Superman III 4.8: The Loss of Lois

She’s only got three minutes, and she lands four solid jokes, which is four more than practically anyone else in the movie. Lois Lane — up until this point, the single most important human being in the world — has been suddenly and mysteriously called away to Bermuda, for a surfside adventure that’s probably way more interesting than anything we’re going to experience in Smallville. She is with us, and then she is gone, like a forgotten promise, and Superman III has to stumble along without her.

Obviously, this is a dreadful mistake. If Warner Bros had asked people in pre-market testing whether they wanted Lois Lane to appear in the next Superman movie, 94% of respondents would have said yes, and the other 6% wouldn’t have understood the question, because it’s such a stupid idea that you’d think they must be asking about something else.

Now, there are two different explanations that have been given for why Lois Lane isn’t a main character in Superman III. The first explanation is that Margot Kidder said something mean about the Salkinds in a magazine article, so they punished her by only bringing her back for a cameo. The other explanation is even stupider.

Admittedly, the offending article is pretty bad. In April 1981, just before Superman II was released in the United Kingdom, Time Out ran “The Truth About Superman“, a three-page expose about the Salkinds, and their bumbling movie-production crime syndicate. The article covered the fights with Richard Donner, the shady financial deals, and that time the Salkind extorted $15 million from Warner Bros.

All of that material was already in the public record, so it wasn’t that shocking for anyone in America who followed Variety or the LA Times. The big scoop was Margot Kidder talking on record, and at length.

“I’ve been told not to talk about it, but I don’t care,” she said, dismissing a very good piece of advice. “They are truly despicable people and it’s time it came out.” And then she spoke her truth.

“They tried to screw me out of $40,000,” she said, and “they were behaving totally illegally.” Richard Donner “made the Salkinds billions,” she continued, “and they turned around and stabbed him in the back. I mean, I have nothing but contempt for them.” These are things that you just shouldn’t say about someone who you’re hoping will give you $1.5 million dollars to appear in a feature film.

Strangely, the thing that really struck a nerve with the producers was this: “It was the only movie I’ve ever worked on where the crew demanded their cash in advance every week, because initially the checks were bouncing.”

“That is absolute bullshit,” producer Pierre Spengler shot back in response, “and you can quote me verbatim. There has never been a single bounced check on any of the productions I or the Salkinds have worked on. That is libellous, defamatory, and I will take whoever says anything to the contrary to court.”

Of course, the matter didn’t end up in court, because the Salkinds were allergic to saying anything under oath; they were more sued against than suing. But you can see how this situation might make things awkward at the next cast party.

So in August 1981 — just two months after Superman II raced to a fantastic $108 million domestic box office take — Kidder told People that she’d been fired from Superman III.

“If I think someone is an amoral asshole, I say so,” she said, having learned nothing. “Now I have a studio quite angry with me, and the Salkinds in a position to claim my car.”

Still, she had other roles to play. She’d recently wrapped Some Kind of Hero, a 1982 comedy-drama, playing a hooker who falls in love with Richard Pryor, of all people. “I love Lois Lane,” she admitted. “I could play her till I die, but I won’t die if I don’t play her.”

So the idea is that the Salkinds sabotaged their own movie because Kidder insulted them, which seems petty, but plausible. But there’s also a lot of evidence that points towards a different and much dumber explanation: They couldn’t think of anything to do with Lois Lane.

Remember Ilya Salkind’s lunatic treatment for the third movie, featuring Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk, a romance with Supergirl and a medieval jousting sequence for the climax? In that treatment, Ilya’s very first sentence cuts Lois right out of the plot:

“The story could start with a pre-title sequence showing Clark learning that Lois Lane has asked to be transferred as a correspondent to one of the foreign offices associated with the Daily Planet (Hong Kong?).”

That is the first order of business, as far as Ilya is concerned: find an excuse to send Lois somewhere very far away. In the movie they landed on Bermuda rather than Hong Kong, but the principle is the same: get her out of town as quickly as possible.

And here’s the thing: that treatment has two dates on it. The first draft was dated November 7, 1980, and the second draft March 27, 1981. That was a couple of weeks before Kidder was quoted so explosively in Time Out. Cutting Lois out of the third movie wasn’t a sudden, impulsive move — Ilya was planning on getting rid of her anyway, because he wanted to feature a romance between Superman and Supergirl.

And the screenwriters, David and Leslie Newman, didn’t want Lois in the movie either. They told Starlog magazine:

“There wasn’t anything with Lois in the movie because we all felt we had taken that love story as far as it could go. The people who were so moved and touched and thrilled by Superman II‘s love story think, ‘Oh no, I wanna see more of that.’ When you actually bring them into the theater, after about two scenes of ‘more’, they die of boredom. Even if they think that’s what they want to see, they don’t, really.”

So that’s just about the dumbest idea that anyone has ever had: cut Lois Lane out of a Superman story, because people aren’t interested in her anymore. It’s a devastating act of self-sabotage. It’s on the level of Brian Henson using Clifford as the host of Muppets Tonight, because he thought people wouldn’t want to see Kermit the Frog hosting a Muppet TV show.

Cutting Lois out of your movie means throwing away your most valuable asset: a fully-realized, beloved character with strong relationships and emotional backstory, whose profession and personality make her one of the great plot-generators of our time.

Lois is ambitious and vulnerable, manipulative and disaster-prone. She inserts herself into dramatic situations — sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

For example: if there’s a greedy industrialist who’s trying to destroy Colombia’s coffee crop and reroute oil tankers, then Lois will get a job as a secretary in his office, and sneak in late at night, so she can get caught looking for incriminating documents. And if there’s a mad genius computer expert who’s hacking into databases all around the world, then Lois is the one who’ll figure out that the cyberattacks are all connected, and track them to their source. That is what Lois does.

In fact, the magnitude of the loss of Lois in Superman III is so great that the movie actually has a greedy industrialist and a mad genius computer expert, and in the entire course of the film, nobody ever figures that out.

The villains in Superman III stage several public criminal incidents — creating a hurricane in South America, handing a chunk of Kryptonite to Superman, stealing a whole bunch of oil tankers — and there is not a single moment when any character says, “It must be Webster!” and tries to do something about it. Superman is so out of touch without Lois that he might have missed the entire climax of the film, if the villains hadn’t left him a recorded message telling him precisely where to go.

Lois Lane is the key to making Superman stories work, and she’s been that way since February 1940. They’ve tried replacing her before, with Lana Lang and Lori Lemaris and Lena Luthor. On Smallville, they gave Superboy three best friends, two of them madly in love with him, and they still had to bring in Lois in season four, when they ran out of ideas. For the last eighty years, people have been writing Superman stories nonstop, and after all this time, it is still the correct and only answer: Lois Lane.

And it’s not like they’ve got any big plans for Lana, romantically or otherwise. For plot construction, the Newmans were using the “wouldn’t it be nice” principle, i.e. “wouldn’t it be nice if Superman saw his old high school sweetheart, Lana Lang?” I mean, they’re right, it is nice; I might even go so far as very nice. But it’s not interesting or exciting, and it doesn’t lead to anything in particular.

The Superman/Lana interaction in this film is so low-energy that they stage a scene with Superman standing in the living room of Lana’s house, and she leaves to get him a cup of decaffeinated coffee. I don’t understand the mentality of someone who’d say that the audience is bored with Lois Lane, and then write this scene down on a piece of paper.

And at the end of the movie, when the Clark/Lana story finally rattles to a vague and disappointing conclusion, there’s another little cameo with Lois. She’s back  from vacation with a front-page story exposing corruption in the Caribbean, and she says, “You know, I knew I was on to something when that taxi driver kidnapped me!” And everyone in the audience wishes that we’d watched that movie, instead. I bet it was terrific.

Next:
A weekend popcorn post on
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever!
99.1: Make the Movie Anyway

Chapters

— Danny Horn

17 thoughts on “Superman III 4.8: The Loss of Lois

  1. I’ll bet the alternate Earth where they decided to make a Lois Lane movie starring Margot Kidder instead of Superman III is the same alternate Earth where the reality TV clown with funny hair decided to just do more seasons of his reality TV show for the rest of his life, and never had any greater ambitions. The best of all possible worlds!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I really like Annette O’Toole as Lana. And I confess to liking a lot of the shy awkwardness between her and Clark. But it would have been more interesting to see her and Lois together, not in a catfight over Clark or Superman but still sparking off one another and coming to a mutual admiration. Each could have brought different information together to get the big picture. And Lois could have been the one to inspire Lana toward journalism and a job at the Daily Planet.

    As we’ve said so many times in this journey so far–what could have been.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The one and only problem with Lana was entirely self-inflicted by the Salkinds–she isn’t allowed to be Lana, but practically has LOIS SUBSITITUTE tattooed on her forehead.

      She does everything Lois would do in the movie, but she isn’t Lois, and she has a history with a young Clark of hidden destiny, not Superman, and she’s got a kid and…basically everything that makes the Superman/Lois pairing spark is systematically removed from the relationship between her and Superman. It’s like those old diet cookbooks from the seventies that tried to convince people that you could make food from the blandest, no-fat no-carb no-taste ingredients around that didn’t taste worse than just dying.

      I mean, the last scene with the two of them has Superman handing her a diamond he creates by squeezing a lump of coal, but it’s not a proposal. It’s an anti-proposal–he’s giving her something valuable to sell and get back on her feet, without him. If there’s any way to undercut a never meant to be romance more than that, I don’t know what it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If memory serves, Lana Lang was pretty much a blank slate at the time, wasn’t she? I guess she was a stand-in for Lois Lane in Superboy comics, but I remember nothing about her as an adult until John Byrne’s “Man of Steel”.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Welcome back, Danny!

    And at the end of the movie, when the Clark/Lana story finally rattles to its uncertain conclusion, there’s another little cameo where Lois returns from Bermuda with a front-page story exposing corruption in the Caribbean, and she says, “You know, I knew I was on to something when that taxi driver kidnapped me!” And everyone in the audience wishes that we’d watched that movie, instead. I bet it was terrific.

    Fer sure! I always confuse what happened to the couple who won a trip to the Caribbean and came back disheveled and upset about everything going wrong in the next movie.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve never seen the movie Trenchcoat, starring Margot Kidder and Robert Hays, but perhaps one can pretend it’s a solo Lois Lane adventure.

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  4. Margot Kidder’s mental issues have gotten a lot of press, and I’m sure a lot of what she said was influenced by her impulse-driven problems in that area, but she was also right. The Salkinds were thieves and con men who basically called a running pickup truck their office and any country that didn’t have extradition agreements with the US/UK home.

    On the surface, okay; we’ve seen the Lois/Superman romance. I get they didn’t want to do a repeat of that story. But that doesn’t mean their entire relationship suddenly no longer exists. The entire point of the Kiss of Forget in the second one was hitting the reset button, only now Lois is operating without a crucial level of information that Superman, out of love for her, cannot provide. That could really bring some pathos and excitement to them teaming up to fight [BAD GUY CURRENTLY THREATENING WORLD] if done correctly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It also seems likely that the Time Out article wasn’t the first instance of bad blood between Kidder and the Salkinds, just the first time it had emerged publically. That could be the reason why the decision to sideline Lois was made so early in S III’s development.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. There are longer-lived franchises built on much less foundation than Superman. Why they couldn’t reboot Supes the way they rebooted Batman is beyond me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In theory, I liked the IDEA of Lana Lang. She was someone who cared about CLARK first, not the Superman persona. I also like Annette O’Toole. The movie did nothing with either the idea or the actress, IIR and in the end it didn’t matter. Superman 2 had established that Superman/Clark could not have a human love interest, so be it Lana or Lois, it was hopeless. It took the show Lois and Clark to finally realize that Lois and Clark and Superman was a winning combination.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. All those years of Superman comic books – – her own comic book series – – and the producers and writers say that they can’t think of anything that Lois Lane can do in this movie. I mean I wasn’t expecting her to be center stage, but just pushing her out the back door after having her figure so prominently in the previous story does seem like poor planning. Come on! Have Lois turn into a giant insect queen and marry Superman! (I know, it’s been done…)

    Liked by 3 people

  8. In fact, the magnitude of the loss of Lois in Superman III is so great that the movie actually has a greedy industrialist and a mad genius computer expert, and in the entire course of the film, nobody ever figures that out.

    The villains in Superman III stage several public criminal incidents — creating a hurricane in South America, handing a chunk of Kryptonite to Superman, stealing a whole bunch of oil tankers — and there is not a single moment when any character says, “It must be Webster!” and tries to do something about it. Superman is so out of touch without Lois that he might have missed the entire climax of the film, if the villains hadn’t left him a recorded message telling him precisely where to go.

    Now that you mention it, it never occurred to me until now that no one ever connected the events together. Good catch!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. It’s been a minute since I watched the extras on the Superman BluRay set, but it seems like the interviews on there (or I read elsewhere) suggested the Salkinds and Lester were unkind to Kidder during the Lester reshoots. They clearly didn’t care about the quality of her wigs, make-up or lighting in those reshoots, and if memory serves, Kidder was pretty noisy to them about replacing Donner. But who knows? Your post here, though, crystallizes some vague feelings I always have watching Superman III and what feels like such a weird structure to the movie. Thinking about those Fleischer cartoons – you can’t imagine them without Lois hopping in a robot or picking up a tommy gun. And she’s still filling that role here and there in the comics when better writers step in.

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  10. Some months ago, my husband and I watched the Superman movies (the blog was still working on the first movie at that time). We got to III and we groaned. At the end, my husband remarked something similar to Danny’s comment here – he’d have rather watched the Lois story, too.

    Like

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