Super Movie Monday – Superman III, Part 1

There will only be two parts to this one, not because there’s not a lot to say, but because I just don’t feel it’s worth stretching out for three weeks. So the two halves may end up being quite long. Just saying.

The Salkinds knew by the time Superman II was released that they would be making a third installment. In fact, on the web, you can find copies of an outline/treatment Ilya Salkind wrote for a possible Superman III (dated almost three months before Superman II was released).

If you don’t want to read it, and I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t, it’s basically about how Superman meets and falls in love with Supergirl (who in Salkind’s story is not related to him). He has to battle evil Brainiac for her affections, which is hard, because Brainiac has a machine which can control Superman and make him do evil things. Superman finally beats him with the help of Mr. Mxyzptlk.

All those plans changed when Richard Pryor announced on television that he wanted to be in a Superman movie. The producers signed Pryor, then commissioned David and Leslie Newman to write a new screenplay with a major role meant specifically for Pryor. The major cast members were rehired, as well as Superman II director Richard Lester.

This is what we ended up with.

The very first shot tells us we’re not on Krypton anymore.

Richard Pryor plays Gus Gorman, a “lovable” screw-up who is being told that he is no longer eligible for unemployment. So as he’s walking away in defeat, he pulls out a cigarette and asks for a light from a dude in line who’s smoking a cigarette. Smoking indoors, dude. We forget now how commonplace that was.

The matchbook cover has an interesting ad.

Cue the opening credits, and the first sign that the producers have learned all the wrong lessons from the first two films. It’s an extended and very complicated slapstick scene involving mechanical toy penguins, a seeing-eye dog, a pit in the ground, a bank robber, a car crashed on a fire hydrant, Clark Kent, a mime, some pies and an amazingly hot blonde.

Oh, and at one point, Clark Kent ducks into a photo booth to change into Superman just as a kid drops some quarters in.

Recognize the kid? Probably not with his pants on. That’s Aaron Smolinski again, who played little naked baby Kal-El in the first two films. At least he keeps his pants on in this one.

As the sequence ends, we pan up from Clark Kent to a computer school window, where Gus is learning computer programming (they let people smoke in here, too). Two seconds after another student has been told something is impossible, Gus does it. He doesn’t know how he did it, though. He apparently just typed some random print statements into the computer without any understanding of the language or syntax, and magic happened. It’s like he’s rapping in BASIC. Oh, and he’s apparently programming a British computer.

At the Daily Planet, Clark talks with Perry and Jimmy and Lois. Clark is going back to Smallville for his 20th school reunion, while Lois is going on vacation to Bermuda (because there is no role for Lois in the script, but they obviously couldn’t just leave her out entirely). She waves around a pink bikini that we will happily not be seeing her wear, then leaves.

Bye-bye Lois. See you in two hours. BTW, we know that this scene happens immediately after the previous one because Clark is wearing the same suit, and Jimmy still has the same mustard stain on his lapel from the opening credits. This is important, because Clark announces that he is now leaving for Smallville.

Cut to Gus getting his first paycheck as a computer programmer. He’s not happy, because taxes leave him too little money to pay his bills. Meanwhile, look at the folks having to wear hearing protection in the mainframe room.

This is also the first interior scene in which people are not shown smoking in the building. One of Gus’s fellow employees just happens to mention how the paychecks are rounded down to the last whole cent, and there are thousands of half-cents floating around in the computer somewhere. So Gus uses his computer brilliance to break into the highly secure Webscoe mainframe (he types “Override all security” when prompted for the security code–I don’t know why I never thought of using that trick). Then he routes all half-cents from corporate payroll into his expense account.

Meanwhile, Jimmy and Clark are traveling cross-country by bus on their way to Smallville. Remember that between the scene at the Daily Planet and this one,  Gus finished his computer training, got a job at Webscoe, and worked at least one week to get his first paycheck. Slow bus.

There’s a chemical plant on fire, so the bus is waved to a stop by a cop who’s not John Ratzenberger.

I say that because this is Shane Rimmer, who was last seen in Superman II, working in Mission Control alongside Ratzenberger, who’s not along for this ride. And since this movie spelled the end of the Salkinds’ Superman franchise, it’s obvious that the lack of Ratzenberger is what did it in. Sorry, Shane.

Jimmy pulls Clark down to have a hurried conference about how Clark needs to keep the cops distracted so Jimmy can sneak closer to the fire to take pictures. What’s funny is that they’re having this conference about three feet from a cop who’s looking right at them.

Jimmy hunches over and tries to use a passing fire truck for cover, but he literally pushes past the cop to do it. All Jimmy needs is Lois’s pink Paris suit to complete the utter lack of stealth. But somehow he gets past all the cops and firemen to climb a truck ladder to take pictures. Yeah, that’s a good idea.

Clark changes to Superman and saves a bunch of people on a rooftop by pulling down a smokestack and letting them slide down it to safety. Or rather, slide down it to where an explosion goes off, knocking most of them over.

Thanks, Superman.

But that’s all small potatoes, because Superman finds out that there is a cache of acid that must not overheat, or else it will produce a vast corrosive cloud that will destroy everything it touches. And of course, that’s the moment that the fire destroys the pumphouse, so there’s no water pressure for the hoses. So Superman flies to a nearby lake, uses his freeze breath to create a layer of ice, then flies it out to the plant, where it melts and fall like rain, putting out the fire.

And really, the effects in this sequence are pretty good, better than in either of the first two movies. The flying is smoother, the mattes are better, and Christopher Reeve has gotten even better on his wire-assisted take-offs and landings. It’s weird, because I thought this movie was supposed to be horrible, and so far, it’s okay.

So since Jimmy’s leg was broken in covering the fire, Clark goes alone to the reunion, where he sees his former high-school crush, Lana Lang. They dance, and wow, the way she looks at him. That’s chemistry that he and Lois never had.

I really like Annette O’Toole in this part. She’s got a charm and a wholesome appeal that Kidder’s Lois lacked, and she’s dead sexy.

So the next day, Gus receives his expense check for 85,789.90 with his next paycheck, which means that the reunion happened over two weeks after the initial Daily Planet scene. Geez, did they have to get out and push the bus from Metropolis to Smallville?

We know it’s the next day, because after Gus gets his check, Clark helps Lana clean up from the previous night’s party. Lana expresses her frustration at being stuck in a small town, and oh BTW, she has a kid and is totally reconsidering her position on the issue of Clark Kent: Dream or Dud?

Ross Webster, meanwhile, knows about the loss of his $85000, and look, his mistress is the really hot blonde from the opening titles.

And Webster immediately knows that Gus did it, because Gud is an idiot.

Clark and Lana are out with Lana’s son Ricky at a bowling party. Clark wants to impress Lana and show up creepy drunk fellow alumnus Brad, so he helps Ricky bowl a strike by means of a super-sneeze.

Webster calls Gus into a meeting and tells him he can avoid jail for embezzlement by helping Webster destroy the Colombian coffee crop, which is standing in the way of Webster’s monopoly over the price of coffee. Webster and his sister want Gus to take control of a weather observation satellite and reprogram it to be able to manipulate the weather. That satellite is hellaciously over-engineered, if you ask me. No wonder the damn things cost so much.

In order to keep the hacking from being traced back to Webscoe (and BTW, “hack” is never used once in the entire film–it apparently hadn’t yet entered the public lexicon), Gus is sent to Webscoe subsidiary WheatKing in Smallville, where Gus literally runs into Clark, on his way to a picnic with Lana and Ricky. Clark is wearing his red-and-yellow Smallville sweater tied around his neck like a cape, and this is as good a time as any to mention that Christopher Reeve’s hair has these odd streaks in it throughout the film.

I know he had to darken it for the role, but I would think it would be harder to maintain this kind of two-tone look than just make everything one shade. But the streaks stay there consistently, and they’re seriously distracting sometimes.

Lana and Clark share a nice tender scene, and then Ricky trips and bashes his head open on a rock, directly in the path of some combine harvesters. With Lana distracted by a convenient oil leak from her car, Superman saves Ricky just in the nick of time.

That night, Gus uses his wits and a briefcase full of booze to get past WheatKing’s security (which consists of night watchman Brad).

The film does a lot of this, taking characters and weaving them in and out of different scenes, like the fact that Webster’s mistress Lorelei is the catalyst for all the slapstick in the opening credits, or the way the couple who win the lottery drawing set up in the first Daily Planet scene end up going to Colombia in just a bit. In one sense, it’s neat, but in another sense, it sometimes feels like the entire film is just one big series of coincidences.

Once Brad passes out, Gus is free to hack into the computer. Which WheatKing apparently bought used from NORAD, because it needs two keys inserted simultaneously to work.

Seriously, what is that about? WheatKing can’t afford to have people learn their wheat secrets?

And see, the thing is, up to this point, the film has been pretty good. Not great, but not awful. Pryor at this point was in his comeback from his burning incident, and though his timing isn’t as sharp as when he was younger, and his character is a buffoon who is totally not believable as some ultra-computer-savant, I still kind of like him. He has some good moments, especially in this drunken scene with Brad.

And though the effects are uneven (the farm rescue isn’t nearly as impressive as the fire sequence, with some bad mattes and visible wires), they’re pretty good, and with none of the real clunker shots that appeared in the first two films.

And let me say again that I really like the developing romance between Clark and Lana.  It’s nicely played, and I’m getting a little crush on Annette O’Toole myself by this point in the film. And yet, I had remembered this film as being just awful. Am I misremembering, or has it just not turned really bad yet?

The answer is b. It’s right about at this point, as Gus is activating WheatKing Missile Command, that the movie begins its long slide into awfulness. We’ll get to that next week. God help us all.

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One Response to Super Movie Monday – Superman III, Part 1

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