Superman III 4.15: The Man Who Loved Mayonnaise

So let us speak of Lana Lang — once the Queen of the Prom, and now the leading lady in a movie that technically doesn’t need one.

She’s not Lois, we’ve covered that, and she’s not even really Lana, in the original sense of the word. This is a brand new Superman III original, constructed entirely out of the idea that somewhere in the world there must be a girl who likes Clark Kent.

And they’ve decided that she should be funny, which makes all the difference.

I talked quite a bit about screwball comedy during the first Superman movie, and this isn’t really that. But it’s screwball-inflected, and that’s a helpful place to start.

Quick recap: screwball comedy is a variation of the romantic comedy genre that was very popular from around 1934 to 1944. It used romantic farce plots with disguises and mistaken identities and borderline scandalous behavior, and the movies were populated by fast-talking women who dominate the conversation and leave their leading man struggling to catch up. Bringing Up Baby, My Man Godfrey, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story. That kind of thing.

Lana, as performed by the lovely Annette O’Toole, isn’t really a fast-talking screwball heroine, but there are echoes of screwball in her first couple of scenes, as she runs roughshod over her conversations with Clark.

In her first scene, she’s in charge of the high school reunion, bustling around with several different things in her hands.

Clark:  Here, let me help you with that —

Lana:  No, I can manage —

(She hands him a bowl, and immediately turns and walks through the dancing crowd to the DJ, still continuing their conversation.)

Lana:  This is the first time — excuse me — you’ve come back to this little burg since your mom passed away, isn’t it?

Clark:  (bumping into dancers) Yeah, it’s — I’m sorry… um…

(Lana hands the DJ a stack of paper plates, instead of the records that she’s holding in her other hand. The DJ is confused.)

Clark:  (following her) So, I heard that you and Donald split up!

(She’s already on her way back through the crowd, to the buffet table.)

Lana:  Did you eat yet? 

Clark:  Uh, no. (to the dancers) Beg pardon. Excuse me. Sorry. 

(Lana gets to the buffet table, takes a ladleful of potato salad, and then realizes that she’s still got the records in her hand.)

Lana:  That’s not right. 

Clark:  No?

Lana:  Yeah, you’re right about Donald and me, but — hold this a sec, okay?

(She hands him the ladle of potato salad.)
Clark:  Oh, sure. 

(She heads back to the DJ, to exchange the records for the paper plates. Clark is left alone at the buffet table, clumsily holding the ladle.)

Lana’s not dominating Clark with a lot of fast chatter, as a screwball heroine would, but the effect is basically the same — the leading man awkwardly following her around the room, bumping into people as she sails through the crowd. But what we lose in screwball chatter, we gain in sweetness, and that’s not a bad trade.

If you want the audience to like a new character, there are three things you need them to do: make a joke, make a friend, and make something happen. Making a joke lets the audience know that the character understands that their job is to entertain us; making a friend with an existing character establishes that the new character belongs in the narrative; and making a plot point is just good manners.

The plot point is questionable, and we’ll deal with that later, but Lana immediately nails both the joke and the friend as soon as she appears. Clark is thrilled to see her, so she must be important, and her entrance is a charming little dance around the room that plays nicely with Clark’s eternal straight-man persona.

The overlapping conversation is the key to Lana’s character, as David and Leslie Newman describe it in the script:

A NOTE ON LANA LANG: Lana is one of these people, who, both by nature and by exigencies of her situation, seems to be carrying on three conversations at once and often doing two or three different tasks at once.

Although such people seem perfectly clear in their own minds about the direction their thoughts are going in, it’s often confusing and disconcerting to others. As Lana is often keeping three conversation balls in the air simultaneously, Clark is hard put to keep up with her, getting lost in the conversation, thinking she means one thing, when in fact she’s gone on to another subject.

The effect is comical for us, a bit unsettling for him, and should finally be genuinely charming and adorable in his eyes.

That habit of running several simultaneous conversation threads really is adorable, in the two and a half scenes that they allow her to do it. I don’t know if it’s realistic to say that Lana is “one of those people” who do that, because I’m not sure people like that exist outside of movies, but for a comic heroine, it’s a good gimmick.

Her second scene, cleaning up after the party with Clark, gives us more of this behavior.

Lana:  Thanks for helping me out!

Clark:  (standing on a ladder and pulling at streamers)  Are you kidding, Lana? A lot of guys would like to be where I am. 

Lana:  Oh, you’d be surprised how many offers I didn’t get. Even Brad wouldn’t stick around for this! It really isn’t easy.

Clark:  The streamers? Yeah, you just pull — and they —

Lana:  No, not the streamers. Everything. (She’s picking up trash.) Not that I’m complaining, it’s just that — I don’t know why, I just feel like I can talk to you. 

Clark:  (still up on the ladder) What?

Lana:  I feel like I can talk to you!

(Clark snaps a streamer in half.)

Clark:  You can?

Lana:  (giggles) Yes.

(Clark comes down from the ladder, to join Lana.)

Clark:  You know something, Lana?

Lana:  What?

Clark:  I, uh — I always wished that you would. I mean, even back in high school? Remember? When you were

Clark and Lana:  Queen of the prom? 

(They look at the blown-up photograph of Lana and her ex-husband, in their glory days.)

Lana:  Yeah. And then three years after the royal wedding, the king abdicated. Isn’t that terrible.

Clark:  Yeah, it sure is.

Lana:  There must be a gallon of potato salad left over! (She walks over to the buffet table.) You know what the problem is?

Clark:  Umm, I don’t know. Too much mayonnaise?

Lana:  Mayonnaise? Donald loved mayonnaise! Why would you think that was the problem? No, the problem is, why do I stay in Smallville?

So that, in my opinion, is the first legitimately funny joke in the film, which means that I have zero critiques about Annette O’Toole’s character or performance. She’s really funny when they give her a chance, which is unfortunately not that often.

You know what the problem is? The problem is, they have three different movies in this movie, and they can’t decide which one they want to make. There’s a sweet romantic comedy between Clark and Lana about leaving Smallville for Metropolis, a superhero movie about Superman turning kind of evil, and mostly a Richard Pryor comedy about three villains taking advantage of a naive computer genius.

Unfortunately, the romantic comedy falls apart, because the heroine doesn’t have anything to do with the main plot, and they can’t figure out whether it’s okay for Superman to have a girlfriend or not. But we’ve got this moment, anyway, and it’s worth treasuring. We’ll always have mayonnaise.

March of the Villains begins
4.16: The Man from The Man from UNCLE


— Danny Horn

6 thoughts on “Superman III 4.15: The Man Who Loved Mayonnaise

  1. I’d call this a suspended high school romance story. It overlaps with the screwball comedy because HS girls are preternaturally mature (compared to boys) yet still children. Lana is an adult, and yet her life has fallen apart, coincidentally when an old flame reappears. They have this last chance to rekindle whatever they might have had. Sometimes time travel is involved.

    A movie with three stories can work if it turns out they’re all the same story. But this isn’t that movie.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Lifetime and Hallmark networks have perfected this version, and I don’t mean that sarcastically. The Lana/Clark scenes could be lifted out and pasted whole into almost any of those channels’ movies and work perfectly.

      Suspended chances and just-remembered love interests are a potent ingredient for scripts, and I’m not surprised that the writers of III wanted it in there, for something to attract us when Pryor and Company aren’t gallivanting around and Superman’s not getting drunk in a bar. The original idea was probably to have Lana be some kind of beacon to remind Superman/Clark of his true destiny and so on. The problem, of course, is that the three threads barely intersect, let alone interweave.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The scene of Lana cruising through the dance while Clark bumbles behind her is surely meant to call back the scene from the first film where Lois breezes through the news room doing a dozen different things while Clark bumbles behind her.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Lana/Clark has the same problem as Lois/Clark had – – eventually she would discover that he has super powers, and he’d have to dump her & give her a factory reset kiss. Even though Lana is sweet and charming, the story’s the same as before. She definitely needs to leave Smallville if she wants better dating prospects.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Lana’s other problem, to the naïve viewer, especially one without comic backstory, is that she seems like a watered-down Lois. But on her own, she’s fun.

    I had a Superman III poster in my room growing up, and loved the Superboy/Lana Lang show in the 1990s (syndicated), but had no idea she was a character in this movie.

    Liked by 1 person

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