Superman III 4.32: The Game… and How to Play It

Luke Skywalker (Jedi Knight Outfit), Princess Leia Organa (Boushh Disguise), Admiral Ackbar, Squid Head, Chief Chirpa, Logray (Ewok Medicine Man), Klaatu, Weequay, General Madine, Ree-Yees, Gamorrean Guard, Emperor’s Royal Guard, Rebel Commando, Biker Scout, Lando Calrissian (Skiff Guard Disguise), Bib Fortuna for fuck’s sake, and Nien Nunb.

That’s the list of 17 action figures that Kenner made in 1983 to tie-in with Return of the Jedi. There are at least four figures in that collection that don’t even have proper names; they’re just like “Rebel Commando” and “Biker Scout”, and Kenner expected people to buy them anyway, which we did.

You know who’s not on that list? Wicket W. Warrick, the cutest of an entirely cute species, an Ewok so adorable that they gave him a middle initial. Kenner didn’t release a Wicket action figure until 1984. That’s how confident they were, that they could keep Wicket in the tank, and hold onto him until next year.

Meanwhile, you know how many action figures they made for Superman III? Find out the answer after the jump.

The answer is none, of course. They couldn’t be bothered. And what would they have done with a toy line, anyway? Superman’s the only character in the entire film with a costume. I suppose they could do a Gus Gorman (WheatKing Disguise), and maybe even a Gus Gorman (Ski Jumper) with the tablecloth around his neck, but beyond that, there’s not a lot of scope.

Warner Bros. made a big deal about all the merch opportunities offered by the first movie, including four dolls, a lunchbox, a jigsaw puzzle, a wastebasket,  an alarm clock, a shampoo bottle, a pogo stick and a computer game.

The trade ad pictured above for the Superman III merch is a bit more subdued; it looks like mostly T-shirts, and those are mostly just the Superman shield. There’s a couple of Fisher-Price storybook-and-tape sets, an inflatable chair for very small people, and a jar of Superman peanut butter.

But merchandise isn’t everything, except for blockbuster sci-fi movies where it obviously is. Merchandise, especially toys, is a way for kids to engage with the film, broadening the experience to last longer than a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon.

To make that work, you need some scenes of visual villainy, which Superman III struggles with. There are two visual sequences in Superman III that would make sense on a playground — the Superman vs Clark junkyard battle, and the final confrontation between Superman and the Big Computer. There are some minor rescues — saving the drowning guy, getting Ricky out of the way of the combine harvester, picking up a lake to stop a fire — but they’re not that much fun. Besides that, it’s mostly Gus tapping on a computer, three villains hanging around the office plotting things, and Lana gradually realizing that she should move to Metropolis.

They don’t even put Lana in any kind of interesting visual jeopardy, which is nice for her fictional peace of mind, but severely limits the kid-available surface area.

For the first movie, Pepsi made a nice set of promotional glasses, covered with images of Superman making daring rescues — catching Lois when she falls, pulling her car out of the ground, pretending that he’s an adequate railroad track — as well as Krypton exploding, the dam bursting, and Lois writing a front-page newspaper story.

For Superman III, 7 Up got the license to make promotional cups for Steak & Shake, and it’s clear that they didn’t have a lot to work with. The movie-specific pictures are Superman getting strangled by the computer, and Superman using his heat vision to fix the oil tanker that he damaged.

This is an especially weird image to build a restaurant promotion around, because Superman looks helpless, and he’s clearly being choked to death, which isn’t a great look for a Steak & Shake meal.

But there aren’t a lot of heroic pictures that you can use for the computer fight, because it’s mostly Superman getting attacked and then recovering from things. The Superman III lunchbox used the moment when he bursts out of the transparent bubble, and look how that turned out.

But here come the Parker Brothers, with two games that actually engage with the substance of the film, minus the expensive people.

The “Superman III Card Game: Where Heroes Are Made” involved both a deck of 52 numbered cards and a set of 25 Adventure cards, illustrated by comics artist Neal Adams.

Adams managed to find all of the active Superman moments in the movie — rescuing the drowning guy, picking up Jimmy during the fire, carrying the frozen lake, stopping the combine harvester, fixing the oil tanker and making the computer explode. There are two cards depicting Clark changing into Superman, one of them showing him jumping out of the police car in the supersuit.

To fill out the rest of the set, Adams had to stretch a little bit. There’s a card where Superman re-breaks the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one where he’s drying up the coffee beans with his eyes, and one where he turns a lump of coal into a diamond. There’s also one that shows a deleted scene, with Superman rescuing a baby from a playground accident.

The game itself is basically blackjack for kids, plus some Superman stuff. “Try to get number cards that total 11,” the instructions say, “or as close to 11 as possible without going over. You’ll need nerves of steel to decide whether to add another card to your hand.”

If you win the hand, you get to turn over one of the Adventure cards which is laid out in a 5×5 grid, and you’re trying to get five cards in a row, which is exciting if you like that kind of thing.

The Superman III board game is a bit more challenging, by which I mean that I can’t quite figure out the rules.

The playing piece has two sides, one with Superman and the other with Clark, and you have to flip back and forth between the identities a ridiculous amount of the time. There are two tracks on the board, one blue and one yellow, and you can collect a red chip the first time a person lands on a square in the blue track when they’re Superman, and in the yellow track when they’re Clark. You flip your playing piece from one to the other every time you pass over one of the chunks of Kryptonite, which happens every four spaces.

If you collect a red chip, you can add it to the area under the computer at the top left of the board, trying to get a row of six red chips to reach from your color square to the top of the computer. But there are four green chips that are the computer’s defenses, and if you land on a ZAP! square (and you’re in the correct identity for the track that you’re on) then you can move the green chips one space to try and attack your opponent’s line of red chips.

There’s also a Junk Yard battle square where you can challenge an opponent to roll the highest number 2 times out of 3, and there are two Telephone Booth squares where you can travel from one to the other if you land on it as Superman, but it changes you back to Clark. There’s probably some kind of strategy involved that I find it difficult to picture.

It’s the Power cards where you lose me, as a potential competitor. There are three different types of Power cards, which you can use after you roll your die but before moving your piece, if your piece shows Superman and not Clark. The “flying” card moves you to any space on the blue track, the “heat ray” card allows you to melt the Kryptonite chunk and stay as Superman, and the “strength” card lets you move backwards on the track for one turn.

There’s a whole mechanic about whether your Power card is face up or face down, and you can flip one over when you land on a special “Turn Card Over” space, and at that point, my mind starts to wander, and maybe the rain stopped and we can go play outside.

The interesting thing is that the game board actually grapples with the Dark Superman storyline, with most of the panels in the blue track picturing Superman with stubble. The mean Superman fights with Clark, punches a hole in the oil tanker, straightens the Tower of Pisa and stands on top of the Statue of Liberty, plus two different panels of him sitting in the bar with a bowl of peanuts.

The art is adapted from the card game, so we’ve also got Superman rescuing Jimmy from the fire and turning the coal into a diamond. (The Dark Superman stuff might be in the card game as well, on the flip side of the Adventure cards, but I can’t find any pictures of them.)

One thing you might notice is that these games portray specific scenes from the film, without using any of the actors’ likenesses. Superman and Jimmy Olsen look like they do in the comics, and everybody else is a non-specific version of their character. Ricky is just a generic kid with dark brown hair, and there are generic coal miners and bar patrons.

The really curious thing is that Gus Gorman does not appear on a single piece of merchandise or promotional item that I’ve seen, except for the novelization and the soundtrack album, which used the poster, and the trading cards, which needed as many pictures as they could get.

I can sort of understand this for the two games, which don’t use any movie characters at all, because licensing famous people’s likenesses can get expensive. But the Ziploc stickers show Chris Reeve, Annette O’Toole, Robert Vaughn and Pamela Stephenson…

and the Thermos that comes with the Superman III lunchbox pictures six different actors, not including the famous comedian co-star who dominates half the movie.

I would like to believe that maybe Pryor’s agent wanted an unreasonable amount of money to use his likeness, but I think it’s more likely that they just didn’t want a racially integrated Thermos showing up at lunchtime, which is shameful. We’re going to have to collect some more Power cards, and do something about this.

A weekend popcorn post about
Shazam: Fury of the Gods!


— Danny Horn

14 thoughts on “Superman III 4.32: The Game… and How to Play It

  1. “This is an especially weird image to build a restaurant promotion around, because Superman looks helpless, and he’s clearly being choked to death, which isn’t a great look for a Steak & Shake meal.”

    I laughed more reading this post than I did watching all the “comedy” Lester could throw at me.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Neither McDonald’s or Burger King (or Arby’s, for that matter) wanted to do a tie-in deal for Superman III commemorate glassware? Not even a Happy Meal box?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Racism likely factored into this, but Pryor — a very rated R comedian at his best — as the lead in a Superman was an odd match for the period.

    I had just read the Superman III comic adaptation and it’s also amusing how much of the Dark Superman storyline is played down (the public drinking, of course, but also Superman having sex with the villain’s “moll.”)

    Liked by 3 people

  4. That board game is a visual migraine and the rules are another. This is the kind of board game they have in Hell’s rec room.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is probably an apropos place to mention that I just finished Elliot Maggin’s novel “Miracle Monday”, the follow-up to his “Superman: Last Son of Krypton”. It was released in 1981, apparently as a non sequitur tie-in with Superman II, in the same way that the previous book was a tie-in that had nothing to do with the story of the first Superman film.

    “Miracle Monday” is as bonkers as the first novel, but in the same pleasantly inventive way. Maggin’s take on Superman’s character is carefully thought-out. For instance he describes the love that Superman has for Clark Kent, as an identity that he has carefully built up over time, filling in all sorts of little details in Kent’s personality like it’s a hobby. He also frankly shows Superman’s love for Lois Lane, as he takes her on a super-powered date at one point. He also focuses on the importance Superman attributes to never killing anyone, no matter how evil – which is relevant since his foe in this book is basically the Devil’s right-hand man, who has come to Earth specifically to torment and destroy him by exploiting this “weakness”.

    It’s an interesting book, though as with magic-based villains in general, there are no clear rules to the game that Superman’s foe is playing, so his actions make little sense and Superman’s eventual victory is abrupt and hard to understand. But it’s worth reading for the wild details of Superman’s feats; his powers are dialed up to 11 in Maggin’s novels. So is Lex Luthor’s IQ, and his intellectual accomplishments in this book are equally superhuman. It’s like a comic book but with no brakes in the vehicle. Maggin was allowed to do whatever he wanted, seemingly with no supervision from DC editorial.

    Liked by 1 person

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