We’ve been watching a lot of Superman in my house this summer due to the release of the blockbuster “Man of Steel” last month. My eight year-old and I weren’t all that crazy about the latest film version about Krypton’s favorite son, but we didn’t despise it either(you can read the review in the June archive). What it accomplished post-attendance was sparking some nostalgic interest in Superman films from the past. I even went so far as to show him 1951’s “Superman and the Mole Men”, which most folks don’t realize was the first feature film version of Superman—starring George Reeves. It was a low-budgeted, paltry, 58 minutes long-venture, that served as a launch pad for the popular 1950’s television series. It’s kind of funny(you can see the zipper on the back of the “mole men”)and a bit goofy(man, is that Superman uniform baggy, or what?!), but also darker in tone than I remembered—it ultimately spooked my son into asking me to turn it off. Mostly lighter in tone(although director Richard Donner got very morbid with the “death” of Lois Lane in 1978)were the 4 Christopher Reeve Superman movies released between 1978 and 1987. The first two were gigantic hits, of course, that raked in boatloads of cash and created an entire new generation of Man of Steel fans. Reeve’s finale in the red and blue suit(1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”)is legendary for its awfulness. But, in fairness, the franchise was sold to the notoriously cheap Cannon Films by that point. “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” had its budget slashed in half, and everything just looked shoddy. 1983’s “Superman III”, on the other hand, retained an A-list budget and boasted the inclusion of a major comedy star. Yes, someone at Warner Bros. had the not-so-bright idea that it would be cool to have Superman battle a computer-genius played by…Richard Pryor. It only served to kill the series. Oh, it made some money—but far less than 1981’s “Superman II”. So, try to go easy on “Superman IV” in the future…it was this one that was the death knell.
In lieu of a plot outline of this 30-year old clunker, how about a list of grievances. #1: Richard Lester was all wrong as a Superman film director. The helmer of terrific stuff like The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”, as well as the 3-film franchise spawned by 1973’s “The Three Musketeers”, doesn’t attempt to take the Superman mythos all that seriously, and instead goes for slapstick and pratfalls. The opening set-piece is especially egregious, with a chain reaction of mishaps involving burning wind-up penguins, a blind man walking through and into things, and a car flooding on the inside after driving over a fire hydrant(Supes first rescue of the movie…give me a break). It all belongs in some other film. #2: If you’re going to push Margot Kidder to the sidelines(she had apparently pissed off the producers with issues over the production of “Superman II”), and instead focus on Clark Kent’s high school love interest Lana Lang(played by the adorable Annette O’Toole, who stole many a heart from the late 1970’s into the 80’s…including mine)…make it interesting! Annette O’Toole was mostly wasted by being turned into a syrupy goody-two shoes, raising an annoying little kid(he’s supposed to be cute, but he’s just a really bad child actor). Millions of dollars go into this and all you can come up with is some mild rivalry with Lana’s ex-boyfriend(Gavan O’Herlihy), a grassy plains picnic, and Superman saving Lana’s son(little Ricky is played by Paul Kaethler, who apparently never did anything of note again)from an industrial harvester in a field? There was gold to be mined in Clark Kent returning to Smallville for his high school reunion…and the director and screenwriters(David and Leslie Newman)completely blow it. #3: The miscast Richard Pryor. Pryor was a comedic genius whose talent was difficult to capture in film roles. Almost none of his hijinks manages to work here…and it’s not his fault. Lester even decides to include a scene where Pryor slides off of a high building on skis, lands feet first on top of a glass(?) awning, and then glides off of that to the street below—without so much as a scratch. Pryor also masquerades as an army general at one point, and tricks Superman into accepting a “gift” that is actually an ersatz Kryptonite. Reeve and Pryor work hard to pull this stuff off, but you’ll be groaning over the ineptitude often. There’s plenty of other stuff too, like poor Robert Vaughn being a weak substitute for arch-nemesis Lex Luthor(memorably played by Gene Hackman in the two previous ventures), in his role as villainous rich guy, Ross Webster. Also, we have an opening and closing bit with a malfunctioning lottery machine. And then Pryor disables a giant super-computer…by removing one small screw.
Okay, the highlight for just about everyone with this movie is when Superman and Clark Kent, damaged and ill from the diluted Kryptonite concoction, actually split in two and do battle with one another. It’s the best part of the film and hints at the darker path this screenplay should have travelled. After watching a drunken, evil Superman flick peanuts through bottles and windows with his finger(pretty cool)—it’s off to the races! Ultimately though, it’s too little and too late. I also liked how blonde, bimbo “twit” Lorelei Ambrosia(well-played by Pamela Stephenson)is actually articulate and computer-savvy, but hides her brainy side from boyfriend Ross Webster. But the feel of the film is weird and uneven. So much falls flat. And Margot Kidder pops in for one scene in the beginning, goes on “vacation”, and returns for one scene at the end. Why bother? I was seventeen when this intended blockbuster was released in June of 1983, and I remember my anticipation leading up to its opening. I went to see 1978’s “Superman” multiple times in the theaters, and I recall waiting in long lines for 1981’s “Superman II” in the days before advance ticket purchasing. “Superman III” was a dispiriting sit in the summer of ’83, and after my 30-years later revisit, I’ve found that nothing has improved with age. In fact, it probably got even worse. Let it be noted though that Christopher Reeve admirably guts it out for a fully fleshed-out performance. Henry Cavill, who? The late Mr. Reeve will always be the Man of Steel. Grade: C-