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Installment three of the Christopher Reeve iteration of Superman, Superman III opens with an odd Rube Goldberg of misfortunes. Amidst this, we see Superman save a man from drowning inside a car, which describes the people of Metropolis in a…not-so-flattering way.
I make no secret about how I don’t like the Christopher Reeve Superman films. Personal preference, mostly; I don’t like the period-typical prejudices, and often find the writing a little stilted. Plus, I find the Reeve characterization of Superman unsettling and uncomfortably alien. I usually try to stay objective, though, when criticizing the films and rating them. For example, I disagree with the characterization of Superman, but I can’t say the characterization isn’t consistent.
Now, back to Superman III. After the comedy of errors that opens the film, we become aquainted with Gus Gorman, played by Richard Pryor. Pryor brings a note of comedy to the Reeve series that previous installments lacked. In fact, I would argue that Superman III makes a genre shift into comedy. This puts it at odds with its predecessors in a way that maybe put people off when the film came out.
I really enjoyed the first half of this movie. Clark gets invited to his high school reunion and convinces Perry White to let him cover it. When he gets to Smallville, he goes to the reunion and runs into old flame Lana Lang. Annette O’Toole is maybe my favorite part of the whole film — I loved her in Smallville as Martha Kent, so seeing her here was a joy. The gender politics inherent in the Lana-Lois-Lorelei conflict are gross and outdated, but I love Lana on her own terms here.
Lana Lang, single mom, secretary, party-organizer, picnic basket maker, basically the domestic goddess minus cooking skills. She reads books to try and learn to fix her own car. She tells off the town drunk who wants to be with her, repeatedly, that she’s not interested.
Unlike Kidder’s Lois, she sees Clark Kent as an equal romantic partner from the get-go. The chemistry between Reeve and O’Toole works differently than that between Kidder and Reeve, but it works just as well. When they talk to each other, you get the sense that they understand each other. The connection comes through loud and clear. Lana doesn’t feel the need to change or police Clark’s masculinity the way Lois does, either. Given the way this series has such difficulty parsing out masculinity with regard to Superman, that’s kind of really important.
What I didn’t like was that triangular setup of women in the film: Lois, seen predominantly as a workaholic loudmouth (and man, I love her for it). Lana, softer-spoken and motherly, but with iron in her spine when it counts: the very picture of the idealized Midwestern girl fallen on hard times. Lorelei, who tempts the corrupted Superman with a ‘sexy innocent’ act, baby voice and all: she reads Kant in her downtime, but nobody knows.
All of these women, to a modern audience, look like tropes. Setting them all up as romantic or sexual interests for Superman or Clark only reinforces that. Lois exists offscreen for almost the whole movie. Lana primarily acts as the love interest, and her story primarily revolves around leaving Smallville. Lorelei, sexy henchman the big bad (Ross Webster, played by Robert Vaughn), spends more time squealing than any grown woman should have to.
Like I’ve said, the Reeve Superman movies have a big problem with gender and gender politics. Richard Lester‘s work on them particularly makes this very clear.
My other major problem was the structure and pacing of the second half of the film. It feels different, because the first half focuses so beautifully on good characterization, only for the second half to culminate in Superman having to literally fight himself and then go destroy a big computer. I can’t quite parse out why, but the second half just rubs me the wrong way.
I did like that this one ended with nobody dying. This series does not handle Superman killing well at all.
Overall, I really, really enjoyed the first half of Superman III, but the second half just falls flat for me. I give it a higher score than the last two on basis of enjoying that first half. As a comedy, it’s perfectly serviceable. I laughed at plenty of the jokes. But I do understand why some people hate it.
Next week, Supergirl! This one gets a lot of flak, so I really look forward to seeing it.