Like a Flop Shooting in From the Heavens
Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
So I knew, going in to watch all four of the "classic" SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. films, that we were going to be in for disappointment the deeper into the series we went. While the first film might have had its flaws it was at least a charming and goofy little superhero film, and the second movie did try even if it was hobbled by terrible executive decisions behind the scenes. It is certain, though, that Superman: The Movie & Superman II are very much the high point for this series.
I don't think knowing that these next two films are bad really prepares you for how awful they really get. Honestly it's hard to think of worse superhero films to compare these two, and I'm even including the depths of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. in there. These movies are bad, with the fourth (and last with Christopher Reeves) being nigh unwatchable. How bad could they really be? Well...
Who is the main character of Superman III? If you said "Clark Kent" or "Superman", boy, are you wrong. No, the main character of the film is Richard Pryor. I mean, yes, he's an actor playing a character in this film, Gus Gorman, but in essence he's just playing Richard Pryor (without as much cussing as could be found in his comedy act). Gus, you see, is a down-on-his-luck guy just trying to get by on unemployment, right up until his checks get cut-off forcing him to get a job. He gets enrolled in a computer training class with job placement, and finds he has a knack for computers. Within a span of weeks he goes from unemployed to successful computer whiz, but a bit of his true nature still remains. He learns about "salami slicing" (the act of taking rounding errors on financial transactions and moving them into a new account, in essence stealing a little until it becomes a lot), and quickly programs the computers at Webster Corp. to slice all the salami he can eat (to the tune of 84 grand in a single week).
This brings him to the attention of CEO Ross Webster (Robert Wagner) and his sister, Vera (Annie Ross), and the two quickly blackmail Gus into helping them reprogram every system on the planet so that they can steal the money made off coffee, and oil, and everything else they can think of. Eventually Superman gets involved, but with a little knowledge Gus is able to program a version of kryptonite that doesn't kill Superman but makes him mean and nasty (so, basically, Red K but not red). This puts Superman out of the way so that the villains can go about their business. It'll take all Superman has to shake off the faux-kryptonite and get back to doing the business of being a hero.
There are a lot of things that are wrong with Superman III but the first is that the film uses the term "computers" as if it's a blanket salve than can heal all the flaws in the script. How could the villains do this? "Computers." How do you control the weather? "Computers." How do you make fake kryptonite? "Computers." Going back and watching the film now, in 2021, it's over-reliance on "computers" is laughable, but even back in 1983 (or 1987 when a version of me was old enough to pay attention to this film) this whole "computers can do anything" line was dumb, especially when you remember that Gus has to program everything the villains tell him and he does it in seconds. There is no reality in this film when it comes to tech.
Of course there's also the fact that this film is campy beyond belief. Comedian Pryor actually isn't that bad in the film as he's actually trying to act up to the standards of a proper Superman film. The fact is, though, that the script and the director, a returning Richard Lester, are fighting the more serious tone that Superman deserves. Light-hearted is fine, but Lester was on record saying he couldn't do serious and that silly was more in his wheelhouse and it shows here in the first (and last, it should be noted) film in the series that he got to handle all on his own. Tonally the film is all over the place and it never feels like a proper superhero films at all. Credit to Richard Donner, he knew how to film Superman.
The closest the film gets is when Clark flies back to Smallville for his high school reunion (I'm assuming it's his twenty-year even though it's celebrating the Class of '65 and this film was released in 1983). There he meets with Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole), his old high school flame, and they instantly have a connection. These moments, between Clark and Lana, are great and we actually get invested in seeing these two make some kind of relationship work. But then, this plot line doesn't get enough focus to really do much for the film. Superman being a dick on Red K should also put a crimp between the friendship between Lana and Clark but that angle is never explored. She shows up a bit and then it's hinted that there could be something between them in the next film (although then she disappears between films so... oh well).
Hell, the Superman on faux-K story isn't even really developed. The film plays it like he becomes some kind of supervillain but he barely does anything evil. He rights the Leaning Tower of Pisa and breaks a few bottles of alcohol and a mirror. It's more "superdickery" than "supervillainy". Even the one really awful thing he does, causing an oil tanker to spill oil everywhere, is done because he thinks he's doing something noble (while on the faux-K) and then he fixes it the second he's back to being a boy scout again. A different film, one focused just on Supes, would have explored the "Superman as a villain" angle better, but then it would have had to actually care about Big Blue instead of making him a side character in his own film.
Richard Pryor is certainly the best part of the film outside of the Smallville scenes, but he's hobbled with the wonder twins of Ross and Vera, two villains basically sharing the void left by Lex Luthor and their scheme is, well, not really any different from Lex's. They want to control real estate, effectively, but controlling the coffee on it or the oil coming from it. You could easily have stitched Lex into the space taken up by these two characters and it would have felt exactly the same (and considering how bad Lex was in the first two films that's not really saying much). They are barely fleshed out, incredibly stupid villains and they drag the whole film down with them.
Frankly this film is just bad and I wish I could report it was the worst that Superman would ever be treated. But let's not lie to ourselves, there's still Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
If you thought Superman III was bad you aint seen nothing yet. That film at least felt like a Superman film, in production values if not story, and it had a decent (if not exception) budget to pull off all its effects. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, made by new executive producers Golan and Globus, is as budget-priced as it could get. Bear in mind that the first two films in this series were made for about $55 Mil each, while Superman III got about $37 Mil to make it's attempt at a superhero film. For this fourth (and final until Bryan Singer came along) film the G&G men gave director Sidney J. Furie just $17 Mil to try and crank out a Superman film and, woof, it shows. That's not a good thing.
Ostensibly this film is about Superman deciding that the people of the world couldn't be trusted to keep themselves from the brink of nuclear war so he steps in and takes all their nukes. "You can't be trusted with your toys so I'm taking them while you get to sit on the naughty step." The people of the world cheer (which is unrealistic), but one man decides that the void left from Superman taking all the nukes can be filled with war profiteering. That man is, of course, Lex Luthor, and to make sure Superman stays out of his way he engineers a Nuclear Man (based on Superman's DNA) that Supes can fight while Lex makes all the money. Easy, right?
So I'm a little less annoyed by this plot than I was by the story of this third movie. Yes, "we can use a hair from Superman to make another Superman" is silly as you'd need more DNA than that (let alone that fact that different parts of the body have differently targeted biology and, well, there's so much we could discuss here we'd get lost in the weeds). Also, Lex in these films has never been shown to be a get scientist. He is the greatest criminal ever, by his own words, but he's never been proven to be that smart (hell, he can't even pronounced "nuclear" properly in the films, sorry Gene Hackman). I have my doubts he could make a Nuclear Man (played by Mark Pillow, voiced by Gene Hackman for some reason) but that's the story we get.
The real issue with the film isn't the half-backed supervillain or the hackneyed concept of Superman stealing all the nukes... or, really, it's all that but really it's the fact that the film doesn't take the time to develop any of this. At a super-svelte 90 minutes the film doesn't have time for any development at all. Along side the nuclear story, and Lex's war profiteering, and the Nuclear Man, there's also a storyline about the Daily Planet getting bought out by a rich guy's conglomerate. It's a ton of story and none of it gets any development, or proper resolution, with the film just rushing from once scene to the next without logic or flow or any kind of real connection. By the end of the film the movie just resolves everything with a few throwaway lines and then the credits roll. It's awful.
And that doesn't even get into how chintzy it all looks. The film was originally supposed to have a budget somewhere in the neighborhood of the previous films, but instead it was slashed part way into production so that team had to try and figure how to get their movie to function. Looking good, it should be noted, was off the table. Where the previous films superimposed Superman and Lois against clean tracking shots of the sky with minimal effect residue, Superman IV poorly crops our characters against obvious stock backgrounds, with no sense of them realistically flying through these locales. If the original film posited that "you'll believe a man can fly," this film is more, "you'll believe Hollywood studios will try to put Christopher Reeve against a green screen."
In all respects its easy to see why this essentially killed the franchise for close to 20 years. This film is bad in all respects, start to finish. It's a sad end for Christopher Reeve's time in the blue suit, and an even sadder day for Superman fans of all stripes. It's hard to think of a superhero film that treats its main hero any worse.