Superman III (1983) may not have killed the franchise, but like a boxer crushed in the jaw with a haymaker, the movie series was down for the count. Rather than doing the prudent thing, and following an immensely intriguing storyline laid out by producer Ilya Salkind, the team behind the third Superman film chose to pen a project around comedian Richard Pryor.
The end result, which could have featured characters like Brainiac and Supergirl, was a story that wandered in a listless manner around the Man of Steel and focused more on Pryor’s computer-hacking character of Gus Gorman.
The good news is that Superman III feels like Casablanca (1942) when stacked up against the dregs of the original series that include Supergirl (1984) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). At the end of the day, Part III is like a bad episode of your favorite television show. It’s there if you want to see it. But who really wants to watch it?
Here are 15 Shocking Things You Didn’t Know About The Horrible Superman III.
15. Kissing cousins?!
Superman III almost took the notion of kissing cousins to a whole new level of awkwardness. Even before the New York City premiere of Superman II (1980) in June of 1981, executive producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were already planning a third installment in the series.
Alexander’s son Ilya wrote a short treatment of the picture, which was vastly different from the refuse that eventually limped onto the Silver Screen. And in that story Superman and Supergirl teamed up.
However, Clark Kent and his cousin Kara were unaware they were related. As a result, while working together, Supergirl falls for Kal-El romantically. This seemed quite reminiscent of the Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) relationship in the original Star Wars trilogy, before they knew they were brother and sister.
14. Comic book inspiration – erased
Chalk one up for the comedy gods, and not in a good way. Oh, what could have been! Producer Ilya Salkind’s first story treatment for Superman III, aka Superman vs. Superman, was a comic book enthusiast’s dream come true. In that short outline, Salkind had the Man of Steel facing off against Brainiac.
In this early conception, Brainiac had found Kara Zor-El much in the same way the Kents discovered Kal-El when he was a baby in Superman: The Movie (1978). Along with Mister Mxyzptlk, Brainiac would have battled Superman.
As the story progressed, Brainiac discovered that Kara developed romantic feelings for the Man of Steel. And the evil Superman, which does appear in Superman III, would have been controlled by Brainiac!
In the end, Kara would have saved Clark and the pair would have teamed up as Superman and Supergirl against Brainiac and Mister Mxyzptlk. But instead of a movie of that epic nature, fans were treated to a Richard Pryor-inspired comedy that was anything but funny.
13. Richard Pryor only did the movie for money
The late Richard Pryor was a comedic genius who even had an off-color comedy routine based on the Man of Steel, as the first track on his self-titled debut comedy album in 1968.
Seemingly a fan of the character, Pryor shared with iconic television host Johnny Carson a story about seeing the Superman film and how he’d like to be involved. Word of this news reached Alexander and Ilya Salkind while they were in Europe.
It was then that the producers decided to not only hire Pryor for Superman III, but to design the script around the comedic actor. Once the screenplay had been completed, Pryor read it over and agreed to star in the film for $5 million.
12. Team Lex Luthor and Lois Lane?
Lex Luthor and Lois Lane may never be on the same side, but actors Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder were. Both had their fill of producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s treatment of director Richard Donner on Superman: The Movie and Superman II. Despite directing both films simultaneously, the sequel was not quite completed when Donner was fired from the project.
After tensions between the Salkinds and Donner had reached the boiling point, the producers indeed dismissed Donner and turned the remainder of the shoot over to Richard Lester. Donner, despite his hard work, was not credited with directing Superman II.
Furious, Hackman declined to participate in Superman III, while Kidder spoke out against the Salkinds. She insisted that Lois Lane’s paltry appearance in Part III was punishment for speaking out. Although, in the DVD commentary for the film, Ilya Salkind denies that Kidder was being punished.
11. Superboy Meets Superman
Aaron Smolinkski had the honor of playing young Kal-El, who was found by Ma (Phyllis Thaxter) and Pa (Glenn Ford) Kent in Superman: The Movie. After emerging from the Kryptonian rocket and being taken in by the elderly couple, Superboy caught the Kent’s truck before it could collapse off its jack and crush Jonathan.
Fast forward five years later. Superman III opened with Clark Kent dashing into a photo booth to change into his costume. A young boy, once again played by actor Aaron Smolinkski, caught Superman’s secret identity in a set of photographs. It was here, for a brief moment, that Superboy met Superman.
And Smolinkski’s connection to the Superman film mythology recently extended into his adulthood, as the actor portrayed a communications office in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013).
10. Failed Superman III: Atari 5200 game
One of the more interesting sequences in Superman III, at least for gamers, was when Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) used Gus Gorman’s super computer to attack the Man of Steel with rockets and a hefty missile.
Atari and Warner Bros. planned declared that an Atari 5200 video game tie-in was in the works, but it would have been impossible to duplicate the super-computer sequence on the Atari’s 1983 platforms.
Rather, a game that mimicked Missile Command (1980) was being created, in which Superman flew through the city fighting off energy pulses with his superpowers. The game didn’t fare well with test groups, as there were complaints about awkward control issues.
9. Critical Rejection
Superman III fared poorly with critics back in 1983 and things haven’t changed all that much today. The late film critic Roger Ebert thought the human element of the picture got lost in the special effects, and it’s hard to argue that point.
And Rotten Tomatoes reflected the harsh sentiments Ebert, other film writers from the early 1980’s and today’s critics held. Superman III only managed a 26% rating on RT, but at least that’s better than Superman IV’s 12% and Supergirl’s wretched 7%.
Even with talented thespians like Christopher Reeve, Robert Vaughn and, yes, Richard Pryor, there’s no redemption for Superman III. The effort and funding was there in nearly every aspect of production, but the screenplay by David and Leslie Newman is what ultimately hung the film from the gallows.
8. Casting Crisis
Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s alleged, harsh treatment of Superman: The Movie’s director Richard Donner almost cost the producers their superstar, Christopher Reeve. After losing Gene Hackman for the exact same reason, the producers scrambled to find another Clark Kent as Reeve threatened not to return.
Kurt Russell, Jeff Bridges, and even John Travolta were approached to don the iconic Superman costume, but none of them had any interest in playing the part. Just days before shooting was scheduled to start, the Salkinds settled on – wait for it – Tony Danza.
Director Richard Lester couldn’t believe it, and he did all he could to convince Reeve to return to the role. Agreeing to make many script changes, Lester lucked out when Reeve decided to return to the production.
7. Superman vs. Superman vs. Kramer vs. Kramer
It’s a good thing Freddy vs. Jason (2003) came out twenty years after Superman III. Otherwise, the producers of the movie Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) might have threatened a lawsuit against that film, too. Yes, the original title for Part III was Superman vs. Superman, but it had to be changed. Apparently, the word “versus” suggested a connection between the pictures Superman vs. Superman and Kramer vs. Kramer. Wait -what?
Why did those producers think anything Superman-related would infringe on their film? And why stop there if “versus” really was the issue? Why not go after films that followed like Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) and Dollman vs. Demonic Toys (1993)? Maybe there wasn’t any money to be made there? Hmm…
In the end, Pierre Spengler suggested changing the title to Superman III to avoid the idiocy of the situation, and no further action was taken. Look out Batman v Superman (2016), those Kramer vs. Kramer producers might still be lurking in the shadows – ready to pounce.
6. Box Office
Superman III was the least successful of the first three Superman movies, but it certainly fared better than the Supergirl spin-off and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Alas, Superman: The Movie and Superman II easily surpassed the $100 million mark. With Part III, it took some creative accounting to get the picture to that lofty number.
The budget was approximately $39 million, and Superman III did make that back by grossing almost $60 million domestically. That was a far cry from Superman’s $134 million and Superman II’s $108 million, though.
However, despite its awful storyline, Superman III was a success financially. When domestic, international and rental totals were tallied, the film exceeded $100 million. Still, the drop off was substantial from the first two movies and it reflected the poor response by audiences toward the dreadful Richard Pryor experiment.
5. Smallville Allusions
Superman III might have been a terrible waste of celluloid, but it provided a lot of foreshadowing to the successful Smallville (2001-2011) television show that first aired almost 20 years later.
In the film, Richard Pryor’s Gus Gorman develops a new iteration of Kryptonite infused with tar. This type of K not only took away Clark’s inhibitions, but it also split him into good and evil versions of himself. Smallville later duplicated these ideas with Red and Black Kryptonite.
Everyone knows that Annette O’Toole played Lana Lang in the film and later Martha Kent on Smallville. But Superman III was the first, and only movie, to explore Clark’s romance with his high school crush. And the “Clana” relationship was later pivotal to the success of Smallville.
The TV show literally took a scene from Superman III and reworked it in the episode Reckoning (2006). In both the movie and show, Clark took a lump of coal and crushed it into a diamond, forging it into a ring for Lana.
4. Frank Oz Deleted Scene
Superman III could have used all the help it could get – so why would filmmakers delete a scene from the movie that included the masterful Frank Oz? Yes, the talented actor, who voiced some of television and movie’s biggest characters (Yoda, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster), had a hilarious cameo in the picture. Waka waka!
After Gus Gorman’s (Richard Pryor) super computer reached out to devour energy from surrounding power sources, the machine began draining cities of their electricity. And in a hospital, Oz’s surgeon prepared for a brain procedure prior to the blackout.
Just before Oz could operate, of course, the power went out. And in the dark, fearing that he has made a mistake, the doctor said: “Was that me?” Granted, Richard Pryor was the comedic relief in the movie, but a little Oz mojo wouldn’t have hurt anything.
3. Superman’s Hair
It is a well-known fact that the late actor Christopher Reeve dyed his hair black to emulate the look of the Man of Steel for Superman: The Movie and Superman II. However, rather than going that route in Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Reeve wore a wig.
Reeve was around 16-years-old when he discovered he had Alopecia areata, which is sudden, patchy hair loss. Alopecia areata causes the immune system to adversely affect hair follicles and can be caused by stress.
Reeve said a bald spot first formed at the crown of his head, but he also admitted that his hair would fall out and grow back. He was able to hide the disorder by combing over his hair, for the most part, but as he got older he used hair pieces in the later Superman flicks. Look closely and you’ll see a much richer brown tone to Reeve’s hair in his Superman III and IV performances.
2. Salami Slicing
It seems only natural that a person struggling with unemployment would try stick it to the man the first chance he gets. Once Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) finds his hidden talent, as a computer programmer, he tries to swindle his boss Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) out thousands of dollars.
After Gorman discovers that half-cents from everyone’s salaries are seemingly just floating around in cyberspace, he uses his computer to set up a special expenses account to collect the money. And shortly after receiving a check for $85,000, Gus is found out by Webster.
The curious technique Gorman used is now known as Salami Slicing. Think of what Gorman did as literally slicing up a salami – cutting off very small pieces from a large sausage. Conceivably, no one would notice initially. And those small chunks of meat will add up to an enormous amount after time.
The film Office Space (1999) paid homage to Superman III when Peter (Ron Livingston) and his friends ripped off Initech the same way. Too bad Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) wasn’t on the set of Superman III and in the ears of the screenwriters, producers and director: “Yeah, if you could just stop what you’re doing, that’d be great.”
1. Superman vs. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Lex Luthor’s absence in Superman III was enormous, but like the tragedy of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace it’s doubtful even Gene Hackman could have salvaged the train wreck titled Superman III.
Executive producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind ended up hiring the late Robert Vaughn to portray the unscrupulous Lex-like business man Ross Webster. Vaughn was well-known as Napoleon Solo in the U.N.C.L.E. films of the 1960’s and the popular television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).
There was a stark juxtaposition between Vaughn’s heroic portrayal of Solo and villainous Webster, but what overlapped was Vaughn’s charisma and likability. Despite his inclusion, which was brilliant casting, the film still couldn’t measure up to the first two Superman pictures. Years later, in 2015, modern-day Superman Henry Cavill played Napoleon Solo in the new The Man from U.N.C.L.E. film.
Which shocking things surprised you most? Are you fan of Superman III or do you believe it rightly deserves to be remembered as one of the clunkers of the superhero genre? Sounds off in the comments!