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.”
And so we come to Superman III, the next live-action superhero epic, which was thrust upon theaters in June 1983 to the satisfaction of almost nobody.
Superman III is the world’s first pure superhero film, untouched by ambition or artistry. The earlier Superman movies were a passion project for Richard Donner, who cared deeply about doing justice to the character. The Swamp Thing film was more of a stopgap project for the producers — just something to do while they figured out how to make a Batman movie — but writer and director Wes Craven had his own vision for the film, and if that didn’t show up on screen, then at least he tried.
But most of the people involved in Superman III did not actually want to make Superman III. Ilya Salkind wanted to make a movie about Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk and an unexpected romance between Superman and Supergirl, but Warner Bros rejected Ilya’s treatment, because it was batshit crazy. Richard Lester didn’t want to direct Superman III, until they offered him a ridiculous amount of money. Richard Pryor was in it for the $4 million. Christopher Reeve was coming out of a terrible flop called Monsignor, and just needed a win. As far as I can tell, the only person who genuinely wanted to be in Superman III was Margot Kidder, and they wouldn’t let her.
But Superman III was an economic inevitability, and it could not be denied. As Superman II drew to a close, we were informed that Superman III was coming soon, a primitive mid-credits scene painted on the cave wall. They didn’t have a writer or a director, or even a clue what the next movie would be about, but obviously there would be one. Somebody else could figure out all the creative stuff, like a story and characters. The first two movies made money, and there were more numbers after II.
Now, according to the Salkinds — the bungling international crime family that primarily made movies by exploiting tax loopholes and settling everything out of court — the producers were still in debt at this point, which means they had no choice but to make another movie.
In fact, Alexander Salkind claimed that they’d spent so much money making and remaking the first two films, they were still $70 million in debt — but the Swiss banks threw an extra $40 million at him to make a third movie anyway. “They’re interested in creating assets, so they can get paid,” Alex explained. He hoped that the third movie would finally turn a profit for them — and if it didn’t, well, maybe they’d make a Supergirl movie. They were bound to break even sometime.
That’s why Superman III is our first example of the pure essence of superhero movie-making: a cynical cash grab based on other people’s IP, star-studded and market-tested. Richard Donner, the man who cared too much, has been exiled from the genre, dragging his “verisimilitude” banner behind him. Now we can get down to the serious business of assembling a new slice of junk culture.
The history of superhero movies is essentially the story of how this genre evolved over time into the ideal vehicle for painlessly extracting money from the public, and giving it to entirely the wrong people. Superman III is an important step in that process, the first time a grown-up movie studio tried to make a superhero blockbuster without actually having any good ideas.
The problem was, the first two films were planned as an epic, with a very deliberate conclusion. Superman discovers his tragic origin story in the Fortress of Solitude, talking with holograms of his dead parents, and the story ends with a definitive goodbye to any connection with his home world. He falls in love with a dynamite reporter, marries her, and then learns that he can never sustain a relationship with a human woman. He prevails over a morally-deficient trickster plutocrat, demonstrating his ability to right humanity’s wrongs. In the end, he fights his evil opposite — a group of superpowered renegades from Krypton — and neutralizes them, showing that great power can be wielded by an honest man, without corruption or decay. There aren’t a lot of loose ends for Superman III to pick up and play with.
So screenwriters David and Leslie Newman decided to do all the same themes over again. Superman III involves the hero revisiting another part of his origin story, and there’s an unfinished romantic storyline, an evil trickster plutocrat to fight, and an exciting battle with his evil opposite. It’s basically a remixed version of the same story, with less iconic versions of the characters.
Oh, and then there’s Richard Pryor, airlifted into the film from a different genre at a premium price. Pryor was a bold and brilliant stand-up comic who had recently achieved mainstream Hollywood success in a couple of buddy films with Gene Wilder, and he was considered a bankable asset. At a tribute to Pryor in 1982, director Billy Wilder explained how studio executives put a movie together: ”They approach it very scientifically — computer projections, marketing research, audience profiles — and they always come up with the same answer: Get Richard Pryor.”
So when Pryor gushed about Superman II to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, the producers of Superman III saw an opportunity to get another big name for the series. Marlon Brando was lured into the first film with an outrageous salary of $3 million dollars, and now they’d get Richard Pryor for $4 million.
Now, the question that everybody asks about Superman III is: Is this a Superman movie, or a Richard Pryor movie? It’s a reasonable question, because the film is basically split into two separate tracks, one for each of the co-stars. But I think the obvious answer is, “It’s a Superman movie and a Richard Pryor movie stapled together,” and that doesn’t get to the heart of what people mean.
The underlying question is: Is Superman’s half of the movie a good Superman movie, and Pryor’s half of the movie a good Richard Pryor movie? And the answer to both sides of the question is unfortunately no, for interesting reasons that we’ll spend the next little while unpacking.
If the story of making Superman I and II was a true crime drama, and Swamp Thing was a comedy of errors, then Superman III is a disaster film, with several clueless captains actively steering the ship towards the inevitable iceberg. And it begins, as usual, in the mind of Ilya Salkind.
4.2: It Was Ilya’s Other Idea
— Danny Horn