Remember when Superman got drunk at a dive bar, straightened the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and faced off against the terrifying nemesis of Richard Pryor? And then later, a woman horrifically became one with a machine? No? Well, welcome to Superman III!
After the massive success of Superman II in 1981, Richard Lester was asked to come back and direct the next film in the Superman series. Though a touch of his campy, comedic style was on display in II, he decided to go all-in with the jokes for number three. Instead of getting a laugh-a-minute ride with Earth’s favorite alien, though, we got a tonally disjointed mess that made Superman look equal parts sap and A-hole.
In Superman III, Richard Pryor plays a computer genius who works the Office Space scheme on the company he works for, then gets recruited by the villainous “we couldn’t get Gene Hackman, so this definitely isn’t Lex Luthor” Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn) to make a supercomputer. How knowing how to embezzle clearly qualifies a person to create a world-altering machine that controls the weather, make a fake version of Kryptonite, and sense everyone’s greatest weakness, I’ll never know.
Webster and Pryor use the off-brand kryptonite, but it doesn’t stop Superman’s powers. It does, however, turn him into a guy who acts like a moody rich kid who got the wrong BMW at their sweet 16 party. Superman goes around correcting the posture of ancient buildings, boning an evil hench lady, and drinking at sad bars. Eventually, Superman disassociates and the good and bad parts of himself duke it out in a junkyard. Good Superman chokes bad Superman to death and our hero is reborn.
You might think Superman killing off his own id in a moment of possibly hallucinatory violence would be our WTF moment. But no, I bring all these plot points up to illustrate how truly WTF the entire film is. And I haven’t even mentioned them all! At one point, Pryor falls off a skyscraper and skis down the side of a building.
The tone of the film is strange for a Superman movie, but mostly it stays in the realm of goofy — like Spider-Man 3’s dance scene, but for about an hour — until Superman has to finally face off against the supercomputer.
Superman confronts Ross Webster, his sister Vera, and his “psychic nutritionist” girlfriend Lorelei Ambrosia. The computer tries to kill Superman with a krypton ray, but Pryor has a sudden change of heart and destroys the ray. Superman is safe, but now the computer is self-aware and ready to destroy.
As the massive machine goes haywire, Pryor escapes and Webster and Lorelei barely make it out of the computer’s grasp. Vera runs for the door but is pulled back by computer lasers. She screams for help as the computer grafts metal parts onto her face and arms. She stops screaming and goes limp.
“Sis?” Webster asks.
We see an extreme close up as her lids crash open to reveal metallic, silver eyes. And it’s SO CREEPY!
Of course, after her cyborg transformation, Vera shoots lasers out of her eyes and attacks Webster and Lorelai. Superman comes back to stop the supercomputer and kills Vera in the process, while Lorelai and Webster live to spend some quality time in jail.
Up to this point in the film, no one has been seriously in danger and the computer hasn’t done much but sit around and make knock-off Superman repellent. To suddenly see a women scream for mercy as she becomes a machine is nightmare material. The special effects are good enough to maintain the horror of the moment and the shot of her silver eye still occasionally haunts my subconscious.
Credit goes to Annie Ross for accurately conveying Vera’s fear and fight to live as the computer takes over her body. It provides a rare human moment in a movie full of extreme silliness. Though it makes the scene overly frightening, Ross’ commitment gives the movie a moment of climactic energy that it so desperately needs. Even her robotic walk and use of laser hands are impressive. Ross went on to have small roles in Throw Momma From the Train and Short Cuts, though she never got to play an evil robot ever again.
This cyborg moment was the strangest thing to happen to the Superman franchise. Unless you count all of Jon Cryer’s outfits in Superman IV. That said, this movie is totally and completely worth watching because it's bonkers fun. Superman contains multitudes, people!