“Never underestimate the power of computers.”
The Salkinds seem to be key to all the problems surrounding the original series of Superman. It was the Salkinds who pressured Richard Donner during production of Superman and it was Alexander and Ilya Salkind who chose to stop production of Superman II after it was almost 75% complete. The documentaries that feature on the boxsets highlight how these producers take almost all the credit for the best elements of the series – but always pass the blame to others for the problems. Margot Kidder openly stated how badly the Salkinds treated Richard Donner and, consequently, her role was reduced to a cameo in Superman III. Gene Hackman refused to even appear in the film as he was so angry with them. Then – and here is a perfect example of a bad production team – when watching The Tonight Show, Richard Pryor’s enjoyment of Superman II meant a quick-casting arrangement whereby Pryor became a lead role in the third installment. Hardly a strong start. At least Warner Bros turned down Ilya Salkinds first script … whereby Braniac raised Supergirl and incestuously, fell in love with her, only to be rebuffed as Supergirl loves Superman.
The Fear of Technology and Returning to the Past
Crucially, the films opening seems to set a jarring, uneven tone. On the one hand we see poverty-stricken, jobless Gus (Richard Pryor) rejected at the benefits office shortly before he sees an job advert looking for IT skills. Face a-glow, Gus decides to train in computing … whilst Superman is introduced as a hero who saves the world from its own foolishness as an entire (what must have been choreographed) slapstick routine leads to Superman saving a man from drowning inside his car. The tone shifts within moments from potentially-serious narrative “Gus looking for a job” (a comment on the early 1980’s US recession?) to a joke-hero who uses his powers to help/not help blind-men and their dogs and phone boxes falling down in succession.
Despite this clearly uneven tone, Richard Pryors character becomes a bit of an anomaly with regards to his morals. On the one hand, he uses the computers to steal pennies from everyone to make himself a fortune – perking the interest of Lex-Luthor-clone Ross Webster (Robert Vaughan) who manages to convince Gus to use his computer skills to adjust satellites. Gus is a strange character because he loves Superman and seems to only want to do the right thing – but also make a little bit of money for himself. He is constantly reluctant to get too involved and, inevitably, changes side in the final act to help Superman.
The flip-side to the story of Gus is Superman himself as he harks back to his past – revisiting Smallville for a school-reunion and falling for Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole – the actress who went on to play Martha Kent in Smallville). Inexplicably, Gus manages to use his computer-skills to re-configure Kryptonite but, improvising with the ingredients, he substitutes a key item with tar from cigarettes. Handed to Superman in a bizarre ceremony in Smallville when Superman was due to visit Lana’s son Ricky, this kryptonite turns him ‘bad’ and he begins to care little about others – and happily blows out the Olympic torch.
So Much Potential…
What frustrates me more and more with the series is the potential of a strong film that always seems to drop in quality within seconds of the opening. Superman III could’ve been a film that tackled the social-state of the US, using Richard Pryor as a catalyst to become corrupted by the capitalist-core of the 1980’s. Instead, Pryor is comic-relief to the obvious “big bad” Ross Webster. Superman III could’ve been a film that toyed with the duality of Superman as he is constantly fighting against the good role he should play – and the evil role he could play. Instead, it is a short-lived period in the middle-act that bad Superman figths Clark Kent (the ‘good’ Superman?). Imagine, a new crystal could be found that simply corrupts Superman as we watch a film whereby Kal-El struggles with a moral dilemma – to use his powers for good or evil. Superman III could have shown us a time whereby the power of technology begins to self-control and become an enemy unto itself – akin to The Matrix. Instead, it is simply a weapon briefly used by the villain to attack coffee plantations (???). So often, it seems to hint at an interesting subtext without truly gaining the scope or scale that it needs to create to explore the issues it wants to discuss.
Truth, Justice and the Anti-Capitalist Way
Superman and Superman II managed to always squeeze in a very Pro-America agenda – the immortal line “I stand for Truth, Justice and the American way” in Superman and the flag, renewed on the White House at the end of Superman II manage to clarify this. But Superman III is not as clear as he saves Colombia’s coffee industry and straightens – and re-corrects – the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The anti-capitalist element in Vaughan’s greed and obsession with more – alongside Pryor’s attempt at doing the wrong thing for the right reasons – all seem to hint at another interesting meaning, which never pays off.
In true form, the final few scenes clarify where the confused-heart of the film lies. Or, at least muddies the water so that any interpretation remains unclear. Superman carries Gus Gorman to a coal-mine and hands him over, with a mighty-good reference … only for Gus to wave goodbye to Superman, and then say goodbye to the job. It seems, he doesn’t care for a job after all. Then, almost to add salt in the wound, Clark Kent woo’s Lana – not through gentlemanly romance, but through the gift of a humongous diamond ring. It seems, at the end of the day – you do need money to get the girl and jobs are no-big-deal.
Christopher Reeve is incredible and, as it ended with “Superman will return in Superman III” at the end of the previous film, I half-expected to see such a promise again. But alas, no promise – and the next film from our favourite producers was Supergirl (which I shan’t be analysing…) in 1984 before they sold off the rights to Cannon Films, who promptly made Superman IV: The Quest For Peace in 1987. The fact remains that this was a film whereby the Salkinds had complete control from the get-go – no Richard Donner to stop them from making the series ‘campy’. They made the Superman film they had dreamed about and promptly stopped producing films completely…