What Superman 3 teaches us about computer programming

Feature Simon Brew 23 Oct 2013 - 06:13

Gus Gorman's computer programming in Superman III nearly brings the world to its knees. But how did he do it? Er...

Hollywood movies and computers didn't always really get on in the early 1980s. Screenwriters were left with the option of researching them, and putting things that made sense on the screen. Or just making shit up, and hope that it stuck.

Superman III, then. It may not be a popular opinion, but we've always had a soft spot for Superman III. It's a mile below the standard of the first two films, but it has character, personality, and it also has the excellent scene where evil Superman fights Clark Kent. Give us a fight like that, rather than the last half hour of Man Of Steel

But for the purposes of this piece, this is the film where Richard Pryor plays Gus Gorman, a man with no known computing skills whatsoever, who - when his social security is stopped - turns to programming out of desperation. Given what Gorman accomplishes in the movie - and we're going to spoil lots of Superman III ahead if you haven't seen the movie, so please be warned - it seems important to acknowledge that this is a new discipline for him.

The screenplay determines that Gus Gorman's life-changing move into computer programming comes a result of an advert on the back of a book of matches. And if you thought that was a bit flimsy, you'd have to say that the props department didn't really put their back into coming up with a convincing phone number for him to dial...

Still, inside ten minutes Gorman is sat in his computer class, faced with the kind of problem to solve that would make Will Hunting break out in a teensy bit of sweat. We know it's difficult, because a student beforehand asks the course tutor "what if you want to program two bilaterial coordinates at the same time?".

In spite of this being an adult education class, said tutor patrols the room with a stick, asserting "you can't do that. It's impossible". And he is, you assume, the expert here. "Computer technology is very advanced young lady", he tells her in a completely non-condescending way, "but it can't do that". It really needs someone like Meat Loaf to pull that line off.

The tool.

But then! What's this on Gus Gorman's monitor? It's not two bi-lateral co-ordinates is it? It surely is! And it works!

So how's it done? Superman III was made back in the days of programming in BASIC, and so helpfully, Gorman types in a LIST command, familiar to those of us who spent hours copying programming listings out of computer magazines, only to find they never bloody worked.

The progam listing then scrolls up the screen. And if you tut when you see the following screenshots and mutter 'that'd never work, not even on a Spectrum', then help yourself to two extra geek points from the jar.

That code is supposed to solve the two bi-lateral co-ordinates challenge. Let's just look at some of the problems.

* The program keeps pointing to a sub-routine at line 5000, that's clearly not there
* This is basically a program to do nothing more than put the on-screen display together, as heralded by the abundance of PRINT commands. At least they avoided a few REMs.
* It looks like a more interesting routine is hidden from lines 60 onwards, hidden behind PRINT commands that would, er, stop it working.
* That INKEY$ command just loops back to the same line, doesn't it?
* CLS on line 50? Why? Why? Why? Why do you need to clear the screen at that stage in the routine?
* Tsk.

What do you mean we take this stuff perhaps a little too seriously?

These mildly pedantic points aside, Gorman soon lands a job, unaware that he's working for Evil Robert Vaughn. Thus, he stays back after work one night, to hack into the work computers and award himself a few extra expenses. This, friends, will take some fiendish coding.

But what possible lines of programming genius will it require? What would you need to type in to override all the ruthless security of the Webscoe Payroll Division?


It's a good job he did that course.

Next question, then. What command will this early computer require, were you to want to channel the half cents from all Webscoe salaries into someone's expense account? This is where Gus Gorman uses every ounce of skill he picked up before...

End result of this? A manually signed cheque, where Vincent Winter (the film's production manager as it happens) didn't seem to notice just what he was signing off...

Bizarrely, Gorman's actions proved trackable, and he's recruited by Evil Robert Vaughn to hack the Vulcan weather satellite, which for reasons of an impromptu script conference, requires him to go to an office in Smallville. There, he proceeds to get nasty Brad drunk, while wearing a big hat.

Once this task is complete, and the hat is shed, it's hardcore hacking time. Granted, there's the 'two keys at the same time' conundrum to get around, but passed out Brad proves helpful there. And Gorman is soon down to work.

For fear of copycat hackers though, Superman III elects not to show us the exact code Gorman uses this time (probably something like 10 HACK ANY COMPUTER THAT I LIKE IN THE WORLD FROM THIS SHITTY LITTLE MACHINE, 20 GOTO 10), as cashpoints go awry, lights flash, traffic signals mess up, bills are printed and a man shoves a grapefruit in a woman's face (really). All achieved from one terminal.

It's a pity about the coding, as we've love in particular to know the routine that led to the two folks in the traffic signals having a punch up. Bet it involved a few PRINT, GOSUB and INKEY$ commands.

To be fair, it's at this stage that Superman III wisely cuts to meaningless numbers, to stop pedants like us writing unfunny articles on websites some 30 years later.

Gorman gets access to the Vulcan weather satellite, and from something with half the power of a Commodore 64, he sets the world off on a path to meeting this woman here...

However, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Because Evil Robert Vaughn needs more computer code. What lines, then, would be needed then to scour an entirely different galaxy, to see if they have any Kryptonite information out there? You might just be getting the hang of this...

And could this sophisticated computer system then acknowledge these lines, without managing to spell one of the next two words incorrectly?


Gus, if you remember, at this point realises that the computer technology at his disposal isn't strong enough. He's only managed so far to affect the global financial system, damage the world's oil supplies by moving every tanker into roughly the same place, and track down alien elements in outer space. So he needs Evil Robert Vaughn to build him a new computer. Gus, the man who couldn't program a computer at the start of the film, has sketched out his blueprints on the back of some napkins and stuff.

Evil Robert Vaughn agrees to build said computer. Evil Robert Vaughn likes what he sees. We like what he sees too.

The computer coding educational element of the film is done by this point, so it'd be remiss to not salute the forerunner to RoboCop that comes next. Genuinely, this creeped us out when we were kids...

That, friends, is the stuff of childhood nightmares. And that is where our work here is done, for fear that RoboPrototypeWoman will come after us.

As we said at the start, Superman III is a muddled, but cherished oddity (and let's not forget the mayhem of Supergirl was just around the corner). Appreciating it chucks away much of what makes the first two movies so interesting - the Christ metaphor for one - it does its utmost to make up for it with some solid computer work. But it also has some really good stuff in the midst of it all. Of course, the behind the scenes battles between the Salkinds and many of the creative team are legendary, and we heartily recommend the book Superman Vs Hollywood if you want to find out a lot more about that.

And yes, fair point: we've been utterly unfairly nitpicky here. But it's done with love in our heart. Superman III did that thing of trying to be futuristic, which dates it within minutes of its release. Yet it still had a damn good go.

But just remember: all of this computer mayhem that we talked about came from a man who answered an ad on the back of a book of matches. There's important career advice there, kids.

For Superman, meanwhile, Nuclear Man and Milton Keynes were just around the corner. And you can read our 10 remarkable things about Superman IV, right here.

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Disqus - noscript

20 GOTO 10


RoboPrototypeWoman scared the crap out of me as a kid. Terrifying!

I think you just out-nerded the internet.

That is an excellent article! And you nailed it with that crazy-robot-woman as the stuff of child nightmares - I'm still carrying some heavy emotional scars from that scene. To this day, I can't go near a woman turned into a robot by a super computer operated by Robert Vaughn.

Evil Robert Vaughn

Holy-similitude, Batman! Anyone else think that the 'super computer' looks "a bit" like the Bat-atomic reactor from the '66 series; in fact the whole set is reminiscent of the '66 Bat-cave!?

The super hot acid always looked so nasty to me....still, a very fun movie that doesn't take itself seriously.

What Gus does (taking all the half cents) is a real life fraudulent device called Salami Slicing but I'm fairly sure they don't do it in the same way Gus did.

Robowoman still unnerves me to this day - the triple whammy of her and that bloody rabbit-in-the-hat in Twilight Zone: The Movie and the poster for Xtro kept me awake for ages.

I'd rather watch Superman III than I or II or IV.

An article truly worthy of this site's name. Bravo!

I am superhero RUNSTOP MAN! I have just pressed "runstop" and once again saved the world from evil Dr Print Goto! Yay Runstop man!

The important thing to remember here also is superman learns nothing during the course of the film, dropping Gus off at the nearest quarry and asking the foreman if they have a computer as they should hire Gus quick smart. Gus + quarry computer + mining equipment surely means destruction of the planet?

hilarious ! Do Swordfish next !

These were important points...and needed to be said.

And what about the Atari 2600 style graphics depicting the launched missiles that were flying at superman? Classic!

What? No kneeling before Zod?

I guess that the BASIC program was meant to be run to produce output that looked like a code listing. Only instead of running it, they listed it for some reason. Wonder if it just didn't work, so they did that to get something on screen?

Den of Geek. I love you.

But this is the single geekiest, nay, nerdiest article my jelly peepers have ever inspected ever to appear here.

I have to lie down now.

... I guess he doesn't like kneeling :D

Don't care for the old Superman films but at least III was fun(ny). Need to re-watch Returns but ManOfSteel is the best effort so far (unless we count MegaMind).

Totally agree with you on that. One can code any program, compile it and run it and it won't display any output (on screen, for example) if there's no printing command on it. But one can put a ECHO statement before every code line, printing statements like "Doing this importing thing right now, please go for a coffee for a while.", or just put the exactly code on the next line as argument (quoted, of course) of that ECHO statement (which is actually a very common way to debug a program, if don't know about Unit Tests).

This movie makes more sense if you pretend that Pryor's character is named Milton Fine and Vaughn's is named Maxwell Lord.

Yes, III is a big let-down after I & II, but, folks do seem to overlook the fact that was an attempt (only half-successful to be sure) to ape the look, plot and feel of old comic books.

LOVE this article, too!

The code copied from magazines reminded me of a incident back in the early 80's when I was taking a Basic course in college on an old Apple or Atari....I forget which. I typed in some code from Compute and it played a nice musical melody over the PC and everyone in class stopped down to see what the hell I had just done. I looked like a computer genius when in reality I just happened to copy some lines from a book.

How was this article written? The secret is revealed:

10 FOR X=1
20 Print X line of "Article"
30 LET X=X+1
40 IF X=200 THEN GOTO 60
50 GOTO 20
60 EMAIL "Article" TO "Boss"

Not quite to the point of this article, but one thing I've never understood is why Superman brushes the missiles sent at him by the computer aside, instead of letting them explode against him. They can't hurt him ,and might cause damage going off elsewhere. Probably for the same reason he turns his head to one side when something blows up in his face in Superman II.............

No mention of a weather satellite that actually MAKES WEATHER?

Great article, and can I also add another miracle of Gus'? Before scanning other galaxies, he'd also taken the Vulcan satellite, designed to monitor the weather, and upgraded it to control the weather. Of course, his boss only uses this to dominate the coffee market, rather than, say, make billions offering controllable weather to the world..

Hilarious article, makes me want to watch it again.

I also have a fondness for Superman III, and I'll always watch it if it's on. It's like they took all the parts of a good Superman movie, but then inexplicably didn't make that movie.

The giant computer at the end of the film was originally supposed to be Brainiac. I don't know how he originally figured into the plot, but having him be the source of Gus's sudden programming skills would have worked nicely.

Also, despite being a lackluster film, the novelization by William Kotzwinkle was really quite good, giving the characters internal monologues an back story not present in the film (and the creepy cyborg scene is even creepier in the book).

The ghost of Brainiac hangs over Superman III, I swear it.

Would have been freaky if the ultimate computer was Brainiac and took Gus or Evil Robert Vaughn and did the RoboNasty to them instead, turning them into the scary-looking humanoid embodiment of himself.

Awesome article. I never noticed ANY of those things with the exception of the "LIST" command. I always said, "He LISTed the programming code. Big deal!"

Trying to stop laughing while reading this as at work. Failing to...

Not only that, but it also had the original Atari 2600 Pacman sound effects to go with it.

I once offered up Kotzwinkle's novelization at a white elephant gift at a Christmas party and, to my then surprise, it became the thing everyone traded for.

I love SIII for the scenes of drunk Superman flicking peanuts and the fight in the junkyard.

It was also supposed to be Lex again but they couldn't get Hackman to come back for it so rewrote the role as Ross The Boss. It's inexplicable how they failed to get him to return for this but not the steaming pile that followed...

It's the director more than anything. Richard Donner shot a lot of Superman II while he was making the first film. When the Salkinds booted Donner in favor of Richard Lester, Hackman was not pleased — I can't remember if he refused to work with Lester or just did the minimum his contract required of him.

Hackman returned for IV, as did Margot Kidder, as a favor to Reeve, because it was Reeve's pet project that he wrote and directed himself.

... never liked Superman as a character and the original movies seemed so boring. I liked Superman Returns, but Man of Steel finally did the trick for me :D

... or they simply had no idea of what they were doing, more likely

Reeve didn't direct IV, but it was certainly the way he wanted the film to go. The savage budget cut weeks before filming start killed the film though. The excellent Superman vs Hollywood book talks a lot about the fallout from the departure of Richard Donner, which did indeed not go down well with Gene Hackman!

Ah, good catch. I always thought Reeve directed IV because it was his baby, but I see that wasn't the case.

Not. I'll put up the overall career of Richard Lester against most current directors who get way more ink - HARD DAY'S NIGHT, PETULIA, JUGGERNAUT, SUPERMAN II, 3 MUSKATEERS etc etc.

You may not like the way this one turned out (I think it's half-brilliant), but, Lester HAD an "idea what (he was doing)".

It looks to me that the program he's looking at was meant to be run, not listed. if run, it looks like it would have printed to the screen what appeared to be an actual program with fors, nexts, variables, etc.

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