"I just don't believe a man can fly." When Richard Pryor's character refuses a balloon ride into the Grand Canyon, the double entendre was an unintentional backhand slap to Superman loyalists. Fans rightfully regard Superman III as the beginning of the end for the Warner Brothers Superman Franchise, Mark I, but the film's merits as a straight-ahead kid's movie, with a few intriguing scenes, should not be forgotten.
Adult Superman fans were aghast at the starring role given to Pryor, a seeming promise that the new movie would take Superman considerably less seriously (the film's super-computer—which bears a striking resemblance to the Bat-computer of '60s TV—proved to be another symbol of the new Superman "camp"). While it's true that Superman and Superman II were hardly humorless (remember Ned Beatty?), watching a misfortunate Pryor—with a pink tablecloth around his neck—mimic Superman certainly signaled a turn for the mirth.
Director Richard Lester, who assumed control of Superman II from Richard Donner, made his reputation with inventive '60s comedies (A Hard Day's Night, Help!, The Knack ...and How to Get It, etc.) and spent the better part of the '70s making novel period adventures (The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Robin and Marian).
Lester's comic tack on Superman III may have been ill-suited, but it can't quite be called inept. The elaborate, five-minute, slapstick credit sequence plays like something out of a Blake Edwards picture, with its politically incorrect blind gags and cream pie in the face. Say what you will about it, but it's legitimately clever, including a nice gag involving Superman, a kid, and a photo booth (trivia alert: the kid is Aaron Smolinski, who played little Kal-El in Superman). Later sequences, like a drunken-computing escapade, show somewhat less taste.
Pryor plays Gus Gorman, a morally deficient computer programmer whose embezzlement wins the attention of greedy corporate giant Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), known to the world as "Humanitarian of the Year" and flanked by two women: butch sister Vera (Annie Ross) and deceptively bubbly blonde Lorelai Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson), a "psychic nutritionist." Webster plots to seize yet more power using Gorman's computing expertise (just try not to be distracted by the outdated computer technology—and computer-phobia).
Meanwhile, Clark Kent returns to Smallville for a high-school reunion. There, he rekindles a relationship with high-school crush Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole, who would later play Martha Kent on TV's Smallville), now the easily distracted single mother to a preteen named Ricky (Paul Kaethler).
When Superman foils his plans, Webster orders his stooge to kill Superman. In a remarkable coincidence, Gorman lugs his carpetbag to Smallville, where he can, unnoticed, commandeer a computer and figure out how to synthesize Kryptonite. When he guesses at an unidentifiable "secret ingredient," Gus creates the equivalent of red kryptonite, the substance which brings out Superman's raging id.
His bright red, blue and yellow costume notably darkened and his face unshaven, Superman begins pulling super-pranks around the globe—causing an oil spill, blowing out the Olympic torch, and righting the leaning Tower of Pisa!—getting his sexual groove on with Lorelai (note Lester's lascivious crotch shot atop the Statue of Liberty), and drinking. According to this picture, anyway, Supes can get blotto.
Though there's enough refrigerator logic in David and Leslie Newman's screenplay to short out any super-computer, the dark Superman plot does lead to a bravura action sequence, when Superman spontaneously splits into two antagonistic selves that duke it out in a junkyard. "Evil Superman" faces good (represented by Clark Kent), and the effects and Reeve's acting put the scene head and shoulders over the rest of the picture.
The long and laborious climax takes place in and around a cave at the base of the Grand Canyon, where Webster has managed to secretly construct that super-computer to Gus' specifications. The scene is too senselessly silly to generate suspense in anyone over the age of ten, and resolves with Superman failing to apprehend any of the criminals (in fact, he befriends Gus, to allow Superman to fly around with a mugging Prior).
Incensed at the Salkinds' ouster of Donner, Margot Kidder made only token appearances at the beginning and ending of Superman III; Lois Lane spends most of the picture in Bermuda. Vaughn's silky villain is no match for the absent Hackman, also a Salkind detractor; Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure bring full-steam, however, to their recurrent roles of Perry White and Jimmy Olsen.
The latter character is saved by Superman at the scene of a burning chemical plant, one of a few nifty action opportunities for our hero. Most of the pre-digital special effects hold up remarkably well, and Reeve continues his traditions of graceful flying moves, confident carriage, and twinkly warmth. Sadly, none of it is enough to save Superman III from being at home only in a junkyard.