When it comes to live action representation, Superman has had a rough go of things. Granted, he's had a lot more shots than most superheroes, but so few of his films could be called good. Most of us regard Richard Donner's original as a masterpiece. But despite its clear majesty (and that score!), it is by no means perfect. This is, after all, the film in which Superman brings a dead Lois Lane back to life by flying so fast that he either sends the whole planet back in time or just goes back in time himself. And that's not even mentioning Otis.
Superman II is even more problematic. In some ways the perfect superhero sequel, but also a confused mess of intentions, Superman II suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen. The film was taken away from Richard Donner and finished by the very different Richard Lester, who infused it with goofball humor and a blatant disregard for comic book dignity that did not gel with Donner's clearly more serious tone. The fights in this film are well done, and shockingly stand as some of the only really good Superman battles we've seen on-screen so far. But Superman II also includes a lot of puzzling stuff, such as Superman's "S" shield being used as a kind of sticky snare and his ability to take away Lois Lane's memory simply by kissing her.
Superman II has the rare distinction of having two different sequels: The serious one, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, and the goofy one, Richard Lester's Superman III. Many articles defending the former have already popped up online recently, and rightly so. Singer's ode to Donner is a failure strange enough to deserve a second look and appreciation. But I'm here to talk about Superman III, a much more successful entry than people often realize.
The key to enjoying Superman III is right there in the goofier aspects of Superman II. Director Richard Lester has no interest in taking seriously the Superman mythos. The irony is that, bolstered by the freedom of not really caring, he offers this iteration of Superman its most interesting exploration yet.
For one, we see Clark Kent with a love interest that ignores Lois Lane, yet makes a lot of sense for his character. While Lois Lane provides Superman with a modern urban woman able to challenge the limitations of his more traditional, rural upbringing in such away that we can understand his attraction, Lana
Lane Lang is the hometown sweetheart who actually falls in love with Clark for Clark. The two make a nicer, more believable couple, and the nostalgia behind Clark's return to Smallville adds to his character.
We all seem to be in agreement that the Bad Superman stuff in Superman III is great. We remember it fondly for many reasons. One is the increased humanity it offers Christopher Reeve, an actor who seems born for the Superman role and pushes its boundaries a great deal here. As Clark Kent, Reeve is magically able to raise empathy enough that we root for him as we would any earnest nerd even though we know the whole thing is just an act. As Superman, Reeve does the impossible by making normally lame Boy Scout tenets such as honesty, chastity and virtue seem cool.
But both sides of this coin are unapproachably angelic, and as charismatic as Reeve is in the role, Superman's flawlessness keep us at arm's reach from him as a real humalien. Reeve's Bad Superman doesn't have this problem, however, and watching a disheveled Reeve grumble and grimace like a cop with a bad hangover is a joy I'd never want to live without. For this alone, Superman III is worth having around. It gives us a new, surprisingly raw side to the character, and makes perhaps the best argument of all for Christopher Reeve's talent as an actor.
Evil Superman scratches an itch we didn't know we had, but it does it so thoroughly that we end up missing the Good Superman. This is mostly thanks to the viciousness of Bad Superman's pop-psychological junkyard battle with the good Clark Kent. While slow and dated, this brawl gets remarkably violent, particularly near the end when Bad Superman puts Kent through some kind of industrial metal smashing machine. Lester highlights the violence by making Kent just strong enough to keep taking his beatings without ever gaining much of an upper hand. He's like a superhuman punching bag. Because of this brutality, Kent's completely illogical escape from the jiggly smashing machine to choke Bad Superman feels triumphant, despite the fact that it signals the end of the film's most interesting passage.
It's the rest of the film people have trouble with. But at lot of the tone making Bad Superman work actually permeates everything else in Superman III. A filmmaker trying to honor this series' majestic dignity is not going to include a scene where Superman drunkenly flicks peanuts into bottles of booze. But thank God Superman III does. And take another look at that big junkyard throw down. It has more in common with Looney Tunes than Superman. There's an open pit of boiling acid just sitting there, and much of the hijinks are built more around gags than reality (the tire throwing, the giant magnet) It's a shock no one gets hit with an ACME anvil.
This is key to Richard Lester's approach to Superman. It is a deliberate choice rather than a flaw. If you can just accept it movie-wide rather than just as a coincidental part of the few scenes which cross over into genuine badassery, you'll see that while Superman III's goofy tone is perhaps not what you want from a Superman film, it remains consistent from beginning to end.
It also makes clear how more interesting the villains in Superman III are than people want to admit. Yes, Richard Pryor is a strange addition to the Superman movie series. And yes, there's something inherently second rate about Robert Vaughn in this film. But if you go with it, this weirdness becomes kind of a virtue. How else are we supposed to take the rooftop skiing, the donkey riding, the nonsensical computer stuff, Richard Pryor's sudden computer genius or his brief disguise as an Army general? All this stuff is silly, but silly in keeping with the rest of the film, unlike the original Superman's sudden shifts from "The Greatest Superhero Ever Made" to "Oh, Great. Here's Another Bumbling Otis Scene."
Robert Vaughn's Webster is overly plain but his plainness allows Lester to have more fun with him. I'm particularly enamored with the perverse weirdness of his ever-present spinster sister, Vera, whose inclusion pays off big time when it comes time to turn her into a robot and scar children's brains across the 1980s. Webster may not be as flashy as Lex Luthor but I kind of love that his plan involves synthesizing Kryptonite to create a villainous Superman (ok, the Bad Superman part was an accident) and then using sex to aim this bullet. (That's right, Superman gets laid in this one.) I find all that more exciting than a Kryptonite necklace and some earthquakes, especially when you add in all the wacky supercomputer stuff during the big climax. Sure, none of it makes sense, but Robo-Vera is great, as is the weird bubble that threatens to suffocate Superman despite the fact that he doesn't need to breath, and the wires that wrap around Superman's face while his canister of super slushy overflows and gums up the circuitry (or whatever happens there).
There really is no angle from which you can approach the horrible Superman IV that will square its many faults. But with Superman III, you need only accept what Richard Lester attempts to accomplish. This is a film that can stand tall against the slings and arrows of nerd contention. It isn't a movie about beauty or emotion; it's just a goofy good time. And when it comes to Superman, I'd much rather have a movie where some guy's car fills up with water because he parked above a broken fire hydrant than a film where Superman stalks Lois Lane and cries about being adopted the whole time.