Friday, April 22, 2016

Superman III (Richard Lester)

Superman v Superman

Trying to get the bad taste of Zack Snyder's latest out of my mouth I took a peek at arguably one of the worst if not the worst entry in the franchise, Superman III--y'know, the one with Richard Pryor on skis flapping a pink cape.

The film opens with a chain of incidents that end in disaster--and immediately you know you're not in the world of 'verisimilitude' director Richard Donner tried so hard to establish in the first movie. But what's realism, really? Superman in 1978 (Christopher Reeve in all three versions,plus a fourth of which the less is said the better) rose in the air like a god to the accompaniment of John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra; in this 1983 installment he is mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, walking the streets like any other New Yorker (sorry, Metropolite). In place of Donner's rather strained attempts at mythmaking, director Richard Lester (who also did Superman II) gives us an earthier Man of Steel, concerned not so much with changing the planet's spin as with nudging everyday life back on its proper course (while keeping his identity secret, of course). 

"But what about all the slapstick? What about Pryor and his mugging?" Lester has been criticized for the film's more humorous tone (as opposed to what, the first sequel?) but I'm thinking most folks mistake the absurdism in Lester's work for lightheartedness, his characters' nonchalance for callowness.

Equally misunderstood is Lester's worldview. His Metropolis is actually grimmer than anything Donner (or Snyder for that matter) imagines: instead of supervillains and extraterrestrial threats Lester focuses on unhappy relationships and poverty (early on we see an unemployment line); instead of superhuman feats of strength he allows the camera to stray and capture little moments experienced by 'little' people--a blind man seeking his seeing-eye dog, for example, or Pryor's out-of-work Gus Gorman trying to pick up his check at the Welfare Office ("The only other employment you found was in a fast-food joint which lasted 28 minutes. Well that's some kind of record." "Man them people were crazy! How they 'spect you to learn all that jive on the first day?" "Do you know what you are?" "Don't call me a bum--I ain't no bum.").

Seen this way, the casual manner in which Lester's characters face adversity seems less comic than heroic--confronting widespread destruction (or rather widespread recession, a far likelier prospect) with a stubborn grin and
mulish defiance

Does the film seem smaller, less magical, more random as a result?
 Yes, also more intimate, more true-to-life, more vulnerable to happenstance--the real villain in a Lester film.

Key to understanding the film is Pryor's Gus--unemployed black man with a hitherto unsuspected gift for computer programming, promptly snapped up and exploited by multimillionaire Ross Webster (suavely deadpan Robert Vaughn). Gus doesn't get to interact much with the Man of Tomorrow--who's a god after all--but does interact with Ross, who asserts
his (self-assumed) superiority by ancient right and (white) privilege. Gus bows and scrapes; as Pryor plays him, he's our worse notion of quivering obsequiousness (with a dash of criminal fear) come to embarrassing life ("Gus, a family-owned cartel; a little magnesium here, a little zinc you know what I want now? I want coffee!" "Black or regular?").

Gus grows, however (Lester is all about chaotic surfaces obscuring hidden designs); he actually has a story arc, from cowering minion to resentful hireling to reluctant rebel, and the development is surprisingly persuasive despite (because of?) the mugging, which has you either chuckling or wincing till you realize you're looking at a reasonably whole if faulty human being. In comics and movies Superman was often given sidekicks--Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lana's son--but these innocent intermediates often came with their own halo of nobility, as if refracting aspects of the Kryptonian original; I submit Gus is the most flawed most complex foil our hero ever encounterd on the big screen, and all the stories of production troubles and withering reactions from critics have distracted us from this realization.   

Did I call Superman a god? Why yes, one that Lester yanks off his pedestal. More than Lex Luthor (
skip the rest of this article if you plan to see the film!), more than Batman, more than some silly CGI construct dubbed Doomsday (I have a thirty-pound cat with a more threatening demeanor), Superman's ultimate nemesis should be and is himself (the result of Gus exposing him to kryptonite contaminated with cigarette tar). Confronting anything after that--even a swiftly evolving supercomputer designed by Gus himself--would be anticlimactic (though this trend of facing a human rival and then a computerized one seems prescient).

Is this picture the best of the franchise? It's not the most expensive--the original script had Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and Supergirl before budget cuts forced their deletion--but Lester does his best with what he's got, down to recycling special effects and footage from the first movie, at one point depicting a battle between Superman and Ross as a cheap-looking videogame. Mind you Lester wanted the cheap look--had the effects folk redo the footage because it looked too real--which suggests that the director wasn't too concerned with pinching pennies as he was with making a satiric point: that superhero movies are but a step above videogames, and while we're bashing superheros with their own dark side we might as well bash their movies with an Atari-developed parody (which oddly was never released, an unrealized bit of market potential).

The film is over and Gus bids Superman farewell and--what d'you know?--there's genuine affection in Gus' voice. Pryor was reportedly roped into doing this movie because he once expressed on a talk show the desire to appear in a Superman movie; he later confessed that the script they gave him was so bad he didn't want to do it, but the pay was five million dollars. Imagine Ross with his arm around Pryor, talking numbers into his ear, and you have an iconic image of life lampooning art.

I'm glad Ross gave him that talk; the surprisingly poignant parting completes the wayward course of the film's narrative structure, completes the even more wayward course of Gus' character development, giving us a glimpse of the decency hidden under all that buffoonery. Is this the best of the franchise? I say it's easily the oddest, with Pryor and Vaughn mocking the master-servant relationship and Reeve mocking his goody-goody persona (the scene where Superman gets drunk in a cheap dive is about peerless) and Lester mocking comic-book adaptations while still doing a pretty good version of one, inventive battles, slapstick sequences, surreal psychodrama and all. The film also expresses the most effrontery--a survey of reviews past and recent reveal an indignation that has yet to abate, and I submit that Lester did not lack for courage in provoking that indignation.  

Is this third the best? Probably not--the second picture had the most deftly balanced mix of light comedy, emotional maturity, oversized action. But it's better than Snyder's steaming pile of digitized tar-impregnated kryptonite. I'll give it that much. 

First published in Businessworld 4.15.16

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