Superman III 4.1: The Sweet Smell of Shit

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.

Tomorrow:
4.2: It Was Ilya’s Other Idea

Chapters

— Danny Horn

24 thoughts on “Superman III 4.1: The Sweet Smell of Shit

  1. Oh boy, we’re back to the Superman films! I skipped out on Swamp Thing due to a lack of interest in swamp-related superheroes. Unfortunately it’s been six months since I rewatched Supes III to make sure I was ready for your blog, so now I’ve forgotten everything about it… except that at one point Richard Pryor skies off a building for no reason, and that this movie contains the first video game promotional tie-in **within the movie**. This is going to be fun.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Not so obvious in this context of a superhero movie! I haven’t seen this one since it came out, so for a second you had me trying to remember the sequence in SUPERMAN 3 where Richard Pryor is able to fly.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Danny!! Love that quote from Richard Pryor…he knew he was just paying the bills by agreeing to appear in this tragic mess of a movie. Cannot wait for you to dissect this one.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. With this pile of cynicism accented with touches of ennui, the one and only thing they can’t take away is that a Black man got four million dollars out of this, dammit.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Danny, you’ve given us all a lot to think about.

    What you’re ignoring is that Superman III feels exactly like a Silver Age Superman comic.

    Not a Superman comic from 1983, mind you, but one from 20 years earlier. I’m excited to annoy you with this theory in the comments of many posts to come.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Yes, the Superman plot does feel like classic Silver Age. Superman vs a dark version of himself is a classic moment, and we really get to see Clark Kent engage with Lana as a person (not a buffoon).

      We also have Businessman Luthor three years before he debuted in the comics. And he has one of my favorite lines.

      Pryor is a problem but more so that he’s miscast. In theory, a young Eddie Murphy might’ve fit better. You are more willing to forgive a kid genius led astray.

      I obviously appreciate the criticism that the film doesn’t come together successfully but I do push back at those who complain that the movie focused too much on Gus Gorman. So many superhero films that fans love are centered on the antagonist. Pryror just doesn’t work.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Such a shame Gary Coleman wasn’t available.
        “Whutchoo talkin’ about, Superman?”

        Or Rodney Allen Rippy.

        Like

    2. What you’re ignoring is that Superman III feels exactly like a Silver Age Superman comic.

      Hmm, now that you mention it… 🤔

      Like

    3. While there are absolutely elements of the Silver Age, and there are good reasons it does, I am happy to argue that it does not feel exactly like a Silver Age Comic for a multitude of reasons. But it feels very early to get into that.

      Like

    4. Honestly, is anything from Superman III any more ridiculous than “criminal mastermind” Lex Luthor being a campy scenery-chewer with a support staff consisting solely of a bumbling nitwit & a blonde airhead, Superman turning the Earth backwards to undo Lois Lane’s death, or Superman’s amnesia kiss that he gives Lois? All of those aspects take me right out of the first two movies each and every time.

      Honestly, the major problem i have with the first two Superman movies is that they spend a significant amount of their running time aspiring to be deep & sophisticated & mature & intelligent, and for the most part succeed, only to then have utterly ridiculous elements like the ones I mentioned come crashing in, resulting in a 180 degree shift in the tone of the stories.

      I’m not saying that it’s impossible to do an intelligent, sophisticated superhero movie, because you can. Batman Begins and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are, in my mind, two of the best examples of this. But in both of those movies there’s this delicate balancing act. I feel both movies succeed because they know not to suddenly veer into far-fetched or campy elements… which is what happened with the first two Superman movies, to their detriment.

      Superman III, for all its flaws, is completely consistent in tone. It’s a colorful, melodramatic, larger-than-life superhero movie and it knows it. Heck, it embraces it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It would have been more factual perhaps to call it The Computer Guy starring Richard Pryor with special guest star Christopher Reeve as Super-Men.

    “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.”
    There are currently people more “wrong” than the Salkinds? The mind boggles.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Now that Marvel/Disney is a behemoth bestriding the globe, scattering great, hurricane force gales of ENTERTAINMENT while removing our cash from our pockets without let or hindrance, I imagine there are TONS of shady characters laundering ill gotten gains through investment in these films.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t believe in curses and such, but several of the people involved in the Superman franchise suffered tragic fates, most notably Reeve and Pryor. I don’t have a point, maybe someone who knows more than I do can advance the ball.

    Welcome back, Danny! We appreciate you!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. 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.

    I’ve read about his proposed plot and “batshit crazy” doesn’t begin to cover it!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Ah, Mr. Mxyzptlk: the character who returned to his home dimension only after he was tricked into saying his own name backwards.

    I wish that trick also applied to the Phantom Zone escapees in the first two Reeve Superman movies. What would happen to ‘Non’ if he said his name backwards? Probably nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yay, we’re back!

    I think Superman III really epitomizes that moment in the early eighties when they turned into the eighties, not just “eat up that leftover three bean seventies salad before it goes bad.”

    It’s got soulless business might standing in Mad Genius’s spot in the lunch line, The Hero’s Smallville Girlfriend parking in Lois’s spot, and comic relief wedged in regardless of whether or not it made any damn sense for it to be there.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Superman I and II, I watched over and over again with the family on my brother’s laser disc player. Superman III–I saw it once as a kid on my bedroom’s black-and-white TV, and didn’t like it much. Maybe now I can find out why…. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I always think it’s so bad that Superman realizes he can’t be with Lois and so drops into another relationship with a woman he also couldn’t be with and tries to make HER fall in love with him. I believed in Superman and Lois. Heck, I believe in Superman and that he could be this much of a jerk? – No. It really is a Richard Pryor movie. If you haven’t seen a Richard Pryor movie, I really like most of his comedies with Gene Wilder, but if you’re only going to watch 1 Richard Pryor movie in should be Brewster’s Millions. As far as Superman there is one bit that I’ve taken as a brilliant piece of advice for problem solving which I still use to this day. I’ll talk about when we get there.

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  11. Poor poor Margot. When I was a child, I quite liked SUPERMAN III but didn’t understand why Lois was barely in it. And, well, even at that age redheaded Lana Lang took my attention away. Truth be told, depending on my age, looking at Pamela Stephenson’s blonde not-really-a-bimbo probably have me a “funny” feeling in my let’s-say-tummy slightly different to Annette O’Toole’s adorable sweetness as Lana. Very fickle! Still, I noticed Margot/Lois wasn’t there. It didn’t occur to my younger incarnation that the ending of Superman II bollixed up the Clark/Lois relationship meaning it couldn’t develop. And I knew nothing of the Salkinds shenanigans or Margot’s righteous but ruinous outspokenness.

    Like

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