Superman III: It’s Not A Bird, A Plane or Even a Real Superman Movie, It’s a Richard Pryor Comedy

Man of Steel opens in just a few weeks. I hope it has a sense of humor. Richard Lester, the director of Beatle comedies and The Three Musketeers movies, took over as director and turned the third entry into a squeaky clean but comic book dark Richard Pryor vehicle.

When I first saw Superman III, I didn’t care that it broke from the comic book lore. I didn’t care that it was supposed to be the kryptonite that finally killed the man of steel. It had Richard Pryor in it. That’s what I cared about. I was a Pryor fan since I was six and saw him do “Rumpelstilskin” on The Flip Wilson Show. I don’t think I noticed at the time that the director was Richard Lester, one of my favorites. I’d seen everything of his since he directed the first two Beatle films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help. He also directed John Lennon in the anti-war, anti-military comedy How I Won the War and one of my favorite comedies from the seventies, The Ritz. Richard Pryor in a Richard Lester film. And it had the Man from U.N.C.L.E. to boot. Fuck Superman. This, of course, was at the time when Christopher Reeve was healthy, young and alive. But still, fuck Superman with a tall building and a locomotive.

Richard Lester took over the Superman franchise for the sequel, Superman II, which a lot of us watched for Kryptonian supervillianess Ursa, after Richard Donner (lot of Richards) was fired. Superman III was pure Lester. Except he didn’t use his steady stock player, Roy Kinnear, and the film loses some Lester magic because of it. Superman suffers the fame fate the Beatles did in Help. He becomes second banana to the gags. In III, Superman is a character in a Richard Lester comedy starring Richard Pryor.

Christopher Reeve saw this at the time and it bothered him. He knew he was co-starring in a Richard Pryor comedy and thought he only got one good scene, where Supes takes on Clark Kent in the junkyard. Reeve didn’t want to see Pryor ski down a Metropolis high-rise in a pink tablecloth cape. He missed the Donner party. Reeve is fun, a little good, a little bad. He gets to play dark. Not that dark, but dark enough for a superhero in a kids’ comedy. Superman gets corrupted and a little something on the side with an air-head trophy blonde who reads Kant. (The man of steel doesn’t need champagne to get in the mood. Later he tells her that was some other guy. If Lester made Superman IV, Superman would have been fighting a paternity suit.) But he never loses that comic book curl, right in the middle of his forehead. When he is bad, he is horrid, even committing the ultimate evil, ecological disaster when he causes an oil spill in the middle of the Atlantic. When Superman goes bad, even his cape goes dark. What a maroon.

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As Gus Gorman, Richard Pryor gives us hints at a lot of his standup characters. His Pentagon colonel could break into the old spiritual “We Will See” at any moment. His reactions to Robert Vaughan come straight out of his “Rumpelstilskin” routine. Three years after his infamous flaming rum sprint, Pryor is the only actor allowed to smoke in a Supermanmovie. Though, I don’t think I saw it lit, he must have been to do two family pictures in a row. He was fresh off getting high on park benches with Jackie Gleason making The Toy. Pryor was getting big bucks to tone down his Pryor-ness and this led to a $40 million, five-year contract with Columbia Pictures as long as he drank their formulas. He’d go on to make Brewster’s Millions, Stir Crazy, Moving, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil for Columbia.

“I asked you to kill Superman and you couldn’t even do that simple thing.” Robert Vaughan has fun as the comic book super-villain Ross Webster. He gets to be as over-the-top as he wants as these wonderful, terrible lines come out of his mouth. Vaughn is best known as Napoleon Solo from the 1960s TV spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Vaughn played a gunslinger that lost the touch in The Magnificent Seven and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Young Philadelphians in 1959. Vaughn did the voice for the evil computer Proteus IV in Demon Seed. He also ordered people around in Chud II. Vaughn was the first popular American actor to come out in public against the Vietnam War.

Margot Kidder basically does a cameo in Superman III. Lois Lane has to get out of the way so Nice guy Clark Kent and nice girl Lana Lang can get together, though I don’t buy it. And whose kid is it again? Kidder is renowned as the neighbor in the bushes, those bipolar tendencies might have informed her starring role as both conjoined twins in Brian DePalma’s cult classic Sisters in 1973. Kidder overcame a guest star-turn in the early seventies George Peppard detective TV vehicle Banacek to play Zazel Pierce opposite Gene Wilder in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, The Great Waldo Pepper with Robert Redford and the classic horror film Black Christmas before picking up Lois Lane’s notebook.

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Once you go Krypton, you never go back. Annette O’Toole plays Lana Lang in Superman III. She remained loyal to the franchise as Superman’s mom Martha Kent in TV’s Smallville. O’Toole auditioned for her film debut in the satire Smile by doing an impression of a dead cockroach. Before Superman III, O’Toole tutored Robby Benson, who dribbled before he shot, in One on One; did some Foolin’ Around with Gary Busey; busted Nick Nolte’s balls in 48 Hours and played country music icon Tammy Wynette in the TV movie Stand By Your Man. O’Toole also played Alice Perrin in the cult horror classic remake, Cat People, which incestuously paired Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell.

Jackie Cooper plays Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet and Superman’s boss. Cooper had been acting since forever. We can prove he was at it since he was a kid. He was Jackie in the Hal Roach “Our Gang” comedies starting with Boxing Gloves in 1929. He was the youngest performer to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in 1931’s Skippy when he was 9. Cooper acted consistently and went on to win Emmys for directing episodes of M*A*S*H and The White Shadow.

Marc McClure plays junior photographer Jimmy Olsen. He’s played Olsen in all the Superman films and in the infamous Supergirl, which got Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway Golden Raspberry nominations for worst acting, though her campy turn as the evil witch was kind of a turn on. McClure would later show up as Dax-Ur, a scientist from Krypton, the CW’s Smallville. McClure played Dave McFly in Back to the Future and Back to the Future Part III. He played in Robert Zemeckis’ 1978 Beatlemania comedy, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Gavan O’Herlihy, the guy that played Richie Cunningham’s absentee brother in Happy Days was Annette O’Toole’s stalker Brad Wilson.

Superman III opens on an unemployment line, to show the teeming Metropolis has its share of real-world problems. The chronically unemployed Richard Pryor is flipping and dipping a yo-yo behind the yellow line until he’s told he’s no longer eligible for unemployment. Pryor grubs a smoke and gets the idea for an ideal job that requires no skill, computers. Lester’s camera plays the old familiar comedy tricks against trademark reactions. The scene cuts to a long and very involved slapstick sequence involving a blind man with a street painting machine and some exploding penguins to show Superman as the lone straight man in the running gag of Metropolis’ world of comedic chaos. Lester drops the traditional Superman “It Came from Outer Space” opening to remind us that this is a comedy, in case you missed Richard Pryor a few minutes ago. Lester even lets Supe do a pie-in-the-face take. He later borrows James Cagney’s grapefruit-in-the-face gag and lets Superman hit Pryor in the groin with a car door. Fans were particularly upset at the opening though a cosmic ballet does have its own slapstick possibilities.

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Lois Lane jets off to Bermuda in a hot purple string bikini. Jimmy Olsen sleeps with his camera, taking advantage of the telescopic lens, I’m sure. Superman is free to look up some old girlfriends. Another hallmark of Lester films is his history. Smallville High School reunion dancers get to twist to the Beatles doing Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” At the time, The Beatles still controlled a lot of what happened to their music and wouldn’t let their music be used commercially, but for their little Richard, he could use it. The next song the reunion gets is the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” one of the first rock and roll songs heard by teenagers on the east coast.

Office computers know where all the half-cents go when they disappear from payroll and Gus Gorman knows how to talk to computers and get them to do what he wants. He’s an early screen hacker, one of the first. Bad deeds have their own rewards. Gus’ antics catch the eye of the Ross Webster, the born-rich evil capitalist super villain who’s never worn the same socks twice. He gets his personal motto from Attila the Hun, “it’s not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail.” Gus Gorman goes from complete and utter moron in a red sports car to a naught genius in the turn of a rotating bar. With a psychic nutritionist as his witness, Gus agrees to help the evil capitalist in order to save himself from jail where there are “robbers and rapists and rapists who rape robbers.”

Superman always gets there in the nick of time. He can leisurely stroll in to save Jimmy Olsen, X-ray him and give a diagnosis just to let the tension mount before he saves the day with semi-seconds to spare. At one point he saves Vicky’s son from a horrible What’s the Matter With Helen? flashback. (See What’s the Matter With Helen?Just see it.) The lousy do-gooder has a personality crisis and announces he’s getting out of the nice guy business by embarking on a rage of global sight gags, like straightening the leaning tower of Pisa and blowing out the Olympic torch and the world goes to hell. Ah, don’t beat yourself up, Supie. It happens to the best superheroes. Usually every other movie. But Lester did it first. When Supe got crushed in the compactor I wondered how much you get per pound of Superman at the New York Scrap Exchange. Gorman’s supercomputer analyzes Superman and draws him as the original comic book image. That’s computer graphics. Superman beats Vaughan in a game of Space Invaders.

Maybe it’s Superman sacrilege to say it, but Superman IIIwas the top of the franchise for me for the very things that bother Supe fans: Richard Lester and Richard Pryor. But hey, it’s a comedy with too many gags and Superman gets laid.

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Rating:

3.5 out of 5