The Worst Superman Movie Holds an Important Lesson for the Genre

We’ve been dealing with “spectacle over story” for decades.

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Christopher Reeve stands in a junkyard in Superman III
Warner Bros.
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The superhero genre has experienced more than its fair share of highs and lows. The 21st century has been a golden age for superhero movies, but the same can’t be said for the 20th century. For every truly great superhero movie of the era, another was almost unwatchable.

Even Christopher Reeve, whose take on Superman is still beloved, starred in some clunkers as the Man of Steel. That includes 1983’s Superman III, which paired him up with — of all performers — Richard Pryor, and is “celebrating” its 40th anniversary today. Coming off the acclaim of Reeve’s first two Superman films, Superman III failed to meet their critical and financial success.

Time has not dulled the disappointment. As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review, Superman III is “a cinematic comic book, shallow, silly, filled with stunts and action, without much human interest.”

Superman III was one of the first examples of what can go wrong when a superhero movie prioritizes spectacle over story. Directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night), the film follows Christopher Reeve’s Superman as he finds himself in an unexpected conflict with a powerful CEO named Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), who decides he wants to kill the Man of Steel so he can take over the world’s markets without anyone standing in his way.

Webster hires Gus Gorman (Pryor), an unsuspecting computer genius who gets roped into helping his boss create weapons designed to kill Superman. Throughout the film, which loosely follows the events of the far superior Superman II, both Reeve’s Clark Kent and Pryor’s Gus find themselves in a grand, campy conflict with the best and worst versions of themselves. The movie doesn’t handle either conflict with much grace, although Reeve’s performance as Superman remains unimpeachably great.

That’s despite the fact Superman III forces him to participate in numerous action sequences that have no real place in its story, as well as a seduction subplot involving Webster’s bombshell assistant, Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson), that is, to put it lightly, extremely dumb. The same can unfortunately be said of much of Superman III, a film that’s unsure of whether it wants to be a superhero riff on a silly James Bond movie or just a straight-up, farcical comedy.

Not even Christopher Reeve could save Superman III from devolving into an absolute mess.

Warner Bros.

The movie’s special effects were impressive at the time, and there’s still a campy charm to many of Superman III’s biggest action moments. But the set pieces and stunt gags almost all fall flat because there’s no real reason for many of them to take place. Most of Superman III’s biggest action beats seem to exist solely so that Lester and his team could play around with the then-state-of-the-art tools at their disposal.

The film’s reliance on hollow spectacle is a problem that continues to plague the superhero genre. This year alone, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Flash have been criticized for prioritizing visual effects and set pieces over characters and stories. What makes Superman III interesting in 2023 is how emphatically it highlights the problems with that kind of thinking. That’s especially true if you watch the film right after Reeve’s first two Superman movies, both of which are still tremendous fun.

Even a better Superman III would feel strange today; it’s hard to imagine a contemporary Marvel or DC movie opening in an urban unemployment office. Times may have changed, but in some ways, they haven’t.

Superman III is streaming on Max.

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