I suppose you have to at least give Superman III credit for switching things up a bit. This is a very different film in terms of tone, characters, and in some respects, plot. The only problem with all of this is that it ruined the good thing we had going. We had really impressive films with Superman and Superman II, while here we just have a silly superhero movie lacking in pretty much all areas except absurdity and cheesiness.
Here’s the first major difference you’ll notice: Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is barely in the movie. She appears in one of the first scenes, in which we learn that she’s going on a vacation, and then she isn’t seen from until the very end. The relationship she had been developing with Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), is absent from the film. Instead, Superman winds up going back to his hometown of Smallville and begins something new with his high school crush, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Someone must have loved the letter “L.” “Lois Lane,” “Lex Luthor,” and now “Lana Lang.” That’s fun.
Anyway, the villainous plot that Superman must eventually attempt to overthrow comes from a Luthor knockoff named Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), who initially just wants to control the world’s coffee supply, but also winds up wanting all of the oil, too. He’s aided by a computer programmer named Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), and together they wind up causing most of the trouble in the film. Webster supplies the money, Gorman hacks the relatively defenseless computer systems all around the globe.
Meanwhile, Superman gets to do one new thing: he briefly turns evil. Yes, we get to see Christopher Reeve do something he hasn’t previously done in this series: frown. For a good twenty to thirty minutes, Superman gets removed from his happy-go-lucky, good guy personality. That’s another difference from the earlier films. It’s kind of interesting, although not a whole lot is done with this idea. I wish it was taken farther, actually. He doesn’t do anything that can’t be reversed with a simple good deed — or that “turn back time” thing that ended the first film, but doesn’t get used in this one.
The tone of Superman III is very comedic. There’s a lot of slapstick humor this time around, which is a change from the wit of the first two films. I missed their intelligence after sitting through this one. It just didn’t work with these characters and their established continuity. These are not silly characters, or at least they haven’t been through two films. Changing them now doesn’t make sense.
There’s also absolutely no emotional depth to the film. The relationship that Superman was building with Lois made us care about both of them. When Lois got put in danger — because Superman was almost invincible — it means there was something specific for us to want to see him protect. There was something very real that was threatened. Lana could have filled that role in this film, but the filmmakers essentially ignore her character once she’s introduced, save for a few scenes where she requires Superman’s help for something relatively trivial. She’s more of an annoyance than a real character.
For the third film about Superman, it’s weird to see such a prominent spotlight be placed on Richard Pryor’s character, Gus. He almost gets as much time on-screen as Superman. He essentially represents what’s wrong with the film. There’s too much focus on comedy, too much focus on non-Superman related activities, and a massive misfire with most of the gags. The most ridiculous moment of the film involves him skiing down a skyscraper and coming away unharmed.
There’s also a lot of laughs to be had at how vulnerable our superhero has become. A big missile is apparently enough to damage the impervious Man of Steel. You can accept other superhumans being able to hurt him, and if kryptonite is his weakness, that’s fine as well. But when regular human technology starts becoming effective — especially after it’s well-established that Earth weapons can’t harm him — you know the filmmakers have gotten lazy.
About the only positive in the film is Christopher Reeve, and his continuing dedication to the character. Getting to see him stretch in the role was a nice change, and the fight scene he has with himself in a junkyard was good fun, even if it got repetitive by the end. Reeve seems to still be enjoying playing Superman, and as long as that’s the case, the movies will still be, at the very least, watchable. Richard Pryor is a weak link, especially given how much screen time he was given. And Robert Vaughn’s impression of Gene Hackman’s villain from the first film left a lot to be desired.
Superman III takes much of what was good about the earlier Superman films and chucks it out the window in favor of a campier, sillier approach. It doesn’t work nearly as well. The relationships have no depth, many of the characters serve little purpose, and previous continuities have been disregarded in favor of gags. Sure, it looks good and the action is fun, but I can’t help but feel like the genius of the first two films has run out with this installment.