Monday, August 22, 2016

Super Week, part III: Superdick


SUPERMAN III

If for nothing else other than evening out the tone of the franchise, Superman III should be congratulated—even if it only got evened out in favor of idiotic hi-jinx.  The point is, at least it feels of a piece with itself, and that's some kind of improvement over the patchwork of Superman II.  Obviously, however, nobody in their right mind would ever describe it as an actual better movie.  Or would I?

1983
Directed by Richard Lester
Written by David Newman and Leslie Newman
With Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Annette O'Toole (Lana Lang), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Richard Pryor (Gus Gorman), Pamela Stephenson (Lorelei), Annie Ross (Vera Webster), and Robert Vaughn (Ross Webster)

Spoiler alert: moderate


Superman III isn't what anybody wanted it to be.  This is, of course, trivially true for old Richard Donner, who'd been fired from Superman II in 1978 with nearly three-quarters of the film already complete—and who therefore never even had a chance to influence the creation of its sequel.  Equally obviously, we can presume it's not what Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder wanted, either.  Both actors had rebelled at Donner's treatment.  That's why Hackman refused to reprise his role as Lex Luthor, and why Kidder's Lois Lane is reduced to nothing more than a pair of bookending cameos, brusquely pushed into the background in favor of a new (or "new") contender for our hero's super-affections, a certain redhead named Lana Lang.  Reportedly, even Christopher Reeve himself didn't have much use for the thing; he didn't think it was funny, which seems like it ought to be a pretty big problem, given that Superman III is an outright comedy.  Plus, considering that the first two movies are already defined by their absolute eagerness to descend into the gruesomest camp, then perhaps that gives you a rough idea of just how silly Superman III turned out to be.

Finally, then, we have Ilya Salkind, the series' key producer—and the man whom you could reasonably call the Superman franchise's most central figure.  It was Salkind who wrote the first pitch for III, and Warner Bros. balked like hell at the mere sight of it.  Salkind's intended plot revolved around the revelation of yet another Kryptonian survivor, this time Supergirl ("as in the comics legend" Ilya says with what must have been calculated disingenuity), who escaped her planet's destruction, and was raised by Superman's second most-famous villain, the evil conqueror Brainiac, on his homeworld of Colu—and, fair enough as far as that goes, but Brainiac apparently raised this Kryptonian so he could fuck it.  And, yes, I am serious.

Somehow, I suspect that Salkind must've gotten his Brainiacs crossed: there is, still just waiting to be written, a definitive Supergirl story about a time-crossed romance with Brainiac's distant descendant, Brainiac 5; but that would probably require a take on Supergirl that's less "young adult with superpowers, that's fucking novel," and a lot more "this woman saw everything she ever knew die in flames, and now she lives on a shitty backwards caveman planet that fails to remotely accord with what, one would presume, are her personal, alien values, which even her own cousin, Superman, would not really understand."  But, hey, they didn't ask me for my input.  Besides, if they ever do wind up making a Legion of Super-Heroes movie, that one'll be executive-produced by Jesus and the Mahdi.  So let's not hold our collective breath.

Well, anyway, instead of being ravished by her father-figure, Supergirl escapes to Earth, and on Earth she falls in love with Superman.  (Not her cousin in this story.  Because Salkind apparently thought that the basic, fundamental premise of the character would be something fans could effortlessly forget.)  Brainiac chases her; ultimately Mr. Mxyzptlk gets involved; and it just goes on like that, for pages, to the extent that you become numb to the bevy of crypto-incest, and simply start wondering, "How much did Salkind expect this to cost?", and "Did Salkind intend his awful movie to be four hours long?"  So Salkind's opus makes it clear that Superman Lives was never the worst unproduced Superman film.  Indeed, it scans a lot more like half-researched fan fiction from a bygone age than anything like the work of a professional maker of movies.  But, then again, so does the Superman III that was actually made.

And in case you thought Salkind's original version might still have been interesting, know this: the thing ends with Superman fighting Brainiac on horseback, in a knightly duel.  Because that's exactly what everybody watches movies with superheroes for.  The fucking jousting.

Nevertheless, in the end, Salkind gave up on the bizarre epic he'd written, turning instead to the smaller-scale superheroics delivered by his screenwriters, Leslie and David Newman.  And so it's true: even the man in charge of Superman III didn't get the Superman III he wanted.

But maybe one person involved came tolerably close—and that's this film's director and the replacement director of Superman II, Richard Lester.  The argument that Lester destroyed Donner's second Superman feature is not a particularly compelling one; meanwhile, the idea that Donner's own take on Superman was not badly hamstrung with its own brand of hokey idiocy can be countered by just sitting down and watching the original Superman.  Still, it is clear enough that Lester did some really awful things to Superman II, things that never needed to happen and can't be justified.  So, now that we find Lester with a whole Superman movie to call his own, we get to see exactly where his muse would take him, without Donner's vengeful ghost constantly badgering him about the need to take Superman at least a little bit seriously.

The result, as you probably already know, is an outright farce—a film that is not very good on its merits (and is noticeably too long, for what it's trying to be), but which is also not all bad.  It's certainly not as awful as its reputation, but then, few movies actually are.  In this case, it's a reputation for being terrible that may have eclipsed even that of its successor, the widely-despised Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.  Still, being able to revisit it now, in 2016, must be an immeasurable help: when you live in a world where excellent superhero movies come out every year, Superman III is just some silly old lark; but, of course, in 1983, when it was the only third proper superhero movie anybody had ever made, Lester's film must have come across as nothing less than a super-strong slap in the face.

And I can sympathize with that predicament.

But we're from The Future, and that means we have the benefit of already knowing what we're getting here: the slapstick Superman.  For those of us in on the joke, the new mode manifests immediately with the opening credits sequence themselves, which is trying terrifyingly hard to be an amped-up version of Jacques Tati—and, to be sure, it's the mere fact of Superman's involvement, as Lester's slapdash Rube Goldberg machine made of dozens of moving human parts grinds into action, that infuses any comedy whatsoever into a sequence that is, at best, only moderately even legible.  But there Christopher Reeve is: changing his clothes at super-speed and saving some guy from drowning in the middle of a Metropolis street because a toy penguin caught on fire (or something), which caused him to run over a fire hydrant.  Anyway, it's likeable.  Truth be told, it could have fit easily enough into either of the previous two films.  Really, it's not till the man who amounts to our co-protagonist shows up that Lester demonstrably jumps the genre rails and keeps going.

But then, in the first proper scene, that man makes his appearance: Gus Gorman, a chronically-unemployed layabout with a deeply-buried heart of gold, who goes from the welfare line to computer school, learning at the cusp of middle age that his calling in life has always been to code, although this character exists mainly because Salkind saw a Tonight Show interview with Richard Pryor wherein the popular bawdy comedian expressed an interest in Superman.

Now, I haven't seen that interview myself, but I don't believe that Pryor expressed a similar interest in computer programming.

Regardless, if you're a Pryor fan, then you probably won't find too much to enjoy here at all—that is, unless you have a sadistic need to see the legend reduced to the status of one of the director's puppet clowns.  This isn't the worst thing in the whole world, but it automatically raises the question, "Why Pryor?", and I don't know who could answer that one.  Including God.

Well, with his newfound skillz, Gus soon gets himself hired at Generic EvilCo, and down there in the basement cubicles, Gus promptly inspires the plot of Office Space by hacking the payroll system and redirecting all the rounded-off pennies on everyone's paychecks into his own bank account.  Having thereby earned the respect of Ross Webster, Generic EvilCo's Generic Evil CEO, Gus is soon pressganged into the cybersecurity division of the billionaire's two-front war against both decency and storytelling logic.  At Webster's command, Gus hacks weather satellites, and turns them into weather control satellites, all in a bid to destroy the Colombian coffee crop—which, naturally, captures Superman's attention.  But soon enough, we'll find Gus hacking up some synthetic kryptonite, manipulating global oil production from a keyboard, and—finally—building his stoppably-unstoppable supercomputer in the desert, from which his boss attempts to shoot Superman with rockets via a user interface that comes complete with a visual representation of this dime-store supervillain's "score," because video games, ha fucking ha.  (You have probably guessed that in the script, Gus' mega-machine is called "Brainiac," because Salkind loved him some Brainiac.  Incidentally, Brainiac's electronic guts come to life, wrap themselves all tentacle porn-like around Webster's sister, and possess her body and soul.  Ilya Salkind, everybody!  This dude is all fucked up.)

As these evil plots are pursued, however, Superman is back in Smallville in the guise of Clark Kent, making the gingerest possible moves toward romance with the grown-up version of the woman who should be called (for brevity's sake) his high-school crush, Lana Lang.  Now, Lana's been the Other Woman for maybe six full decades now, but in the usual instance, she's not even playing in the same league as Lois Lane; here, however, and for the very first time in any Superman movie (maybe the only time in any Superman movie) Lana's presence grants the super-romance an actual humanity.  For starters, Lana Lang actually seems to like Clark Kent, rather than merely fetishize a Kryptonian; and, beyond that, Reeve and O'Toole are simply funnier and cuter (and heck, maybe even sexier, if that word has any meaning in this context) than Reeve and Kidder ever managed to be in four whole movies together.  Obviously, deterministic fictional universes are rarely going to surprise you in any meaningful way—and when they do, like in Superman Returns, it's because it quite clearly got away from the people in charge—but sometimes it's a real shame that they can't.  This really is one of those times.  (So you get exactly one guess as to how important Lana is in the next film—because if she's even mentioned, then I must have missed it.)

But to sweeten the deal for those of us who like our Superman to be inspiring and not just a joke, it's also within the Smallville/Lana sections of the film alone that Superman III ever gets to be "serious": when the script gives Lester a chemical plant fire, the director somehow goes ten whole minutes without shoehorning in a gag.  The outcome is legitimately, if a bit surprisingly, kind of awesome.  (And maybe it's not totally true that Lester doesn't manage to treat Superman's super-feats with at least a certain sideways kind of respect: that cross-cut sequence where Gus regales his villainous friends with the tale of how Superman rescued Colombia from their machinations is, itself, pretty damned awesome too.)  Meanwhile, when Lester does go for the gag in Smallville, it's usually so eye-rollingly nice—and thus Superman-like—that you don't actually mind it, as when Clark uses his super-breath to help Lana's son pick up a spare at the bowling alley.  (And is Lana's put-upon single motherhood instantaneously more appealing than Lois' city gal swagger?  Darned right it is.)

In any event, once Superman and Gus collide, the plot turns, and the hacker extraordinaire exposes our hero to his synthetic kryptonite in what I'm happy calling the single worst-staged sequence, by far, in all seven Superman films.  ("Let's give Superman a translucent green rock as a gift!  Why wouldn't he accept it? Jesus Christ, he did!  He actually just picked it right up, with his bare hands, like he doesn't even remember the very plot point from Superman that we're actively referencing!")

One presumes that Pryor's excruciatingly bad improv here blinded Superman to the subtler threat to his senses.

This leads to the film's biggest narrative cul-de-sac in a film (and franchise) kind of chock-full of them—technically, Lana's whole arc is one of them, too—when Gus' synthetic-K turns Superman bad.  It darkens his costume, forces Reeve to grow a 5 o'clock shadow, and if nothing else, it makes you desperately hope that there's some seedy neo-noir out there with this star playing a drunken P.I.  Ultimately, however, the radioactive influence of the artificial kryptonite sends Superman on a roaring rampage of assholery, and, honestly, it's laugh-out-loud wonderful to see just how low-impact an act of cruelty can be, yet still manage to register as "evil" when it's Superman doing it.

The first four Superman movies are, in some ways, the Silver Age of Comics recapitulated—but never moreso than when Superman's first act of "villainy" is straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and his second is blowing out an Olympic torch.  God knows exactly what Lester and his screenwriters were going for when this subplot reaches its climax—a battle between Evil Superman and Clark, evidently a physical manifestation of the goodness that still resides within—but it does work, and on more levels than you'd think: first, as exactly what it looks like, a struggle between Superman and his own human conscience; next, as a pure weirdness in its own right, absolutely worthy of the 80s' penchant for bizarre nonsense; and, last, as a homage to all those even weirder Silver Age stories—where this exact kind of thing happened every other damned month.  (And yet you have to ask if the Newmans or Lester ever actually read an issue of Action, because then they'd have known that this is, fundamentally, a red kryptonite story, and thus would have modified their synthetic mineral's hue accordingly.)

But here's the thing, and take it or leave it: it's the best fight in all the first three films, and, like the rest of Superman III, it's memorable for reasons both good and eye-poppingly bad.  I realize now that I've barely even touched on just how loosy-goosy this film is, but it's an inveterately zany Goddamned thing, and it would have to be, between Lester's outrageously cartoonish sight gags, Pryor's gelded shtick, embodied in the form of the ultimate Movie Hacker, and (lest we forget!) Robert Vaughn's lip-smacking scene-chewing as Gus' demented boss.  (And there's a whole lot of scenery to chew here, thanks to production design that wouldn't be too out of place in a Bond flick.  You know, sometimes it's delightful, in and of itself, to watch a movie that cost as much as this one did, yet is so transparently and completely out of touch with what a normal audience might want to see.)  Nevertheless, let's be very thankful that Hackman did not return: "Ross Webster" is fun precisely because he's just some random, garbage billionaire criminal, and not Superman's arch-nemesis.

All told, it's the dumbest, silliest Superman story ever put to film: a wacky waste of time that is nobody's idea of a great movie, but is still entertaining in its own preposterously broken way.  (It's the only Superman movie that alludes to vaginal lubrication, for example.  It's also the only one where, under the influence of kryptonite, Superman gets loaded and bangs a floozie.)

That should be more than enough to damn it.  Truthfully, it is; but there's a lightness of touch here that keeps me from disliking Superman III for, essentially, simply being what it is—a dumb 80s comedy that just so happens to star the Last Son of Krypton.  It's insubstantial as air itself; it doesn't earn any real right to exist; but both of these things are true of nearly every actual Superman comic ever published, and, hell, I still like them.

Score:  6/10

Other reviews in this series:
Superman
Superman III
Supergirl
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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