Vintage Cable Box: “Superman III”, 1983

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“I ask you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one, simple thing.”

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“Superman III”, 1983 (Christopher Reeve), Warner Bros.

Richard Pryor was at the top (the very top!) of his game in 1983. His stand-up comedy movies were the stuff of legend. He had made “Bustin’ Loose” in 1981, a pair of highly-successful comedies with Gene Wilder in “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy”, and exploded on cable television before Eddie Murphy inherited the mantle. Where Murphy moved away from the violence and ambivalence of racial humor and steered his career toward family fare, Pryor embraced it. He checked in on his own past with “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling” in 1986. He had a remarkable understanding when commenting upon (and making great fun of) race relations. He was an exceptionally gifted artist. He meant the world to me.

Enter Warner Brothers, the Salkinds (owners of the Superman franchise at the time), and director Richard Lester.  “Superman II” made half the money of the first Superman movie, but it was still a roaring success.  Without Gene Hackman’s pragmatic Lex Luthor as a supervillian and locked up in prison (to be released by his nephew in the fourth film), and Zod, Ursa, and Non out of the picture, screenwriters David and Leslie Newman needed a new bad guy.  They went with Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), an analogue of Lex Luthor (lacking the arrogance), who has reaped his fortune in computer technology.  A money-mad corporate tycoon, he discovers that one of his new employees, Gus Gorman (Pryor), has learned enough about computer programming to start embezzling pennies-on-the-dollar from other paychecks to give himself a substantial windfall.  Instead of sending Gorman to prison, he puts him to work sabotaging weather satellites causing damage to crops and manipulating stock market prices.

We open with what is obviously a parody of the Jayne Mansfield movie, “The Girl Can’t Help It”.  Bubbly, voluptuous comedienne Pamela Stephenson (from the 1981 Mel Brooks classic, “History Of The World Part One”), causes havoc just walking down a street in Metropolis.  This sets into motion a series of Rube Goldberg-esque contrivances.  Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) is on his way to work, but unfortunately with all the calamity Miss Stephenson causes, he has to duck into a photo booth and presto-change-o becomes Superman to save the day.  Job completed, he goes back to work.  By itself, this is an extraordinary set-up.  Margot Kidder as Lois Lane (completely marginalized after siding with Donner with the Superman II fiasco) is heading to a tropical locale for a vacation.  Why even cast her, if you’re just going to make her say goodbye at the beginning of the movie (she appears at the end of the movie to provide the punchline to an unfunny joke)?  This was the girl for whom Superman was willing to give up his powers (just to be with her) in the previous movie, right?

Back to the story.  Pryor’s programming genius is making Webster even more wealthy, but Superman intervenes at critical junctures.  Webster concocts a scheme to kill Superman with kryptonite.  Unfortunately Gorman can’t find the pure element, so he fashions a facsimile with key ingredients missing, which doesn’t kill Superman.  Instead, it turns him into Super-Douche!  Meanwhile, Clark is headed back to Smallville to cover his high school reunion.  He hooks up with old crush, prom queen Lana Lang (a scrumptious Annette O’ Toole), runs afoul of prom king bully Brad (“Death Wish III’s” Gavan O’Herlihy), and bonds with Lang’s inept and awkwardly adorable kid, Ricky.  Super-Douche wreaks havoc, straightening the leaning tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic Torch, causing an oil spill (in order for Webster to corner the market), getting drunk and generally being unpleasant.

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It’s interesting to me that the key scene in this movie, the fight between Kent and his alter-ago (eloquently executed) has nothing to do with Pryor, or Vaughn, or their antics.  Superman suffers what I can only describe as a nervous breakdown.  He splits into two separate entities: Clark Kent and Superman.  They duke it out, yet they can’t kill one another.  In a final burst of anger, Clark Kent strangles Superman, and retains his identity.  He sets about quickly patching up his mistakes, and in the final act, does battle with an insane super-computer created by Gorman (who gets off scot-free and even given a job opportunity when everybody else goes to jail).

Upon returning to his real home in Metropolis, he presents Lana with an enormous diamond ring (to the ire of Lois), and nothing ever comes of it!  There is no Mrs. Kent or Mrs. Superman in the next sequel.  Which brings me to my final complaint.  Several times the movie comes to a dead-stop, because we have to go back to Perry White’s office to catch up with the staff’s activities.  There’s some “funny business” involving a lottery machine for a contest.  The movie’s muddled slams against computers come full circle when the Daily Planet purchases a computerized lottery machine that goes haywire.  Richard Lester’s direction turns the Superman franchise into a situation comedy, deliberately playing scenes for laughs against the grain of the comic book’s established ethos.  “Superman III” would go on to make only half of the previous movie’s box-office.  1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” would ultimately kill this iteration of the franchise.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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