Super Movie Monday – Superman III, Part 2

Driving through right to the end in revisiting Superman III. We ended last week with Gus hacking into a weather satellite and observed that the film, while certainly not perfect so far, didn’t seem nearly as awful as the reputation it has gotten since.

And that’s because it’s right about here that the delicate balance between action and comedy, so hard to get right, tips over in the altogether wrong direction.

As Gus tries to gain control of the weather satellite, he somehow gets an ATM to spew out too much cash (featuring a cameo by the deputy sheriff from Superman II)…

He also causes Bloomingdale’s to wildly overbill their customers (resulting in a housewife getting a grapefruit shoved in her face when her husband sees the bill), and causes the traffic lights at a particular intersection to go so haywire that even the little Stop and Go pedestrian indicators get into a fight.

And you could say, yeah but it’s a comic book. It’s not supposed to be realistic. But there’s a difference between comic book and cartoon, and this has crossed the line.

So anyway, the weather satellite causes a storm in Colombia while the couple from Metropolis are there. But as Ross Webster is enjoying the news from his rooftop ski chalet (yes, he has converted the roof of his skyscraper into a permanent ski resort, one of the neater moments in the movie subsequently diminished by a lame gag)…

Gus arrives with bad news. Superman has stopped the storm and saved the crop. Webster’s upset and wants to get Superman out of the way. One problem: all the Kryptonite on Earth has been destroyed. But Webster has apparently watched Atom Man vs. Superman and devised a plan.

He sends Gus to contact the satellite again and have it do a spectroscopic analysis of the area of space where Krypton was. He reasons that the debris there will consist of Kryptonite, which will give him the formula for synthesizing it. Gus does so, but there’s an unknown element. So Gus, as he’s getting ready to light up a cigarette in the computer room (God, I miss the 80’s) looks at his pack of cigarettes and adds tar as the last ingredient.

By the way, in case you didn’t know, Kryptonite is “an intense heat fusion.”

Back in Metropolis, Clark is putting the last touches on his article about the reunion (and the prize-winning lottery couple are returning to threaten a lawsuit) when Lana calls. Ricky has told his classmates that Superman is coming to his birthday party, so Clark promises Supes will be there.

Of course, Smallville goes overboard, setting up a brass band and presenting him with the key to the city. And as the ceremony’s in progress, Gus shows up dressed as General Patton and gives a lame and overlong speech to present Superman with Webscoe’s Craptonite. It has no apparent effect.

Gus calls Webster to explain that Superman didn’t die from the Craptonite (which begs the question of how he expected to get away if Superman did die) and what’s funny is that at one point, Gus refers to KFC as “that chicken in a bucket.” Screenwriters do this all the time to avoid having to pay the company or avoid lawsuits or whatever, but what makes this stand out is that about five minutes ago, there was a very obvious KFC product placement on-screen. Oh, and Webster has pictures of Nixon and Kissinger in his office, so you know he’s a bad guy.

Speaking of bad guys, Superman is in Lana’s living room after the ceremony when an emergency call comes in that a truck is perched precariously on the edge of a bridge and the driver is in danger. But Superman feels an odd twinge and then decides there’s no rush. He’d really rather have a cup of coffee and stare at Lana with creepy bedroom eyes. Then he comes to his senses and rushes off, only to get there moments after the truck falls. No worries though; they got the driver out safely. See, he could have stayed to finish his coffee.

Superman then starts pulling evil pranks, like straightening out the Tower of Pisa and blowing out the Olympic torch, just because he’s a dick.

This gives Webster the green light to go ahead with the next stage of his evil plan. Already controlling the world’s coffee, he plans to control the world’s oil as well, by having Gus override the computer controls on all the tankers and oil wells’ pumps.

But as a quid pro quo, Gus demands that Webster build a new supercomputer Gus has designed (keep in mind that Gus just finished learning basic programming less than a month ago, and now he’s designing hardware more advanced than anything in the world). Oh and also, Webster’s mistress Lorelei is really smart but just plays dumb for some reason.

Gus shuts down the oil wells and sends all the oil tankers to the center of the Atlantic Ocean, except for one ship . The captain is a real hardass who won’t let his junior officers wear long pants and refuses to follow orders. So Lorelei sits of top of the Metropolis Statue of Liberty and seduces Superman into helping her out with the ship.

Notice that Superman’s costume appears dirty and unwashed,  so the colors have darkened to a kind of navy and maroon. In fact, just about the same colors that will be the default colors of Superman’s outfit in another couple of films.

Superman flies out into the Atlantic and punches a hole in the oil tanker, causing a spill. He’s bad. And then there’s a weirdly out of place scene at the rooftop ski chalet, where Lorelei is dressed in a slinky white robe with a cool serpent-and-apple necklace in a nice bit of underplayed symbolism. Superman lands and Lorelei invites him in, where she offers him champagne (and we know what champagne signified in the previous film, don’t we?). And then, OMG!

Yeah, eventually he kisses her, but he holds that pose for way longer than is strictly necessary.  Apparently, Lorelei has found some sort of solution to the Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex problem, because she spends the rest of the film just swooning over Superman. Maybe Gus used the WheatKing NORAD computer to figure it out for her. It surprises me just how suggestive these films are in places, maybe because I wanted to fool myself into thinking otherwise, Superman being a childhood pleasure and all.

The lack of oil is causing riots in the streets, and Gus is having an attack of conscience. Meanwhile, evil Superman is getting drunk in a bar and flicking peanuts so hard that they shatter the bottles behind the bar. It’s a nicely done scene, and makes this bad Superman seem really unpredictable and dangerous.

But who should come by at that moment but Lana and little Ricky, who are moving to Metropolis. Little Ricky proclaims his faith in Superman and begs him to get better. Superman angrily flies away. He then lands in a junkyard, where he screams in agony, then splits in two–evil Superman and Clark Kent. So Clark and Superman fight, a scene that’s silly and a little dull, considering all the possibilities in a super-battle between the two, but the effects are okay. Plus it resolves the whole evil Superman thing without relying on some off-screen Deus Ex Machina involving a tube of Prell, which sets it above half of the Superman series right there.

And a side effect of the whole thing is that all the dirt apparently stuck to the evil side, because Superman’s uniform is once again freshly laundered. He flies out to the Atlantic, cleans up the oil spill, and repairs the tanker before flying back to Metropolis to confront Lorelei. But she’s not home. Instead, there’s a video message taunting Superman to come out to what looks like the Grand Canyon for a showdown.

Which is where Webster has built Gus’s supercomputer. And its pretty impressive, though it needs a name.

Something like, for example, Big Really Awesome Intelligent Neural-Interface Autonomic Computer or something. And it was apparently built by the same British contractors who built that computer system at Gus’s computer school.

Webster tries to kill Superman with his exterior defenses, namely a bunch of rockets controlled through an Atari video game interface (literally–Atari did the video game graphics for the sequence)

The outer defenses (or “defences”) put Superman down but not out. So Webster activates the computer’s inner, automatic defenses.

The computer hits Superman with a simulated Kryptonite beam, which looks as if it’s really going to kill him.

Both Lorelei and Gus have attacks of conscience at seeing Superman hurt, so Gus uses his yo-yo…

What yo-yo, you ask? Well, the Newmans like to engage in “funny hat” characterization, giving characters a single quirky characteristic to try to make them seem interesting. Lois can’t spell, Lana can’t finish a sentence without changing the subject, Lorelei pretends to be stupid though she’s actually brilliant, Webster’s sister Jane calls him “Bubba.” In their draft of the original Superman, before Mankiewicz’s rewrite, they had Luthor eating Kleenex constantly. And Gus plays with a yo-yo in several scenes before finally using it here to save Superman’s life.

He uses the yo-yo to zipline down a cable to the lower level of the computer, where he extracts a small screw that powers down the entire computer. Then he punches out Webster when he tries to get the screw back. Gus has saved Superman and beaten the villain. But then the Krypto-Ray comes back on as the computer powers back on. The computer has somehow come to life and refuses to be shut down.

It draws more power from the grid, blacking out Metropolis. When Gus uses a fire axe to destroy the Krypto-Ray, the computer zaps him with some kind of telekinesis ray that throws him across the room. And just like in Superman II, Superman knows when he’s licked and runs away, despite Lorelei’s pleas for help. When Webster, Lorelei and Jane try to escape, the computer grabs Webster’s sister and turns her into a scary robot who zaps both Lorelei and her former brother.

Superman flies back to the chemical plant from the big fire scene as the computer draws more power from all across America. Superman returns with a vial of the acid from the big fire earlier–harmless at room temperature, deadly when heated. The computer analyzes it and decides it’s not a threat.

The computer then zaps Superman and drags him inside it to assimilate him like it did Webster’s sister. But once inside the computer, the acid very quickly heats up, causing the computer to malfunction and explode. KABOOM!

Computer’s dead, but somehow the toxic, corrosive cloud from the acid doesn’t harm Lorelei or Gus or Jane (who has been de-roboticized–we never see what happened to Webster).

Later, Superman is flying Gus back to civilization, and Gus asks him how he beat the machine. Superman explains, “Well, those defenses are pretty good as long as the machine doesn’t know it’s in trouble.” Which is actually the opposite of the real explanation, which is that the defenses are pretty good unless the machine doesn’t know it’s in trouble. Which is how Superman was able to get the harmless-at-room-temperature acid close enough to destroy it.

Superman stops off at a coal mine to make a new diamond for Lana (who had to pawn her old wedding ring to pay bills), and Gus decides to stay there rather than fly all the way back to Metropols. When the miners ask Gus how he knows Superman, he pulls his shirt open as if to reveal his own superhero costume inside.

Question is, why does he do that? We haven’t seen anything in any of the movies to indicate that Superman is thought of by the public as a guy who walks around with that costume under his clothes. It’s a gesture that fans of the movies and comics will know, but not characters in the world of the movie.

Later, Clark gives Lana a ring with the diamond he made, saying “Superman wanted you to have this,” and of course, circumstances conspire to put him on one knee just in time for drunken Brad to walk in and catch them together.

But Clark makes short work of him, and later at the Planet, Lois is back from her “three-week vacation” with a killer story. Remember that the day Lois left, Gus was still taking computer programming classes. In three weeks, he graduated, got a job at Webscoe, got a minimal paycheck, did his half-cent hack, got another paycheck plus a huge expense check, got caught, hacked into a weather satellite to put Webster in control of all the coffee in the world, identified the chemical composition of Kryptonite, had some synthesized, used it to turn Superman evil, performed another master hack that put Webster in possession of all the world’s oil while designing the most advanced supercomputer in the world on cigarette wrappers and bar napkins, got the computer built and then destroyed, after which Clark came back and got the diamond he made set into a ring. That was a busy three weeks.

Oh yeah, and one more thing happened. Lana got hired as Perry White’s new secretary. Hmmm… wonder how Clark got rid of the old secretary?

So anyway, that ties up all the loose ends except for one. Superman flies back out to Pisa to re-tilt the tower, just as the souvenir dealer is proudly unwrapping his collection of “Straight Tower of Pisa” models. I guess the Salkinds didn’t want to bring this guy back as the enemy in a potential Superman IV, so there was no teaser in the credits. This was the final Salkind-produced Superman film.

Oh yeah, the credits. Continuing the trend from the second film, the credits are just slightly cheaper than before. They are not completely slitscanned this time. The biggest names on the crew are, then the bulk of the credits run in a reverse Star Wars crawl. Still unique and visually interesting, but cheaper to put together than the previous version.

So like I said, this was the final Salkind-produced Superman film. But the Salkinds weren’t done with the Superman legacy yet. They went on to produce a Superboy live-action syndicated series as well as another film we’ll discuss next week, in a brief digression from the Parade of Superman.

Be here next week for Supergirl!

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