After being thrown off the welfare line, unemployed rogue Gus Gorman takes a computer course and gets a job with the company of Ross Webster. He is able to defraud the corporation of $85,000 when he collects up all the half-cents never paid to employees floating around inside the computer system. This brings him to Webster’s attention. Rather than firing him, Webster instead employs Gus’s computer expertise to conduct illegal operations - destroying a rival South American coffee crop, leaving oil tankers stranded in the middle of the ocean - to ensure that his own business schemes succeed. But when Superman foils these plans, Webster orders Gus to deal with Superman. So Gus tries to synthesize artificial Kryptonite. Unfortunately there is an unknown element in the Kryptonite and to complete the formula Gus just makes up an answer. But the result causes Superman to split into two people - one good, one evil.
Richard Lester made a number of popular comedies in the 1960s - including The Beatles’ classic A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and other hits such as The Knack (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and Petulia (1968). His grounding is in comedy and this is an approach that dooms Superman III . The opening scene, for example, is a giant choreographed custard pie sequence where Clark Kent’s changing into Superman unwittingly causes a chain of disasters in the street involving a blind man, toy penguins, a row of phone booths collapsing and a fire hydrant causing a man to nearly drown inside his car. When we come to scenes like where the computer targeting system for a missile launch suddenly turns into a videogame or with the animated figures on a traffic light signal getting confused and deciding to fight it out, we realize we are watching a film that is no longer taking itself seriously. The major problem with this entry in the Superman series is the writing in of Richard Pryor, who was a popular comedian of the time in films like Stir Crazy (1980), Some Kind of Hero (1980) and The Toy (1982). Pryor has no real place in the film - indeed he was only cast after an appearance on a US talkshow where he said how much he would like to be in a Superman film. His exploits are given as much running time as Superman’s and it is a clear signal that the film is focused on selling itself to the light comedy and children’s audience and that it is no longer interested in paying respect to the comic-book. Pryor’s presence just results in some really silly antics - with him running about in a giant cowboy hat getting Gavin O’Herlihy drunk; or one scene messing about on Robert Vaughn’s rooftop ski slope where Pryor’s bumbling causes him to ski down the slope and right off the side of the skyscraper and quite incredulously all the way to the ground where he survives without any harm (a feat that would in actuality kill him, no questions about it).
The script has no real focus. Robert Vaughn’s villain is merely an unimaginative rehash of Lex Luthor from the first film, even down to his blonde bimbo. Moreover though his villainous schemes are rather vague and unfocused - we are not even really sure what Webster’s grand plot is. There are also a lot of inconsistencies in the script - Superman can fly through a hail of missiles, yet a good bottle of whisky gets him drunk; and when he does the old coal-squeezing trick from the comic-book, it rather amusingly not only comes out as a diamond but a cut and refined one too. There’s an amazingly bad climax - one where the super-computer becomes a recalcitrant AI in about 30 seconds flat, and starts shooting rays and turning people into cyborg zombies. The special effects are not that special this time out. The one worthwhile sequence is where Superman splits into a good and bad self and the two start fighting it out in a junkyard - a scene that has clearly been modeled on the super-powered street fight that Lester choreographed and was the highlight of Superman II. Christopher Reeve gives a customarily good performance in both roles.
Missing substantially from the film is Margot Kidder and the character of Lois Lane. In interviews following Superman II, Kidder had been vocal about expressing her dissatisfaction with the way the Salkinds had fired Donner and in punishment her role here was severely diminished with her appearances kept only to a few minutes at both the beginning and the end. She is replaced by Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang, one point where the film does pay homage to the comic-book and quite well, with O’Toole doing a quite decent job. [In an interesting piece of trivia O’Toole was later cast as Martha Kent, the adopted mother of the young Superman in tv’s Smallville (2001-2011).