Guilty Pleasures – Superman 3

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Superman 3 is not a film about Superman. It’s a film about Gus Gorman.

Gus is the everyman antithesis of Superman: nobody knows him, nobody cares about him, he has no confidence or awareness of what he’s good at, he can’t control his impulses which keep him from having a job or a social life, and he constantly falls under the racist stigma of being a black man in the 80s on Welfare… which he’s even now being denied because of most of the above. Gus Gorman isn’t even so much an Everyday Joe as he is the guy who’s so far down that he aspires to rise to the common ranks of Everyday Joe.

And the reason for this is he’s brilliant.

Gus has a type of genius that we’d probably call Asbergers today, but back in the early 80s was left unidentified and often led the person to be dismissed as an “oddball” or a “screwup”. Gus constantly fumbles social situations and all forms of employment, not out of stupidity, but out of overanalysis which causes him to focus on odd details and say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Gus has no outlet for his strengths, so he doesn’t even know he has any, which further fuels his disconnect and depression.

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Enter the emerging computer market of the 80s, and the boom in jobs for computer technicians and programmers. It’s through random happenstance that Gus find himself on the lowest rung of the ladder at a computer company, where the first time he takes a seat behind a keyboard, everything becomes clear. He’s a man who can read computer code and quickly learns how to speak it through his fingers, and gains a knack for getting machines to do things they weren’t created to do. Thinking he’s been screwed over yet again by a lower than expected paycheck, Gun quietly uses his new abilities to lash out, enacting the Office Space gag of pulling together the stray fractions of cents that are usually rounded out of wages.

When he’s called on this, he thinks he’s screwed up again, but it turns out the boss of the company, Ross Webster (deliciously played by Robert Vaughn), would rather take advantage of Gus’s abilities as he recognizes computer technology is already leading to a shift in the times, and having someone skilled in it under your wing is far better than crushing and burying the man over stealing less money than Webster probably spends on getting dressed each day.

But he has a further plan, which is right up there with Lex Luthor’s real estate scheme of the first film: use computers to screw with his competitors. How? By using a weather satellite to create a massive tornado that’ll rip through Columbia and give Webster the corner on the coffee market. Regardless of how silly the notion is that one can hack a weather satellite into creative a massive natural disaster, the devastation being wrought is still very nicely executed, and I like the stylish touch of having Superman’s saving of the day be told through flashbacks as a frazzled Gus tells his boss how everything went wrong but it’s not his fault.

So then comes their next gamble: taking Superman out of the picture. I’ve got a lot to say about this aspect, but I’ll cover it below. Mainly, it allows Webster to think even bigger as he now wants to control the world’s oil supply, and this is more along the real idea of what a hacker could have achieved then as Gus alters the guidance systems and shipping orders of oil tankers so as to keep them away from ports and boosting up gas prices.

This is the point where Gus realizes he’s put himself on the wrong end of things, as he bears witness to a fist fight at the head of a massive line hoping to get what little gas is left at a station, even as the price per gallon skyrockets. Gus overhears a line about how things like this always hit the little man hardest, and is he not himself the “little man”? Is he not now causing the very pain and degrading social climate he himself was suffering through in the beginning of the film?

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In a great twist, instead of using this to spark Gus’s redemption, it instead forces him over the edge as he decides to fully sell his soul to the devil, enacting Webster’s oil scheme, but not for money, or fame, or other forms of social niceties, but so he can have the resources to build the computer of his dreams; a massive complex scrawled on a puzzle of napkins and receipt backs. A computer that can do anything, a computer he can rule the world with, a computer that’ll be his ultimate legacy.

And once the computer has been built (a massive, admirable set by Peter Burton), his baby is taken from him as Webster just uses it for more destruction and a continuing drive to kill Superman. Gus has found his place in the world, his skill, and has designed and seen built the furthest extension of what he’s capable of achieving… but it’s been done for all the wrong reasons, and so he takes it out. Gus kills his baby in order to save Superman.

But the baby isn’t going down without a fight as, in one of my favorite moments, the computer (which was referred to as Brainiac in early drafts) swallows Webster’s overbearing sister, Vera (Annie Ross, who’s great in a battleaxe role, despite the odd, incestuous undertone between her and Vaughn’s part), and forcibly staples wiring and metal onto her, creating a free walking avatar for its emerging sentience. This is the full consequence Gus has unleashed upon the world – a machine that can do anything and think for itself, and is taking the first steps to Skynet level conquest or annihilation of all humanity. Gus has already been taken down, so now Superman has to take on this other man’s mistake.

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And yet, Superman has no bitterness towards Gus. When the cards fell, Gus did the right thing and saved Superman’s life. So instead of carting Gus off to jail with the Websters, Superman brings him to a plant he rescued early in the film, where he gives Gus a personal recommendation for a position in the computer department. But true to Gus’s opening misfortune, once the Man of Steel takes off, he’s seen as just another black man looking for work as they first want to check his job history. Gus has been down this road before, so he wanders off again into the anonymity of the trod upon everyman, not so much as punishment for trying to be something more, as it is penance for wanting it for the wrong reasons.

This movie catches a ton of flack for not only the focus it puts on the Gus Gorman character, as it does for the simple gall of sticking Richard Pryor into a Superman movie. I’ll admit that Pryor isn’t very good in the roll, as a lot of Gorman’s nuance and arc are buried under Pryor’s often insincere bumbling and odd moments of adlibbing. But on paper, Gus is still a great character, and a far cry from the “appeal to ethnic audiences” people often dismiss this as. We’ve had two films about Superman, so what better way to get a new perspective on the hero than to see him through the perspective of his ultimate counterpoint. Ethnicity aside, this is the story about a lost man the world doesn’t understand because he doesn’t understand himself. And when that understanding ultimately comes through the seduction of a villain who just wants to use those newfound abilities to continue trodding on the downtrodden, Gus ultimately walks away from it and everything it’s given him. And even as he once again returns to the trod upon and is sent packing in the end, he does so with an understanding of what he can do, what he’s capable of, and, more importantly, what lines he’s no longer willing to cross to get there. And interestingly, none of this comes through the inspiration of Superman. There’s never a moment where he has animosity towards the hero that turns into respect, or where Superman gives him a speech that sets him down the straight and narrow. No, this is all stuff Gus learns on his own through his own experiences. When Superman is being killed by Webster and the computer, Gus saves him because he doesn’t think it’s fair to punish Superman just because he’s a guy who helps people. And that’s a lesson Gus received not from helping people himself, but from hurting them. The scene at the gas station, and how the effect it has on Gus leads him to plunge himself even deeper into the dark side in a misguided effort to drown his guilt, is a genuinely powerful moment, and even Pryor sets aside the schtick that hasn’t quite been working until now so he can play the scene for all its worth. Stuff like this, to me, more than makes up for the dragged out bits of Pryor pretending to be a general or being drunk beneath a massive cowboy hat.

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Richard Lester is often charged with being the one who brought the Superman films down to the level of silly camp. It must be argued that, after the 50 minute origin story, the first film itself became a 1940’s style screwball comedy filled with sight gags, oneliners, and Lex Luthor’s wildly flamboyant portrayal and plot. Tom Mankeiwicz’s rewrite gave the humor a sharpness, but it was no less silly than what we get here. I’ll admit Lester made a mess of Superman 2, but that’s a film he stepped in on, where Mankiewicz’s rewrite had already been discarded and Lester just had to make due with what he was given.

Here, Lester got to supervise the project from the earliest stages, making the material his own and developing it from the ground up. It is a very comedic film, but while one can debate this material’s place in a Superman movie, I challenge anyone to actually tell me why many of the great bits and setpieces aren’t funny. Excluding the above mentioned oddly delivered Pryor bits, which I admit don’t sell, we get great stuff like massive chaos on a city street caused by the passing of a leggy blonde, said leggy blonde secretly being a super genius who’s just putting on the act of being a Barbie doll, Perry White’s frequent exasperation at an office lottery and the lawsuit that bites him in the ass when the prize trip to Columbia puts the winners in the eye of the massive tornado, Webster detailing his use of socks and skiing on a slope he’s built atop his skyscraper, the play on arcade gaming (complete with amusingly appropriate graphics) as Webster guides a barrage of missiles at Superman, the misadventures of the drunk lout who used to be prom king and won’t stop pursuing Lana, and Lana’s attention deficit which has her constantly jumping topics of conversation mid sentence. This is all stuff that made me laugh, that invested me in the moment, that gave heart to the more dramatic threads of the story, and helped the genuinely frightening bit of “Braniac” coming to life to hit me with an unexpected punch. This is not stuff that I see as a detraction from the film, but rather what gives it flavor and personality.

And while I pointed out in my first line that this isn’t Superman’s story, it must be argued that he does have a story within it, and it’s a good one. I think Superman 2, especially the love story with Lois, is a steaming mess, but I appreciate that, instead of it being the story of how Superman fell in love with her and they became the ultimate power couple fandom always demands they be, it instead subverted expectations by being the story of how Superman had to let her go, because the cost of what he’d have to give up to be with her – as well as the toll it was taking on her – was ultimately too great a price to pay. So here, Lois Lane is largely a cameo, someone who’s returned to being a colleague Clark may still have a thing for, but he’s now moved on. At one point, he saw her as his future, but that future never came to be, so he’s instead reflecting on the past.

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Using a piece on it that he pitches to Perry as an excuse, Clark returns to Smallville for his 15-year high school reunion. We don’t see him on the family farm, soaking in the expected sights or sharing a moment with his mother (whose funeral we hear about in a quick, pained line), and instead see him with his peers. This is a group of people Clark never fit in with, as he had to spend his entire adolescence hiding who he is and what he’s capable of. Instead of showing everyone up and finally unleashing what he’s always held back, this becomes a minor thread about acceptance, about how he’s become comfortable with the necessity of the disguise of Clark, and how he’s come to own the foibles of this persona even as they’re shoved tauntingly in his face.

And then there’s Lana, the first girl he had a crush on, who takes comfort in the fact that Clark is still the kind, quiet man she knew from her youth. She was the popular girl, the cheerleader and prom queen, but it’s given her nothing but a drunk slob she used to date who won’t leave her alone, and a son she’s been left to raise when the dad turned into a deadbeat. But she’s never treated as broken because of this, as she’s still a very sharp and positive person, and always at the forefront of organizing town events like the reunion. But like Gus, she’s stuck in an environment that will only let her skills go so far and she thirsts for more, in a thread that will eventually take her to Metropolis.

I’ll admit there are flaws in this thread, in that it feels like a lot of setup without any ultimate payoff. Lana’s interactions with Superman are brief and forced, she doesn’t play any part in the climax, and the note we leave her on, working as Perry’s new secretary, seems more like it’s there to set up a triangle between her, Lois, and Clark in an imaginary version of Superman 4 we never received than it does the culmination of an arc in this film. And it rings completely false to me that, when meeting Superman face-to-face, she doesn’t instantly recognize him as Clark, as so much could be built out of such a scenario. Still, though, the scenes in Smallville between her and Clark are beautifully done, with a genuine chemistry and growth to their relationship which was lacking in the romance with Lois. Even though it’s a cliffhanger for a sequel that ultimately doesn’t pick up on it, I still enjoy its presence.

And it does act as a great personality contrast as Superman then turns evil. While the plot of Gus and Webster manufacturing and exposing Superman to Kryptonite is horribly set up, the consequences of how the flawed batch affects him are very compelling and well executed. There’s an element of humor in how Superman descends into the dark side – ignoring calls for help, straightening the Tower of Piza, flirting with the leggy blonde associated with our bad guys – but it gains weight from how straight Reeve plays it. This Superman is a frightening, ugly figure, with hair unkempt, face unshaven and locked in a scowl, and his costume darkened to a tint that amusingly matches the supposedly “good” Superman suit of the two most recent films. Superman has become a creature filled with loathing, and that loathing extends to himself, leading to the great scene of Superman getting drunk at a bar and sneering at those who pass him on the street with disapproving shakes of their heads.

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And then we get the junkyard scene, which I think is one of the most powerful sequences in the film series. The screenplay was originally titled Superman Vs. Superman, which isn’t entirely accurate as the inner battle we see play out as an allegorical physical smackdown isn’t between Superman and a suited carbon copy, it’s between Superman and Clark Kent. It’s the power and the symbol versus the man who gives them meaning, and the agony and rage Reeve unleashes as the broken hero lashes out against what he’s been blinded into seeing as the weaker half of himself is more than enough to sell what could be an awkward setpiece. The composition and performances make it real, even if it’s all in his head, and instead of going for the over-the-top spectacle that was so unevenly strung together in the previous film, this treats it as a down and dirty street fight, with punches and hurls, and screams of misguided agony. What’s most important about Superman’s cure is that it doesn’t come cheap, through anti-Kryptonite or sun beams or some other deus ex machina. It comes through reflection, through getting deep into the heart of himself and reasserting the man, the hero he wants to be. Like Gus, it comes down to a choice, of whether or not to keep going down a road leading to nothing but bad consequences, or to do what’s needed drive off that road and find a better path.

Superman 3 is neither a great film, nor a great Superman film, but I do think it’s good. It’s a good Richard Lester comedy about technology run amok and one down-on-his luck guy’s Faustian rise to power as he learns what he’s capable of, as well as the cost. It’s a good tender romance about a man at a crossroads who returns to his roots and finds an old someone he could potentially make a new future with. It’s a good examination of a hero who has to face and break through the hole of personal corruption he’s been sucked into.

It has some bad choices and comedy bits that don’t work and some special effects that don’t look all that great (though the helicopter photography Superman is matted against is some of the best yet) and the argument that this entire story is a poor fit for the franchise it ended up in is a valid one… but I still like this movie. The story of Gus, on its own, is still a compelling and entertaining ride I’m willing to go on. And as much as he’s been pushed aside, the story arc Superman goes through is still well handled and has a worthy place in the canon.

This is a film which, for all its flaws, still ultimately moves me. It’s neither the film people wanted, nor the film they deserved, but it’s the film we got. And I, for one, am okay with that.

Originally posted 2013-07-02 13:04:07. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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