Superman III 4.25: Revenge of the Cowboys

I knew that they were coming; I just didn’t think it would be this soon.

As you’ll no doubt recall, my introductory post for the blog discussed singing cowboys, an unaccountably popular film genre from the 30s and 40s that spawned dozens of movies per year, and then disappeared completely from the American public consciousness. The fate of the singing cowboys looms large over the history of superhero blockbusters, suggesting that even the most successful genres can be abandoned and forgotten.

The singing cowboys will be back one day, when comic-book stories are tired and played-out, to fight once again for their place in the pantheon. They are the existential threat just over the horizon, ready to pounce when the superheroes stumble.

And even here, the cowboys remind us that the eternal sequel is never assured.

Here’s the scene: Rootless Gus Gorman — once an unloved, unemployed ex-dishwasher standing on line for a handout — has been transformed by a powerful wizard with a penthouse office into the creature standing before you, holding a mystery box, and angling for permission to cross the threshold.

Last time that we saw him, Gus seemed helpless, caught in the whirlwind of comedy coffee king Ross Webster, who got all the funny lines and plot points, and didn’t like sharing. But now, revealed before us, we see Gus the Trickster, who can put on thoroughly unconvincing identities that everyone goes along with anyway.

The trickster is a mythopoetic figure who appears in the folklore of many cultures, including ours. He steals fire from the gods, evades the blasts of the hunter’s shotgun, and hijacks nuclear missiles using a fake traffic accident and a blonde woman’s legs. This figure exists to rewrite the rules, giving the social fabric a tug and opening the world to new ideas.

The trickster is particularly good at weaponizing social convention — double-talking his target into believing his nonsense, because it would be rude not to.

Brad, the easily bamboozled guardian of the gate, expects that he’s going to tell this interloper to get lost at the end of their encounter, just like he would for any stranger showing up so late after office hours. But Gus keeps on talking in a way that’s difficult to resist, and Brad can’t dismiss him until he figures out what he’s talking about, which gives Gus time to weave his spell.

And inside Gus’ magic mystery box, which must have taken up most of the room in his luggage when he arrived in Smallville, there is the exact combination that opens the lock on that door.

As we’ve seen, Brad is specifically vulnerable to the lure of free alchohol, and Gus must have smelled that from a thousand miles away. Who knows what could have been in that box, if a different guard was on duty?

So this is the one time in the movie that somebody tries to understand Brad Wilson, and his needs and concerns.

I’m already on record as being opposed to this movie’s anti-Brad agenda. I’m not talking about the Brad that we see on screen, of course, but the real Brad Wilson that the movie is based on. If this wasn’t a work of anti-Brad propaganda, he would be a friendly and open-minded man with a steady job who makes friends easily and enjoys a drink, as so many of us do.

But the movie insists that taking adult refreshment is a mortal sin on par with disrupting global supply chains and ruining the Olympics, which on the whole it is not. So Brad’s talent for inventing novel cocktails is his weak point, which the trickster can exploit.

This is yet another comic relief moment at the end of a long string of mostly comic relief scenes, and the relevant question is whether we should find this funny. The trickster needs some kind of obstacle on his glide path to releasing pure chaos into the world, and if the director insists that all of the empty space in his Superman movie should be filled up with laughs, then the path around the obstacle might as well involve getting everybody drunk.

Now, I know that alcoholism is not a joke, despite the enormous pile of evidence that suggests that drunk people are hilarious and have been for centuries. But this is actually a way in for Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy persona to finally emerge in the movie.

Pryor was famous for his satiric-but-empathetic character work, slipping into the role of a wino or a junkie trying to get around in the world, and this movie is making it very difficult for him to express his comic genius. But in this sequence, for the next six minutes, Pryor gets to be the loveable drunk, which takes the edge off the carnage he’s about to inflict on Colombia and Bloomingdale’s.

Still, there’s the huge foam cowboy hat, which strikes a sour note. There’s no reason for Gus to be wearing that hat, and no sign of where it came from or why it was knocking around in a WheatKing office. It’s clearly the result of the director’s impulse to add yet another detail, to make sure the audience recognizes that the scene is supposed to be wacky. It’s an almost-literal depiction of “putting a hat on a hat”.

And it sticks with people, as surprising visual elements often do. If you ask somebody about Superman III, there’s a better-than-average chance that they’ll mention Richard Pryor in a big foam cowboy hat. It’s distracting, and it undercuts the joke that ex-dishwasher Gus is able to put on new identities and manipulate people, using only his cleverness and charm. Plus, they’re playing that godawful Roger Miller song again, which I can not and will not forgive.

See the singing cowboys, almost out of sight at the far end of their endless prairie, beginning to stir. So far, there’s been two successful Superman movies, followed by an unsuccessful Swamp Thing movie, and now, Richard Pryor in a big foam cowboy hat. There is little evidence that the public will still be clamoring for Superman movies forty years from now; in fact, people are hardly clamoring for the one that they’re making right now. That hat is a warning that the Superman producers should heed.

This weekend:
A weekend popcorn post about Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania!
100.1: The Problem Is Not the Problem


There’s a blooper in the first part of this sequence, and it’s surprising that they left it in. When Gus is doing his “your boss is going to be real peeved” performance, you can hear Brad start to say “What are —” Then Gus finishes his line, at which point we cut to Brad saying, “What are you talking about?”

We can enjoy some product placement here: when Gus is stumbling around looking for the computer, he opens the door to a closet, which has a red Kentucky Fried Chicken bag hanging on a hook. You get a nice clear look at it when Gus is dragging Brad into the computer room. Later on, Gus makes a reference to KFC’s marketing, saying to Webster, “You know how they’re always trying to find the secret recipe in that chicken in a bucket?” There was some prominent product placement for KFC in Superman II, as well, and we’ll see it again in Supergirl.

There’s a longer cut of this scene on the DVD called “The Con”. It adds about 15 seconds to Gus’ routine at the door, and an extra 45 seconds to Brad and Gus’ drinking scene. That second bit starts with Brad drinking the Singapore sling with extra vodka and saying, “Perfect”. Gus points out that Brad’s invented a new drink, and he should get to name it — but “Brad” isn’t a good name for a drink. Brad says, “You know what they used to call me in high school? Smallville Flash.” Gus says, “That’s a great name for a cocktail, pal!” Then Brad falls over and it’s the end of the scene.

This weekend:
A weekend popcorn post about Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania!
100.1: The Problem Is Not the Problem


— Danny Horn

16 thoughts on “Superman III 4.25: Revenge of the Cowboys

  1. Gus probably got the hat (and the alcohol) from that extradimensional place where tricksters pull things like bombs or dynamite or whatever they need–Bugs’ pocket, Felix the Cat’s bag, Captain Jack Harkness’s *ahem* (see “The Long Game” where he pulls out a pistol despite being naked). As Danny implies, he’d be able to pull out whatever he needs for the trick vs. whatever guard he might be facing.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Perhaps I lack a sense of humor, but I don’t think giant novelty cowboy hats are nearly as funny as the people wearing them do.
    Makes me wonder what other choices of headwear were available from Wardrobe that day. 🤠

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Danny seems to have some trickster in him. Some days I want to disagree with some of his points, but he presents them so entertainingly and so insightfully that I can’t work up the indignation to protest.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Why did Gus have to sneak into one of Webster’s companies in Smallville in the first place? Couldn’t he do it from an office in Metropolis or get transferred?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I unironically love the giant foam cowboy. Pryor seems delighted to be wearing it, and that enthusiasm helps sell this scene, I think.

    Re: Flash of Smallville – The 2019 graphic novel Superman of Smallville by Art Baltazar and Franco essentially features Brad as Flash Thompson, and it makes me so happy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In various Superboy comics, perhaps most notably in the New Adventures of Superboy run from the early 80s, Clark had a bully that was more explicitly based on Flash Thompson–Bash Bashford. His actual first name was–wait for it–Bradley.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Your link doesn’t seem to work. I get a “403” error.

      Your client does not have permission to get URL /chat_attachment/AP-RMTv9doVbRVHuU7spGr-ZwPvnoN_s8Mu5-VD8KDr3as42RNU-w4NuG0vmurSnzxXusn9ibI-EpmFOngY57eY2fdx5cl3zZmphIM-Ro4yXay-93yZPF-ukaxAydoHOkYqqavl6uf_XBZWGlYg1DG4_R2z4lkHoT-R1jrNRgWsPJbiz-mdV4TuvsAw2CKZDexEhIC-_UJ5gL8N042BYj4b92emIQX8RjhTFcskZPZey10IVbqUYmNTSq9gDAAxP1z-4o5CGbiKL9OxJbfdtTgkRJJ61JwrrbyJeZhcuqUESJBWGCXX_-mWyrZufJcyd6w=w512 from this server. (Client IP address:


      1. Shoot, it worked for me when I posted it. Thanks for letting me know!

        Anyway, it was a page from the 2019 graphic novel Superman of Smallville featuring teen Brad.

        Liked by 1 person

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