Superman III (United States/United Kingdom, 1983)

November 29, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Superman III Poster

Talk about movies that haven’t aged well… Seen a couple of decades into the 21st century, this 1983 relic is an embarrassment. Come to think of it, however, it wasn’t that great when it came out. There are three major problem areas: the script, the direction, and the acting. Oh, and the special effects were pretty shoddy, too. At the time of its release, the most common word used to describe Superman III was “disappointing.” Forty years later, it’s “bad.” Both are apt descriptors. Audiences in the early 1980s had expected the third installment of the comic-turned-movie franchise to deliver something along the lines of Superman and Superman II. They were not expecting a comedy with occasional action/adventure elements. Viewers in the 2020s are aware of the film’s reputation but those who watch it will likely still be surprised by the ineptitude surrounding the production.

Does anyone come out of this unscathed? Christopher Reeve and perhaps Annette O’Toole. Despite all the crapola, Reeve somehow uses this opportunity to cement his ownership of the superhero role. He looks the part and, although no one would call his acting “great,” he’s more relaxed as both Clark and The Man of Steel than he was in the origin story five years earlier. Reeve also shows an aptitude for comedy (something recognized by Peter Bogdanavich a decade later when he cast him in Noises Off, hands down the funniest thing the actor did in his tragically shortened career) and there’s a nice, unforced chemistry between Reeve’s Clark Kent and Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang. (Superman only dates women with “LL” initials, apparently.)

Superman III gets off on the wrong foot – the opening credits occur not against the black backdrop of space but over street scenes in Metropolis where a slapstick scenario plays out. The John Williams “Superman Theme” doesn’t start the movie, although it makes a belated appearance. Although director Richard Lester’s fondness for campy, physical humor (carried over from some of his earlier directorial efforts) was evident during parts of Superman II, it was kept in check because he had to blend his new material with footage previously shot by his predecessor, Richard Donner. Here, with free rein, he turns Superman III into a farce. Very little is played with more than a passing degree of seriousness – quite a change from the original Superman, whose earnestness was a key part of its charm.

The film’s villains are a geeky computer genius, Gus Gorman (played by the late, great Richard Pryor), and a megalomaniacal business tycoon, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn, onetime star of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). They are aided and abetted by Webster’s sister, Vera (Annie Ross), and paramour, Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson). The latter has a “thing” for Superman. Arguably the biggest bad guy of them all is “Selfish Superman,” who emerges after the Man of Steel is exposed to a Kryptonite variant, and engages in a knock-down brawl with Clark Kent. That fight, although incredibly silly, is arguably Superman III’s high point.

The film’s first half introduces Gus as a down-on-his luck genius who discovers a way to manipulate the data system where he works to give him all the discarded partial-cents shaved off employees’ paychecks. When his actions capture the attention of Webster, the CEO devises bigger, more extravagant uses for Gus’ talents, such as providing the computing power for a scheme to control the global oil supply. At Gus’ request, he builds the most advanced supercomputer ever made. In return, Gus agrees to eliminate Superman by analyzing and replicating Kryptonite.

Meanwhile, the title character (Christopher Reeve) departs from Metropolis for an assignment in his hometown of Smallville, where he is to write a feature piece about the experience of attending a high school reunion. With Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) mostly out of the picture on an overseas vacation, Clark reconnects with an old sweetheart, Lana Lang, and butts heads with a former nemesis, jock-turned-security guard Brad (Gavan O’Herlihy). Once Clark learns about Gus and Webster, it’s time for his Superman alter-ego to leap into action but, although Gus’ fake Kryptonite doesn’t kill Superman (as intended), it brings out his base instincts, effectively sidelining him until the scrap-yard scrap between the two sides of Kal-El.

One of the most obvious questions is why, considering the vast encyclopedia of Superman villains available to the filmmakers, they chose to go in this direction. Both Gus and Webster are miscast. The former is too overtly comedic (which was intentional – one doesn’t hire Richard Pryor to be menacing) and the latter is supercilious. The plot is nonsensical, as if different scenes were written in isolation without any conception of how to connect them together. The idea of a supercomputer gaining sentience was nothing new to 1980s science fiction but it is handled poorly in Superman III. Only a year later, James Cameron would show the potential of the premise botched by Lester and the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of David Newman & Leslie Newman (whose credited work on Superman and Superman II was previously jettisoned as being “too campy”).

Under Lester’s aegis, Superman III loses its identity, never emerging as a true superhero adventure or a full-blown parody. It tries unsuccessfully to skate a line between the two but, unlike recent attempts (Deadpool and Shazam!, for example), it fails more often than it succeeds. Superman III took a promising franchise, which had been in ascent following Superman II, and brought it crashing to the ground. The movie was ruthlessly panned by critics and pilloried by fans, who were horrified by Lester’s fatuous “vision.” Worse still, the special effects, which had been touted as strength of Superman and Superman II, vary from unconvincing to cheesy. “Cutting-edge” had become “cut-rate.”

Although Lester apparently developed a solid working relationship with Reeve and newcomers Pryor, Vaughn, and O’Toole had nice things to say about him, many of the veteran actors from the first two films remained bitter about Lester’s agreeing to replace Richard Donner when the latter was fired. Margot Kidder was among the most vocal in the anti-Lester camp and, as a result, Lois Lane’s role in Superman III was marginalized (she has brief appearances in the beginning and end). Jackie Cooper (Perry White) and Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) also suffered a major diminution of screen time (although their names appear high in the credits list).

Despite grossing $60M and falling just outside the box office Top 10 for 1983, Superman III was widely viewed as a flop (keeping in mind that Superman II had topped the 1981 charts with nearly $110M). Bad feelings about the movie and its impact on the franchise caused Reeve to back out of a planned cameo in Supergirl. Although this nascent “universe” would return for another installment, 1987’s Superman IV, too much damage was done by Superman III, which remains (to-date) the worst of all of the movies to feature DC comics’ first iconic character.

Superman III (United States/United Kingdom, 1983)

Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 1983-06-17
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Adventure/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1