SUPERMAN III is the kind of movie that happens when Hollywood people hedge their bets. The first two Superman films were worldwide hits, and a third one was expected to be the same. Yet, the people behind the films decided that they needed to assure good box office by signing popular comedian Richard Pryor to play a computer wizard turned reluctant villain. By doing this, they practically guaranteed a mediocre film.
I don't mean Richard Pryor was untalented. Far from it. The guy was equally at home with hard-edged standup comedy and family friendly movie comedy. You could take the Richard Pryor scenes in the film and build a nice, amusing '80s comedy around them. But they don't belong in a Superman film, any more than Superman would belong in a Richard Pryor comedy, or James Bond would belong in a Jerry Lewis movie. You're taking the most popular comedian of his time and then making Superman his straightman, and unless Superman is played by Gene Wilder, it's not going to please fans of either icon. Richard Pryor is actually fine in the film, often amusing, but his antics are out of place in this film.
As the film's main villains, Robert Vaughan, Annie Ross and Pamela Stephenson are poor substitutes for Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine, and Richard Lester's never-ending sight gags become irritating after an hour or so, as he is obviously trying to make a Richard Lester comedy instead of a Superman movie, or a Richard Pryor comedy (that's the main problem with SUPERMAN III - three different movies are competing for our attention all at once!). The bookending scenes at The Daily Planet look cheap - they all take place in Perry White's office with little of the usual hustle and bustle in the background, and Margot Kidder's appearances in these scenes are so pointless, it would have been better not to have her in the film at all.
As so often happens with mediocre films, you start noticing the silly stuff and the plot holes. Superman puts out an industrial fire by freezing a lake with his super breath and then letting it melt over the fire, but couldn't he just have put out the fire using his super breath in the first place? He can breath in outer space but he can't breath when trapped inside a villain's big plastic bubble? An obviously phony soldier (Pryor) appears out of nowhere and storms the stage at a pro-Superman function in Smallville, and Superman just stands there doing nothing? And he has no suspicions whatsoever about the huge green rock (that should have a sign on it that reads "I'm Kryptonite, Stupid!") the soldier hands him? Superman seals a leaking oil tanker with his red-hot heat vision? The first two Superman films had their share of questionable plot points but were so entertaining, there was hardly time to worry about such things.
SUPERMAN III has a bad reputation, but it isn't the awful movie some people swear it is. There are good ideas and scenes in SUPERMAN III. The heart of the movie should have been Clark revisiting his hometown of Smallville and getting reacquainted with his childhood friend Lana Lang. Because of personal reasons, Margot Kidder would only agree to appear in a few scenes as Lois Lane, so the Lang character was written into the story. Annette O'Toole is pitch perfect in the part, and because Reeve and O'Toole were experts at playing super-nice people you can't help but like, the Clark and Lana scenes have a soft, sweetness all their own, unlike anything else you'll find in the series. But it is a story that ultimately goes nowhere - no romance, no major insight to either character, just a nice, underplayed and underdeveloped side story that should have been fleshed out much more than it was.
Clark also faces the dark side of his personality, literally battling an angry, bitter Superman long before such turns of events became cliché in super hero films, and Reeve has a lot of fun in this scene. But once Clark gets his dark side under control, the movie is essentially over, except that he has to spend another half hour battling the boring main villains and their supercomputer.
On its own, SUPERMAN III is passable
entertainment for a rainy Saturday afternoon, but as a sequel to two of
the finest and most enjoyable comic book movies ever made, it is a
big letdown. ½ - JB