Movies That Ruined My Childhood!
Batman V Superman is just around the corner (as is our review!), so I thought I’d take a stroll back through Superman’s history. I’ve already shared my thoughts on Richard Donner’s take on the boy in blue, and despite being a flop, I have a soft spot in my heart for Superman IV, The Quest for Peace. Sure, it was a mess financially, which caused the production to loop footage and shoot in locations that hardly resembled New York (and don’t get me started on Superman using super duper eye beams to reconstruct the Great Wall of China like a set of Legos!) Despite all that, Reeves always put his heart into the character, and it was fun to see him fight an actual super villain instead of rich business moguls. One classic Superman film I never loved was Superman 3. While the plot was decent, the tone was alternately silly and grim, and it contained several sequences to still scar me to this day. Let’s take a deeper look.
Superman 3 (1983)
Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeves) returns to Smallville for a class reunion, and rekindles a boyhood romance with an old flame, Lana Lang. While Clark is strolling down memory lane, a ruthless tycoon named Ross Webster has recruited a con-man and computer hacker named Gus (Richard Pryor) to sabotage high-tech satellites in order to threaten the global economy, wiping out competitors who refuse to cater to his demands. Superman intervenes, and Webster decides he needs to rid the world of Superman before he can go on with his plan. He drafts Gus into making artificial kryptonite, and has him begin work on a supercomputer which can use the nation’s military installations in coordinated attacks against the Man of Steel. Superman reacts oddly to the fake green rocks, developing a split personality which is angry and self-centered. Superman must fight against himself for control before Webster is able to hold the world hostage with his new technological threat.
Thanks to the cigarette kryptonite (yes, Gus adds cigarette tar to his version since he can’t completely duplicate real kryptonite…so essentially Superman is dosed with a 3 pack a day habit!) Superman becomes an evil version of himself. Well, not evil so much as a complete jerk. He punches a hole throw an oil tanker for kicks, straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa for laughs, and then goes to a bar and gets shitfaced while basically daring any of the other patrons to start something. Can Superman even get drunk? How the hell does that work? The end result is a mean son of a bitch with a drinking problem going through nicotine withdrawal, who just so happens to be able to dodge missiles and bench press a tank. Not a good situation.
In hindsight, Dickhead Superman is hilarious. He’s a total troll, pissing off humanity just for giggles. As a kid watching this for the first time, however, Dickhead Superman is the worst thing imaginable…well, until Zack Snyder’s emo Man of Steel decided he likes to fight super villains in crowded streets, but that’s another story. I was aghast that the ultimate boy scout was giving the world his version of an atomic wedgie. The only saving grace was that good old Clark Kent eventually split off from his evil doppelganger and was able to peacefully settle their differences. Just kidding. Clark goes ham on Dickhead Superman, and the two have a bad-ass fight in a junkyard, culminating in wimpy Mr. Kent totally choking out the bad guy. Dear God! The only thing worse than bad-guy Supes was watching good-guy Supes choke his ass to death. And all of this in a movie full of campy jokes and silly gags!
The Horror Machine
Super Jerk was not even the worst part of this movie for me as a child. Not by a long shot. When Gus’ supercomputer goes out of control, it attempts to fuse with its maker. Gus gets away, but Mr. Webster’s nasty sister is not so lucky. She is pulled, kicking and screaming and begging, into the central chamber of the machine and turned into a robot while still alive. It grafts circuits and wires onto her as she struggles and moans, complete with sparks and smoke. The resulting monstrosity is nightmare fuel of the finest vintage. Where is Superman during all this? He’s fled, having had his butt handed to him by the mega computer. The strongest man in the world pretends to chicken out, while the bad guys beg him to save them from their own machine. As a kid, seeing Superman look at people about to be destroyed and turning his back on them to flee was like getting kicked in the stomach. I was physically ill just watching it.
Now it’s not all that bleak. Superman was just playing possum, coming back with a volatile acid to destroy the computer, and he does kick the robot’s butt in pretty short order. Unfortunately, just as he’s getting the upper hand, the machine grabs HIM and tries to give him the same terminator makeover it just gave Webster’s sister. The whole sequence is traumatizing, start to finish.
The Final Verdict
As an adult, Superman 3 is still awful, but for completely different reasons. The childhood scaring parts are actually the strong points of the film. The 15 minute fight between Superman and Clark is gritty and well paced, with Clark trying his best to subdue his enemy while corrupted Superman is actively trying to murder his good half with every grisly tool in the junkyard. The final confrontation with the machine actually is one of the best fights in the original series, and the computer comes closer to beating Superman than Luthor or Zod ever did. The problem with this film is all of the silly comedic elements.
Superman dodges the missiles sent from the computer in pretty exciting fashion…but the missile control is shown via an Atari video game screen, with a pixel Superman dodging 4-bit ballistics! Richard Pryor is largely wasted in this film, and his “witty” banter with Superman falls flat. He just never develops any chemistry with Reeves, whereas Gene Hackman’s verbal sparring with Reeves always felt perfectly flippant and at home. It’s hard to say what needed to be added to this film in order to make the two big action sequences fit with the tone of the film, but the comedy never really gelled.
A darker toned Superman may have been just what this series needed after all of the campy antics director Richard Lester grafted onto the series when Richard Donner was ousted. There’s always a lighthearted part of Superman when Reeves was in the suit, but he showed he was capable of giving his character some teeth as well.