Jun 3, 2020
Battle of the Crappy Third Entries: Jaws 3-D vs. Superman III
1983 gave us classic films such as Return of the Jedi, Octopussy, Sudden Impact, and the Stephen King triple-punch of Cujo, Christine, and The Dead Zone. Among the year’s films that weren’t so classic were, in an interesting coincidence, the respective third entries of the Jaws and Superman series.
It goes without saying that the first entries of these two series are classic movies. Both Jaws 2 and Superman II were successful as well (although I didn’t much care for the former), which inevitably led to third installments. But those third installments are regarded by most as the point when these two series began to decline creatively.
So, which is worse? Let’s take a look.
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The first two films take place in the fictional town of Amity. This entry attempts a change of pace by setting the action at SeaWorld in Florida. The main characters here are Martin Brody’s grown up sons Mike (Dennis Quaid), who works at SeaWorld, and the visiting Sean (John Putch).
The two brothers are enjoying a weekend at said amusement park with Mike’s colleague/paramour Kay Morgan (Bess Armstrong) and Sean’s new girlfriend Kelly Ann Bukowski (Lea Thompson). But, wouldn’t you know it, a great white shark has shown up in the park to cause trouble. This time, however, the shark has a reason for causing havoc. The park employees manage to catch a smaller shark, which turns out to be the offspring of this film’s monster. The fact that the little shark dies while in the park’s custody doesn’t help matters, either.
As with the previous entries, there are characters who are skeptical about the arrival of such a massive killing machine. Among them is the park’s manager Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett Jr., just after he won his Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman). This film has a Quint-like character as well in the form of hunter Phillip FitzRoyce (Simon MacCorkindale).
One thing leads to another and people, including FitzRoyce, get killed, etc. The shark dies again, of course, but in the most ludicrous way possible. During the climatic scene in the park’s underwater control room, the shark smashes through the glass and wiggles its head through the opening to devour whoever it can. But Mike suddenly sees the partially-eaten FitzRoyce in the shark’s mouth, holding a grenade no less. If any ending shouted deus ex machina, this is it.
And what was the point of this shot, anyway?
Business tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) blackmails his employee Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) into using the computer skills that he got out of nowhere to control the world’s oil supply. When the Man of Steel (Christopher Reeve) intervenes, Webster tells Gorman to find some Kryptonite they can use to kill him. Instead, Gorman creates synthetic Kryptonite that turns Superman into a super-jerk. This leads to the film’s most memorable sequence, when Superman splits into two beings, one good and one bad. The two proceed to duke it out before Good Superman triumphs and goes off to battle Webster, now controlling a super-computer that was built from the Arby’s napkin scribbles Gus keeps in his pockets.
When this super-computer produces the correct type of Kryptonite, Gorman turns against Webster and saves Superman. The Man of Steel manages to destroy the super-computer, saving the day.
Which is worse?
Jaws 3-D is basically its two predecessors but relocated to SeaWorld. I’ve read a couple of reviews of the film that said the film’s only saving grace are the early scenes between the Brody brothers and their lady friends. Indeed, the cast itself is pleasant enough. I actually chuckled at the moment when Mike and Kay startle Sean and Kelly as the latter two lovebirds are getting cozy in the water.
It’s once we get into the scenes that were the draw of this picture in the first place that everything turns into déjà vu. The fact that the park employees basically asked for trouble by capturing that little shark in the first place doesn’t help. Hence, it’s actually easier to side with the shark this time around.
Additionally, the film was released during the brief resurrection of 3-D in the early ’80s. But Jaws 3-D is quite dull with or without the 3-D. The previous year saw the release of Friday the 13th Part III, which is quite entertaining even without the 3-D, and like many of the other entries in the Friday the 13th series, it did a terrific job at emphasizing the “fun” in “dumb fun”.
As with Jaws 2, the footage of the shark is excessive here, making it easy to see why it became a punchline in the sequels. The scenes with the tourists seeing body parts as they tour the SeaWorld aquarium lose whatever potential they may have had, because it clearly looks like people walking in front of a cheesy green screen effect.
An interesting side note: the producers of the first two Jaws pictures, Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, were asked to produce this installment as well. But they wanted to go a different route and make the third film a spoof picture titled Jaws 3, People 0. But Universal wanted another straight scare fest, which led to Zanuck and Brown bowing out. The irony here is that the final picture actually made some people laugh, but for all the wrong reasons.
One could say that Superman III suffers from the opposite problem. It doesn’t rehash anything from its two predecessors, but goes in a more lighthearted direction. That, in itself, is not the problem. After all, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was more lighthearted than its predecessors, but that movie worked because the humor was never forced and fit naturally into the story.
Superman III‘s attempts at more humor, however, go wrong because they’re just cheap gags and nothing more. Some saw Richard Pryor’s casting as a bad omen for the film, but I thought his bits were the funniest of the film, even if they added nothing to the story. As mentioned earlier, his computer skills come out of nowhere, especially considering that the movie begins with Gorman looking for a job. It was other parts of the movie, such as Webster’s sister Vera (Annie Ross) basically getting Borgified by the super-computer, and the two traffic lights fighting each other that had me going “WTF?” even as I watched the film when it originally came out.
Many fans have stated that the film would have been better if the super-computer had turned out to be Superman’s nemesis Brainiac. I can certainly understand that stance, as we already had Lex Luthor in the previous two films, so why not use another classic Superman villain? Instead, we get a moment that’s literally a video game as Webster attempts to stop Superman with missiles (complete with the same sound effects used by the arcade games of the time).
The moments where Superman is fighting himself are memorable, with Reeve clearly having the time of his life playing a bad guy. By itself, this idea could have conceivably carried the entire movie, had it been done with more care. Instead, all the evil that Superman does is confined to blowing out the Olympic torch, straightening the leaning Tower of Pisa, getting drunk and sleeping with Webster’s assistant Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson). And no, I haven’t forgotten him ripping open that tanker and spilling its oil into the ocean, but the setup is contrived anyway and nothing is done with this plot element (wouldn’t other tankers have come to assist, rather than just having those guys sit there until Good Superman comes by to fix everything?).
Clark’s scenes with his Smallville sweetie Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) are also pleasant. So it was fitting that O’Toole would later play Clark’s mom in the series Smallville. These Clark/Lana scenes do somewhat mar the touching Superman/Lois scenes of the previous two films, not that it concerned Superman producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who were pissed off that Margot Kidder took them to task for firing original Superman director Richard Donner, and punished her by giving Lois only two scenes in this installment.
Although the Salkinds put out the equally misguided Supergirl the following year (Reeve was offered a cameo as Superman in the film, but declined) and then went on to produce a Superboy TV series, Superman III would be the last Superman feature film with the Salkinds’ involvement. This may have been a good thing, were it not how all the subsequent Superman movies (and I don’t mean just Superman IV) turned out. Like the four Star Trek movies with the Next Generation cast, Superman III has some good ideas that are unfortunately outnumbered by the bad.
While both of these films are held in low regard, neither series was finished just yet. Both of them would get their respective fourth entries in 1987, which would drag down their legacies even more (but that’s a story for another time).
Of these two third entries, though, I would say Jaws 3-D is the worse of the two. For all of Superman III‘s faults, it still had the elements that could have potentially made it a great movie. Jaws 3-D, on the other hand, has decent early scenes involving the people we’re supposed to identify with, but nothing exciting emerges from that setup.
Superman III also has the edge in that its computer-related material proved to be the inspiration for the classic comedy Office Space. A bad movie that ends up as the inspiration for a good one is certainly noteworthy.