Gus Gorman: I just do not believe a man can fly!
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
While Superman II (referring to the theatrical cut here) wasn’t as good as its predecessor and had its fair share of flaws it was still a relatively good movie in its own right and made a lot of money. Thus Lester got called in to do a sequel. While it still made a modest profit, it was still less successful than its predecessors proved to be a major step backwards. In fact because of this movie many, including Reeve himself almost thought Superman was done on the big screen.
The story involves computer programmer Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) who is ordered by businessman Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) to take control of a weather satellite to destroy Colombia’s coffee crop. Superman (Christopher Reeve) manages to stop it leading Webster to have Gorman use the satellite to find kryptonite to get rid of the Man of Steel. It turns out the Kryptonite is synthetic (mixed with tar) that splits Superman into two personas: a bad Superman and a moralistic Clark Kent.
With former director of the last two Superman movies, Richard Donner having had nothing to do with the making of this movie it really shows. Much more focus is put on comedy and less of the adventure. Any grand scale in the journey Superman is in or the challenges he’s faced with are completely downplayed. The story itself doesn’t work in context of Superman’s history of being an alien raised by humans nor does it work in terms of the decisions he make regarding a romantic relationship with Lana Lang. There’s nothing wrong with a light-hearted take on Superman even today but the light-heartedness has to be utilized in such a way that it remains grounded in the universe created for the character. The theatrical cut of Superman II despite its problems still drew certain lines. This movie doesn’t have that line.
Even the romance itself feels problematic not because it’s not Lois but because of his journey at the end of the last movie with him deciding he couldn’t be Superman and be normal. This movie completely ignores that and much of the second movie and as a result, there is no sense of the journey. A new love interest for Superman is fine as the second movie already discussed the territory with Lois and going into it again could have been a rehash but what he had with Lois is not even addressed.
There are a couple of bright spots in the movie. Annette O’ Toole was great as Lana Lang. And once again through all the bad spots of the movie Christopher Reeve’s performance shined (though it’s not enough to save the movie) in playing both personas. There’s a wonderful scene towards the end where Superman and Clark Kent duke it out for dominance. In portraying these personas Reeve gives the movie an edge that really is lacking throughout the rest of the movie. And a part of that lacking factor comes in the form of Richard Pryor as Gus Gorman. Pryor was certainly a funny comedian but mostly his comedic strengths don’t fit in a Superman movie. He mostly comes off as dopey and given he’s a main character, it gets old fast. And with him being a completely comedy based main, it also takes away from a lot of the movie’s stakes.
The main problem with Superman III is that it treats its comic book world as a cartoon world. And because of that it makes light of all the trials and tribulations Superman has to face. The reason why the first two Superman movies did so well was because they had a sense of a journey and the comedy worked to balance out the deepness. Here it’s just comedy with not much to get fully invested in. And sadly things wouldn’t get much better for this take on the Man of Steel.