Part of what makes Superman so compelling is how, all the way back in the 1930s, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel basically cannily repackaged a whole host of ancient myths and archetypes into a brightly-colored, exciting new format -- the comic strip -- and how in the years since, the Superman story has essentially ingrained itself into our collective pop culture experience to the point of becoming itself one of those very myths. But if the Superman story now exists in a kind of timeless, unassailable position in the hive mind, the films it inspired don’t necessarily share that honor. Often reflecting the times they were made in, in rather obvious and distracting ways (computers! nuclear paranoia!), not all the movie incarnations come close to embodying what’s so endlessly engaging about the Superman story. Here’s how we reckon the existing theatrical releases stack up against each other, in reverse order of quality.
This is probably the nadir of Superman movies this far for so, so many reasons, but chief among them has to be simply the shoddiness and cheapness of the whole endeavor. With original producers the Salkinds having sold the rights to Cannon Films, a low-budget outfit at heart, production costs were cut from the outset, with Christopher Reeve recalling, about the scene outside the United Nations building which was shot for budgetary reasons in Milton Keynes, England, that “[we were] hampered by budget constraints and cutbacks in all departments...Even if the story had been brilliant, I don't think that we could ever have lived up to the audience's expectations with this approach.” And sheesh is the story ever not brilliant. Reeve is game, and Gene Hackman returns as Lex Luthor after his principled absence from the third film, but the supporting cast are horribly underwritten, from Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) to hardheaded businesswoman Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) who’s seemingly turned from her ruthless tabloid ways by a single glimpse of Clark Kent.
Worst, it’s all in service of a dull, preachy plot about nuclear proliferation that builds to undoubtedly the single lamest foe our onscreen Supes has ever faced in Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow, voiced by Gene Hackman). While ostensibly supposed to be a kind of inverse (almost Bizarro) Superman, borne of the Kryptonian’s DNA and forged in the radiation of the sun, in fact Nuclear Man is hampered by the absolute worst Achilles heel: he shuts down completely when not standing in direct sunlight. So, yeah, Superman with his laser beams and super-strength and flight and everything is a teensy bit under-matched when his foe can be defeated by shade, or, you know, going inside. Which makes it all the more ridiculous that Supes has to move the moon to cause an eclipse in order to best him.
Choice quote: Superman: “You've broken all the laws of man, Luthor. Now it looks as though you've broken all the laws of nature, too. I can only assume you must have hidden a device of some kind on one of the missiles I hurled into the sun.”
First, a small confession. While we’re not going to go to bat for the quality of this film in any way, a recent re-watch did remind us just how many moments and scenes from “Superman III” are somehow firmly ingrained in our subconscious (no doubt generational) -- from the kid unconscious in the path of the thresher to Richard Pryor skiing down the side of a skyscraper, to “bad” Superman smashing bottles of booze by flicking peanuts at them off a bar, to good Superman freezing and then dropping a lake onto a chemical fire. Elements that failed to stay with us, however, include the villain, the goal of his plot and the entire final act of the film. Which is kind of appropriate, because the film is really little more then a series of sketches, which range from the funny -- Pryor’s role here may be ill-conceived, but he’s got moments and we’re not sure why but the totally unfounded scene where he shows up dressed as a four-star general from the Pentagon always makes us laugh -- to the tiresome, viz the extended silliness involving a blind man, some marbles, a hole in the ground, and a mime. If Hackman’s Luthor was never the most terrifying of arch-villains, Robert Vaughn’s Webster is even less so (Vaughn stepped in after Hackman refused citing the producers’ mistreatment of Richard Donner as his reason) and is marooned in a logic-free plot that relies so blithely on the audience’s ignorance of these new-fangled “computers” that, now at least, it kind of ensures you’re smirking through even those few scenes that aren’t actually played for laughs.
Of course, not having any superpowers of his own, Webster would hardly be much of a match for Superman, so -- and this is where the film really trips over its own tail -- the plot contrives to have Superman go "bad" (signaled by developing a 5 o’clock shadow, hitting on Lana Lang and, er, straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa). And then "bad" Superman gets to fight himself (as Clark Kent, for some reason) because of that power we never knew he had and never displays again, to essentially bi-locate. It made us wonder if the fight scene was not actually meant literally, but as some sort of metaphor for Supes slaying his demons, but then why is it so long, and laboriously involved in a I-put-you-in-a-compacter-you-crush-me-with-a-magnet type way? Anyway, it’s all very silly, but it does feature Pamela Stephenson in the sexy villain sidekick role (Billy Connolly’s wife and a contestant on the only season of the UK’s "Strictly Come Dancing" that we watched, and she was robbed.) So there’s that, and Richard Pryor’s comedy slow-take reactions to enjoy.
Choice quote: Evil Superman to Clark Kent: “Come on chicken! You've been on my nerves for a long time!”