Superman III 4.10: Oh, It’s You

The situation could hardly be worse. An enormous chemical plant out in the middle of somewhere has burst into flames in all directions, with fire and smoke pouring out of every window it can find. Firefighters are crawling all over the scene, spraying their hoses at everything that looks hot, and the fire just keeps on burning anyway; I’m not sure it’s even noticed.

There are workers trapped on the roof, scurrying haplessly from one bad outcome to another, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do. “Get me the number three ladder truck in here!” the fire chief hollers, and one of his men counters, “It won’t reach!” I don’t know why they didn’t bring the truck with the tall ladders on this trip; this town needs taller ladders or shorter factories.

And then an omnipotent space angel materializes behind the fire chief, wearing a circus acrobat suit. “Chief, how can I help?” it booms, raw power sizzling from every pore.

“Get this man a helmet!” the chief shouts, and then turns and recognizes what’s next to him. “Oh, it’s you,” he says.

So I don’t know, call me crazy, but I like it when people treat Superman like he’s something special. This is for all intents and purposes the Outstretched Hand of an Ever-Loving God, appearing beside the fire chief at his moment of greatest need to perform supernatural miracles in order to accomplish what is technically the chief’s actual job. I would think he’d muster up a little more enthusiasm. The chief even takes a step forward and starts shouting orders at his men again, like he’s already forgotten Superman stopped by.

This is a real change from the way that Superman was treated in the first movie, when he was brand new and everyone was just getting used to him. The citizens of 1978 Metropolis knew how to appreciate a mythological event; every time he appeared in public, you’d get a bunch of reaction shots from amazed onlookers, clearly incorporating new information into their worldview in real time. People would point, and gather in little bunches to murmur and gossip with each other, and generally indicate to the audience that this was a turning point in the history of humankind.

And now it seems like Superman’s actually a bit of a nuisance, as far as the white-coat in the acid room is concerned. This character’s name is Dr. McClean, which amuses me but I don’t know why, and he is unbelievably casual about the sudden appearance of a superpowered celebrity in his office.

Superman:  Sir? You’d better get out of here now; I’ll show you the quickest way.

McClean:  Go and look after the others. I can’t leave here.

Superman:  Why not?

McClean:  I’ve got to stay and look after those. (gestures at the acid) That’s concentrated beltric acid. If that stuff heats up over 180 degrees, we’ve got a crisis on our hands that’ll make this fire look like a Sunday school picnic.

But the fire is the crisis, it’s the same crisis, and you’re standing right in the middle of it. What could he possibly mean? How would it help, for him to stay in the room and choke on smoke? Is he friends with the acid, and it’s less likely to blow up if he’s in the room?

And who the hell talks to Superman like that, especially when you’re in the middle of terrible danger that he has been specifically summoned at short notice from the pearly gates of Heaven to rescue you from?

The correct protocol in these instances is as follows: Oh, Superman, thank god you’re here, I’ve got some high-maintenance diva acid in the other room, and it’s being a real drama queen about the temperature. You’ve got to help us, you’re our only hope, and so on. You know the kind of thing.

“Go and look after the others,” indeed. I never heard of such a thing. I don’t usually get upset like this over fictional bad manners, but this is a level of disrespect that I don’t think Superman should have to deal with in his very first action sequence in the movie.

Now, I do understand, from a strictly in-universe point of view, that people might start to take Superman’s presence for granted. It’s been five years since he was first revealed to the world, and since then, he’s presumably been saving stuff pretty much non-stop. People can get used to a lot of things, and there’s probably a daily column in the newspaper that just lists all of the crimes and disasters that Superman took care of on the previous day. It’s probably the most boring column in the paper by this point, published on page 6 and mostly ignored.

In fact, it’s possible that this chemical factory has such piss-poor fire safety planning because if anything goes wrong, they know that Superman will show up; he’s probably incentivizing management cutting corners on costly safety programs because he’s willing to show up for free and save the day.

But from the audience’s point of view, we haven’t seen Superman in a couple of years, and it’s a little deflating to return to Metropolis and find people treating our hero like a maintenance man.

And it really doesn’t help that there are three shots early in the sequence where you can clearly see the wires lowering Christopher Reeve to the ground. This simply didn’t happen in the earlier films, because Richard Donner was utterly obsessed with nailing the illusion of unaided flight. He made the flight effects team redo shot after shot for months, until he got a result that looked effortless. That approach got Donner fired, so I understand why Richard Lester isn’t pushing his luck, but when your movie’s release date is three weeks after Return of the Jedi, it’s a bad idea to make your effects visibly worse than your last movie.

The problem with all of these landing shots is that the camera is set well back, to get the entire landing in one take. We see the location, with the chief shouting orders and the firefighters busily unrolling the hose, and in the background, Superman emerges from the top of the frame and slowly touches down. Even if you couldn’t see the wires, the shot looks exactly like what it is: a man being carefully lowered to the ground. It’s awful.

For the actual flying scenes, Lester decided to drop the “Zoptics” flight system, the clever dual-camera system that allowed Donner to shoot Superman soaring across the screen against a moving background. In this sequence, there are three shots of Superman zooming away to find a water supply, and they are extremely basic.

First, we see a little Superman moving across a stationary long shot of the surrounding area…

Then there’s a straight-ahead shot of him moving through the air, cape flapping, against a front projection of the countryside zooming by…

And finally another shot of Superman flying across a static shot of a lake.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with these shots, except how boring they are compared to the previous films. They get the plot point across to the audience, but without any real inspiration or beauty. This is Superman as the Salkinds always wanted him: just good enough that he wouldn’t be laughed out of the theater.

So what we’ve got here is a diminished mythological hero, like Samson halfway through a haircut. He can put out the fire and get those acid jars to quiet down and go back to sleep, but this is just another day at the office for him. Nobody is particularly impressed, and to be honest, it’s a relief to get it over with, and move on to the next part of the movie.

Tomorrow:
4.11: Meanwhile, in 1983


Footnotes:

The state policeman gets one of the least funny jokes in the movie: “I mean, that fire, it’s spreading like wild… fire.” This is immediately followed by an unforgivably clunky bit of exposition: “That’s not just a building, that’s a chemical plant! You know what I mean? It’s like, uh… like chemicals!” He’s played by Shane Rimmer, one of those twinkly old character actors who get the job done, no matter how clunky the dialogue is.

Rimmer appeared in the first Superman movie as a Naval Transport Commander, and in Superman II as one of the NASA controllers who lost track of the astronauts on the moon. He also appeared in a lot of other stuff that you might have liked, including Doctor Who (in the unbeloved 1966 story “The Gunfighters”), Star Wars (as an engineer when the characters are preparing to attack the Death Star), Thunderbirds (as the voice of Scott Tracy and other characters), Dr. Strangelove (as Captain “Ace” Owens), Batman Begins (as a Water Board Technician) and the 2012 Dark Shadows reboot (as a board member of Angelique’s company). Plus a couple hundred other credits in a career that spanned more than fifty years. Dude kept busy.

Al Matthews played the Fire Chief; he was the only firefighter in the sequence who wasn’t played by an actual firefighter. He was also the narrator for the TV special The Making of Superman III.

Dr. McClean was played by Barry Dennen, another busy character actor and voice artist. He was in Monster Squad and Wonder Woman and Kentucky Fried Movie and DuckTales and Murphy Brown and The Smurfs. He voiced the Chamberlain Skeksis in The Dark Crystal and Ramsis Dendup on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and from 2000 to 2016 he was in a whole bunch of video games.

A couple of bloopers, if you like that sort of thing: When Superman lands with Jimmy in his arms, the shadow of his flying rig can be seen on the fire truck behind them. When Superman leaves Jimmy on the stretcher and walks away, there’s a boom mic shadow on the ground.

In the script, this sequence was a forest fire, which put a nuclear reactor in danger. They scouted a location in a forest north of Edmonton, but decided it was too much trouble: it would be difficult to get the cast and crew up to the remote location, and they weren’t sure they would be able to control the fire. They shifted the sequence to a factory instead, and used an oil refinery outside of Calgary as the location.

Unfortunately, the shift of scene from a nuclear reactor to a chemical plant kind of ruins the ending of the film, in a way that I will tell you all about when we get there.

Monday:
4.11: Meanwhile, in 1983

Chapters

— Danny Horn

11 thoughts on “Superman III 4.10: Oh, It’s You

  1. Barry Dennen was also Pontius Pilate on the original concept album of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and in the later Norman Jewison film adaptation. By the early eighties, like in SHOCK TREATMENT and this film, he was practically unrecognizable.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I always thought this was an exciting sequence. From Superman using the back of the cop car to change, to the chemicals bubbling over (foreshadowing his fight later in the film), to Jimmy being a dummy but at least inserting himself into the action. And of course, freezing a lake to make it rain is still one of Superman’s most godly feats in these movies.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Freezing lake to make it rain is one of the things I was thinking of when I said this movie feels like a Silver Age comic. That’s *such* a Superman thing to do – just stroll in, consult with the local authorities, and do something crazy with his superpowers. He never does that kind of stuff in the movies, and makes me so happy that he does it here.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I really appreciated them bringing this back in Superman & Lois, even going all the way to it being set in a nuclear reactor rather than a chemical factory.

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  3. Funny you should mention the press coverage of Superman. I’ve always wondered if in addition to Lois, the Daily Planet and other papers had dedicated Superman reporters, OTOH, it could be a task for the stringers akin to repurposing press releases or typing up the police blotter. (Now I’M beind disrespectful, I suppose.)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Superman III proves, among other things, that human beings really can get used to ANYTHING.

    Look at Exodus, in the Old Testament. That story is so stuffed with miraculous happenings, from frogs to rivers of darkness to parting the waters of an actual ocean, an entire SEA OF WATER FULL OF FISH AND STUFF, that you would think absolutely nothing more could possibly be required of the Almighty in terms of belief and worship. Manna from heaven, water from a rock, you name it, it happened.

    But even manna every day for years on end is kinda–a lot, no matter how inexplicable its appearance, and this desert is hot, and pretty soon half your campers are making golden calf statues while you’re off climbing an entire mountain to pick up those commandments and it just never ENDS, y’know?

    Poor Superman. He’s, in the end, just one guy. People will be quick to blame him if he misses one school bus or falling building, but just expect him to show up the rest of the time. I guess all jobs are just work in the end.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. My husband and I marathoned the Reeves Superman movies, watching each (& Supergirl) over two evenings for a bit over a week last fall.

    The flying effects IMMEDIATELY stand out as being cheap in this movie & Supergirl – and yet somehow, even worse in Superman IV.

    Even my husband noticed, and when we went back to SI (watching a different cut of the film), he was amazed at how much better they looked, even pretty good for today’s standards.

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    1. It’s been said that each Superman (and Supergirl) movie is about twice as bad (or half as good as the previous one).

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