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Film: Superman III

I ask you to kill Superman, and you're telling me you couldn't even do that one...simple...thing.
Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) to Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor)

Superman III, released in 1983, is the third of the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve.

The Man of Steel's mythology is further explored as Clark returns to Smallville for his high school reunion and meets back up with his old friend, Lana Lang (whose actor, Annette O'Toole, went on to play Ma Kent in Smallville). The main plot of the film involves heavily-promoted co-star Richard Pryor as Gus Gorman, a bumbling-but-brilliant computer programmer who falls in with the forces of evil — as epitomized by business executive Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) — and ends up helping said forces of evil turn Superman evil and create a supercomputer which could be used to conquer the world.

Superman III was directed by Richard Lester (who completed Superman II after Richard Donner was fired), and its emphasis on comedy was (and still is) generally derided as unwelcome and unnecessary — although the serious battle scene between Superman and Clark Kent (as the hero struggles against his new, darker nature) is widely considered the highlight of the film. Richard Pryor's performance is also a Love It or Hate It affair, as he was an avowed fan of Superman and tried his best to do the film justice (because if unnecessary comic relief is going to be shoehorned into a film at all, it might as well be left to an actual comedian).

Perhaps the most influential aspect of the film was the total reinvention of the relationship between Lana Lang and Superman. In the comics Lana had been a prominent supporting character for over three decades by this point but she had essentially been a redhaired, teenage version of Lois (in the Superboy stories) or an adult version of same in the Superman stories, being a glamourous TV reporter. The movie reimagined her as a smalltown Girl Next Door Nice Girl who was interested in Clark Kent rather than his superpowered alter-ego essentially turning her into the Betty to Lois's Veronica. Most stories since have followed this interpretation of the character.

This film contains examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Webster's supercomputer gets a little out of control.
  • Acting for Two: Christopher Reeve in the junkyard fight.
  • Affably Evil: Ross Webster
  • Anti-Villain: Gus. He's not vindictive or covets power. He just got caught up in his own scheme to take that money.
  • Artistic License - Geography: Bermuda is north of the Caribbean, Lois. The Bahamas is about as far north as the Caribbean gets.
    • Justified: The Daily Planet admitting it did some Critical Research Failure scheduling a trip in the middle of hurricane season (even if said hurricane was induced.) They wouldn't be the first paper to say "Caribbean trip to Bermuda". Heck, The Price Is Right did the same thing.
  • Batman Gambit: Gus pulls this on Brad, pretending to be a liquor salesman, then getting him so drunk he passes out and allows Gus access to WheatKing's computer.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: A common theme throughout the franchise (i.e. the bully at Don's diner) with Clark; this movie's highlights: the sneeze at the bowling alley (Clark did it to help Ricky); the junkyard fight; and Brad's poor attempt at assaulting Clark (Clark even props one of those folding hotel beds up to trip up Brad).
  • Beware the Superman: When Superman gets drunk, and starts flicking beer nuts at supersonic speed and melting the mirror with his X-ray vision, it's pretty obvious he's one hair from being a Superdick to a nasty villain.
  • Big Blackout: Caused by the Supercomputer.
  • Bigger Bad: Once the Websters' supercomputer develops a mind of its own, it becomes the major threat and they cease to be significant as villains.
  • Brainless Beauty: Subverted by Lorelei, who pretends to be an airhead, but is actually a genius. Alone, she delves into deep reading, and reveals she's a computer expert, too. She's so intelligent she knows behaving intelligently will get her fired, since her job is to be "Ross'".
    Lorelei: (reading Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason") How can he say that Pure Categories have no objective meaning in Transcendental Logic? What about Synthetic Unity?
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs:
    Gus: I don't want to go to jail because there are robbers and rapers and rapers who rape robbers!
  • California Doubling: The movie was shot in Calgary and High River, Alberta. Calgary doubled for Metropolis, while High River doubled for Smallville. This continued the trend from the last two films. In fact, the opening to the film takes place in downtown Calgary, as you may notice from the buildings.
  • Canon Discontinuity: When Superman Returns was released, this film, alongside Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Supergirl, were completely ignored.
  • Canon Immigrant: Black Kryptonite was introduced into the Superman continuity a few years after the film.
  • The Casanova: When Superman put the moves on Lana, that was the first hint that something was wrong with him.
  • Character Development: Clark seems much more confident than in the previous two pictures.
  • Chekhov's Gun: "Beltric acid" (see Hollywood Acid, below.)
  • The Comically Serious: Vera
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Ross Webster, in a manner almost prophetic of how Post-Crisis Lex Luthor would be portrayed.
  • The Cracker: Richard Pryor plays a wage-slave who gets some basic computer training and is soon able to crack into just about anything. At one point, the character was supposed to be Brainiac in disguise, explaining his abilities, but Executive Meddling turned the character into comic relief.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Assistant: Poor Vera!
  • Demoted to Extra: Lois Lane shows up in the beginning, says she's going to Bermuda and disappears for most of the movie. Then she comes back before the movie's over as if nothing happened! This was largely done in retaliation after Margot Kidder criticized the producers for their decision to dismiss director Richard Donner from the franchise. It's a testament to how iconic the Superman mythos is in general, and Lois Lane in particular, that it wasn't worse.
    • The replacement for Lois is Lana Lang, who is just as important as Lois in the mythology. Exploring Superman's relationship for the first time in the modern film series was kind of sweet.
  • Description Cut: The Websters discover that someone has skimmed a lot of money from their Webco through computer hacking, but Ross says they won't find out who because anyone did such a thing would keep quiet about and not draw attention to themselves "unless they were a complete and utter idiot". Loud music out in the parking lot heralds the arrival of a complete and utter idiot in his new Ferrari.
  • Digital Head Swap: Pre-CGI example: In the junkyard fight, Clark's head was matted onto a double's body when Superman grabs Clark ("You always wanted to fly, Kent") and tosses him in a pile of junk. Later, the same is done with Superman's head at the end of the fight.
  • Disaster Dominoes: The title sequence follows wacky trouble breaking out on the sidewalks of Metropolis.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: The cause of the Disaster Dominoes was Lorelei walking by.
    • Speaking of which, Jimmy took way too many pictures of her, according to Perry.
  • Dumb Blonde: Subverted with Lorelei Ambrosia. While she acts dim, she's really just playing off the stereotype so she can trick the other villains. She's also not above using her looks to get what she wants.
  • Enemy Without: The fight sequence between a red Kryptonite-infected Superman and his moral base, Clark Kent. It's also shown to be a metaphor for Superman's internal struggle not to do whatever he pleases.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Gus will steal money from Webster, hack a computer for Webster, sneak in some defective space rock to get rid of Superman for him, but he won't commit murder for him.
  • Everything Is Better With Penguins: Wind-up toy penguins are on the loose in the comedic street scene in the opening credits.
  • Everything Is Online: One of the most egregious examples, and one of the earlier ones too.
  • Evil Twin: Even the film's detractors generally enjoy seeing Clark Kent separate from the "evil" Superman to fight him.
  • Expospeak Gag: At the computer site, Vera starts barking orders about power coordinates and defensive systems. Lorelei just answers:
    In other words, push this red button.
  • Face-Heel Turn: Superman, thanks to synthetic kryptonite.
  • Funny Background Event: Sort of. Clark slams a car door on Gus as he arrives in Smallville and quickly apologizes. Seems nobody noticed Gus's grimacing in pain.
  • Genius Book Club: Lorelei appears to be a standard Dumb Blonde. However, while alone she reads Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and disputes one of its arguments, thus showing her stupidity is a facade she puts on to manipulate others.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: "Stronzo Superman!" Watch the gestures as Superman flies off and the vendor reacts.
  • Going for the Big Scoop: Perry White's been pressuring Jimmy Olsen to keep his eyes peeled for big stories no matter where he goes. So when Jimmy and Clark learn of the chemical plant fire while on their way to Smallville, the former sneaks into the crisis and climbs a firetruck ladder to get some dramatic photos of the blaze. The ladder collapses and he breaks his leg; luckily for him Superman's on the scene to save him from the flames.
  • Good Is Impotent: Clark takes quite a beating from the "evil" Superman, at least for a while.
    • Beware the Nice Ones: ...right up until Clark decides he's had enough and beats the hell out of Evil Superman, beginning with exploding out of the side of a trash compactor.
  • Hack The Traffic Lights: the supercomputer causes the figures in a Walk/Don't Walk sign to animate and fight each other.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Gus, in the climax. He starts to truly regret his alliance with Ross and company when their manufactured oil crisis hurts "the little guy[s]" he used to be one of. When Ross crows that Gus will be "going down in history as the man who killed Superman" thanks to his computer figuring out how to create a pure kryptonite ray, Gus makes his turn and tries to shut it down to save the hero, and when that doesn't work, at least manages to destroy the ray.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Superman, after his Face-Heel Turn. Only Colombia abstained from a UN vote of censure against him (he had saved the country from the hurricane that Gus created by means of the satellite).
  • Hollywood Acid: "Beltric acid" becomes super-corrosive if heated up enough. It ends up being a Chekhov's Gun in the final fight against the rogue computer.
  • Hydrant Geyser: In the opening scene the car hits a fire hydrant and begins filling with water as a result.
  • I Ate What?: Clark Kent and Lana Lang have a picnic out near the wheat fields with her son. Clark tastes what he thinks was good pate that Lana made, only for Lana to point out that it was dog food. Clark still continues to eat it.
  • "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight: Ricky invokes this, though he doesn't fight Supes. It does cause a fight, though.
  • If I Had a Nickel:
    Clark: If I had a dime for every kid who asked me to get Superman's autograph...
  • In Name Only: The supercomputer's name is Braniac.
  • Jerk Jock/Future Loser: Brad.
  • Kill Sat: Or rather, weather-changing, kryptonite-analyzing, computer-hacking satellite.
  • Latin Land: This continuity's version of Colombia.
  • Literal Split Personality: Superman gets exposed to some "artificial" Kryptonite that turns him evil, then splits him into an evil Superman and a good Clark Kent.
  • Loves My Alter Ego: Inverted, as Lana Lang becomes romantically interested in Clark Kent as opposed to Superman.
  • Made of Iron: Clark, during the junkyard fight, considering who he was up against.
  • Magical Computer: Played for laughs. Even if everything was networked to that extent, getting the green traffic light man to fight the red traffic light man is an impressive feat of hacking.
  • Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex: Averted. Superman (while under the influence of the above mentioned "artificial" Kryptonite) has sex with Lorelei. Admittedly it is merely heavily implied rather than outright confirmed.
    • Judging by the scared look on Lorelei when Superman takes advantage, you have to think she was wondering if this Trope applied or not. (Lucky for her, it did not.)
  • Mind-Control Eyes / Monochromatic Eyes: Vera after the supercomputer absorbs her.
  • Mirror Match: Clark and the "evil" Superman.
  • Morality Pet: Ricky becomes this for "evil" Superman.
  • Mundane Utility: Superman crushes a piece of coal in his bare hands to produce a diamond to replace the one in the ring Lana had to pawn off.
    • Some of Supes' acts of Superdickery, like putting out the Olympic torch, breaking liquor bottles by flicking peanuts at them, or melting the bar's mirorred walls with his heat vision.
  • Mythology Gag: As Gus chooses a mule over a balloon as transportation down into the Grand Canyon.
    Gus: I don't believe a man can fly!
  • New Old Flame: Basis for this movie's romantic subplot.
  • Nice Guys Finish Last: Brad tried to invoke this on Clark. He ended up unconscious.
  • Noodle Incident: The closing scenes reveal Lois went on an adventure of her own on her vacation, returning with a big story about Caribbean corruption (it all started when a cab driver kidnapped her...).
  • No OSHA Compliance: Okay, it's funny when a drunken Superman falls into a giant pit of acid. But the only thing preventing the regular junkyard workers from falling in is the sign that proclaims it to be acid. On ground level, no guard rail, open top...
  • Not of This Earth: Richard Pryor's character does an analysis of kryptonite, and the results indicate that a certain percentage of it is simply "unknown".
  • Not What It Looks Like: Brad thought Clark was proposing marriage to Lana, and that got him mad.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Lorelei.
  • Oddly Named Sequel: Almost. The writer's original name for the film was Superman Vs. Superman: Superman III, which was supposed to be a play on the "Superman Vs. Enemy" format that the comics (supposedly) often employed. However, the producers of Kramer Vs. Kramer somehow got the idea that it was supposed to be a rip-off of their film, and threatened to sue the pants off the Salkind Company, resulting in the title being changed to just Superman III.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: A bizarre case. The original theatrical cut only has Gus telling Ross and company what Superman did. The television cut actually shows Superman performing incredible feats. Why this was removed is anyone's guess.
    Gus: Superman's bad!
    • Either way, a very good example of the reasons for fan criticism of this film; in a movie with Superman's name on the title, one would think that Superman saving an entire country would be directly depicted, not shown in flashback with descriptions or simply recounted verbally by the comedian co-star.
  • Pac Man Fever: More literal than usual: Ross fights Superman with a supercomputer... one that is apparently an Atari2600, complete with sound effects lifted directly from that console's execrable version of Pac-Man.
  • Phlebotinum du Jour: Computers, whose presence and potential were just reaching popular imagination. An increasingly silly form of this, the film starts out with Everything Is Online and builds up into "Because computers!"
  • Photo Booth Montage: Of Superman, as he changes clothes in the opening credit sequence.
  • Poke the Poodle: "Evil" Superman is really more of a superhuman Jerk Ass: straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa (which is something they've been trying to do for years), tearing a hole in an oil rig, and blowing out the Olympic Torch.
  • Product Placement: KFC (multiple references, like the "chicken-in-a-bucket" line), Bacardi (a bottle is seen at the bar where Supes got intoxicated, Johnny Walker (what Supes was drinking at the bar) and Atari (Webster's computer screen). Calgary, Alberta is home to Canada's first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.
  • Reverse Cerebus Syndrome: An egregious example of this trope. Fighting traffic sign stick figures, anybody?
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Lorelei tries this just before the computer developed a mind of its own.
  • Shout-Out: Office Space has an explicit one, with Gus Gorman's plan being the inspiration for the heroes' criminal scheme.
    • There's one to The Public Enemy with the husband and wife at the breakfast table and the whopping department store bill — he smushes a grapefruit into her face once he sees it.
    • The old teacher Clark chats with at the reunion has the last name Bannister — the credits reveal her full name is Minnie Bannister. The director, early in his career, directed a few productions featuring Goon Show cast members; one of them, supporting player Graham Stark, plays the blind man in this film's opening sequence.
    • Lorelei does her best Mae West impression when seducing Superman.
      Superman: I hope you don't expect me to save you, 'cause I don't do that anymore.
      Lorelei: I'm long past saving.
  • Shrug Take: Used twice:
    • Early in the film, when Superman changes identities in the back seat of an occupied police car, the cop in the front seat notices, but then dismisses it.
    • On a picnic, Clark reacts rather mildly to the announcement that he's eating dog food.
  • The So-Called Coward: Evil Superman taunted Clark, calling him chicken...
  • Stock Footage: The footage of Superman flying toward the camera to save Ricky was reused in this film when Superman went looking for Ross and company after the junkyard fight and in Superman IV every chance they got.
  • Superdickery: The "evil" Superman isn't really evil — he's just a dick.
  • Sudden Videogame Moment: The scene where Ross is firing missiles at Superman, specially designed for the film by Atari.
  • Suspicious Spending: After Gus's "shave and collect fractional pennies" scam is discovered, Corrupt Corporate Executive Ross Webster doesn't think there's any way of catching the perpetrator unless he does something really stupid. Immediately, Gus shows up in a fancy sports car far above what he could afford on his salary.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: In addition to what went on with Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman refused to reprise his role of Lex Luthor, also in protest of Donner's dismissal. That's why Robert Vaughn was cast as Ross Webster, who was basically Luthor with (real) hair; Lorelei could easily be seen as a variant of Miss Techmaucher from the first two films.
  • Swivel-Chair Antics: The programmers in a '80's mainframe center move about by pushing themselves backwards on swivel chairs; despite a two-lane corridor, two of them collide.
  • Two-Keyed Lock: Used to activate a satellite positioning system. Gus manages to pull this off with an unconscious Brad serving as the required second person.
  • Unwilling Roboticisation: Vera Webster.
  • Weather Control Machine: The Vulcan Weather Satellite. Of course...
  • Weather Satellites Do Not Work That Way: They report on the weather, Ross Webster, they don't control it! (This is acknowledged, however, by Ross, who wants Gus to somehow cause them to disrupt it.)
    • Lampshaded in the MAD parody of the movie. Kinda brave of them, too, considering Mad is owned by the same parent company that made the film.note 
    • Gus later sends the very same satellite to the former location of Krypton and scans the remains to find out what kryptonite consists of. Apparently the satellite is equipped with a geological spectroscope and an FTL drive, since Krypton is a long way off, and that's assuming they even know where to look.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Come on. No one noticed a little boy just shattered 10 bowling pins with an almost supersonic bowling ball? Jesus, Richard Lester. There's comedy and there's Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
    • Clark's costume change in the backseat of a police car during the Smallville fire. Might be a Callback to the office worker in I.
    • Clark blowing on a wind-up penguin that's caught fire.
  • The Vamp: Lorelei
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Lorelei climbs atop the Statue of Liberty and threatens to jump so she can seduce Superman; in return, she wants him to stop the runaway oil tanker in the middle of the Atlantic.


Superman IIFilms of the 1980sSupergirl
Superman IICreator/Warner Bros.Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
Superman IISuperheroSuperman IV: The Quest for Peace
Superman IIFranchise/Superman    
Kneel Before ZodImageSource/Live-Action FilmsSuperman IV: The Quest for Peace

alternative title(s): Superman III
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