Sunday, July 09, 2006


How awful is Superman Returns? Bad enough to make me nostalgic for Superman III.

Almost. Nobody could make any claims of quality for Superman III. In fact, it's just awful. But it's awful in a different, more interesting way than Superman Returns, and it's hard to imagine an oddball project like this even getting a greenlight these days.

Everything that seemed dreadful back in 1983 remains the same: Richard Pryor is shoehorned into this simply because he was a major boxoffice star of the time, and his tic-filled performance as a nervous computer genius manipulated by the bad guy drifts dangerously close to Stepin Fetchit territory. That bad guy, an ultra-rich industrialist played blandly by Robert Vaughn, has no personality whatsoever, and his scheme to control the world's economy...hell, I just watched the thing and I can't tell you what he was trying to do. There's no sense of menace, or urgency, no reason for Superman to be involved. Which is good, since Supes--or more accurately, Clark Kent--spends much of the movie back home in Smallville, rekindling an old flame, which makes us wonder why he's being unfaithful to Lois (and why Margot Kidder is barely in this).

The most annoying thing about Superman III is the obvious contempt director Richard Lester has for his material, and yet, that's the thing that today makes it most interesting. Once an exremely influential filmmaker, Lester's career had obviously gone into freefall by the early eighties. He had made such terrific pictures as A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Petulia, but by the late seventies a series of flops had led him into for-hire work. He was worked on the first two Superman installments in various capacities, and was credited as director on Superman II, although only about half of the picture was his own work.

Lester was on board Superman III from the get-go, though why he bothered is anyone's guess. He'd had good luck deconstructing familiar genres in the past, such as the anti-musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and the anarchic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, but in those cases he seemed to have real love for his source material, even as he refashioned it to his own ends. Here, he seems totally at sea. Lester's touch is evident in some elaborately constructed slapstick and deadpan sight gags, as well as eccentric casting choices. (British comic Pamela Stephenson and jazz singer Annie Ross are always welcome presences, but what they're doing here is beyond me.) Some of his work here is elegantly staged, some is appallingly sloppy, but nothing he does seems to serve the material; viewers who plop down their money to see a Superman movie have a certain set of expectations, and Lester had no interest in fullfilling any of them.

On the other hand, Bryan Singer is so respectful of the material in Superman Returns that his movie is utterly lifeless, with no sense of fun whatsoever. It's like one of those all-too-respectable adaptations of Great Literature MGM ground out in the thirties and forties, but this isn't great literature, it's Superman. He wears tights and can fly. It's one thing to take a premise seriously--as opposed to taking a campy approach, as Lester did--and another thing to regard it with wildly misplaced solemnity, making The Passion Of The Christ look like a Mel Brooks film.

Comic book adaptations seem to be the new regular thing in Hollywood these days, and though most of them flat-out blow (The Fantastic Four, anyone?), they're not train-wreck bad like Superman III. These days, it's hard to imagine an eccentric like Richard Lester getting hired by a major studio to direct a big-budget franchise picture.

It's also hard to imagine an eccentric like Lester getting hired by a major studio to direct, period, and we're all poorer for that.