Thursday, May 23, 2013

Supermarathon: Superman III

Watching Superman III is an exercise in trying to guess what everyone involved was thinking.

For the third installment, the Salkinds kept Richard Lester on board as director, and with the Newmans on as writers (who had drafted an earlier script of Superman I and II, but who had been re-written by Tom Mankiewicz).  The camp and and slapsticky nature that reared it's head in Superman II in the theatrical release is back in full force, right from the choreographed opening that feels perhaps inspired by old silent comedies and Rube Goldberg machinations.

And, look, I think Richard Pryor is hilarious, but starting your Superman movie with Richard Pryor in an unemployment line is kind of an odd place to start.  And even when I was a kid watching this movie in the theater, I remember thinking "this seems like someone doing things they think are funny, but aren't really all that funny".   And, maybe that's my problem with the tone of the film.  There are certainly parts I find amusing and even funny, but by and large, I feel like Pryor is miscast and the "wacky interplay"  between the conspiring high dollar crooks isn't the laugh-fest Lester envisioned (and the Lana/ Clark dialog only kinda works).

This is also the movie where Superman has a one night stand with a villain of the movie and then disses her the next morning, angry-drinks some Johnny Walker Red Label (which also gets product placement elsewhere in the movie), and gets all creepy on Lana Lang.

As a kid, this is was the exact moment when I knew they expected there to be grown-ups in the theater.

Oddly, this doesn't stop Christopher Reeve from putting his all into the movie, in my opinion.  I STILL really enjoy the Clark/ Drunk Superman brawl in the trash yard, and the whole descent into Red K shenanigans.  Red K Superman is actually kind of a scary proposition, and even in his moments of Super-Dickery, Reeve manages to pull off yet another aspect of the character that feels as sincere as Clark Kent, Superman  and Kal-El at the fortress.  In some ways, Christopher Reeve might have made a really good movie villain.

Also - despite the fact I've seen this movie a dozen times before, this is the first time I noticed a Blade Runner poster behind Clark as he's throwing all those tires at Drunk Superman.

The super-villainy of the movie pre-dates the 1986-reboot of Luthor as corporate mogul, and does something I quite like:  the villains aren't tied in any way to Superman until he becomes an obvious problem for their plans.  In some ways it keeps part of the movie focused away from Superman as he revisits Smallville and Lana Lang enters the picture (in the form of the always lovely Annette O'Toole), and the whole enterprise feels like the idea of a Superman movie franchise going on for a while.

Super Yuppies

Typical for an 80's movie, the understanding of computers is about as good as Jaws' understanding of sharks, and feels like someone yelling "Darn these infernal machines!"  You can read the menace of the film in manipulating satellites, in video game sounds, in mucking about with traffic signals and ATM's as the man-on-the-street's bafflement at what was happening around them as the world was in the infancy of becoming wired.  Maybe Superman can make sense of how to program my VCR?

I've heard that this was supposed to be a Brainiac movie in an early draft, and given Brainiac's 80's-era redesign as a robot alien, it was all something in the zeitgeist.

The movie does keep Superman firmly grounded in the world of flawed humanity, which Lester holds up as the greedy Websters, the doofy everymen of the opening, hapless Gus Gorman, and even Lorelei, pretending to be an imbecile to fit in and meet expectations.  Even Lois is missing from the picture, and her replacement in Lana Lang is a bit daft.  It's Superman in wacky-comedy world, and while I've always felt the humor in Superman media was a great element, it's not, strictly speaking, how I identify Superman's milieu.

watch Reeve during this scene.  He plays "WTF?" to perfection.

All in all, a fun movie, but it doesn't have the scope or epic feel of the first two installments, and feels - as sequels often did during the era - smaller in scope rather than upping the stakes.

Still, the movie is fun still in a lot of ways, and as a kid's movie, it worked fine when I saw it the first time.  The biggest problem I saw for YOUR kids is their tolerance for Red K Superman, which didn't seem like such a big deal when I was a kid, but, you know, whatever.

As I started this post with, I have to wonder what Reeve was thinking, contractually obligated to play Superman and having to realize that the always thrifty Salkinds were ratcheting the budget and scope of the movie back quite a bit, but he still plays ball.  For the writers, you get the feeling that they think Richard Donner had this all wrong:  Superman is FUNNY.  For the producers and writers, I cannot begin to guess what conversations took place that made them decide Richard Pryor was going to be the right brand of comedian for their movie.

I won't even get into the issues the movie has with women, but it's not a great picture.  Of course, this movie came out around the same time as Porky's, so, you know... chalk it up the whatever we were going through as a people during the early 80's, I suppose.

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