Superman lll – Rough Diamond

When Max Romero challenged fellow bloggers to review Superman lll on his Great Caesar’s Post site, I thought he was extending the backhand of friendship. The film was notoriously bad. Richard Pryor versus Superman? Clark Kent versus drunk Superman? Gergio Moroder versus his synthesizer? These elements were bad in 1983, and surely would age poorly.

The film starts out with a slice-of-life bit of 70’s realism, with Pryor as out of work layabout Gus Gorman trying to hustle one more unemployment check. Cut to an extended homage to cartoonist Rube Goldberg, complete with flaming penguins, a fire hydrant powerful enough to flood a Toyota from the inside, and 3 hotdog based gags, all punctuated by a fleeting Maxfield Parrish reference, and you have a Superman movie that is already covering any sparkle under an excess of coal dust.

Gus Gorman is soon employed at a computer firm and is revealed to be a computer whiz, playing his terminal like a concert piano. Being basically lazy, he scams his new employer (Robert “I’m not Luthor!” Vaughan) by penny shaving the payroll department to the tune of $85,000. The plot worked well in Office Space where the villain was corporate hegemony. Setting Superman against white collar crime seems a little beneath his skill set.

Concurrently, Superman-as-Clark Kent returns to Smallville for his 15th Class Reunion. We quickly find out two things. One, Smallville has 15th class reunions. Two, his high school sweetheart Lana (Annette O’Toole) Lang is much more exciting than the shrill harpy known as Lois Lane. She is kind, genuine, and incredibly pretty. Lana is the only person from the class of ’65 that seems to comprehend that Clark is an award-winning journalist at the biggest paper in the country. She comprehends his value as Clark.

It occurs to me that Gorman as villain is less absurd than I originally thought. He is a man who has hid his light under a bushel, like Clark does when he is not playing Superman. Just as Clark discovers he’s a Very Special Person from an alien world as he nears adulthood, Gorman discovers his inner genius the first time he sits in front of a computer terminal. No one, not even he, knew this was a dishwasher with a mind that reads computer code like it is a “Jimmy Olsen” comic.

Superman is essentially, unflappably good, thanks to his white Midwestern upbringing. Gorman is an under-educated blank slate, easily manipulated by the machinations of Robert Vaughan as a greed driven Randian villain. It’s capitalism versus sustenance farming, urban versus country, black culture versus white culture all at once.

It is very easy to mock the absurdity inherent in the main weapon used my Gorman under Vaughan’s guidance. They postulate that a single computer terminal in 1982 can somehow alter credit card records, cause individual ATMs to dispense random sums, and can manipulate the displays on crosswalk signals by literally causing the Walk and Don’t Walk icons to wrestle. Stretching the viewer’s credulity to breaking, the computer can also access weather satellites and generate Summer snow storms. Actually, this last bit is perhaps the most believable as it is a standard trope of the “world domination” villain archetype.

Later in the film, Pryor’s character is charged with synthesizing Kryptonite to kill Superman. Something is missing from his recipe, leading to the hero becoming a Superdick and potential date rapist. The film’s best moment comes from Superman attempting to “woo” Lana Lang in her living room, stating with a sinister tone “It’s not often you find a girl like you alone like this”.

Pryor continues to get deeper and deeper into Supercrime, inducing an artificial oil shortage at Vaughan’s behest.

Superman’s costume gets magically darker, and he stops Super-shaving. This leads to him hanging out with Vaughan’s hot psychic herbalist, and causing a BP-level oil spill in the middle of the Atlantic in trade for sex. Superporno!

The downward spiral continues, and soon he’s slamming shots of Johhny Walker and smashing bottles with Super-flicked cocktail peanuts. Superlush!

This brings us to the notorious junk yard scene. Clark Kent physically splits from Superman, only to have the Kryptonian go all Fight Club on his nebbishy ass. Clark still has the power of Superman, but is too infused with decency to really fight back at his Kryptonian id. It is actually not a terrible demonstration of why Clark’s Smallville Bible-belt upbringing was necessary.

That seems to be the recurring theme of the film: power without morality is a one-way ticket to corruption, lethargy, Superrape, and poor manners.

Once this moral is made explicit, Clark merges back with the transgressive alien übermensch, taking control of the dual-identity schism. He then goes to right wrongs and bring the same lesson to Gorman. Interestingly, the real villains, in the form of Vaughan’s unchecked corporatism, are incapable of learning lessons. They are Evil and unredeemable. Gorman just had a poor (black) upbringing. I’ve hesitated directly addressing this as a racial issue, but it seems inescapable considering the climate of 1983. There is definitely some pro-white grain and Bible belt propaganda going on with this film.

When faced with Superman’s innate goodness, Gorman finally does snap out of misusing his powers for personal gain. The moment of transformation comes when Superman reaches out to Gus, saving him from certain doom. The Michaelangelean handclasp quickly becomes a jiveshake, proving once and for all that, though square on the surface, Superman is “down”.

The film ends with Superman getting Gorman the hookup with a gig for the coal industry. He then zooms back to Metropolis to send mixed signals to Lana and Lois, using his Superdickery powers to lead one on, and to vex the other.

The film is certainly better than I remembered, exhibiting as it does a basic level of craft. Most Hollywood movies from the time do. It’s not a total gem, but it can be compared to the gaudy diamond Superman hews from a lump of compressed coal near the end. It was shiny enough for Lana, but was another false promise from whitey, that Pryor proudly walks away from.


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