Superman III 4.16: The Man from The Man from UNCLE

The first thing that you notice about Ross Webster, as a Superman villain, is how chill he is. Well, technically, the first thing that you notice is that he’s the guy from the old spy show, and then you notice how chill he is.

And as a predatory corporate raider in 1983, he has reason to be chill. He’s only a couple years into the Reagan administration, an era when concepts like “I want to control all of the oil” were back in vogue as acceptable topics of conversation.

The first thing that happens to Webster in Superman III is that he’s informed that someone has stolen $85,000 from his business, which he takes entirely in stride, expressing admiration for the thief’s ruthlessness and skill. He certainly doesn’t act like someone who had earmarked that $85,000 for something else, like another chunk of stainless steel to clutter up his shitty office.

1983 was a golden era for self-satisfied corporate overlords, because the federal government’s idea of how to boost the US economy was to cut taxes on personal income and capital gains. Ross Webster currently has lots and lots of money, and nobody seems to want to take it away from him; the only dramatic question driving the plot of this movie is how much more he’ll be able to acquire over the next hour and a half.

Webster doesn’t even have any direct competitors, unless you count the world in general. Here’s what he tells Gus about his first big scheme:

Webster:  Under different company names, I control the price of coffee beans in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Jamaica and the Republic of Gabon. But I have a problem — one country won’t play ball with me, and I guess you know how that can bug a guy, right?

Gus:  That could bug, uh… What country?

Webster:  Colombia!

Gus:  Colombia?

Webster:  Yes… Colombia has two important exports, and one of them’s coffee. And I have tried to reason with them — believe me, I’ve tried — but this one miserable pissant little country has the gall to think that it can dictate the economy of an open market!

Webster isn’t fighting with another coffee magnate; he already owns all of the important brands, under different names. The thing that makes him unhappy is that there’s a sovereign nation that refuses to kneel before Zod. There is money in the world that the world feels like keeping, and that is unacceptable to Ross Webster.

He has unquestioned rule over his immediate environment; all he has to do is stand up from his chair, and loud arguments are suddenly silenced. He surrounds himself with obedient supplicants — in fact, until Superman shows up in the last twenty minutes, Webster doesn’t talk to a single person in this movie who doesn’t work directly for him. So he never really has to change the tone of his voice, and he doesn’t bother trying.

It’s a thing called being smooth, and Robert Vaughn was famous for it. From 1964 to 1968, Vaughn played the lead in the spy-fi show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was about an American spy teaming up with a Russian spy to do spy stuff.

Vaughn’s character, Napoleon Solo, was actually named by James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who contributed to the early development of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. If you’re familiar with the way that Bond behaves, then Napoleon Solo is kind of like that, with the violence toned down for an 8pm timeslot. He’s always cool and confident, with a weakness for beautiful women and a generally smug attitude towards the world, which only exists in order to hand him smugness opportunities. That’s essentially what Vaughn is doing here as well, playing entirely to type.

The interesting thing is that the character is a Bond villain — hiding in his lair, and pointing at blinky maps of things that he wants to take over — but they’ve cast him as if the role is James Bond.

There was some backstage disagreement about who to cast, and it was the last role to be filled. The writers, David and Leslie Newman, wrote it for Alan Alda, who was famous for the “sensitive nice guy” persona that he developed as Hawkeye Pierce on the TV show M.A.S.H.

In American Film, David Newman explained:

“We thought, this is a character who when you first meet him, he’s getting the Humanitarian of the Year Award as the nicest guy in the world. He’s like Nelson Rockefeller — underneath Rockefeller’s facade there was this fella who was ready to drop the bomb on everybody. So we thought, wouldn’t Alan Alda be wonderful?”

I don’t know if he would be “wonderful”, and the Newmans’ “wouldn’t it be nice?” thing is grating on my nerves like you wouldn’t believe, but yeah, that would have been more interesting than what we got.

They do mention the Humanitarian of the Year Award in the first Daily Planet scene, and Webster’s intro scene starts with a photograph of him accepting that award, but we don’t actually see that public-facing side of him at all. We only see him in his office or at his private penthouse ski resort, which deprives Vaughn of any opportunity to show depth of characterization. Ross Webster begins as a smooth-talking narcissist psychopath, and continues that way for the entire film.

The obvious comparison is with the Lex Luthor from the first Superman movie, who also had a crazy-looking office, two squabbling henchpeople and a lunatic scheme that requires Superman’s attention.

They’re both stylized big-screen villains, but Webster is technically more realistic than Luthor is. In real life, there couldn’t actually be a zany mastermind hiding from the police under Grand Central Station with a library full of National Geographics and top-secret missile codes, while there were plenty of narcissist multi-millionaires with penthouse New York offices scheming to control the global coffee market.

But I think Luthor’s motives, while ludicrous, were more dramatically satisfying than Webster’s. Luthor had a specific plan because he cared about owning valuable real estate, and he wanted to create new “beachfront” property on the West Coast. It’s a silly superhero-comics idea, but the audience can understand exactly what he wants, and how he’s trying to get it.

In contrast, Webster doesn’t really care about anything in particular, except for a general desire to pile more money on top of the money that he already has. He wants to destroy Colombia’s coffee crop, but when he fails, he moves on to the next scheme. His second plan is to control all of the world’s oil tankers because oil is more valuable than coffee beans, and then he just kind of drifts into wanting a really big computer.

In other words, he’s basically any CEO in 1983, and once Superman’s done with Webster, he ought to go around and check on everybody else who has a top-floor office in Metropolis. Now that I think about it, that’s probably not a bad idea.

Tomorrow:
What is going on with this set?
4.17: The Great Indoors


Footnote:

Mr. Simpson, the worried executive in this scene, was played by Robert Henderson, who had a background part in the first Superman movie as an Editor in the Daily Planet scenes. Henderson had small parts in movies and TV shows dating back to the early 1950s, mostly playing roles like Judge, Attorney, Old Professor and Elderly Man. He was in his late 70s when he filmed this role. After Superman III, he had another couple credits in 1985 as Diner Customer and American Millionaire, and then he died at age 81.

Tomorrow:
What is going on with this set?
4.17: The Great Indoors

Chapters

— Danny Horn

18 thoughts on “Superman III 4.16: The Man from The Man from UNCLE

  1. Just an unrelated side note – I think Robert Vaughn (‘that guy from ‘The Man From UNCLE’”) got his start in a very low budget caveman movie which was riffed by MST3K. From caveman to spy to CEO, he’s come a long way!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was a huge fan of The Man From UNCLE as a kid and my first thought in this scene was that Vaughn seemed like he was still playing Napoleon Solo. That impression changed as the movie progressed. From what I remember, Napoleon was more fun.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I always thought he was miscast as a ladies’ man, though. I mean, I could imagine a lot of women finding William Shatner or Robert Conrad attractive in their 1960s heyday but Vaughn? Not so much.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I don’t know about WOMEN but I had a huge crush on him at age 11. Most of my friends considered David McCallum the cute one. Which he was. But none of them held a candle to Secret Agent/Danger Man Patrick McGoohan!

        Liked by 3 people

    2. Yep, Teenage Caveman! Used the same “monster” costume from Night of the Blood Beast. Corman had an amazing eye for talent and future stardom, no matter how cheap his movies were.

      Liked by 2 people

    3. A similar movie was “Eegah,” which starred Richard Kiel. He went on to play Jaws in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker,” outshining the villains who employed him. And the Six Degrees of Bond runs its course.

      Don’t forget that Vaughn’s first major role was in “The Magnificent Seven.” He was hot stuff in the 60s.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’d consider The Young Philadelphians in 1959 to be more of a “first major role” for Vaughn than The Magnificent Seven a year later. Vaughn was nominated for an Oscar for The Young Philadelphians.

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  2. Wait, so a Man from U.N.C.L.E. got to be both a Superman villain AND Superman?

    Wild.

    Also, have you checked Superman 78? It’s yet another “direct sequel to Superman II” but in comic book form. Also features Brainiac!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I always loved Robert Vaughn. Anyone remember the 1972 ITV series, “The Protectors” where he played opposite Nyree Dawn Porter and Tony Anholt? I think he said he never understood that show and they even let him direct an episode. Another little known fact… Vaughn had a doctorate from USC in Communications. His dissertation was on McCarthy era blacklisting in the film industry. Really interesting guy

    Liked by 4 people

  4. My favorite Robert Vaughn role was the part that led to THE MAN FROM UNCLE. He played the company commander on the 1963-1964 service drama THE LIEUTENANT. He was so interesting and charismatic in that supporting role that some at CBS pushed the executive producer, a guy named Gene Roddenberry, to retitle it “THE CAPTAIN” and make Vaughn’s character the star. I’m glad they didn’t, I like the show the way it is, but Vaughn was terrific.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The eighties trend towards greed was basically the Robber Baron era stripped of all glamour and fascination. The robber barons of the 1890s were wretched and amoral souls, bankrupt in all emotion and compassion, but they lived big–they proposed to actresses by pouring a million dollars cash into their laps, they ran around building libraries for the shivering masses they exploited to improve themselves, they competed in Biggest Pile Of Bricks And Windows competitions when they built “summer cottages” on Long Island. They were interesting!

    In the resurgence, they all ended up like Robert Vaughn’s character; just demanding all the stuff, because. The only thing they feel is rage that there’s stuff they don’t have. They act cool and slick, and can certainly destroy countless lives without a qualm, but they don’t care about anything, really. They’re modern Ebeneezer Scrooges but without the miserly aspects to rein in the worst of their excesses–just a temper tantrum of grabbing this, and this, and this.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Vaughn was also the voice of the villainous Proteus IV in Demon Seed (“Doctor Harris; when are you going to let me out of this BOX?”)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. With the benefit of hindsight, Ross Webster does feel, even more so than Arcane from the Swamp Thing movie, like a precursor to the post-Crisis reboot of Lex Luthor by Marv Wolfman & John Byrne as a sociopathic robber baron masquerading as a benevolent captain of industry. Agreed with Danny that it’s unfortunate we didn’t get at least one scene showing Webster out in public presenting his facade as a kindly, charitable humanitarian. But, yeah, Webster wanting to control the coffee market in Columbia just because it’s there and he can’t have it is very much how Luthor would be written from the late 1980s onward. That’s the initial basis of Luthor’s hatred of Superman: he’s the one person in Metropolis who Luthor can’t control.

    Liked by 1 person

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