“Computers probably aren’t for everyone,” said the cover story to the August 1983 issue of a magazine called Personal Computing, for fuck’s sake.
“There are some things about commercial film making that are in really bad taste,” Christopher Reeve told the LA Times in June 1983, passive-aggressively promoting his new blockbuster Superman film.
“For a film to be commercial,” he explained, “it must earn money, and that results in strategic planning in certain degrees — the goal being to earn even more money. When it comes to a showdown between quality and integrity and commercial expedience, guess which wins?”
Oh, and go see Superman III, he absolutely did not add.
It’s tough being DC Films these days, for almost every possible reason. They’re standing in the shadow of the pop culture juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is still expanding like crazy, in both movies and TV. There’s a clear vision behind Marvel’s plans, extending further into the future with movies lined up for 2026 and beyond.
In comparison, DC has been falling backwards downstairs for the last ten years, insecure about what they’re making and who should be in charge. Warner Bros started DC Films in 2016 after everyone didn’t like Batman v Superman, putting Geoff Johns and Jon Berg in charge. Then everyone didn’t like Justice League in 2017, so Johns and Berg were ousted, and replaced by Walter Hamada.
After Aquaman was successful in 2018, Hamada announced that DC was going to focus on individual character stories instead of worrying about how they all connect. After a few more movies, they backtracked in 2021 and announced that the films were all interconnected again… and then they released The Batman, a very successful standalone film, so they have no idea what they’re trying to do.
By this point, DC’s fans are polarized into warring tribes, who are trying to push the company into making decisions based on how a particular hashtag is trending on Twitter on any given day. And now the company’s been bought by Discovery Inc., and their terrible new CEO has ousted Hamada, and is reportedly looking for “a Kevin Feige type” to give the films “a coherent creative and brand strategy”, which is probably not going to work, because how many Kevin Feiges can there be in the world?
Amid this turmoil and uncertainty, it’s only fitting that this weekend they put out a new film that isn’t very good, but is doing very well at the box office, just to complicate things even more.
An unlicensed roller skater slips suddenly out of control, shoving a hot dog stand and interrupting three concurrent telephone conversations. Robot penguins, freshly sentient, see their chance for escape at last, and make a break for the open road. A woman is scattered across the sidewalk, surrounded by dented groceries. There’s mustard on Jimmy Olsen’s lapel.
In other words, downtown Calgary is a mess, and it’s no wonder Superman is a little choosy about which disaster he feels like addressing. I don’t know why we even came to this cursed burg in the first place.
“Given a relatively free hand,” writes Andrew Yule in The Man Who “Framed” the Beatles: A Biography of Richard Lester, “Lester decided to move the emphasis of III towards social realism, setting the first scene in an unemployment office and hiring the most naturalistic actor he could find — Richard Pryor — for a key role, all in an attempt to anchor the subject to a base of reality and reduce the mythic element he felt had already been thoroughly explored.”
Which just goes to show how wrong a person can be in a single sentence. If Yule had bothered to watch more than the first scene of Superman III before he started typing about it, he would have seen that the “social realism” of Richard Pryor in an unemployment office is immediately followed by five minutes of the most tedious fluff ever committed to celluloid.
One thing that occurs to me, as I look at this opening credits sequence, is that between the director, the writers and the executive producer, the number of successful films that they made subsequent to Superman III is zero. That seems to help, somehow.
It’s an appropriate word to begin Superman III, history’s first superhero sequel. Superman II doesn’t count, of course, because the original Superman movie was planned as a two-part story. So this moment — the beginning of film #3 — is the first time the filmmakers have to skip over the origin myth, and start a brand new story from scratch.
And it begins, naturally, with a negotiation over how much money we’re going to give to Richard Pryor.
So, let’s say you’re a Salkind. You’ve been producing movies for your father for ten years now, including some of The Three Musketeers and a couple of Superman movies, but people still think that you’re just a money guy — specifically, your dad’s money guy.
But you’ve been working in the same building as creative people for so long, you’ve started to hallucinate that you’re a creative contributor as well. Since nobody has any idea what to do with Superman III, you sit down at the typewriter and write an eight-page treatment, which you send to the Warner Brothers and ask them for millions of dollars so you can make it.
In the years to come, you’ll tell people that Warner Bros thought it was too “sci-fi”, and too embedded in Superman lore. That is not the reason Warner Bros rejected your treatment. They rejected it because they were grown-ups who read movie treatments for a living, and yours is bugfuck insane.
Richard Pryor wrote:
I went off to London, to play the villain in Superman III. And yes, the movie was a piece of shit. But even before I read the script, the producers offered me $4 million, more than any black actor had ever been paid.
“For a piece of shit,” I’d told my agent when I finally read the script, “it smells great.”