Superman III 4.4: March of the Penguins

“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.

Because this is just bullshit. It pains me to say it, because I don’t want to sound like one of those Snyderbros who think that superhero movies need to be dark and serious all the time, but this is just the worst.

This bloated, unfunny comedy sequence is supposed to be like a Rube Goldberg machine, I guess, except this isn’t what Rube Goldberg machines are like. It’s a sporadic chain of consequences linking one dumb gag to another, set in a hellish Canadian Metropolis populated entirely by schlemiels.

If I had to say who I hate most in this sequence — and I don’t know what else there is to talk about — then it’s the blind guy, who keeps popping up through the whole sequence performing the most credulity-stretching gags.

It starts with his seeing-eye dog breaking free and chasing a random little dog down the sidewalk, which is a thing that seeing-eye dogs don’t do, so the guy gropes forward unsteadily out into the street, which is a thing that blind people don’t do, because if they did there would be a lot fewer blind people around. He grabs onto the controls of a street-painting machine, and decides that must be his dog, despite all of the obvious reasons why he wouldn’t think that, and then he stumbles around in circles behind it for a really long time, despite the fact that the guy who operates the machine is two feet away and only distracted for a moment.

But he keeps pushing the thing until it gets away from him somehow, and then he keeps stumbling around, and he maneuvers over a big hole in the road by stepping on a guy’s head, and then he bumps into a tree and lifts his hat to say “Excuse me” like we haven’t just spent the last three decades watching Mr. Magoo drive that specific joke into the ground.

And then there’s a bank robbery and some very limited Superman action, and when that’s over, we get a second helping of headlines from Chełm, starting with a guy getting a paint bucket stuck on his head who doesn’t even consider lifting it off his head, and then there’s a thing with a mime, and then there’s the fucking blind guy again, pushing his way through an oil painting like that’s a mistake that a human being could possibly make. It is grim.

The one bright spot in the sequence is Christopher Reeve, who’s had some practice being the bright spot in Richard Lester comedy sequences.

He’s got a cute moment where Clark sees one of the marching penguin toys that’s managed to get across the street with its hair on fire, so he picks it up, glances around to make sure that no one’s looking, and blows out the fire with his super-breath. Then he returns the penguin to the road, and sets it back on its way, like it’s got somewhere important to be. And then he gives it a subtle little wave goodbye as he’s turning away, because he’s awfully good at being Clark Kent by this point.

The reason why that works — and I know that I’m explaining jokes right now, which I shouldn’t do — is that Clark is an actual character, and he’s acting in a way that’s silly but consistent, as an expression of who he is as a person. You believe in Clark here, in a way that’s impossible to believe in the blind guy, or the dude with a bucket on his head.

 

The problem with this sequence is that it’s only sporadically backed up by characters or consequences that we care about. The pretty girl who inspires the whole chain turns out to be one of the main characters, but we don’t know that yet, and the camera doesn’t linger on her in a way that would indicate that she’s anything but the stock pretty girl who distracts men when she walks down the street.

And it could have worked. I can imagine this being very funny, if there was some sort of plot point or throughline for the sequence. Maybe Clark is holding an important piece of paper that blows away in the wind, and his attempt to get hold of it is obstructed by this sidewalk full of lunatics. Maybe Lois is on the other side of the street, and the chaos obscures her view every time Clark has to do something superheroic.

I am 100% on the side of comedy in superhero movies, but the comedy needs to serve the story and the characters. This sequence keeps pulling away from Clark, and trying to interest us in random civilians having an awkward experience.

And to the extent that Clark is involved, he makes odd choices about who he considers worthy of help. If this is a representative example of the entirely accident-prone and profoundly vulnerable population of Metropolis, then Superman probably shouldn’t let these people dig holes, or cross the street by themselves.

But instead of being concerned by the obvious disasters taking place on every square foot of the surrounding area, Clark doesn’t even notice that he’s smacked a pie in a guy’s face, in order to spare the pretty girl that he’s ogling.

I know this is a comedy sequence and we’re not supposed to care about the guy on the receiving end of the pie, but I think that’s a problem. The opening of a movie sets the tone for how we’re meant to receive this story, and if we’re not supposed to care about the citizens of Metropolis — if even Superman doesn’t care about the citizens of Metropolis — then it threatens to deflate the whole movie.

So screw Richard Lester, basically, for being bad at the thing that people think he’s good at. He didn’t even want to direct this movie, but he had a history with the franchise and he was still speaking to the Salkinds, so here he is. In that Lester biography, there’s a story about him saying no to the very generous salary offer, and then his wife throws a sponge at him and tells him to stop being an idiot and take the money.

That was pretty much his only chance to get a decent job at this point anyway, because he directed two films between his work on Superman and Superman II, and they were a prequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was a huge flop, and a movie starring Sean Connery about the Cuban revolution of 1958, which was a medium flop.

Before he signed the contract for Superman III, Lester made Warners pinky-swear that afterwards he would get to make another stupid comedy called Finders Keepers, and that was another huge flop, and that was pretty much it for Richard Lester, except for another Musketeers movie that nobody wanted to see. So that’s how I feel about him.

Tomorrow:
4.5: Not Waving But Drowning

Chapters

— Danny Horn

21 thoughts on “Superman III 4.4: March of the Penguins

  1. I hit fast-forward on the remote while thinking Please make it stop!
    I don’t know if he was being self-indulgent or if he honestly thought it would put the audience in a good mood. Or maybe he thought the rest of the movie would seem better in comparison. It did to me but only because it was an extremely low bar.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Mmm, now that gives me an idea. What if Lester had replaced Pryor with a British comedian, run the film at 3X normal speed, and played an annoying but infectious tune on the soundtrack?

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    2. Comedy is one of the oldest human art forms and it astounds me how many ways there are to get it wrong and how many so-called professionals who can’t grasp it.

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  2. 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.

    Oddly enough, I remember the movie starting with the contrived comedy, followed by Richard Pryor’s unemployment office scene.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought FINDERS KEEPERS was hilarious. A week after I saw it in the theater, I went back and saw it again. For the rest of the world, it was a “huge flop,” but for me it was one of the most enjoyable movies I’d seen in a long time.

    I still haven’t watched SUPERMAN III a second time, however.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Yeah, it was this sequence that told me that I was going to have a rough time with this movie. Blind people are funny, hyuk hyuk, AND stupid. This reminded me of the “comedy” sequence in II when the Phantom Zone Villains were using their superbreath on Metropolis.

    I guess I should be grateful that my distraction when a hot guy walks by has never set off a chain of events like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There’s really no defending the Rube Goldberg sequence. It was pretty entertaining to read in the novelized version of the movie when I was young, but for an adult it’s too preposterous and it adds nothing to the movie. Lester appears to be a frustrated director who wants to make a zany comedy instead of a superhero film. Isn’t he responsible for the comical aspects of the scene in Superman II when the Kryptonians are blowing at people for three minutes?

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    1. Lester appears to be a frustrated director who wants to make a zany comedy instead of a superhero film. Isn’t he responsible for the comical aspects of the scene in Superman II when the Kryptonians are blowing at people for three minutes?

      Yes, he is! Dany discussed it at some point during the Superman 2 entries.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it strange what dates and what remains fresh? Another channel I watch, Dark Corners, is doing 52 Weeks of Silent Film, and he reviewed an old comedy called The Silent Girl.

      There’s a fantastic moment when the heroine spills a big pan of water–it’s the latest in a continual series of disasters, and she does this perfect little paus, with her eyes shut, right after the water has gushed everywhere. This film is over a hundred years old at this point but every single person watching KNEW and empathized totally with that moment, when it’s the last of last straws and you can’t even move or speak for a split second and either you’re going to take a deep breath and keep going, or you are going to TOTALLY FUCKING LOSE IT.

      It’s the funniest part in the film to me. Because not many people are trying to take a pan of water to a lion that they think is a dog wearing a costume, but everyone on earth has had that specific moment happen to them.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Stephen Robinson’s remark a couple of posts ago that the movie might have worked better with Eddie Murphy instead of Richard Pryor as Gus is relevant here, I think. Richard Lester’s good movies- A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, THE KNACK, THE BED-SITTING ROOM, and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM- all resulted from his collaborations with Roy Kinnear and other performers who were gifted improvisational comedians. Eddie Murphy is one of the all-time greats in that category; a collaboration between him and Richard Lester might have been enormously funny. As for Richard Pryor, while he often sounded spontaneous, in fact he strongly preferred a way of working that made intense use of the written word.

    There is another major incompatibility between the two Richards, and again Eddie Murphy would be a better fit with Lester. Pryor’s method was to start with race or another big social issue and to tighten the focus steadily onto the way that issue effected him as an individual, so that what might begin as a grand abstraction ends with personal intimacy. Lester moved in the opposite direction, taking scenes that start with people facing mundane inconveniences or physical discomforts and building them up into whole worlds where the familiar laws of nature don’t apply. Lester’s flair for the surreal might have made him seem like a logical choice to direct movies about Superman, who was after all a by-product of the Surrealist movement, but it made him a counter-intuitive choice to work with Pryor. Eddie Murphy, though, shares Lester’s tendency to spin outward towards the bizarre, and so again, the two of them might have made a great team.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And when Murphy started out, his stuff was pretty smack–his first special was called Raw, you knew exactly what you were in for–but there was room for that take in the culture, in a way that Pryor pioneered but never got the real fruits of.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with CWalois’s observation that Lester “appears to be a frustrated director who wants to make a zany comedy instead of a superhero film.” He seems to have lost interest after this sequence. The rest of the movie, especially the battle, is unimaginative and dull, when it’s not just ridiculous. Near the end he very obviously lets Pryor improvise and he stays with an unfunny result for too long. Based on his two Superman movies, I would not consider him a good director.
    FORUM had one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, Buster Keaton, and largely wasted him, even though it’s obvious Lester was inspired by him. I’m not sure any comedian would have fared better.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Counterpoint:

    Naw, this sequence is terrible.

    That said, Richard Lester directed three genuinely wonderful movies in my opinion – Robin & Marian, The Bed-Sitting Room, and A Hard Day’s Night.

    Well, that’s two more than Richard Donner, who made one and it was Superman.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Comedy, as a thing in general, needs one thing to succeed–no matter the style, no matter the subject, no matter the time period. It has to be rooted in some form of reality.

    Where it goes from there is all a matter of style, taste, direction, a million things–it’s said there’s nothing more subjective, whereas tragedy tends to be quite universal, since the same horror can occur in anyone’s life, no matter who they are–but to be comedy, it must start with the recognizable, the real.

    It’s possible to make a funny sequence with a blind guy, but only if you use him as a person and not a prop. Once his stumbling around becomes the joke, rather than his reactions to what’s happening, you’ve blown your joke. You care about a person’s getting a paint bucket on his head because he’s on his way to a job interview, or just bought a new hat, or was just fired–it has to be an interruption of a person’s reality, not just a random thing flying by that lands on a person’s head.

    You care about Clark. You can see that Clark cares about that little penguin. The circumstances are absurd, but the actions are rooted in a character. That generates humor.

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  10. Maybe he should have used four adorable mop-headed British blokes stumbling around instead of the blind guy. Not the Beatles because John was dead by then, but an homage to something he did right. Or he could have skipped it entirely. Did anyone think of that?

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  11. Well, Lester directed The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film; A Hard Day’s Night; Help! (Yeppers! It’s silly fun. Don’t @me… Isn’t that what hard-of-thinking joiks on da intanet are supposed to say?!); Petulia; The Bed Sitting Room; The Three & Four Musketeers; Royal Flash; and Robin and Marian *prior* to Superman III’s misjudged opening so, erm, n’yer I guess. I also have to admit that while most of the sequence doesn’t work a few tiny bits raise a smile. The real problem isn’t that it’s unconnected to character (the puns and unwisecracks from the Marvel movies aren’t really from character either. They are Mr Potatohead dialogue you can generally put them in the mouth of any character. And that ain’t wit that’s…dung) but that’s mostly unfunny and it looks CHEAP. (Love those Salkinds!)
    Graham Stark (the blind man) was a friend of sometime comic genius and all-time terrible person/awful loon Peter Sellers. Just one sequence featuring Stark and Sellers from The Pink Panther Strikes Again is funnier than just about anything Superman III, it’s the old joke of a man (Inspector Clouseau) asking another man (Stark) whether his dog bites and the second man answering “No.”, Clouseau reaching for the dog (for one is present) and said pooch attempting to savage the proffered hand. Clouseau, stunned, enquires of the man, in his usual mangled Fronch ac-sont, “I thought yew said your dog does not bite?” To which the decrepit second man answers in his own outrageously bizarre quavering Bavarian (?) accent, “Zat (pause) is not (pause) my dock.” It made *me* laugh at least. I am a man of simple tastes.
    Much of Superman III doesn’t work but what does, *does* (even some really styewpid stuff) and, ah, at least it’s better than anything Snyder has put his name to. Hoo! (Looks out for snipers)

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  12. Wow, that’s really hateful, Danny… the sequence, I mean, not your assessment of it. I thankfully had no recollection of it at all, but then I really don’t recall much of this movie other than Richard Pryor’s parts anyway.

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