REVIEW: “Superman III: Deluxe Edition” DVD

Superman III: Deluxe Edition
The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection, Disc 7
Superman: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition, Disc 8 (replacement version)

1983’s Superman III has come to be known as “The one with Richard Pryor.” It has also been judged as a disappointing follow-up to Superman and Superman II. The conventional wisdom is that the bulk of the movie’s problems lay on Pryor’s shoulders. Too much emphasis on Pryor and not enough on Superman.

Executive Producer Ilya Salkind disagrees with this assessment. In the film’s commentary, he notes that the problems with the movie have little to do with Pryor or his performance. And I find myself agreeing with him, at least on what wasn’t wrong with Superman III.

Superman III isn’t a bad movie. Franchise film series tend to have peaks and valleys. Watching the ten Star Trek movies is a roller coaster ride of quality, for instance. The Superman franchise had two peaks in a row, and Superman III simply failed to live up to its predecessors. After Superman and Superman II, fans were expecting greatness and Superman III didn’t deliver.

Salkind contends in his commentary that the main reason the movie failed to reach as wide of an audience as the first two films is that kids may have been baffled by Superman’s darker personality traits taking over due to the kryptonite variant. He feels that those in the 5-to-7-year-old range in 1983 may have found the nearly evil Superman and his interactions with blonde bombshell Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson) confusing and the transformation of Vera Webster (Annie Ross) into a cyborg frightening.

I was barely eight years old when Superman III hit theaters, so I was pretty close to the age range Salkind talks about. I had no trouble understanding Superman’s personality split at the time. In fact, I thought it was pretty cool–especially seeing “good” Clark fight “bad” Superman. The movie makes it obvious that the sudden change is due to the modified kryptonite.

As for the undertones of the scenes between Lorelei and Superman, they went way over my head back then. In fact, I didn’t notice them at all, but it certainly didn’t stop me from understanding the overall movie.

And Vera Webster was much scarier before she became a cyborg.

As a kid, I liked Superman III just about as much as I did the first two. I suspect it was actually older audiences that stayed away from repeat viewings and thus brought the earnings down. I don’t know about you, but as a kid I generally didn’t get to go see the same movie twice–no matter how much I loved it. It was high school and college students who were known for multiple viewings of movies like Star Wars.

While entertaining, Superman III doesn’t really have a lot to come back for a second time. As an adult, I also see that it has three major flaws compared to the first two movies.

Though he does not really acknowledge it as a problem, Salkind actually remarks on the first of the flaws. He states that he viewed III as an “episode” of Superman, but “not part of the overall saga.” While some credit must be given for not simply copying the first two movies, the problem here is that the first two movies establish something incredible. To simply ignore what came before and move on to an average episode was asking for trouble.

The film should have been treated as an event, as part of the saga. Richard Lester takes a lot of punishment from a lot of fans out there, and I don’t want to beat up on him too much here. I’ll simply say that his direction of the Metropolis and most of the Superman scenes are muddled, filled with gags and other distracting camp. Lester is at his best in the Smallville scenes, with Clark and Lana. He was great with the smaller, character moments, but didn’t seem to have a firm grasp on how to handle Superman himself. Years later, he would’ve fit in quite well as a director on Lois & Clark.

Superman III‘s second major problem is that it lacks a villain worthy of Superman. The first Superman movie had Lex Luthor who, despite a lack of superpowers, proved to be a formidable and dangerous opponent. Superman II, of course, had Zod–admittedly a tough act to follow. With III, the villain is ostensibly business tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). Webster seems to be no more than a weakened version of Luthor, though, and never poses a serious threat to the Man of Steel while trying to take over the coffee and oil industries.

Of course, the other major “enemy” of the movie is the super computer, or maybe computers in general. A quick sidenote: While Superman and Superman II have somewhat of a timeless feel, not often dated to the 1970’s, Superman III is very much rooted in the 1980’s. The treatment of computers, in particular, lends to this effect.

Lastly, the climax of the movie just doesn’t deliver. After a great battle between “bad” Superman and “good” Clark, the good Superman taking on the super computer seems to only prolong the movie on its way to an inevitable conclusion. I can guarantee Mr. Salkind that no kid in 1983 for a moment thought that a super computer would be a match for Superman.

I’ve mentioned before on this site that the junkyard battle between Clark and Superman should have been expanded into the movie’s climax. The potential for evil that exists even within Superman should have been expanded into the main plot of the movie, rather than being wasted as a subplot.

Bonus Features

For me, the best bonus feature on Superman III was Salkind’s commentary. Unlike his Superman commentary, he spent most of the time on the actual film rather than miscellaneous stories and often tied what he was saying into the on-screen action. Producer Pierre Spengler spoke a few times but, as on Superman, the commentary was almost all Salkind. (I have not yet watched Superman II: Special Edition, so I’m missing the “middle” of their three commentary tracks until I do so.)

As a movie fan, I love hearing about alternate concepts for movies–particularly alternate concepts for movies that didn’t fare very well at the theater. Salkind briefly describes his original treatment for Superman III, which would have involved Mxyzptlk teaming up with Brainiac to take on Superman and Supergirl in an interplanetary battle. Brainiac also would have devised a way to control Superman, turning him into his “super henchman.”

Sounds like a nice concept, and certainly of the larger, epic scale that I think would have helped the movie. There was one other piece to Salkind’s concept, though. Superman and Supergirl would have fallen in love with each other during the course of the movie, before finding out at the end that they were cousins. Ick. Maybe Salkind should have made movies with George Lucas.

Salkind’s concept was rejected for being too costly and they decided instead to do an Earth-based story centering on Richard Pryor, who had expressed an interest in appearing in the next Superman movie on The Tonight Show. A year later, Salkind would make a Supergirl movie, though without Brainiac, Mxy, or Superman. Given Salkind’s plans, maybe it’s for the best Superman wasn’t in it.

Along with the obligatory preview trailer (which was unremarkable–possibly another source of box office trouble), ten deleted scenes are included, almost all of which are actually expanded versions of existing scenes. None of them are terribly interesting, nor would they have helped the movie had they not been cut.

The 1983 television special The Making of Superman III rounds out the bonus features. While I enjoyed 1978’s The Making of Superman: The Movie on that DVD, this one is not nearly as interesting. I often felt like I was watching a 1950’s era educational film, but without the assistance of Mike and the bots to make it more palatable. The special also shows just about every major scene of the movie, even Clark defeating Superman is given away. The special teases, “Does Superman survive?” during the final showdown with the super computer, indicating that you’ll have to see the movie to find out. Then it shows you the destruction of the super computer. All that smoke may have actually been Superman III’s box office potential going up in flames.

* * *

Lana’s son, Ricky, has a great line in Superman III that summed up the movie fairly well:

“Superman, you’re just in a slump! You’ll be great again!”

It took 23 years, but Ricky was right. Thanks to Superman Returns, we can finally say “Superman Super Again.”

Movie: 7 (out of 10)
Video Quality: 8
Audio Quality: 9
Bonus Features: 7
Overall Experience: 7
Recommended: Only if you do not already own the 2001 edition, or if you are purchasing as part of a set