Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). For our tenth (official) spin on the Rack, we’re going WAY back to take a look at the first bad comic book movie ever made: Richard Lester’s Superman III!
The story of Superman III’s creation is a long, strange odyssey. And I guess to truly understand it, you need to start at the beginning.
The first thing you have to realize is that the original Superman films were not produced by Warner Bros. Pictures. Sure, Warner’s parent company had owned the RIGHTS to the Superman character as far back as 19671. But it wasn’t until Ilya and Alexander Salkind—a father/son team of independent movie producers2—bought the rights and started throwing money at every big name in Hollywood that they could think of (William Goldman, Mario Puzo, Guy Hamilton, etc.), that a movie actually gelled into existence. That film ended up being Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, and it was, of course, a masterpiece—the standard by which all superhero films would be measured. The pinnacle of the genre.
But the thing about the Salkinds is… they were kind of slimeballs3. Along with producing partner Pierre Spengler, they hounded Donner during the shoot about the extravagant costs and the snowballing delays, pushing to do the movie faster and cheaper with little consideration for sacrificing quality. After the release of the first film, the producers fired Donner before he could finish work on the concurrently-produced Superman II4, unceremoniously replacing him with Three Musketeer director Richard Lester (a much more economical, budget-conscious filmmaker). The finished Superman II turned out to be a great film as well, but a strange one—half Donner and half Lester, the movie featured broad, pointless comical detours (such as a country deputy and a sheriff debating on the entrees to sample at a buffet restaurant) and the inclusion of some head-scratching new powers for Superman—hologram projection, finger lasers, and the infamous “cellophane S-shield”.
So when the time came to write up a third Superman movie, the Salkinds were starting out with no clear story ideas (since they’d run out Mario Puzo’s story outline in the second film) and a filmmaker on the project with no real passion for- or understanding of the material (Lester wasn’t overly familiar with Superman,
being a God-fearing Britton and all5). So naturally, to start things off, producer Ilya Salkind decided to write up his OWN outline for the new film6. In HIS version of Superman III, Supes ended up going head-to-head with both Brainiac AND Mr. Myxyzptlk (which sounds like the kind of weird villain combo you’d see in a Schumacher Batman film). His Mxy was a cruel bastard whose abilities actually hurt and KILLED people, rather than being cartoonishly harmless… but the character basically only pops up for a short period in the middle of act two (to, like, distract Superman), and then comes back for the finale.
No, the REAL villain of the film is Brainiac, who comes to Earth to reclaim his escaped, adopted daughter… Supergirl? Whom he is, like, romantically in love with? But who spurns his affections because she’s fallen in love with… SUPERMAN?!?
Yes, the outline makes a point to have them explicitly confirm that this Superman and Supergirl are NOT related. But that doesn’t make it any less creepy… especially with the Sweeney Todd-esq detail of Brainiac trying to marry his own adopted daughter. Just… yyeeeccccchhhh.
Ultimately, this outline7 was tossed out for being far too expensive to shoot 8. Rather than drawing from the comics for inspiration, the producers would end up turning to a much more baffling muse: an episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It seems that, in the middle of an interview with the late-night legend, comedian Richard Pryor went into a lengthy gushing reenactment of Superman II, which he’d seen the night before. The Salkinds, realizing that one of the hottest comedic actors of the day had an interest in the character, immediately signed him on to the third film9, and commissioned David and Leslie Newman10 to write a whole new screenplay structured to prominently feature Pryor as a central character—mind you, not a PRE-EXISTING character from the comics, but a role tailored specifically for him.
With a crass, exploitative business move at the heart of the story and a trio of cheap hacks at the helm of the production, how could this turn out to be anything BUT a classic?
IN THIS ISSUE: Superman guest stars in a crappy Richard Pryor movie.
There is nothing so awful as a failed attempt at comedy. Bad drama can always elicit an unintentional laugh, maybe even win over a dumbstruck audience; bad comedy lands flat on the floor like dead fish and rots the longer it goes. And this film is rife with it, from the very beginning… To wit, the film ditches the epic space-flight title sequences of the FIRST two films in favor of a protracted slapstick sequence. A roller skater knocks down a row of phone booths! A blind man runs into a lamppost! A mime slips and falls on spilled gumballs! None of it amounts to anything11!
The main storyline of this movie almost entirely revolves around Richard Pryor as Gus Gorman—a luckless, unemployed schlub who discovers that he’s virtually a WIZARD when it comes to using computers (the movie was made in 1983, so the ability to enter basic commands in plain text on a black screen practically counts as a superpower here12). The guy gets a job as a data cruncher at a major corporation, and after pulling a stunt to scam tens of thousands of dollars from the company13, he ends up on the radar of Ross Webster, a diabolical businessman who schemes to use Gus’s innate talents to further his own avaricious agendas.
Ross Webster, played by Robert Vaughn, is a camp villain through-and-through. Slimy and self-absorbed, he practically owns the world (with farming equipment, department stores, tech companies, coffee interests, oil companies, etc.), yet he still wants more… and yes, he IS a lot like Lex Luthor, now that you mention it!14 Hell, he even has a couple of comic-relief sidekicks, like Hackman’s Luthor: Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson), Ross’s ditzy blonde “psychic nutritionist” (whose running gag is that she’s actually smarter than everyone else in the movie, and just plays dumb to placate Webster), and Vera Webster, Ross’s cold and ruthless sister (whose running gag is that she’s ugly. And man-ish. Ha. Ha.). Their whole routine is that they yammer at each other in every scene, and it’s tremendously annoying; between these two, smarmy Webster, and Gus himself, the whole plot is just schtick overkill.
As for Richard Pryor himself… well, the guy seems to be giving it his best, but he’s got NOTHING to work with here. Gus Gorman is just an excuse to get Richard Pryor into the movie to do “funny” things, like wear a foam cowboy hat or fall off a skyscraper; there’s not really a character there. The writers try to make UP for that by giving Pryor personas to adopt throughout the film—dressing Gorman up as a Patton-esq general, a slimy salesman, stuff like that—but the result is like a series of half-baked SNL skits.
And it’s a damn shame so much of the movie is devoted to him, too, because the B-story is pretty wonderful. You know—the part with SUPERMAN in it!
Christopher Reeve returned in this film for his third performance as Clark Kent and Superman, and once more he proves to be the gold standard for the Man of Steel. This time around, Clark heads back to Smallville to write up a human-interest article about his fifteen-year high school reunion (which is ONE way to get the Daily Planet to pay for his bus ticket, I guess)—and there he reunites with Lana Lang, his old high school crush, played by Annette O’Toole as the virtual embodiment of girl-next-door wholesomeness. Lana’s been stuck in Smallville all these years, working as a secretary, raising her son Ricky by herself, and fighting off the drunken advances of former high-school quarterback Brad (now a boozing security guard stuck wistfully recounting his glory days on the gridiron). She and Clark reconnect, and the two begin a sweet small-town courtship of picnics and bowling trips15.
While the first two films argue that Superman is the actual person and Kent merely a disguise, this film seems very keen on establishing Clark as the true heart of the character. As such, Reeve’s performance this time around is less the broad goofball klutz and more a soft-spoken, good-natured dork; he doesn’t run into doors anymore16, he’s more comfortable with himself, more confident… he actually seems like a real person.
… And then there’s Dark Superman. If there’s ONE THING you will remember about this movie, it has to be Dark Superman.
See, when the Gus Gorman/Ross Webster storyline (kind of, sort of) catches up with Superman halfway through the movie17, Gorman uses his computer wizardry skills to cook up a batch of synthetic Kryptonite18 to kill the Man of Steel. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose), there’s an unknown element in the chemical composition that Gus replaces with tar, creating a Kryptonite that isn’t lethal… but which turns Superman into a mean-spirited, scruffy, whiskey-swilling bastard. And he is the best part of the movie.
Dark Superman is a morally degenerate creep. He defaces national landmarks for kicks. He smashes open an oil tanker in exchange for sex with Lorelei. He hits on Lana Lang in one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the Superman canon. He’s a BULLY. And he’s a perfect illustration of one of the few coherent overarching themes this movie actually has going for it: The Banality of Evil.
Dark Superman—like Ross Webster, and even to a lesser extent boozing ex-football star Brad—is an embodiment of the notion that power without conscience leads to gluttony, greed, and the decay of moral fiber. Gus gains a taste of power working for Ross Webster, the personification of greed, and it pushes him to ask for more and more. Superman loses his own conscience due to Gus’s interference, and turns into an id-driven degenerate, capable of obtaining all his hedonistic desires but no longer fulfilled or happy19. He becomes a mirror of Brad, the drunken bully—who lives a meaningless, empty life. In the end, power and greed only lead to the pursuit of more power and wealth, and a hollow, self-destructive existence.
But Dark Superman ultimately has to face his conscience, embodied in the form of—of course—Clark Kent20. And that’s when we get the absolute best scene in the film: the big showdown between Clark and Dark Superman in the middle of an abandoned junkyard!
Dark Superman absolutely whales on Clark—smashing him into cars, pounding on him with a fender, chucking him into a trash compactor, dropping an industrial magnet on him. But no matter what he does, Clark just keeps on coming back: undeterred, resolute, unavoidable. Dark Superman can’t run from his conscience, the basic humanity that made him who he is… and in the end, Superman reemerges triumphantly, fixing the mess he made and setting his sights on stopping Webster.
‘Cause yeah, we still have to deal with that guy.
See, while Supes was off being a drunken sleeze, Webster convinced Gus to use his Coleco desktop computer to shut down all the oil derricks in the WORLD so that he can corner the oil market. In exchange, Webster builds Gus a massive, all-powerful supercomputer with automated defense systems based on Gus’s designs21, which he assembles in a cavern at the bottom of the friggin’ Grand Canyon (‘cause why would you want your computer set up someplace accessible and easy to maintain?). Superman shows up right on schedule, nearly getting killed when it turns out the computer can accurately synthesize Kryptonite… but then he’s saved by Gus, who has a last-second change of heart and deactivates the computer (by removing a single screw, in a gag that is either ridiculously stupid or kind of brilliant). Good ol’ Gus, our de facto protagonist, turns out not to be such a bad guy after all! Now the movie can end, right?
Making things even MORE complicated is when Gus’s supercomputer turns out to be ALIVE, reactivating itself and going on the rampage (so, uh, I guess Brainiac kind of WAS in this movie? Would’a been a neat Easter egg if they’d named it that…). And that’s when…
… Oh… OH, GOD…
… What the hell, man?! Vera gets turned into existential nightmare-fuel as she’s pulled into and assimilated by the computer22. What is this supremely creepy moment doing in the climax of this milquetoast, bloodless Richard Pryor comedy-slash-children’s adventure film?!
Look—to put it bluntly, this film is a goddamn mess. The plot bounces from idea to idea with barely anything connecting them, the tone swings all over the map, the comedy performances all land with a sickening wet thump—and hell, I haven’t even GOTTEN to Richard Lester’s flat, lethargic compositions, the hideous production design (trying to look “modern” in 1983 was a huge mistake), or the just-plain-ugly cinematography by Robert Paynter of Trading Places fame, who makes Superman stand out by using a palette of greys, oranges, and browns for everything and everyone else in the movie.
But the biggest problem with the movie—its cardinal sin, its unforgivable trespass—is that it’s just boring. Even the better scenes—the romance between Clark and Lana, in particular—are weighed down by listless direction and cheap, cheesy jokes. It rarely generates a laugh, it barely manages any excitement… it just sits there like a sodden grey lump and forces you to dig to find anything worth watching in it.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Almost. Almost. There is a good, solid third of a great movie here, and Christopher Reeve carries it with a might to match Superman himself. But even the Man of Steel can’t save a film that’s just so goddamn boring—plainly written, visually dull, and painfully unfunny.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.25
- Superman vs. Clark Kent: Oh, come on—you KNEW this was gonna make the list. A classic, comic book-style showdown between an evil Superman and the chivalrous Clark Kent? Complete with knocking Superman into a vat of acid, Clark getting driven into the ground like a spike, Supes smashing through a stack of tires, and Clark EXPLODING out of a metal crusher? This scene’s so good, it almost saves the whole movie! … ALMOST.
- “SLING! SINGAPORE SLING!”: Much as I harped on this movie for being painfully unfunny, the scene where Gus Gorman gets plastered trying to drink security-guard Brad under the table is pretty hilarious. Pryor making drinks in his giant foam cowboy hat, getting spooked at seeing his own reflection in the mirror, muttering to himself as he tries to get the computer up and running… the guy plays a funny drunk.
- The One Good Line: Speaking of actual funny stuff in the movie, Robert Vaughn does get one genuinely good line while he’s talking about taking out the Colombian coffee bean crop:
“Colombia has two important exports, and one of them is coffee.”
- 16-Bit Supes: During the finale, Superman gets bombarded by missiles on his flight into the Grand Canyon (in a scene that has some of the most impressive flying effects and matte compositing of all the Reeves films). The missiles are being controlled by Webster, who’s firing them… by playing a 16-bit Superman game on the supercomputer viewscreen. It’s a cute touch, and the game looks more like fun than most early Superman games actually WERE!
- The Douche of Steel: Dark Superman has some funny, mean-spirited moments throughout the second act. But of all of them, my favorite has to be when Supes, bored and hanging out on a catwalk at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, casually blows out the runner’s torch just before he can light the eternal flame. Why does he do it? Why is this even in the movie? No reason—he’s just a total Brad.
NEXT ISSUE: Though it may be a little while until I can do another one of these, NEXT time I’m going for a slightly easier target. In our next issue, we’ll be looking at the single worst X-Men film of them all—and a strong contender for the worst big-budget comic-book movie of all time—X-Men Origins: Wolverine!