. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
The comedy. Oh the comedy.
Large chunks of this movie were filmed as if they belonged in an 80s comedy starring Richard Pryor. A good 5 minute stretch in the beginning of the movie that is meant to establish Metropolis for the viewer seems to go on endlessly with slapstick humor- people tripping over themselves, getting messy, etc. Superman II was co-directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester (or rather, given to Lester after Donner had shot a good deal of it before a falling out with the Salkinds). It contained the sweeping, epic scenes which were part of Donner’s original intent, as well as slapstick… all Lester. After watching this, one can tell where the goofy scenes of the theatrical release of Superman II came from. Superman III is a Superman movie completely unhinged from Donner’s vision, and the result is a much weaker product (I am SO glad that a Donner cut of Superman II was released some years back).
I have to say that there was enough good in this movie that it was still worth being made. The Smallville scenes were all excellent and contain a real heart that is matched only by the scenes of Clark’s formative years in middle America in the first film. Annette O’Toole is fantastic as Lana Lang, and she and Christopher Reeve have tremendous chemistry, nearly as much as Reeve and Kidder did in the first two. The high school reunion, the conversations with old friends, and Clark wearing his high school sweatshirt for most of the movie are all great. Would Donner have gone this direction if given the opportunity? We’ll never know for sure.
Despite the comedy, the action scenes in this movie are really well made, too. Superman freezing the surface of a nearby lake to put out a fire at a chemical plant is an image I remember vividly, and it’s still great here. Superman fighting the destruction caused by the commandeered Vulcan satellite is also great, as are other bits throughout the movie. Although mixed in with screwball scenes, the action still works.
And don’t get me started on the Superman vs himself junkyard scene, easily the best part of the whole film for me.
But the biggest surprise in this movie for me was how good of a bad guy Robert Vaughn was as Ross Webster, or, to be completely honest, Lex Luthor by another name. Despite how ridiculous that sounds, it works! The man is rich, does not live underground and beams with intelligence and malice, something Gene Hackman never really achieved for me, with all due respect to Hackman as an actor. He still has laughable sidekicks and some ridiculous moments, but in all is a much more believable threat for Reeve’s Superman than Hackman and his henchmen ever were. Although he goes by another name, Vaughn’s Webster is a better Lex Luthor than Gene Hackman, in my estimation.
(How much cooler might it have been if the computer at the end of the film really had been Brainiac, as originally intended, controlled by Ross Webster… my inner fanboy goes giddy at the thought!)
Is it a perfect film? No. Was it worth being made? Actually yeah, it kinda was. In fact, I’d even say it gets a bit of a bum rap. I’m glad I checked it out after twenty years. It gives me something new to think about while we await news of another Superman film (still in limbo, currently), and gave me a little trip down memory lane.
All in all, not that bad.
Next up, Superman IV! For more on what Superman III might have been, check out the documentary with the same name on my videos page!