Film Discussion

Superman III – Throwback 40

In 1978, we believed a man could fly. In 1981, we believed it once more, as Superman soared to box office success, with a combined total of almost $500 billion dollars in takings over two films. It seemed inevitable that the Last Son of Krypton would return for a third instalment. However, what ended up on the screen as Superman III was almost a semi-incestuous time travel romp, with a sitcom star playing the Man of Steel.

Plans for a third chapter in the Superman saga were already underway as Superman II was getting ready for release, and a ‘Coming Soon’ caption in that movie’s end credits promised that there would indeed be a Superman III. However, it very nearly came to pass with someone else at the helm, as it was reported in May 1980 – after father and son co-producers of the first two movies, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, announced pre-production on a third – that talks were being held to sell on the rights.

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The Salkinds were concerned about the high budgets needed to make these films, and so discussions began with Dino De Laurentiis about him taking over the series. However, talks with De Laurentiis – who produced 1980’s Flash Gordon – fell through. In November 1980, Ilya Salkind put together a story outline for a proposed third outing for the character, which would see Lois Lane being shipped off as an overseas correspondent for the Daily Planet, and an introduction of Lana Lang as the Planet’s new star reporter, to whom Clark takes a shine.

This mooted sequel storyline would also have seen the first appearance on the silver screen of Supergirl, who was also a survivor of the destruction of Krypton, but would land on an alien planet and be discovered by Brainiac, who would raise her from infancy, before taking a shine to her in adolescence and proposing marriage. The appalled Supergirl would flee Brainiac, ending up in a small American town, her adoptive father searching the cosmos to track her down. Supergirl eventually reveals herself to the world at large, attracting the attention of Superman.

The Kryptonian pair develop an attraction to each other, and find out they are not related (unlike in the comics and other media portrayals, where the two are cousins). Brainiac tracks Supergirl to Earth, setting up base in a European castle, and after discovering about Superman and his love for Supergirl, creates a machine which can control Superman’s personality. He then confronts Supergirl with a deal: if she finally agrees to marry Brainiac, he will stop controlling Superman, turning him back from evil to being good once more.

© 1983 Warner Bros.

In a bid to buy time, Supergirl agrees to the proposal, leaving Superman searching the globe for her. During this, he comes across Mister Mxyzptlk, a mischievous imp from the fifth dimension (with Salkind wanting Dudley Moore for the role), who can only be sent back home by being made to say his own name backwards, which Superman manages to do. He interrupts Brainiac’s planned return to his home world, with the villain realising Supergirl has somehow contacted Superman via use of her X-ray vision. Brainiac manages to imprison Superman and takes Supergirl back into the past.

Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang – sent to Europe by Perry White to search for Clark Kent, who has gone missing – locate the castle and free Superman, who takes the two of them back in time with him. Superman realises he needs help defeating Brainiac, so he locates Mxyzptlk and persuades him to take the town into another dimension, where neither Superman nor Brainiac will have any powers. The pair have to joust, and Superman is victorious, leaving Brainiac trapped powerless in the other dimension as Mxyzptlk returns everyone else to the present day, before threatening the Earth.

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Superman and Supergirl have to combine forces in order to defeat Mxyzptlk, and the pair are then left to get married, something which Salkind was unsure about whether that would happen at the climax of this movie, or in a potential fourth chapter. Despite the storyline being revised by Ilya Salkind in March 1981, Warner Bros. rejected it, which left him after a new story for the third film. The solution would actually come from the unlikeliest of sources, all thanks to the appearance of a stand-up comedian on a late night talk show.

In May 1981, Richard Pryor was a guest on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, and he talked enthusiastically about Superman II, having seen previews (as the movie was only released in America the following month). This was brought to the attention of the Salkinds, who then set about working to sign him for the next Superman film. Pryor – who had co-written Mel Brooks’ comedy Western Blazing Saddles, and acted in a number of features – was spotted on The Tonight Show by writers David and Leslie Newman, who had worked on the scripts for the first two Superman movies, and ended up doing the screenplay for the third.

The story would put Pryor at the forefront, playing computer genius Gus Gorman, who would end up being drawn into the schemes of industrialist Ross Webster, a business magnate set on using Gorman’s skills for his own nefarious ends. The part of Webster was originally written by the Newmans for Alan Alda, but Frank Langella would be considered for the role. However, Robert Vaughn – famous for his portrayal of the spy Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – would be cast, although Langella would later get to be Perry White in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006.

© 1983 Warner Bros.

Other cast-related issues were somewhat more problematic, given the fact there was no love lost between Margot Kidder and the Salkinds. Kidder had been outspoken over the way in which the producers had treated Richard Donner, who had been let go after completing work on Superman: The Movie, but before he could finish the sequel. There was a piece in an April 1981 edition of Time Out, in which Kidder spoke rather candidly about the situation, claiming the Salkinds had tried to screw her out of $40,000, and also voiced her displeasure over Donner’s replacement with Richard Lester.

Kidder felt that the Salkinds retaliated by reducing her part to just two scenes in Superman III, bookending the film, and virtually eliminating the character of Lois Lane. Ilya Salkind denied this was his motivation, instead claiming that he felt the romance with Superman had run its course, and looking to bring in other characters from the Superman mythology. Salkind’s scrapped story treatment for the third movie had included Lana Lang, and the Newmans’ new storyline would position Lana as a new love interest, with Clark returning to Smallville for a High School reunion.

The writers had seen Annette O’Toole in a play in San Diego, and wrote the part with her in mind, suggesting her name to the producers, who cast her as Lana. O’Toole would continue her association with Superman by going on to play Martha Kent – Clark’s adoptive mother – on television in Smallville from 2001 onwards. However, O’Toole almost had a different Clark to play opposite in Superman III, as Christopher Reeve was dead set against returning, having had similar feelings to Kidder over the sacking of Richard Donner, and reportedly not liking the script for the third film.

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With the star set not to reprise the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent, the producers had to begin a search to find a new big screen Kal-El. Rumoured to be under consideration as Reeve’s replacement were Jeff Bridges, John Travolta, and Kurt Russell. However, Tony Danza – star of hit sitcom Taxi – was the Salkinds’ choice to take over. Richard Lester, who had been signed up to direct Superman III, was reported to want Reeve back, and is said to have persuaded the actor to relent by apparently promising him that he would be able to have some influence over the script.

Filming eventually got underway in July 1982, with a script which had a much lighter tone than the original movie, and was more in keeping with the new material shot by Lester for Superman II, after Donner’s removal. The film is essentially a star vehicle for Richard Pryor, building on the momentum he had gathered after appearing in movies like Silver Streak (with Gene Wilder), The Wiz, and Stir Crazy. In Pryor’s 1995 autobiography, he admitted that he thought the script was terrible, but had signed up for the $5 million payout. Pryor would end up being nominated as Worst Supporting Actor in 1984’s Razzie Awards.

© 1983 Warner Bros.

Reeve maintained his silence during the movie’s publicity period, but subsequently voiced his reservations about the finished product, with a 1986 interview in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner quoting Reeve as calling Superman III “the Harvard Lampoon version” of the first two movies. In the Los Angeles Times the following year, he again expressed his concerns about the film’s style, feeling it had parodied the characters. Reeve would revisit the matter once again in his 1998 autobiography, stating that he felt it had been written primarily as a Richard Pryor comedy.

Yet despite all its slapstick and arch comedy, there is still a great deal to enjoy in Superman III, with two of the series’ most memorable moments being featured in the film. The junkyard battle scene between the evil Superman and Clark Kent, after being split into two distinct beings, sees Reeve giving a powerful performance in the two roles, reflecting a battle between the id and the superego writ large. Another scene that lives long in the memory features Webster’s sister Vera (Annie Ross) being converted into a terrifying cyborg by Gus Gorman’s out-of-control supercomputer.

The interplay between Clark and Lana is really wonderful to see, with both Reeve and O’Toole bringing a real lightness of touch, plus a chemistry which is very different to the Clark/Superman and Lois dynamic. Reeve’s portrayal of Clark in the Smallville scenes gives him a chance to flex a bit further than normal, and play a version of the character who isn’t just the fumbling and bumbling persona that he used in Metropolis to mask his identity as Superman. In conjunction with a far darker take on Superman after being affected by a synthetic from of Kryptonite, Reeve is certainly stretched in Superman III, and is rarely better than he is here.

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Superman III saw a downward trend at the box office for the series, bringing in only $80.2 million globally, which was less than half the take of its predecessor. However, this may have been in part due to there being a crowded field in cinemas, as it was released around three weeks after Return Of The Jedi. It also had the misfortune of debuting the week after Roger Moore’s latest outing as James Bond, in Octopussy. Another blow was that it wasn’t even the highest grossing movie that summer about a threat from a computerised foe, as it would end up being outmatched by WarGames. Still, Superman III came in a respectable 12th place of highest-grossing films in North America for 1983.

The Salkinds would eventually bring Supergirl to moviegoers the following year in her very own motion picture, as well as expanding the franchise further with the Superboy TV series – which would also feature a version of Lana Lang – between 1988 and 1992. For Christopher Reeve’s Superman, however, Superman III would end up as a parting of the ways with the Salkinds, as they sold on the big screen rights for any future instalments in the Superman series to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of The Cannon Group in 1985, which ended up bringing us Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, a movie that had the unfortunate effect of keeping Superman away from cinemas for nearly 20 years.

Superman III was released on 17th June 1983.

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