Superman III (1983) (part 1 of 6)
The Law of Diminishing Returns has found few better examples than the Superman franchise. The first is a near classic of science fiction, and the second is a less serious, but still entertaining entry. But then with the third, there was a death-defying drop into inanity and poor quality. The fourth film is generally regarded as the worst of the series, and with its mawkish Captain Planet politics and deplorable special effects, it’s hard to disagree.
Still, the fourth is so cartoonish, I can view it like I would an episode of The A-Team and enjoy it on that level. Superman III, however, is the most dreaded kind of dreadful movies: The unfunny comedy. There aren’t too many things as excruciating as a joke that isn’t funny, so this means we’re in for nearly two hours of unending, enjoyment-free pain here. A more serious flaw in this film is its lack of a notable villain. Robert Vaughn is no Gene Hackman, and the supercomputer that Superman faces off with at the end is really just a machine, so it hardly comes off as threatening.
The movie opens at a Metropolis unemployment office. Richard Pryor steps up to the desk and gives his name, Gus Gorman. We see he’s got a yo-yo with him, and obviously this will be important later. The clerk, like the rest of the characters, is an exaggerated stereotype. Overweight, with a mountain of teased and dyed hair, and loudly smacking her gum, she finds his file. She asks if he’s looked for work. Gus sheepishly replies, “Uh, kitchen technician.” She corrects him: “Dishwasher. Any luck?”
He starts to reply, but Big Red interrupts. “Mr. Gorman, according to our records, you’ve been unemployed for thirty-six weeks.” He insists it’s only been thirty-five weeks, but she says that’s “not counting this week. You secured employment last June as a messenger and were discharged after one day for losing a—” Gus interrupts her. “No, no. See, they said I lost it, but I did not lose it! It was stolen by a pick pocket!” She looks at him and incredulously asks, “A television set?” This is one of those lines that probably sounded funny on paper, but out loud, and coupled with Pryor’s manic delivery, it just comes off as desperate.
He tries to defend himself by saying the TV “was a teeny, tiny, insy Japanese two-inch television set”, but she soldiers on. “The only other employment you found was in a fast food joint,” she says, “Which lasted twenty-eight minutes.” Gus bugs out his eyes and hurriedly explains, “Well, those people expect you to learn that in one day! Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, I don’t want sauce, I do want—” She cuts him off again, saying “the city of Metropolis is generous to a fault”, but after “thirty-six weeks of chronic unemployment, thirty-six weeks of living off the taxes of hardworking citizens, do you know what you are?” Coked out of his mind?
Gus defensively says, “Don’t call me a bum, I am not a bum!” Cut to a pair of African- American men looking on. She, who is never given a name, continues, “You are, I was about to say, no longer eligible. Next!” Ah, Reagan’s America was the pits, wasn’t it? Thankfully, we don’t have a tanking economy or an addled leader to worry about now.
Gus cries out, “You mean that’s it, finished like over?” No, finished like your career in two years. She glowers at him through a face full of horrid make up. He grumpily mutters, “Next as in bye!” and walks in the direction of the two black men. Gus asks one of them for a light, and then he looks at the matchbook cover as “comic” music plays in the background.
Inside the matchbox is an ad reading “EARN BIG MONEY, BECOME A COMPUTER PROGRAMMER.” Well, what are the odds? Gus looks right into the camera, either getting an idea or Richard Pryor is deciding it might be time for a career change. This brief taste of comedy (and this is as funny as it gets, gang) immediately ends and the opening credits roll.
I’m not a fan of the labored slapstick of the Austin Powers movies, but Mike Myers is Buster Keaton compared to what we’re about to see. Miss Ambrosia, assistant to this movie’s villain, walks down a bustling Metropolis street. A guy distracted by her breasts walks right into a pole. (See, guys are so stupid when they see a hot chick.) He tumbles backwards into a street vendor’s display of mechanical penguins [??], which I’m sure are a hot item.
Then, a girl on roller skates stumbles over this accident, and grabs onto a hot dog cart. She then rams the cart into an occupied telephone booth and tips it over, knocking down several other phone booths domino-style. Then we cut to Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy, who was buying a hot dog at the cart, just laughs at all the wacky hijinx. Yeah, you don’t want to see if anyone was hurt or anything, Jimmy.
A lady in the last phone booth accidentally lets go of her dog’s leash and the dog runs off. Pole Dude tries to help the penguin seller gather his toys. Absurdly, the “Superman III” logo appears to a triumphant flare of music. The director is sure doing a lot to hold up the integrity of the character.
One of the toy penguins waddles by an open flame, catching its wing on fire. The dog runs by a blind man with his guide dog, and the guide dog breaks away and gives chase. The dogs upset a woman and cause her to spill her groceries, so a concerned street maintenance worker rushes over to help. The blind man stumbles over to the maintenance worker’s stripe-painting machine and grabs the handle. The machine leads him in circles, because apparently the blind can’t tell the difference between a dog and a piece of heavy machinery.
The flaming penguin wanders over to Clark Kent, who grabs it and surreptitiously uses his Superbreath to put it out. Clark goes to buy a copy of the Daily Planet from a vending machine, and please don’t ask me why he has to buy a copy when he works for the Planet. Unfortunately, when he pulls the paper from the rack, he forgets his own strength and rips the paper in half. Perhaps if Superidiot grabbed a paper from the pile in the machine he would have still been able to read Marmaduke on his coffee break.
Blind Man is still wandering around in circles, so I guess the worker who was operating that machinery must have insisted on walking the woman home. Pole Dude walks by and bends down to pick up a toy penguin. Blind Man knocks him into a concrete pit, and Pole Dude gives a “Why me?” look into the camera as Blind Man steps on his head to get to the sidewalk.
And it’s not over, folks. Outside a bank, shots ring out and masked robbers flee. One slides down the staircase railing simply because it looks “cool”. The robbers run into the street and a car swerves to avoid hitting them and plows into a fire hydrant. The car quickly begins to fill with water. Maybe the driver will drown! Wouldn’t that be kooky?
Bystanders flail on the car doors and one guy succeeds in tearing a door handle off. None of them gets the bright idea to try to smash the windows, so no wonder these losers need Superman. Clark hears their cries and rushes into a photo booth. A little boy comes by and begs his mom for change, and as soon as he puts the coins in, flashes go off inside the booth. Superman leaps out and grabs the strip of pictures, finding that, “hilariously”, each one is a carefully posed stage of his transformation.
Superman tears off the last picture and gives it to the delighted little boy. Then the wires holding Superman manage to only wobble a touch as he flies across the street. The strip of photos, by the way, has completely vanished. He lands on the roof of the car and rips the sunroof off so he can pull the guy out and pause to shake hands with him. Strangely, Superman doesn’t bother chasing down the bank robbers [??]. And, no, it’s still not over, folks.
He flies away and a couple of guys painting a billboard wave to him and accidentally knock over a bucket of paint. A portly gentleman is standing below them, and a splash of yellow paint lands on his shoulder. Believing it to be rain [?], he opens up his umbrella. Seeing that this isn’t the case, he closes his umbrella just in time to have the bucket of paint fall on his head.
Unable to see, he knocks over a gumball machine, spilling its contents all over the street. Cut to a mime performing for some cafégoers. He soon slips and falls on the gumballs to enthusiastic applause.
Meanwhile, two movers are carrying a painting, and Blind Man walks right through it and finds his dog munching on a gumball. Another guy trips over the mime and stumbles right into a guy carrying a tray full of pies. Clark catches one that comes close to hitting Miss Ambrosia, but then he swings around and accidentally smashes the pie into the face of Pole Dude. Clark then blinks several times into the camera. Having heartburn from reading all of that? And this was just the opening credits. There’s still over two hours to go.