Superman III 4.5: Not Waving But Drowning

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.

The clearest sign of utter disarray is the ski-masked bank robber making a getaway while holding a bag marked METROPOLIS CITY BANK, which is adorable, although the building clearly says Century Savings Bank so I don’t know why they bothered. Nobody reads bags anyway.

The bank robber makes for the great open spaces, using a passing credit for Robert Vaughn as cover, as police fire wildly into the lunch hour crowd.

Miraculously, nobody is hurt, including the bank robber, who scurries around the corner, pursued by a bear. But the stray bullets cause a minor traffic incident, which results in one of those roadside drownings you hear about.

This is a clever answer to the question of how they get Clark Kent to change into Superman and do something interesting and heroic at the top of the picture. They want something that Superman can do out on the street in the middle of a crowd, and the idea of somebody driving over a broken hydrant and filling up the car with water is a rather ingenious little trick.

It’s silly, of course, and I don’t believe in it, because it feels like the kind of thing you could fix yourself by opening the car door. Still, I can see how they got here.

They undercut the scene a bit by sticking another gag in the middle of the rescue, with Superman changing in a photo booth, which takes four pictures of the transformation from Clark to Superman. An inquisitive little kid tries to grab the film, but Superman — scanning the column of pictures — rips off the Clark photos and hands the kid the final photo of him in Superman costume.

This is legitimately funny and a nice character moment, but we’ve already seen two shots of the driver clearly drowning, and this takes twenty-three seconds and distracts the audience from the dramatically urgent situation still in progress.

But here he is, our majestic airborne angel, flying boldly across the road to get to the other side.

So the question is: does this work as the opening of a Superman film?

It’s got the basic elements: Clark sees a dramatic situation, changes into Superman, flies into action and rescues a helpless citizen. Unfortunately, this may be the shortest and cheapest rescue that he could possibly make.

I mean, the opening stunt in the last movie involved Clark flying four thousand miles to save Lois from being blown up by a nuclear bomb while falling down the Eiffel Tower, which had its own problems as a sequence, but was undeniably spectacular. This time, they’re hooking Chris Reeve to a flying rig and lifting him across the street, using some uncalled-for visual blurring at the top of the screen to disguise the obvious wires.

And then there’s a little crowd of spectators, just standing there watching the stunt and politely clapping when it’s over. These citizens are looking at a caped wonder, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and I hate to say it, but they look a little bored. They’re glad that the man in the car was saved, but this isn’t the awe-struck crowd watching a miracle unfold in the skies above them, like in the first movie. We don’t even get any individual reaction shots from the crowd. It’s just one medium shot of Superman lifting the guy out of the car, and that’s the entire sequence.

Honestly, the main problem is that it doesn’t look expensive enough. This is a June 1983 audience watching this film, and Return of the Jedi came out three weeks ago. We’ve seen E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Superman II, for that matter, and we’ve got expectations around what a thrilling opening sequence is supposed to look like. This looks cheap and small, and it sets the tone for how we receive the rest of the movie.

And if it seems like Christopher Reeve is kind of going through the motions, then maybe he is. He just came off shooting a film called Monsignor, which he considered an important film that would establish him as a serious dramatic actor. Reeve didn’t sign for Superman III until he read the script, and he decided to do it on the strength of the “Dark Superman” parts, which would give him the opportunity to do something new with the character.

“I’ve played the part three times now,” he told a reporter, “and it’s become easy for me, although it was very hard to do when I began.”

This sequence is the kind of thing that’s old hat for Chris Reeve, and for us too; that miraculous burst of excitement that we got from the first two movies seems unlikely this time. He doesn’t even catch the bank robbers, who must be halfway to Bearspaw by now.

This weekend:
A weekend popcorn post about Black Adam!
Black Adam 98.1: We’re the Justice Society


I’ve got a lot of nerdy little facts about this sequence, and if you like that kind of thing, then here they are:

The kid outside the photo booth is Aaron Smolinski, who played Clark as a toddler in Superman: The Movie. He also had a little cameo as a Communications Officer in 2013’s Man of Steel.

The “Man in Cap” who features a lot in the sequence and ends up with pie on his face is played by Gordon Rollings, who was the fisherman in Superman II who saw the villains make landfall at the lake.

They use the same shot of the driver in the car filling up with water from two different angles. The first shot of the driver shows him looking around and finally screaming for help, and it’s followed immediately by the second shot, which is the same reaction from the side.

The stunt man playing the driver is Roy Alon. He was equipped with a breathing apparatus if he needed it, but he managed to do all the takes while holding his breath.

The car is a 1975 Plymouth Valiant, which I’m only mentioning because I love the fact that the Internet Movie Cars Database exists.

And, because I enjoy this kind of thing, here’s all the other actors in the scene that I can identify:

Penguin Man: Harry Woolf
Roller Skater: Tracey Eddon
People in phone booths, from left to right: Wendy Leech, Clive Curtis, Billy Horrigan
Blind Man: Graham Stark
Bank Robber: Peter Wear
Guy who breaks the door handle trying to rescue the driver: Paul Weston
Dignified Gent: Bob Todd
Mime: Justin Case
Applauding Man: Stan Edmonds
Delivery Man: Terry Camilleri

I’d expect the hot dog vendor to be credited, but he isn’t. And that’s about it for nerdy facts today.

This weekend:
A weekend popcorn post about Black Adam!
Black Adam 98.1: We’re the Justice Society


— Danny Horn

19 thoughts on “Superman III 4.5: Not Waving But Drowning

  1. I forget, have we talked about Somewhere In Time and Deathtrap? Maybe it’ll inspire a post around The Quest for Peace: Reeve’s professional life outside of Superman.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Yes! “Cheap and small.” Pretty much every problem I have with this movie is demonstrated in the title sequence–the lame attempts at comedy, the mundaneness of the action and the boring design. Reeve is still appealing but he doesn’t feel like the center of attention anymore.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! Everything about the design is utilitarian–there to do a job, young man, not to act as entertainment. Except, of course, that this is supposed to BE entertainment.


  3. I tend to feel a little sorry for all of the sci-fi and superhero films that were released immediately following all the Spielberg and Lucas movies; the industry had been changed forever by ILM, and the old style special effects just weren’t going to cut it anymore. I sometimes miss the lower budget special effects of the sixties and early seventies, where even as kids we understood that miniatures and background matte paintings were being used, and it was always a challenge to try and spot the wires and phony-looking models.

    Thanks for the Nerdy Little Facts; love those. I often wonder about those actors who played small or non-speaking parts, and whatever became of them. Was this their first job in a successful acting career? Or was this their once-in-a-lifetime experience that they still tell their grandchildren about? (“Yep, that was me, Applauding Man in the first scene. Took all day to film that shot. Christopher Reeve was the nicest guy.”)

    And thanks for “pursued by a bear.” Such a classic direction that’s really not referenced enough in modern times. The younger generation needs to learn these things.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I thought there was an actual bear (and why not?). The allusion to “Winter’s Tale” didn’t really register until your comment. Thanks to both of you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like to picture Will struggling with a deadline, everybody yelling at him that they need the sides, just finish the damn scene, and he’s got to get this effin’ peasant offstage–the hell with it! A BEAR can chase him off, for all he cares!


  4. A 1970’s Plymouth? Having them stall out and then refuse to re-start was a regular feature. I often ended up flooding the engine trying to get one going again, but never this literally.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Bob Todd, who was known to me and all my friends when I was a kid as The Other Old Guy from The Benny Hill Show. Jackie Wright was of course The Old Guy from The Benny Hill Show, and Henry McGee was The Kind of Old Guy from The Benny Hill Show. Too bad Richard Pryor wasted his time on this movie when he could have been a guest star on The Benny Hill Show instead.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. This is a problem with sequels once you’ve broken new ground. Others copy you, so by the time the third movie comes out–even though you’re logically proceeding from the earlier installments–it looks like you’re phoning it in.

    Or everyone’s just gotten greedy and worn out, so you really are phoning it in.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s all summed up in that shot of the bank and the robber: somebody cared enough to make the bag full of money say Metropolis, but only that person.

    It’s all half assed and patched together and clearly bargain basement–like trying to film The Great Gatsby in a graduate student’s studio apartment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Or got the new bags but hasn’t changed the sign on the building yet…
      Well, at least it’s not just a bag with a big ‘$’ on it, anyhow.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This whole scene of rescuing the guy in the car seemed pointless. All Clark would have to do is lower his glasses a little and send out a burst of heat vision to poke a hole in the windshield to drain out the water. And maybe another to fuse the hydrant closed. That would have prevented the whole need to switch to Superman for an underwhelming sequence, not to mention the 23 seconds of messing around with the kid while someone was drowning.

    A friend of mine who reads the blog but doesn’t comment publicly suggested that the “comedy” sequence was meant for kids, who were still an important part of superhero film audiences at this point. He compared it to Looney Tunes. I countered by noting that Looney Tunes was a) funny and b) funny for both kids and adults. The March of the Penguins scene was neither. (Hi, E!)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Terry Camilleri is always Napoleon from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in my heart.

    This is a sequence I definitely enjoy more than you do. Superman’s been hanging around Metropolis for five years now, presumably. I genuinely like that “Seeing Superman save people” is just routine now. And the photo booth gag is truly wonderful. I like that Superman can take time for dumb stuff before he saves people. If Superman can’t, who could?


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