The increased news coverage being heaped upon the finely chiseled ubermensch, along with the ongoing debate about the onslaught of superhero origin films to arrive this summer, put me to thinking about the first significant time I witnessed Superman asking serious questions about his identity. Granted, it was within the confines of a movie that severely tarnished the image of comic book movies for years afterward, but the question was there regardless.
SUPERMAN III, released in 1983, has served as a prime example of what is both interesting and irritating about "threequels" - the perception that this is where the franchise can go into heretofore unseen directions, bring up details heretofore ignored, and potentially here-and-now go off the rails. As far as superhero movies go, it's rather uncanny that future threequels SPIDER-MAN III and BATMAN FOREVER would also explore a similar sort of identity crisis plotline, thus making it a harbinger of things to come...especially since those threequels were not very good. And make no mistake, SUPERMAN III is not very good. You will find some brave souls ready to defend it, and the distinction of worst Superman outing ever still belongs to the moth-eaten SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, but do not for a minute think this is some sort of misunderstood crystal in the Fortress of Solitude.
SUPERMAN III is the cinematic equivalent of fugu: on the whole, it is a poisonous beast that will suck the oxygen out of you and bring death. But if you carefully carve it up, there is some tasty meat within that can be enjoyed.
Before discussing any of its merits, we must acknowledge it is nigh impossible to watch the movie in the present day and not be cognizant of the loss of both of its above-the-title stars, and the long, heartbreaking exits they took - Christopher Reeve from quadriplegic paralysis, Richard Pryor from Multiple Sclerosis. Both men, previously icons of energy and youth that repeatedly drew in audiences, ultimately became noble representatives for dealing with their abrupt misfortune with calm humor and determination to continue working until death. As such, the viewer wishes that their one shared movie offered them better material to work with. But thankfully, it is their respective skills that provide what good points the movie has.
First, the film provides a well-needed stretch for Reeve, taking him beyond the established polite nebbish/confident hero dynamic of the first two films. It is forgotten that in his first national exposure, on the TV soap opera "LOVE OF LIFE," his character was often so callous viewers would openly castigate him in person. Thus, when tainted Kryptonite infects Superman and drives him to mean-spirited selfish acts, Reeve throws himself into the bad behavior with relish; Metropolis may be horrified to see Superman being such a colossal dick, but it's a lot of fun for us to watch his heel turn. Which, of course, climaxes in the movie's best set piece, the junkyard brawl between "bad" Superman and "good" Clark Kent, a well-choreographed arragement of camera trickery and stunt doubling that manages to be funny and still inspire a degree of suspense as to how the hero will overcome his dark side. (Surely Sam Raimi, who would go on to helm all three SPIDER-MAN films, took inspiration from this sequence for his similar, albeit completely for laughs, smackdown between good and bad Bruce Campbell in ARMY OF DARKNESS.)
Then, there is the matter of Pryor's oft-maligned performance. Pryor himself was very harsh in his assessment of the experience: the movie merits only one page in his autobiography PRYOR CONVICTIONS, where he concedes the script was terrible but as it was then the highest salary ever offered to a black actor ($4 million) he took the part anyway. He also acknowledges he was still abusing crack during production, and it was shortly after filming when, on vacation with his children, he finally quit drugs for good. For fans who wanted to see the animated, take-no-bullshit persona that Pryor perfected on stage, earlier movies, and in his short-lived TV series, it is certainly a disappointment to witness the beginning of what would become an unwelcome trademark of his later movie roles, what the sketch comedy series "IN LIVING COLOR" (featuring his longtime friend Mr. Paul Mooney as a staff writer) derided as "Richard Pryor is...'SCARED FOR NO GOOD REASON!'" It is also the blueprint that in the present-day has similarly hobbled other great comic actors - Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Jack Black - who start out transgressive and dangerous but get stuck in a rut of making repetitive and bland movies "for the kids" and can't seem to recapture their adult glory.
But while revisiting the film a few weeks ago, I was reminded of a quote Pryor provided author Arthur Grace for his photo-essay book COMEDIANS...
"I see Laurel and Hardy up there with van Gogh. I do, really. Cause they were just there, man, you what I'm saying. They had a love. They had a magic together."
And as I watched Pryor playing the soft-spoken and often-reluctant criminal sub-genius Gus Gorman, it hit me. Pryor's approach to the role - the half-baked bravado, the physical slapstick, the quick retreats upon confrontation, the occasional squeak of fear - is to emulate Stan Laurel. You even see a sort of Oliver Hardy-ish bluster to Robert Vaughn's industrialist villain for Pryor to play his Laurelisms against. And, considering that Reeve's Clark Kent, a modest bespectacled gent secretly capable of feats of strength, owes more than a little debt to silent comedian Harold Lloyd, a similarly mild-mannered fellow who literally climbed a tall building in a single bound in SAFETY LAST, I find it rather charming that the work of such comedy pioneers is quietly being reenacted decades later. It's not completely effective, especially when you know it goes against his better comedic impulses, but it is interesting because of the contrast, as if trying to prove to the world (and himself) that he could be funny without any of his earthier hallmarks, to use the template of the comedians that he had grown up enjoying to demonstrate his versatility. There is also the harsh reality that, in a family-friendly franchise film which he was receiving a cool $4 million to appear in, there would be no room for the dirty stuff anyway.
But again, perhaps this is what Pryor wanted at the time. Initially, Pryor had practically begged to be involved in the franchise, excitedly talking about his love for the first film on "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON," an incident which first inspired producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to make the large money offer to Pryor in the first place. The offer came after accepting a starring role in another family-friendly comedy, the American remake of Francis Veber's THE TOY, oddly enough directed by original SUPERMAN director Richard Donner. A couple of years earlier, Pryor had taken a trip to Africa, where, as memorably depicted in LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP, he was inspired to renounce his use of the racial epithet that he had previously played to the hilt, and while his first interests were still big paychecks (and his drug addiction), he definitely wanted to be a world entertainer and not just a black comedian. All these circumstances suggest that contrary to the dismissal in his book, SUPERMAN III to Pryor was less a cavalier cash grab and more of a sincere desire to pay tribute to things that brought him happiness as a kid, and maybe repay the favor for his own and the next generation. Again, that doesn't make it a good movie, but it provides a new lens with which to observe the mess.
And that brings things around to the beginning of this essay and the element of the movie that I do find still holds my interest. Superman, in his most passionate fans, constantly inspires questions, whether, as was being asked in the aformentioned Issue #900, if Superman is an American, or in other circles, what is his religious/ethnic identity. But in SUPERMAN III, it comes down to the ultimate question, not just for Superman but also for his ersatz nemesis/admirer Gus Gorman - "Who am I?"
Superman, during his infected rogue phase, is more than just indulging in nasty behavior; for the first time, he's allowing himself to feel better than humans, because, well, he isn't one. After all, he tried being human in SUPERMAN II and was terrible at it. The kryptonite has unlocked residual resentment at being unable to engage in romance because of his hero duties, having to play nice with the people or let them push him around when he's in street clothes, and now he is retaliating against the world, demonstrating what chaos he's capable of doing in a fit of pique, because of his otherworldly powers. When it's time for that I Against I grudge match, it's become a spiritual fight between openly showing off his might and menace or concealing and modulating it in the cloak of ordinary men. The striking image of Clark Kent winning the fight, and then revealing the cleaned up shield beneath his drab suit, says that Superman has willingly made the conscious decision to be outwardly meek and humble, to be a mensch, and let his real strength be within himself. Contrary to what Bill said to The Bride, Superman is not critiquing the human race by his life as Clark Kent, but embracing them, because they embraced him all his life. (In a future essay, I will discuss how the people repaid the favor.)
Gus, meanwhile, is a venal opportunist who is really just trying to improve his lot in life and doesn't want to hurt anyone. His first grand scheme, engaging in salami slicing to fatten his paycheck, he sees as a "victimless" crime since the money goes nowhere otherwise, thus he later allows himself to be co-opted by a megalomaniac for what he thinks are similarly victimless schemes in order to live his silly dreams. When he must confront the fact that his actions have consequences beyond his small world, including destroying Superman, he renounces everything - his criminal benefactor, his supercomputer - that has given him his exalted status...perhaps mirroring how Pryor in real life abandoned his previously-favorite curse word.
Whatever grand ambitions and ideas are within, SUPERMAN III is still a slog for the average viewer and is only recommended to those with strong constitutions or a good fast-forwarding thumb. It is nice to see it still has some degree of positive impact years later, either obviously, as the initial financial scheme is reprised for bigger comic effect in Mike Judge's classic OFFICE SPACE, or interpretively, as Richard Pryor's Gus Gorman seems to have been a partial influence on John C. Reilly's lovably befogged Dr. Steve Brule character on "TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW GREAT JOB". Perhaps in one of those DC multiverses, Reeve and Pryor made a really great sequel, and my surrogate will be writing an essay about how it could have gone horribly awry...