Thursday, May 15, 2014

Superman III

How much of a step down in quality from Superman and Superman II is Superman III (1983)? I'm going to reference my review of Good Burger.

In that post, I described Ed, the main character, as "one of the most un-endearing, painfully unfunny 'wacky' characters I've ever seen in a movie. Everything he does or says is painfully telegraphed to the most moronic of punchlines and slapstick ... Everything involving Ed is painfully unfunny or horribly contrived." In Ed's defense, he's at least in a stupid kid's comedy, where that kind of character can potentially be funny. The same cannot be said for the inclusion of Richard Pryor in what at the time was the premier super hero movie franchise.

I've seen bad movies, and to be honest, I've seen movies worse than Superman III. From a technical standpoint, the special effects are still pretty convincing, the underlying concept of Superman battling his own dark side is interesting, and Christopher Reeve is still tremendous as both the Man of the Steel and mild-mannered Clark Kent. But Pryor's presence and performance, along with an overall shift in tone by director Richard Lester (now fully in control without any influence by Richard Donner), scuttles all the good will and transforms what had been a grand, epic, and sincere series into a joke and a disgrace.

Pryor plays Gus Gorman, an unemployed loser who becomes a computer programmer and tries to embezzle his boss, Baseketball (Robert Vaughn). Ok, the villain's name is not Baseketball, but I don't care; I'm going to refer to him as Baseketball for the duration of this review. Baseketball decides to use Gus's computer skills to first destroy Columbia's coffee supply and then control the world oil market. How?  Computers that's how, you can control every piece of electronic hardware as well as a satellite from any computer, didn't you know? Knowing Superman is a threat to his schemes, Baseketball has Gus synthesize kryptonite to kill him, but because the composition is not entirely accurate, the kryptonite corrupts Superman into an evil version of himself, leaving the world in shock and wondering what has happened to the Man of Steel.

The frustrating thing is that with a little tinkering, Superman III could have featured Brainiac as the main villain. I can believe an alien android taking over the world's computer systems, using them to create havoc and a type of kryptonite to make Superman go bad. I can't believe Richard Pryor is able to do that. Alas, Brainiac, one of Superman's top villains, has yet to grace a live-action movie. 

I suppose the movie would be merely misguided if Pryor at least provided laughs and was entertaining, but I couldn't stand him. Few things are as unpleasant as watching someone try but fail to be funny, and Pryor with his eyes bugged out and talking a mile-a-minute made me want to punch him and scream "Shut Up!" His antics and scenes get as much time as Superman's, and that's uncalled for. Instead of advancing the plot or exploring the Superman mythos, we're treated to unfunny slapstick and schtick. Every time Pryor comes on screen, the movie stops dead.

True, the previous Superman movies had humor but not at the expense of the story and never this ridiculous or illogical. It's fun to watch the interaction between Clark Kent and Lois Lane since every line is a double entendre because of Clark's secret identity, but watching Pryor put on a pink table cloth to re-enact Superman's heroics (That's right. I don't want to see Superman in action. I want to watch Richard Pryor reenact it and then ski off a building because he's an idiot.) or show up in military regalia to talk like General Patton is frankly embarrassing.

All the slapstick and forced humor keep the plot from every taking off,  but even the plot betrays one of the core themes of the series. In Superman II, Superman gave up his powers for Lois Lane because he loved her so much, but eventually, he recognized he had a greater responsibility and knew he could not be with her. Lois only appears briefly at the beginning and end of the movie (because Margot Kidder spoke out in defense of Richard Donner), and the new love interest is Clark's Smallville crush Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole, who played Martha Kent on the show Smallville). She's appealing and nice, but why is Clark romancing her if he knows he can never be with her? What about Lois, his true love that he was willing to become a man for?

Vaughn has some fun as the villain, but he's basically a fill-in for Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor. The movie also miscalculates with an action scene in which Vaughn's missiles are launched against an incoming Superman. That could have been an exciting set piece as Superman weaves in and out of the line of fire and dodges the projectiles, but for some reason, the scene plays out mostly on a video game screen and is a literally a cartoon.

The best element of the movie is when Superman becomes corrupted by the synthetic kryptonite. Again, Reeve is great, proving the only consistent strength of the series, and he gets to have some malicious fun when he goes bad. Some of it's a bit goofy - straightening out the Leaning Tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic Torch - but it works. When Superman is drunk at a bar and flinging peanuts into a mirror, he feels like someone who really has become bad, and it's shocking. The fight between the two halves, good Clark and evil Superman, is very likely the best part of the movie. It demonstrates the ingredients for a great Superman story were there, they were there for the taking. 

It's frustrating. Such a golden opportunity squandered. Yes, Superman is a comic-book figure, but the filmmakers placed too much emphasis on the comic aspect of the phrase. If it was actually funny, it might have been forgivable. It's not funny, so it's terrible.

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