Roger Ebert called Superman III a “cinematic comic book,” and he didn’t necessarily mean that in a good way. Richard Lester’s direction took the film series from complex, thoughtful elements to more campy, silly moments. Ebert is correct in his assessment: this third film is not nearly as good as the first two. On one hand, Superman III can stand alone and can be watched without the foundation of the first two films. Yet, it does nothing to support the story-line that the first two films worked so hard to develop. Perhaps this is the cost the studio had to pay when they shifted direction in the second film from Richard Donner to Richard Lester (who directed Superman III as well).
One of the areas in which there is a disconnect from the first two films and the third, is the complex relationship between Kent/Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Lois leaves for a vacation at the beginning of the film, and it is clear that Clark didn’t know anything about her plans. Clark, meanwhile, heads back home to Smallville for his high school reunion and to cover a story about small town life. It is at the reunion that he begins to spend time with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), his high school crush. And so begins a relationship between Clark and Lana that includes picnics.
Richard Pryor plays the brilliant, yet befuddled, Gus Gorman. At first, this may seem like a brilliant casting move in 1983. And it is. But Lester doesn’t seem to tap into the smartness of Pryor. Pryor seems limited and reserved. He pretends to be a liquor salesmen and General, which Pryor does well, but seems so out-of-character for Gus. When we first meet Gus, he is in the unemployment line to get his check for the week. But he is denied because the thirty-two weeks are up. When he asks someone for a light for his cigarette, the matchbook is from the company owned by Ross Webster (Robert Vaughan). He suddenly feels that he can be a computer programmer, even though he could not keep a job at a fast food restaurant and other such places. And he gets the job.
It is his job that introduces Gus’ secret gifts to Webster, who wants to use them to gain power and control of the earth’s resources. First, he sets his sights on coffee, and then on oil. There is only one problem: Superman (Christopher Reeve). Webster and his colleagues recall that there is one thing that will destroy Superman, kryptonite. That small, green rock that can bring the Man of Steel down. But they have no such rock. Webster has Gus use a weather satellite to scan kryptonite that is floating through space to see what it is made of. One of the elements is “Unknown.” Gus, worried to submit such a report to his boss, fills in “Tar” for “Unknown.”
The tar-laced kryptonite results in Superman becoming a big ole meanie. At first, it appears that Superman is being selfish, wanting to spend more time with Lana Lang, and arriving at an accident too late. “If only you had gotten here sooner,” the rescue workers say to him when he finally arrives. We watch as the transformation happens. Superman’s tidy hair and clean shaven look disappear. Even his uniform appears darker and dirtier than it usually does. It is obvious that even Superman is not exempt from the struggles of this world.
It gets so bad, that in one scene a crowd that includes young Ricky, Lana’s son, is gathering outside a bar, watching Superman get drunk and smash bottles with peanuts. Ricky is the only one who can see Superman beyond the meanie he is acting like. In a pivotal scene to the messy plot-line, Superman lands in a salvage yard. He begins to destroy junk, frustrated that he is behaving the way he is. In the midst of destroying junk, Clark Kent emerges from meanie Superman. The two then fight. The scene is filled with very little dialogue, which at first may seem odd, but is actually quite brilliant. It is not a fight between meanie Superman and good Superman, it is between meanie Superman and Clark Kent—the humanity of the Man of Steel.
The scene captures well the struggle that Paul describes in Romans, “I do the things I know I should not do, and I do not do the things that I know I should do.” Oftentimes when we struggle with making good choices or bad choices, we too struggle with ourselves. The scene depicts what many of us feel when this struggle takes place; the struggle between living in the Light and dwelling in the Darkness; the struggle between holiness and sin. The dark, dirty look the film gives meanie Superman reminds us of the ways in which sin leaves us dark and dirty, while the clean, bright Superman reminds us of how grace leaves our dark and dirtiness bright and clean.
Eventually Clark defeats meanie Superman, and things go back to normal. He works to fix all the destruction he made when he was meanie Superman. And he prevents the world from being destroyed and controlled by the Big Bad of this film: Ross Webster. In doing so, Superman fulfills his calling as the messiah from another world.