The best thing that can be said about 1983’s Superman III is that it is not the worst Superman film. Originally debuting in theaters on Friday, June 17, 1983, it did break even at the box office, earning approximately $80-million, just about double its estimated $39-million budget. But it did not fill Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind with confidence. They gave Supergirl a try the following year, but after that flopped they sold the film rights to the infamous Cannon Films studio. They would go on to make Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987, where its reception made its elder sibling look golden in comparison. It would bury the Man of Steel so deep it would take 19 years for Warner Bros. to dig him back up for 2006’s Superman Returns.
However, a mediocre film can be less compelling than a cinematic tire-fire. There is something entertaining about the not so good Superman IV. Like Superman’s wall-repairing eye lasers, or the ho-hum villain Nuclear Man dubbed over by co-star Gene Hackman (The French Connection 1971, Unforgiven 1992). It can go so far below zero it underflows into an ironic 10. But where does that leave Superman III? It has a Metacritic score of 42, standing above only Superman IV (rated 22), while Superman (86), Superman II (87), Superman Returns (72) and even 2013’s Man of Steel (55) soar above it. Superman III may be the bronze medal winner of the original tetralogy, but 35 years later it does not even hold the wooden spoon.
Yet it could have been very different. The film had Christopher Reeve (Anna Karenina 1985, Village of the Damned 1995) dealing with Robert Vaughan (The Man from UNCLE series, Hustle series) doing an ersatz-Lex Luthor role as Ross Webster. Not to mention a Razzie-nominated performance from Richard Pryor (Sanford and Son series, Silver Streak 1976). But if Ilya Salkind had his way, it would have been about a love triangle between Superman, Supergirl and Brainiac, with Mr. Mxyzptlk causing trouble along the way. Dudley Moore (Bedazzled 1967, Arthur 1981) was the top choice for Mxyzptlk too, yet this idea did not gain traction in the end. Considering Supergirl is traditionally Superman’s cousin, maybe this was for the best.
Brainiac was also axed but he has a somewhat spiritual presence in the film. The sequence in which Ross Webster’s supercomputer takes over his sister, Vera (Annie Ross: Throw Momma from the Train 1987, Basket Case 3 1991), is perhaps the film’s most famous scene. The jerky animation and the zoom into Cyborg-Vera’s empty glare makes it an effective, disturbing sequence. On its own, it is creepy, but it comes off as stronger in the film because it comes out of nowhere.
Moments prior to this incident, Superman was dodging missiles launched at him by the villains playing the Superman Atari video game. A while before that, Pryor’s Gus Gorman survives a ski-jump from a skyscraper by landing on the ground. The film opens with a series of sub-Chaplin slapstick schtick. After that, the last thing an audience would suspect is some mild yet freaky body horror.
The other thing that makes the film stand out was having Superman turn bad, and Christopher Reeve does a good job of showing the change in Superman’s behaviour. It starts off with a subtle shift into slimeball behaviour, as he shows more interest in Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole: 48 Hours 1982, Smallville TV series) than saving people. Then his suit gets darker, he starts drinking, and has a tryst with Webster’s girlfriend Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson: Not the Nine O’Clock News series, Shrink Rap series.)
The Superdickery amps up but it does feel like a natural shift. In fact, if it had a touch more focus, it could have made the film stronger. It even has a satisfying payoff when the good-but-powerless Clark Kent breaks free from Evil Superman and fights him. It is bizarre, though compared to the previous films’ flights of fancy- like reversing the earth’s rotation- it is not out of place.
But does a good, freaky scene and a passable Super-heel turn make Superman III worth it? Director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night 1964, The Three Musketeers 1973) worked wonders with Comedy films and Action romps. But turning the schtick in Leslie & David Newman’s script into gold was different to doing the same with Tom Mankiewicz’s work. It did not help that the studio had poisoned the chalice for him. Lester was brought in to complete Superman II after they had shown original Director Richard Donner (The Omen 1976) the door. Not only did this annoy the cast and crew on that film, but it ended up affecting the sequel too.
Mankiewicz left the project with Donner. Kidder’s role as Lois Lane was also cut down by the Salkinds over her disgust with the Donner situation. Hackman was also alleged to have refused to come back due to the drama, though he has since said it was due to other commitments at the time. Reeve also threatened to leave the project, leaving the studio to go through Hollywood’s top stars in search of replacements. John Travolta, Kurt Russell and Jeff Bridges had all said no. But Tony Danza (Taxi series, Don Jon 2013) said yes, and he was all set to don the tights but Lester did not want Danza in the role and tried to bring Reeve back. He managed it, but he had to let Reeve make changes to the script.
Richard Pryor probably wished he could have changed the script too: he admitted he thought it was terrible in his 1995 autobiography Pryor Convictions. But the $5-million paycheck was a good motivator and he did what the role asked for. Still, it is hard to argue against his Razzie nomination, as he does come off more annoying than funny, yet he does well in the film’s quieter moments. He has energy and he comes off as a character in his own right rather than a caricature, but there are still much better options to see Pryor in his prime.
It is hard to tell whether Reeve changed the script for the better. His story with O’Toole’s Lana Lang is nice, if a little cloying. Vaughan’s Webster is okay, but he and his entourage pale compared to Hackman’s Lex Luthor and his gang. The bad Superman story is intriguing, but is undercut by goofy scenes like straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
For each pro there is a con, and the pros are often conditional. Yet, it may not be the worst film in the world, or even the worst Superman film, and it may even have fans over the Zack Snyder films or Superman Returns. But it is hard to recommend over its predecessors or other superhero rivals like 1989’s Batman or 2017’s Wonder Woman. It did enough to earn its bronze medal back in 1983, but it has earned very little over its 35 years.