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.
A weekend popcorn post on
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever!
99.1: Make the Movie Anyway
— Danny Horn