Hacked Up Synopsis:
Superman must battle against Corporate CEO bent on controlling the world through computers. Meanwhile, Clark Kent goes to his high school reunion and helps out a classmate who once had feelings for him.
Review and Analysis:
Superman movies with Christopher Reeve at the helm represent both the good and the bad of the franchise. On the one hand, Chris himself gets the idea of Clark Kent and Superman pretty much correct: Clark Kent is a different persona from Kal-El/Superman altogether. It is not just the glasses, as his detractors will harp on again and again. Clark is timid, cowardly, not in good health, sometimes talks with a stammer, and so on. And Christopher Reeve nailed this pretty good.
On the other hand, however, Superman movies themselves are often OK to mediocre. Superman II was salvageable because of Terrance Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack Holloran as the three Kryptonian villains. Superman III, however, does not benefit from such acting. Even worse, there are underlying messages and themes that the Superman franchise could have explored somewhat deeper, but chose to brush with on the surface, or ignore completely. It is here that the Superman franchise disappoints the most.
One of the first problems with the movie (if not the franchise), is the portrayal of the ideal of “Small Town America.” The idyllic settings are supposed to recall memories for (WASP) Americans of a time where their worries were mostly about doing homework and if their crush would ever go out on a date with them. For people of color, however, this want of nostalgia for the 1950s is usually filled with memories that are in a direct contrast to this, with legalized and enforced discrimination, bigotry, economic redlining, with slim-to-none hope for legal redress of these issues and more.
What’s Wrong with this Movie?
Let’s start with this guy:
During this era of Hollywood filmmaking, Richard Pryor was a bankable actor. Nearly every movie he has starred in has made money. It would be Richard Pryor who would pave the way for the “Black Comic Starring in the Summer Blockbuster” trend Hollywood followed in the 1980s with Eddie Murphy and the 1990s/2000s with Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, and Jamie Foxx.
Richard had expressed an interesting in being in a Superman movie, so the production and writing staffs worked to accommodate Pryor’s request. Unfortunately, Pryor was the biggest star that inhabited the movie, so most of the movie revolved around Pryor. Additionally, the script attempted to play up Pryor’s comedic talents, even though he is a much better dramatic actor than most people give him credit for. With Richard Pryor’s overwhelming presence in both the film and the script, the movie’s schizophrenia reveals itself in a number of ways:
First, the writers could not determine whether this was going to be a Richard Pryor vehicle or a Superman-vehicle with Richard Pryor. You see this in two scenes:
Where Gus Gorman spends the entire scene trying to humorously tell his bosses Ross and Vera about how Superman foiled their plans to destroy the Columbian Coffee crop. It ends with Gus falling off of a skyscraper on skis down to the street below…and surviving.
This scene is the most instructive of all, as it demonstrates the precise problem with this movie’s setup: Superman is receiving accolades from the people of Smallville, and out of nowhere comes Richard Pryor who then overwhelms the entire scene with flailing comedy until the movie get back on-track by him giving Superman the pseudo-Kryptonite. Incidentally, this was supposed to be a parody of George C. Scott’s speech at the beginning of the movie Patton.
A bonus note: Apparently, Superman’s “Super Memory” powers are obscured as the plot required them to be here, because…
If one wanted to call Superman oblivious to most things, here is your proof. He also never makes mention of it when he confronts Gus and Ross at the Ultimate Computer, either.
About that Plot Point, Too:
Assuming that Gus had actually “guessed right” about the UNKNOWN substance (which apparently controls the level of toxic radioactive emission to affect Kryptonians), the plan was to dress as a member of the US Army, barge in on a celebration and hand Superman a piece of Kryptonite, which would hurt and eventually kill him at the scene? Either the writers got stuck on how this pseudo-Kryptonite was going to get into Superman’s hands, or Ross was really trying to get Superman out of the way while washing his hands of Gus Gorman at the same time.
I’ll take Door #1, Alex.
More on Gus Gorman:
This role was a complete waste of Richard Pryor’s talents. The brilliant-but-naive computer savant role needed to go to a much younger person, preferably someone who could portray youth and enthusiasm, but also show the immaturity of youth. Gus Gorman seems to be too world-weary and aware of his actions to realistically portray the kind of naivete that his character needs to show.
And, Gus, as with most Black Men in Hollywood movies of the 1980s, is somewhat street-wise, unwilling to allow the “fantasy” of the movie to overwhelm him. Also, he is afraid of heights. Many Black men in Hollywood were also given a turn as the Computer Expert, although not necessarily on a genius-level.
On Superman Being “Evil”:
When Superman becomes affected by the pseudo-Kryptonite, he becomes the antithesis of everything he stands for – he straightens out the leaning tower of Pisa, he blows out the Olympic torch at the opening ceremonies, and does other pranks just for kicks. But the kicker is that he starts openly flirting with women, starting with Lana Lang.
When the film decides to get back on track to being a Superman film, the psuedo-Kryptonite has finally taken its toll on Superman. He sits in a bar, apparently drunk. As he leaves, he is haunted by little Ricky’s words, who tries to cheer for “Superman.” Eventually, Superman lands in a scrapyard, and his Kryptonian body finally rejects the pseudo-Kryptonite effects by cleansing his body of them. And this is where Superman’s powers seem to manifest in a mind-over-matter or psycho/tele-kinetic method; the effects coalesce into a second body, one that is as powerful as his own, filled with his uninhibited personality traits.
So, when wallowing on the tightrope of “edgy” commentary, make sure your intended target of criticism isn’t on the other side wearing a “Been There, Done That” T-Shirt.
The Needed Commentary on “The Boy Scout”:
The problem with attempts to “darken” Superman most of the time is that they tend to spend lots of time having him wallow in base human desires. And, far too often, the desires tend to be American-centric -, and WASP-American at that. Yet, no one stops to consider why such a “Dark Superman” would even want to exist. Too many people seem to latch on the (somewhat) misguided belief that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and apply it to ALL types and concepts of power (which, in the case of the writer, meant the power used to rule above other people), but only in the case of Superman; you will not find as many “What if [Insert Hero] was Evil” regarding other franchises because too many people believe that Superman is far too “good” and “noble” to exist.
The other fun part of the whole idea of making Superman “evil” is that most writers don’t make him Evil; they usually simply turn him into a typical (violent) vigilante with super-powers. Or, any other time, they will try to make him dictatorial; since he can do just about anything and no one would be able to stop him. That is, of course, until the writers introduce the Bruce Wayne character to the story and give him “Batman’s Unstoppable Prep Time Buildup”® to defeat Superman. But usually, no one really shows what someone of Superman’s power would really do with it, if they wanted to take over the world…except for the Superman franchise.
Basically, what it comes down to is a simple question: What would you do if you had Superman’s powers at the same level as his own? Because the things you say that you want will probably bore you very quickly once you have them (reference Zod, Ursa, and Non in Superman 2).
I think it says alot about people when you cheer for heroes that not only fail, but fail spectacularly…and then wallow in shallowness of their own pain. Or, that a hero/vigilante should serve their own helping of “justice” onto the perpetrators.
On Ross’ “Trophy Woman”:
The character we learn the least of is Lorelei Ambrosia, who is supposed to be Ross’ “trophy (I hate this term) girlfriend.” The movie spends the opening credits showing how she is so attractive and alluring that men end up causing accidents just to ogle at her. This is further reinforced by the next scene at the Daily Planet, where Jimmy Olsen expended much of his film taking pictures of Lorelei in Marilyn Monroe-like poses while at a banquet honoring Ross Webster’s receipt of a Humanitarian Award. Thus, it was supposed to be clear that her looks were her big selling point. Add to that her ‘ditzy’ behavior and cutesy voice, and you get a picture of another attractive-but-unintelligent woman.
Yet, peppered throughout the film, you are supposed to get a sense that there may be more to Lorelei than meets the eye. Every so often, it slips that she far more intelligent than she lets on, perhaps even as intelligent as Ross’ VP Vera Webster (who seems to be “Power Behind the Throne” at Webscoe) or Gus Gorman. When she slips up in this fashion, her voice and demeanor changes – and she sounds more like a world-weary woman who is exhausted for acting in the manner that she does.
She is the only other woman (besides Lois) in the franchise who has ever had Superman in bed when he was Superman. I guess she read up on Larry Nivens, too.
And, one night with Superman, and she no longer wants Ross anymore.
Once you go…ah, forget it.
Vera Webster, the other Villainess:
Where Lorelei was supposed to be the woman that every man wants, Vera Webster is supposed to be the woman that no man would even talk to. Early in the movie, nearly everyone flings an insult about her looks, or her attractiveness (or lack thereof), as a counterpoint to Lorelei’s own. Also, where Lorelei’s speech is usually ditzy or cute, Vera’s speech is more baritone and commandeering – which was to indicate that she was closer to being “masculine” than Lorelei. The difference is even in their style of clothing: Vera dresses like her brother (business conservative), only she wears long skirts instead pants. Lorelei, on the other side, wears short skirts, V-neck dresses, and similar clothing that draw attention to her looks from men.
The movie makes no qualms about the fact that she is at least as intelligent and as ruthless as her older brother Ross. She is as willing to wipe out everything standing between them and domination of the world, and this includes Superman.
Thus, the Superman franchise at least gets credit is that you have 2 women who use their talents in the service of “Evil” and immorality without coercion by men, nor do they “repent” their sins when confronted by the heroes.
Lana Lang, Liberated Woman…and Single Mother:
Before this movie, we last see Lana making those forlorn eyes at Clark in Superman: The Movie. Now, 15 years later, Lana has returned, as the organizer of the reunion. Since graduation, she married the guy she believed she loved. Shortly after that, however, they divorce, and now she works as a secretary for a small company in Smallville, struggling to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, the discussion between Lana and Clark during the cleanup of the gymnasium after the reunion, while attempting to be romantic, could also be misconstrued as an “I showed you,” moment for Clark, because Lana spends as much time pining for Clark as she does dreaming about a life beyond Smallville.
Lana Lang, History…Kinda Ignored:
In some of the more recent stories, Superman has followed the John Byrne portrayal of the character, where he tells Lana Lang his secret shortly before leaving to go into the world beyond Smallville, Kansas. In the movie franchise, Clark never demonstrated his powers to anyone in Smallville beyond his adoptive parents.
However, from the Silver Age onwards, Lana Lang usually found her way to Metropolis as a method of introducing romantic tension for Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Superman 3 is no exception to this rule; Clark entices Lana to move to Metropolis as a means for her to earn a living in society (since jobs are at a premium in Smallville). By the end of the movie, Clark uses his influence to get his editor-in-chief to hire Lana as his personal secretary. This plot point gets thrown into the dumpster by the start of the fourth (and final) C. Reeve film.
Al Bundy…Before Al Bundy:
One of the running jokes in the Fox TV Series, Married with Children, was Al Bundy constantly talking about his exploits in the High School Football Championship Game, where he scored 4 touchdowns en route to his team winning. This was in constant contrast to his present day life as a shoe salesman inside of the mall. In the case of Superman 3, Brad Wilson, as you can see in the picture, was the star quarterback during their “Smallville” days, but now works as a Security Guard at Wheatking’s Smallville branch. In the movie, this was supposed to work as another contrast to Clark Kent, who led an uneventful life in Smallville before becoming Superman…and working as a star reporter at the
New York Times Daily Planet.
The Come-Uppance that Brad gets at the end of the film was supposed to be similar to that of the Bully at the Diner in Superman 2, only Clark doesn’t lay a finger on Brad this time around. Yet Brad’s complaint about Clark could be compared to the argument that many Dark Hero fans have about Superman. And they make about the same kind of sense, too. Which is none.
The Obvious Demographics of Smallville:
When Superman announces that he would be coming to Smallville for Ricky’s birthday, the townspeople decide to hold a celebration for all of the good things that Superman has done for them recently. Unfortunately, the residents of Smallville, Kansas have the precise demographic makeup that people like David Duke and Sarah Palin praise about being “Real Americans”: Caucasian, and ostensibly God-Fearing and Hetero. In all of the crowd and ambience shots, this is the feeling that is supposed to be projected.
Lois Lane, Missing in Action:
During the turmoil that was Superman 2, where Richard Donner was fired, Margot Kidder had a conflict with the producers of the film, apparently over the fact that they did not pay her what was promised via contract. Where Gene Hackman decided to just quit the franchise, Margot stayed on. However, the production staff, having been ordered by the court to pay Ms. Kidder her promised salary, greatly reduces her role in the Superman franchise. Thanks to the fact that the writers caught a case of the headless poultry and made Lois “forget” the events of Superman 2, the story could be tailored to Clark finally getting the chance to talk to his high school crush Lana Lang. As such, Lois decides to go to Aruba (which is why she’s brandishing the bikini top in the picture). And we don’t see her anymore throughout the film until the very end, when she returns with a huge news story.
Also note that you see Margot’s diminished role in Superman 4. This is also a byproduct of the lawsuit.
This Superman Movie Skims the Surface of:
The evils of monopolistic control of resources by a small group of individuals motivated especially by greed. This scene was supposed to be where Gus gets a change-of-heart over his actions to help Ross and Vera. Thus, when the Ultimate Computer is destroyed, the oil flow to the United States is somehow restarted and everything returns to normal. I can only surmise that Gorman was given access to a computer and gave the command to restart the pumps and send the tankers back on their way.
Related to This:
Dependence upon a single type of resource to power the local economy. The decade of the 1980s could be considered the twilight of Americans willing to research and develop non-environmentally destructive energies as a means of reducing dependance on oil, coal, methane, and nuclear fuels.
How much Americans are dependent upon computers for the most mundane of tasks. In Superman 3, these are supposed to be humorous: A man who makes a withdrawal from an ATM is affected by Gus’ drunken meddling – and he receives more cash than what was in his account to begin with; credit accounts now show inflated/bogus charges on their statements; traffic control signals malfunction – and begin to fight each other:
Gus’ Ultimate Computer:
This computer was the only human-built machine to ever decipher the formula for defeating Kryptonians. First, it fashioned a confinement bubble that apparently blocked Superman from receiving power from Earth’s sun (since Kryptonians can breathe and talk in the vacuum of space under a Yellow Sun). Second, it deduced the “Unknown” element of Kryptonite and fashioned a chemical laser that could emit green Kryptonite. And third, it could fire bursts of electrical power strong enough to weaken Superman. It’s fourth solution involved transforming Superman into a Super-Cyborg that would obey the Computer’s commands after it had been sufficiently weakened to do so.
However, Superman defeats this computer by using weapons-grade Super-Acid from the chemical plant he saved earlier.
The added scariness of the Ultimate Computer was hinted at when Ross suggests to Vera that they can (and should) control the world’s weapon systems. The funny thing is, that it would have made the Ultimate Computer both WOPR (from Wargames) and Skynet (from The Terminator) at the same time. Had the movie taken this branch before Superman intervenes, it probably would have made for a better movie. Especially when you consider that the Ultimate Computer fulfilled its programming by feeding itself with the entire power grid of North America when Gus first kills the power.
Under different circumstances, the Ultimate Computer would have made for an extremely dangerous foe. As it is, this computer would have defeated Zod & his minions AND Nuclear Man by the same means.
The Fountain of Bad Ideas:
Who thought this was a good idea?
Ross, Vera, and Lorelei use balloons (well, lots of blue-screen) to get to the hideout that Webscoe Industries constructed as a base for Gus’ Ultimate Computer. Would it be impolite to point out that the peons who constructed the base used helicopters that landed at the entrance-way to ferry the supplies and workers there?
The script point was to allow the three of them to take on Superman before Gus arrives at the computer to stop them later on.
Then there is the exterior defense system that consists of guided rockets, which are standard issue for every Evil Group that has to deal with flying superheroes. But the targeting system is this:
When you’re shilling for a video game based on a movie or television franchise, you do not put the video game into the actual movie.
There is also the matter of this, at the beginning of the movie:
Superman has to save a guy whose car was caught in the middle of a shootout with police, because police accuracy is 100% against everything but the actual target they need to hit. The car hits the hydrant near a construction site, and no one has a steel beam, a crowbar, or any number of objects that can be used to break the car’s windows. Also, his own window handles don’t work. AND the car’s locks keep him trapped inside.
Is it any wonder why Honda and Toyota surpassed the Detroit 3 by the early 1990s?
Superman 3 was filled with jokes about computers and machines. I almost thought that Glen Larson had a hand in writing this movie, but then I realized that none of the computers acted like smart-alecs, so it wasn’t his fault.
And, yes, even this:
Everything the producers wanted from Richard Pryor’s scenes were over the top. Combine that with just about everyone else unable to chew scenery appropriately, and Pryor comes off as overwhelming.
But Let’s Not Forget This:
This entire scene is film on a soundstage…in bluescreen. Both this scene, where Superman straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and when he returns to re-lean the tower.
And the Small American Boy:
The whole point of having Lana deal with the issues of being a struggling single mother is so the audience is introduced to Ricky. Throughout the film, Ricky is bullied by Brad Wilson, who believes that he “doing the right thing” for Ricky. Ricky, in turn, is supposed to be the sympathetic character that makes us cheer when Clark/Superman helps him where he can. The best example of this is the scene in the bowling alley; where Clark trips after encouraging Ricky, causing the chalk to “cloud up.” Clark “sneezes” just as Ricky bowls the ball, causing it to obliterate the bowling pins.
But, like most small American children needed to bludgeon the plot to the next stage, Ricky decides to brag about having Superman come over for a birthday party. It wasn’t enough that he got an autograph from Superman after being saved by him; he had to overreach. But the plot needed a gathering for him in Smallville for Richard Pryor to barge into, so we get it through Ricky. It’s not as though the mayor could not have asked for Superman to show up to honor him…or something.
The Do-Everything Vulcan Satellite:
The Vulcan Satellite can apparently make weather patterns by using its Twin Lasers to do so. In movie parlance, something like that can be forgiven, as it can always be explained that the Lasers it uses can change weather patterns by some odd claptrap.
However, the “Laser Probes” sent to analyze the remnants of Krypton for a chunk of Kryptonite? Let’s remember that Jor-El’s crystals mention to Kal-El that he passes through at least 6 entire galaxies. And the void that lies between them. So, at minimum, we are talking a distance on the order of magnitude of anywhere from several hundred thousand lightyears to more than 15 Million LY. And Vulcan’s Laser Probes traverse that distance in a matter of days, if not hours. Even tachyons aren’t really that fast. Plus, with all of these galactic objects in constant motion (on a scale of kilometers per second) it is doubtful that even the most accurate of systems would not be able to account for the shift in absolute and relative position of Earth to Krypton.
So, the Speed of Plot was needed for this next screen:
And another scene of the movie is bludgeoned to boredom.
The Obligatory Cannon Shot at Spiderman:
There are a number of things that I could turn the guns on Sam Raimi for in Superhero Movie Number 3 here. I could start with the whole Dealing with The Darkness Within because of a crappy chunk of Tar (yep, Tar took a toll on Superman). I could go into how both separate themselves from the Darkness, only to fight it soon afterwards. I could even go into how both heroes suddenly get into relationships with their First Comic Book Girlfriends – and reach their low points with the Darkness because of them.
However, I’ll take a plunging fire shot at this one moment here:
A superhero is going to be honored for a good deed. In Spiderman’s case, he saved an attractive girl from falling off of a building. It just so happens that she is the daughter of an influential New York City police officer (and he’s not played by Tom Selleck, either).
The townspeople show up, and everyone cheers. The bad guy, who really isn’t evil, shows up to break up the ceremony. It is from this event that the hero begins his trek into the darkness.
Do I really need to explain any further why the Shot Cannons are on continuous fire? I would like to say that this is the last time I’ll probably do this. But I still have another Superman movie to disassemble, so…
The Token Man of Color:
In its own way, this is a “step up,” from Superman: The Movie, where the only Black characters were the Pimp and his 2 female Prostitutes; and Superman 2, which only had a Black woman in the Daily Planet as…whatever…and some token Black people in Metropolis and Alaska. The Chief here at least gets some lines…and isn’t completely incompetent.
Did I also mention that the Chemical Fire in Superman 3 is the biggest spectacle involving fire rescue that had been done in the annals of movie superhero-dom? While you’ll find other heroes that deal with fires, like G-Girl from My Super-Ex Girlfriend, Hancock from Hancock, and Spiderman from Spiderman, those fires are more run-of-the-mill as opposed to Superman 3’s Chemical Factory Fire.
And What of the Women of Color?
Don’t make me laugh. Kryptonian data crystals continue to break and often. White women are simply incompetently comedic adjuncts or impetus for romantic subplots in this film. Women of color don’t even exist here.
This was written in the time of high technology just starting to make its way down to the ordinary person. Before the days of the Lotus-Intel-Microsoft Standard. Before Apple manages to re-jigger itself as a manufacturer of “cool” gadgets. This movie was written during a time before it was realized that computers had limitations.
Most of the scenes with Richard Pryor seemed to be written with a blunt object; With all the force of a storm, he over-inhabits every scene, mostly because the script really has little direct action outside of his scenes. Unfortunately, the movie usually grinds to a crushing halt at a speed inversely proportional to the amount of really bad comedy that is required from Pryor. Again, like Star Trek V, a simple case of dialing back much of the comedy would make this a better movie.
The scenes between Clark and Lana give the movie much needed levity, but these are soon forgotten as Ricky becomes Superman’s unsung hero near the end. Sadly, many of the praiseworthy moments that happen as Superman’s theme plays in the background with much triumph are simply things that “Dark” Superman caused.
We get to see the tenacity of Jimmy Olsen’s quest to get the perfect newsworthy picture, and shows that his photo-journalistic nature is nearly as strong as Lois Lane’s newshound senses. But he, like all of the men (save for Gus Gorman), are easily distracted by Lorelei’s beauty.
Vera Webster is a straw-feminist of a different stripe than Ursa; Where Ursa just believes that men are her playthings, Vera Webster is simply ruthless because men (and attractive women) make wisecracks about her appearance. Thus, she had to work at being intelligent and business-savvy because of it. It is telling that even in the world of Superman, relative attractiveness is used as a character-building point, but only in regards to female characters.
Richard Pryor fans should skip this film. So should Superman fans. The film itself cannot stay alot and lands in a pile of junk. The structure of the film is workable, as was many of its themes, but the execution of the film leaves much to be desired.