Saturday, September 17, 2016

Clear Images, pt. 3 Synthetic Unity

This is what happens when you go mainstream, Richard.

1983 was something of a banner year for geek movies. There was the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi; not one but two James Bond movies, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again; and the third installment in the Superman franchise. Compared to the triumphant trilogy-capping of Jedi, or even the novelty of seeing original Bond actor Sean Connery back in the proverbial (and literal, in that super-racist bit in NSNA) saddle, Superman III is a bit of a limp noodle. It's a comedy-adventure, with the emphasis squarely on comedy, as evidenced by superstar comedian Richard Pryor prominently displayed on the film's promotional material. 

Make no mistake: Return of the Jedi this is not. Nor was it ever intended to be. The Superman films in the 1980's, in fact, can more directly be compared with, say, those James Bond films, where each installment is just sort of a new thing that happens. The connection to James Bond is a telling one, for me, and not just because of Peter Murton, who served as the Production Designer for this film as well as The Man with the Golden Gun, and as Art Director for both Goldfinger and Thunderball.

"I have no plans. No evil schemes at all."

Analogy time: Superman I is Dr No. Superman III is Octopussy. But whereas the James Bond franchise evolved over twenty years and three actors from Sean Connery's deadpan murder-quips to Roger Moore dressed as a clown, Superman, as is his wont, did the stunt faster than a speeding bullet, at just five years..

Superman III stands in contrast in particular to the first of the Christopher Reeve films and its grandiose American mythmaking. It's compared unfavorably to its immediate predecessor for the same reason. When people remember Superman II, I think they tend to remember bits of it. The Diner. Zod in the White House. The fight. The reversal. What I suspect gets overlooked or glossed over are the constant ways in which the action in Superman II, particularly in the climactic fight between Superman and the Phantom Zone villains, is undercut by little twinges of Richard Lester's idea of comedy. Superman II is a film at war with itself.

To recap: Superman: The Movie and its sequel were filmed concurrently, with an eye for releases closer together than what the public eventually got. As the budget and shooting schedule got out of control, however, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind pressed Richard Donner to at least get the first film done. Eventually, Donner and the Salkind's got into a public row over Superman II, resulting in Donner being sacked and replaced with Richard Lester.

It's not as though Donner's first film is devoid of any humor. There's a wry light-heartedness to Superman himself, and Lex Luthor is played as a camp figure, as performative and faintly ridiculous as he is affably menacing. But Lester's version doubled-down on the jokes, with numerous reshoots changing the depth of the shots as well as a general peppering throughout of little off-hand gags, which, in the particular case of Zod et. al.'s assault on Metropolis, manage to thoroughly drain that scene of any of the tension or horror you might expect from three people who can bench-press a city going to town on a human populace.

"People, people, please! Just because it's a dramatic scene doesn't mean you can't do a little comedy in the background!"

Superman III doesn't have this problem. Left to his own devices, Lester crafts a story that has far more in common with the 1960's Batman TV series than either of the two Superman films that came before. It's impossible, I think, to view the film without considering it through the prism of the fifteen years separating the release of this film from the Adam West Batman TV series. For decades after Batman went off the air, articles about superhero properties--especially those properties translated to the small or large screen--couldn't help but throw in a POW! BAM! or a "Holy Whatever The Hell, Batman!," or what have you. Lester has been quoted as saying he didn't grow up with Superman, and we can take him at his word on that, I suppose. But it's hard not to see the bones of West's Batman, here and in the original Superman.

The original film owes much to Batman. The villain set-up: well-known actor, henchman, mol, are a Superman-themed palate swap from Batman's rogues as they appeared on that program. The only difference between Gene Hackman in Superman and Frank Gorshin in Batman is Hackman's Luthor only has the one henchman, and no brightly-colored knock-out gas. It's a trend that continues here, though Robert Vaughn's Ross Webster owes more in his DNA to a James Bond villain than Lex Luthor, at least as Luthor was portrayed prior to 1986.

See Also: Goldfinger, Stromberg, Drax, Zorin

Comic books, and in particular comic book adaptations, have had an uneasy relationship with camp, particularly in relation to that Sixties TV show, and how it shaped the mass audience's perception of superheroes for almost fifty years. Batman existed in the frisson between ideas that were originally geared toward children and the adult sensibilities of the parents watching that show with their kids. Indeed, Superman III is only two years out from titanic shifts in the comic book industry that were, in large part, a reaction to the continued perception of comics as a children's medium.

The Superman film franchise sputtered with its third outing and nearly came to a halt. And while I'd hesitate to call this film "good," exactly, Superman III gets a bum rap for bringing such a tonal whiplash to the franchise. In today's era, where superhero films are so thick on the ground it's hard not to trip over them, the film might have fared better, simply for the variety it brings, the lack of pompous self-seriousness that informed other superhero films, both flops and successes.

If nothing else,that Brainiac scene at the end gave me nightmares as a kid.

Fucking. Terrifying.

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