“Superman III” is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the superhero franchise.
For the first hour, it’s a Joel Schumacher-level debacle that threatens to erase every shred of goodwill from the first two classic films, but the second hour finds a far more interesting direction that redeems it to a highly-flawed, yet entertaining adventure for the Man of Steel.
The biggest problem with the film is a lack of story focus and the reverence for the material that Director Richard Donner and story consultant Tom Mankiewicz brought to the first installment (and ¾ of the sequel).
Screenwriters David and Leslie Newman — no longer benefiting from Mankiewicz’s touch-up rewrites — go all-out with silly, campy sequences and can’t figure out if they’re making a superhero epic starring everyone’s favorite superhero or a Richard Pryor comedy.
Similarly, Director Richard Lester isn’t just completing Donner’s existing work and is happy to take a far less serious approach with Superman.
Pryor stars as Gus Gorman, a computer whiz whose ways around the cutting-edge technology attracts the attention of Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), his sister, Vera (Annie Ross), and bimbo girlfriend, Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson, who probably single-handedly was responsible for triggering puberty in a few Superman-fanboys).
Ross wants Gus to use his talents top help out a few business deals that will make him even richer. The evil millionaire shtick was starting to grow tired, but Vaughn is at least an entertaining Lex Luthor stand-in.
Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) meanwhile travels back to Smallville for his high school reunion and quickly rekindles his romantic interest with Lana Lang (an angelic Annette O’Toole).
Since Margot Kidder was all but banished for lashing out against the producers for firing Donner before he finished “Superman II,” Lois Lane gets a token appearance and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) is Clark’s Daily Planet companion this time. Kidder’s brashness is greatly missed as O’Toole makes Lana so perfect it’s a mystery why Clark doesn’t propose midway through.
Eagle-eye viewers will catch Al Matthews (Apone from “Aliens”) in a scene that showcases Superman putting out a factory fire thanks to an assist from his freeze breath and a lake.
The Newmans wisely write their script to suit Pryor’s talents, which would be just fine for a regular Pryor movie, but trying to shoehorn him in a superhero adventure is a disastrous combination. While he may be a stunt casting addition to the Superman saga, Pryor commendably gives the role his all.
The Gorman subplot has some merit as Ross has him create a synthetic Kryptonite that warps Superman’s personality and turns him into an evil reflection.
Ironically, the darker-hued “Evil Superman” attire is more the standard color choice for recent Superman films that lack the eye-popping primary colors of his normal costume.
“Dark Superman” is a brilliant subplot that shows just how menacing Superman could be if he were to give in to his darker impulses. He ruins the Olympic opening ceremony, causes an oil spill, vandalizes property and even hooks up with Lorelei (!).Maybe being the bad guy isn’t all that terrible…
Reeve played Kent/Superman as the straight-laced prototypical Boy Scout and this “Dark Superman” sequence allowed him to show yet another side to his take on the iconic hero making it all the more rewarding when the heroic Kent has to face Dark Superman in easily the film’s standout scene.
The special effects team admirably handled the tricky actor playing two characters onscreen at one time segment that looks just as good three decades later.
Superman’s clash with Ross’ super computer offers a promising climactic battle — a war machine capable of deciphering its opponents’ weakness — but after watching Clark vs. Superman, it’s not nearly as thrilling.
The first hour of “Superman III” is a chore to watch as the Newmans and Lester turn Superman into a slapstick act, but the second half saves it with a creative plot twist that rewards viewers that endure.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10