Film 2019: Superman 3


The problem with Box Sets is that, sometimes, in order to get the things you want, you also have to have the things you don’t want, a dilemma exemplified by this mornings film. Though one mustn’t be too harsh about Superman 3, which has one massive saving grace: it is not Superman 4.

Actually, I think Superman 3 exemplifies the reason why this version of the Superman franchise failed so quickly and so substantially, despite having a massively successful film to lead it off and an actor perfect for the role: nervousness. Or, if you prefer, lack of conviction.

The Salkinds brought in Richard Donner to direct the first Superman movie, who did as he had done on The Three Musketeers, simultaneously filming the majority of its sequel. But the Salkinds fell out with Donner over the direction of the films and brought in Richard Lester, who re-filmed a lot of Superman 2 in order to get his Director’s credit, and who was solely responsible for Superman 3.

The two Directors had substantially different viewpoints. Donner was attuned to the myth and the substance of the Superman legend: watch the first film again, and, with the exception of Lex Luthor’s two unfunny accomplices, Donner treats everything with a seriousness absent from Lester)’s treatment, which goes for the silly and the foolish and the comic with the same directness as the old Dozier/Semple Batman TV series.

It’s not to the same degree as Dozier and Semple, who thought that anyone who liked Batman was stupid and worthless, but Lester can’t take Superman seriously, or cannot bear being thought to take Superman seriously. The whole idea has to be undercut with jokes, and silliness, conspicuously signally to Lester’s equals that he isn’t so gauche as to believe in what he’s doing, that he looks down on it.

And as the Salkinds preferred Lester over Donner, we have to assume that, despite the money they pumped into the first film, and the money they got out of it, they too could not be comfortable with people thinking they actually took superheroes seriously.

And you can’t take Superman 3 seriously.

I actually read the tie-in novel first. I don’t usually read tie-in novels at all, but I’d been recommended to the E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial novel because it was written by William Kotzwinkle and was hilarious, and I saw his name on this book. And Kotzwinkle made the novelisation fun, which was more than Lester managed with the film.

Probably, I’ve only seen this film once since going to see it in the cinema, and that likely a couple of decades ago. It hasn’t changed but I have, and from finding it tedious and unworthy first time round, I now found it to be utter trash, inept on practically every level, from start to finish.

There’s a near complete change of cast, not in itself a bad thing.¬†The Daily Planet aspect is substantially downgraded and Lois is shipped offstage for most of the film, appearing only at beginning and end (it’s claimed that both Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman took exception to Richard Donner’s treatment, as a result of which Kidder was shunted off, and Hackman refused to appear), though Ilya Salkind has denied this).

Lois’s replacement is her greatest rival in the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman comics, Lana Lang, the girl from Smallville, Clark Kent’s teenage crush. She’s played by Annette O’toole and is consequently sweet, and the best part about this picture. Tellingly, Lana is more interested in Clark than Superman, reversing the roles of Lois, though she brings baggage in the form of six-year old Ricky, who restores that balance.

But Lana, and Clark’s obvious interest in her, is the understory, and the overstory is a disaster. It involves Richard Pryor (doing some low-key mugging and grinning and generally operating at one-quarter power) as Gus Gorman, unemployed layabout who discovers a genius-level talent for computer programming. Pryor may be a guest star but he’s obviously intended to be the lead so, given the man’s genuine presence, it’s pathetic to see him being given such a cheap script as this.

Gus comes to the attention of megalomaniac millionaire Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn with the brave resignation of a good actor who’s realised that not even his legendary charm can animate a turkey of a role like this) and his unattractive younger sister and bulldog Vera (I feel sorry for Annie Ross).

Ross also has a ‘psychic nutrionist’ (‘she feeds my ego’, a line used in the book but cut from the film). Lorelei is played by Pamela Stephenson as a pneumatic blonde bimbo, who, naturally enough, is hiding a considerably high IQ (she reads Kant’s Critiqu of Pure Reason and disagrees with him, and if that isn’t one from the cliche drawer, then I can’t recognise a lazy gesture if I fall over it in broad daylight).

To cut a long story short, and avoid having to go into unending detail about the shit writing that burbles through the clumsy plot, Ross instructs Gus to help him corner the world’s coffee market by having him use the US’s weather station to manufacture a typhoon and destroy the coffee crops of Columbia, the only hold-out, only Superman intervenes to stop it. So Ross wants Gus to kill Superman by presenting him with a misshapen rock of artificial kryptonite, except that they can’t get a perfect analysis of kryptonite’s chemical make-up: there is 0.57% on unknown, for which Gus substitutes tar.

Tar K doesn’t kill Superman, it just turns him bad. Here is where the film truly shows its inadequacy. Superman turns bad. He wants to make a pass at Lana on her couch rather than save a truck-driver from falling off a bridge. He straightens up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, fer’ Chris’sakes, and, oh my gods the depravity, he gets drunk in a Metropolis bar and flicks peanuts at the bottles behind the bar, smashing them! Is there no end to the depths this hero has fallen?

(Actually, he does puncture a rogue tanker and create an oil-slick of approximately two hundred yards length that threatens the Metropolis seaboard despite no land being in sight in any direction, and he fucks Pamela Stephensonand I wonder what she thought about these two being treated as equivalents when she read the script? – so it’s not all impoverished imagination.)

All it takes is Ricky popping up in Metropolis to forlornly bleat at Superman to make a comeback and he does, courtesy of a fight in a junkyard between Superman and Clark Kent which the latter, after taking incredible punishment, wins. The fight is slow and overlong, though the first part of that is due to the limited technology of the time, but it does contain the film’s solitary psychologically penetrating line, when Superman throws Clark into a metal compactor, saying he’s been irritated by Kent and wanting to do this for a long time.

So Superman is back, as signalled by him getting his costume laundered, ready to tackle the four greedheads who, in the meantime, have built a supercomputer in the Grand Canyon. Two points about this ‘climactic battle’ that illustrate the level of stupidity and inconsistency on which this film is built.

Firstly, Gus – who has previously attempted to kill Superman face to face without the least level of qualm – breaks from Ross and Co because he thinks killing Superman is going too far. Second, this supercomputer can recognise danger and independently act against it yet it decides a container Superman is holding behind his back is completely harmless, when it’s an acid that, once heated, gets super-acidic and destroys the supercomputer from within. Where’s Julius Schwartz when you need him? He would never have let Gardner Fox get away with an idea like that, not that Fox was ever so stupid as to even try it?

I’m not going to go on any longer. Seen on a rainy Sunday morning in 2019, Superman 3 is a dozen times worse than I remember it. It’s stupid, petty and mundane, because neither writers not director have enough respect for their source material to even think of showing it as respectable in any manner, and certainly not seriously. Only O’Toole as Lana, and Chris Reeve, still putting his all into this dodgy material, are any reason to watch this film ever again. It was a franchise killer from the credits scene onwards (mass slapstick in Metropilis after Lorelei wobbles past in high heels, and completely unfunny at that: Kotzwinkle made it work, though). Only O’Toole as Lana, and Chris Reeve, still putting his all into this dodgy material, are any reason to watch this film evr again.

There was one more, though not produced by the Salkinds. I remember that as being worse that this film. When I get round to watching that, I’m seriouly hoping it hasn’t deteriorated as much as this has…

Film 2019: Superman II


I dunno. And I used to like this film so much.

Superman II came out in 1980 and I saw it back home in Manchester. I liked its breeziness, I liked how it focused on the superheroing to a much greater extent than the original film, without the long introductory sequence that told Kal-El and Clark Kent’s origin, and I liked that it put Superman up against opponents capable of giving him a good fight.

I wasn’t unaware of its faults, such as the plot-holes you could drop the Fortress of Solitude down, and the way it cheated on the ending, but I loved its relaxed nature. It was fun.

Unfortunately, it’s now forty years ago fun, and all the things it set out to do and achieve have been done far better, far more often and far more convincingly in the Marvel films. The effects in Superman II just don’t match up (hell, they don’t even match up to Superman I!) and the inability to generate any pace in the film because of the laborious natue of those effects, not to mention the way everybody struggles visibly with the walls they knock down or the things thrown at them, now leaves it looking very feeble indeed.

And a large part of my loss of pleasure at the film is down to the controversial decision to replace Richard Donner, Director of I with Richard Lester as Director of II.

The two Directors have opposing approaches to their material. Donner was heavy on the mythology of Superman. No matter how far his depiction of Krypton and its destruction varied from the comics’ visual canon, Donner is faithful to the spirit of Jerry Siegel’s original, as is his vision of the paradoxical grandeur of Kansas, the open spaces in which Clark grows, and which gives the film such a grandiose structure that the later loss of confidence and descent into silliness can’t quite spoil.

Lester, on the other hand, was actively looking for silliness from the outset. Yes, he ditches Otis (Ned Beatty) quickly, and makes minimal use of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, mostly covered from head to toe) before letting her slip, forgotten, into the first of what is not so much a crack as a cavern, but Lex Luthor is still the bombastic clown of both films, playing both ends against the middle unavailingly.

The three Kryptonian villains are slightly better. Terence Stamp, as General Zod, phones in a generic peformance of unperturbable command, Sara Douglas, as Ursa, camps it up wonderfully in a performance of Batman TV show slinkiness, looking hot in leather slit up and down all limbs (Douglas has spoken of how, to get the right effect, she was constantly sucking her cheeks in), but Jack O’Halloran, as the dumb brute Non is just daft and not half as tough as he ought to be.

But everywhere, if there’s a cheap option that undercuts any dramatic aspect to a scene, Lester heads for it like a bloodhound scenting a man on the run, and insists¬† on cramming it in. It creates an imbalance that, to my eyes in 2019, leaves the film feeling uncomfortably close to the atmosphere of the Batman tv show: Lester can’t take his material seriously enough to layer the humour into it instead of faintly pointing it up. I feel condescended to for my enjoyment of the subject.

Naturally enough, the movie’s biggest plot hole is the most obvious one. Clark subconsciously gives his secret away to Lois, because he loves her and wants to share with her. The genuine love between the two is evident in the scenes that follow this, despite Lester’s desire to load things up with banality (‘I’ll just go and slip into something more comfortable’, forsooth).

But the plot, as conveyed to us by Susannah York as Lara, Kal-El’s mum (they couldn’t afford Marlon Brando twice) means that if Superman wants to shag Lois Lane as much as she wants to shag him, he has to lose the powers: we have all read Larry Niven’s ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’, right? Though Phil Foglio found a way round that in his Inferior Five mini-series. And he has to lose them permanently, as in permanently permanently.

Unfortunately, whilst Clark Kent is losing his virginity, Zod’s taking over the world. Clark and Lois discover this whilst still under the afterglow of bonking their brains out, calling in at this roadside diner as they travel south in the hire-car they had delivered to them at the cracked and broken Fortress, way in the Arctic Circle, along with Lois’s complete change of outfit. Lester’s way of playing the scene makes it look as if Clark is determined to recover his irrecoverable powers less to deal with this earth-shattering crisis and more because he’s decided that dipping his wick is less meaningful than it not hurting when loudmouth shitbags punch him out.

So Clark walks back (walks back in a short jacket and bare hands where it takes fully-wrapped-up Lex a snowmobile to arrive) and retrieves his powers offscreen in a manner we’re left to infer from the fact the green crystal was lying on the floor and didn’t crack up.

Bollocks.

Where the film does rise above itself is in the first part of its ending. Clark’s Superman again, the Kryptonians have fallen down ice-chutes and been forgotten like Eve Teschmacher, and Lois has got to learn to live with the knowledge that she can’t even let on to Clark Kent how she feels about him, let alone ever sleep with him or even kiss him. And she loves him, oh how she loves him. Kidder portrays it in every quaver and attempted calmness of that delicious husky voice, in the haunted eyes that look everywhere but at Clark, in the words that the scripters, for once in the film, have chosen well. And Clark/Superman is for once helpless to prevent this private but altogether real tragedy, the pain he has brought to this one person who means more to him than anyone else, that he can’t let mean more to him than anyone else, this one person that he cannot save.

So toss in some fucking mumbo-jumbo about kissing Lois and she’s forgotten everything, including loving Superman and the audience is so fucking dumb they won’t spot that we’ve just shat on them.

I dunno. I used to like this movie. Now, all I can see is where the ridiculous Superman III is coming from, and why the franchise failed after IV, which I’m not looking forward to watching for a second time in case this time it starts to resemble Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice….