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What about synthetic unity?


Superman III


Cannon may have put the final nail in his coffin, but it was the Salkinds who killed Superman. Almost everything about Superman III (and Supergirl) suggests they fundamentally misunderstood the property they’d acquired and that the success of the 1978 film was a fluke (it’s perhaps no accident that they’re pissed off or fired many involved). And that the sequel’s salvaging was more luck than design (a clash of directorial approaches could have spelled disaster). Given a free rein here, Richard Lester lends Superman III all the worst reflexes of any Richard Pryor comedy of the period that didn’t co-star Gene Wilder. It looks like a TV movie, complete with a TV movie villain (Robert Vaughn) and comedy guest star. It was savaged by critics, and audiences were similarly unconvinced. 

To be honest, I wouldn’t care if Superman, invaded by a comedian and played as broadly as possible, were actual funny. Unfortunately, it very rarely is. Pryor’s mugging shamelessly throughout, but it’s invariably tired, autopilot improv. The movie opens on him, along with some rather desperate Lester slapstick (Pamela Stephenson’s tits! Penguins! Manholes! Bank robberies!) In a clear sign of the Salkind’s approach, one of shamelessly dissonant opportunism, they’ve not only spent $4m on an ill-fitting comedy star, they’ve – via screenwriters David and Leslie Newman, given the boot from the original for campery beyond the bounds of respectable capery, but brought back in on II after Donner was fired and immediately reintroducing as much of that campery as possible – given him an astonishing aptitude for computers (so lessening the bad taste of the news that, after 36 weeks of chronic unemployment, he is no longer eligible for benefits). 

The same year’s WarGames made hay from the burgeoning computing trend, combining fashionable teen hackers with the threat of nuclear armageddon. There are no nukes in Superman III – mercifully, but IV will be along to more than make up for it in a few years – but there are plenty of missiles, and when Gus isn’t developing plans for a supercomputer, his boss Ross Webster (Vaughn) is playing a video game – graphics courtesy of Atari – in which they bear down on the Man of Steel. Similar naff trend chasing also appeared in the same year’s Never Say Never Again. 

In amongst the piecemeal plot and product placement (KFC is back, but Camels are replacing Marlboro) there are some interesting ideas and choices. Webster has Gus reprogram the Vulcan weather satellite so “It could make weather”. It’s a very casual admission, far beyond cloud seeding or Reich cloud busters. Sure, there are no mentions of HAARP, and the illusion that satellites are up there in space is rigorously maintained, but attempting to destroy the Colombian coffee crop for financial gain isn’t so far from the kinds of nefarious activity – and more besides – that have been achieved through the deployment of weather control. 

Webster’s subsequent plot revolves around corralling all oil tankers and creating an energy crisis; essentially, Superman restores order to the world by opening the taps to free-flowing “fossil fuel” once more. Greta would be having a conniption fit! Even more so that, at the conclusion, Superman should set Gus down at a coal mine and see about getting him a job (another ringing endorsement for traditional fuel sources). Less implicitly validated are chemicals (it’s the Smallville chemical plant that could go up at any moment, inherently hazardous), which go into the lump of faux-kryptonite Gus presents Superman as a reward for saving the factory.

We also have the ever-necessary AI threat, but a step beyond WarGames, in that this one becomes self-aware and also creates its own transhuman when it turns Webster’s sister Vera (Annie Ross) into a cyborg. This is a weirdly remorseless piece of shock body horror, one you’ll often find cited by unsuspecting-now-adults as a damaging formative experience (she is changed back again). Not much is done with any of this, however; it’s there and then it’s gone when Superman attacks the computer with acid.

Much more formidable, and the part of the movie most are willing to recognise as a winner, is the evil Superman section. The fake Kryptonite has a deleterious effect on Superman, despite being fake, and before long, he’s flying around blowing out Olympic torches, straightening the leaning tower of Pisa, punching holes in supertankers and flicking peanuts, to devastating effect on bottles of spirits at the local bar. He’s in bad shape, with signs of stubble and (passing, presumably) alcohol poisoning, and Reeve plays this variant perfectly. 

This ante is only upped when it comes to the scrapyard set-to between Bad Supes and a newly detached Clark Kent. It’s easy to give Lester a kiciking for scenes such as Gus skiing off a roof and a husband mashing a grapefruit in his wife’s face, but he handles Superman vs Clark with aplomb. We’ve seen intimations of similar before – the second season of The Incredible Hulk memorably opened with Bruce Banner confronting the Hulk in his mind – and we’ll see our friendly neighbourhood superhero go bad again in another third instalment (Spider-Man 3); for a little under half an hour, Superman III feels purposeful and coherently directed. It isn’t dawdling or doodling slapstick, or getting off on sub-Luthor villainy. This is also, if you like, positing the “good” Luciferian (Clark) vs the “bad” Luciferian (Supes), so tacitly suggesting there is a positive and aspirationally acceptable form to such personal apotheosis.

As for that sub-Luthor villainy, there isn’t much to say about Ross. He’s a baddie for a movie series shy of taking sheer flights of fantasy, lest they turn off viewers (it is not about catering to comic-book fans, that much is abundantly clear). He’s an evil mastermind for escapist TV and a wealthy industrialist who wants more of whatever it is. Vaughn’s fine, but Ross is too-too familiar. There’s a sense that Pamela Stephenson, fresh off an incomparable Janet Street Porter on Not the Nine O’Clock News, came aboard the movie under the assumption of ultimately excised scenes illustrating her smarts while masquerading under the frontage of T&A. Which is to say, Lorelei is repeatedly indicated to be other than the dumb blonde she’s pretending to be, but never to an ultimate end that makes this ploy worthwhile.

Notably, she ponders “What about synthetic unity?” while reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, but this would appear simply to be a “She’s so smart”, rather than alluding to anything more thematically encompassing within the picture. Kant’s critique arose from Hume’s assertion that effect could not be deduced from cause (nothing could be known a priori, and causality cannot be derived from sense experience alone; it only shows that one event regularly follows another, not that it is caused by it). Kant the rationalist disagreed and spent twelve years thinking about it (seriously Deep Thought), the upshot being that he abandoned his quest to know the world independent of sense experience. 

Causality is “a conceptual organising principle imposed upon nature” and can only be applied under the general conditions of space and time; space and time are a form of perceiving, and causality is a form of knowing. Kant was intent on retaining the causal principal and connection “without relying on any doctrine of innate or self-evident principles, and without assimilating the causal connection to logical entailment”. 

He does this through Lorelei’s synthetic unity (of apperception: assimilating an idea into the already established body of ideas), a series of forms of “logical judgements” bringing lesser concepts under the umbrella of a unifying higher concept: “the connections they establish between representations are necessary, and not contingent, but also not analytic. In this way Kant solves, to his own satisfaction, the dual problem of causality”.  Cause isn’t something arising but “that which makes a regular succession conceivable in the first place” and allows the distinction between subjective and objective truth. Causality is subjective. The Seth Material would doubtless refine Kant’s laborious thought process, paring it down to the realisation that “what seems to be cause and effect is often merely a result of your necessary disposition to view actions in a successive manner”.

Anyway, Superman III, when it isn’t throwing Kant into the mix or having Superman battle his id, is content to amble along passively, spending interminable amounts of time in Smallville as Clark attends his high-school reunion, woos Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole, more winning than the character she has to play) and rescues Ricky. And avoids drunken Brad Wilson (Gavan O’Herlihy). All of which makes for cheaper moviemaking but also markedly less dynamic or rousing superhero fare. 

Added to which, isn’t it rather dishonest of Clark to pursue romantic relationships while leading a double life? One might aver that Lois just “happened”, but he’s inviting conflict between his calling and his libido here (proceedings end on an unresolved note, with Lana, given a suggestive sparkler by Supes, getting work at the Daily Planet. Lois has been in the movie for all of five minutes – most likely down to Chiles’ outspokenness over Donner, whatever Salkind may have said to the contrary subsequently – and gotten a bottle tan on holiday. Still, for all its being rather dead-in-the-water, one wonders if the Smallville section didn’t inspire Back to the Future to some degree, what with the throwback small-town Americana, Earth Angel playing at the reunion and Jimmy Olson (Marc McClure) all resurfacing in Zemeckis’ movie.

Pauline Kael, disposed towards kid gloves with Lester, had to admit “the scattered impulses behind the movie cancel each other out” and of the villainy, “Lester treats what happens so flippantly that nothing appears to be at stake”. About the most we get of a traditional Pryor routine is his speculating on prison life and how they have robbers and rapists there, “and rapists who rape robbers” (referencing rape is, at least, consistent with the “family-friendly” first movie). Kael, who was a huge fan of Pryor’s 1979 Live in Concert, opined of his presence here, “What the film uses is Richard Pryor playing off his rich white master… in the scaredy-cat way that Mantan Moreland and the other earlier, eye-rolling black comics did. Pryor’s Gus isn’t a villain; he only works for the villain. (And he does everything but steal chickens and have his hair shoot up straight ’cause he’s ’feerd of ghosts.)” I’m unfamiliar with Moreland, but her description brought to mind a similar scene with Willie Best in The Ghost Breakers.

I suppose one can say Superman III was at least influential… to Office Space. They appropriate Gus’s act of salami shaving – he pays himself all the extraneous fractions of pay cheques that never go to the clients or the company (“They’re just floating around out there. The computers know where”). So there’s that. 

And perhaps it also makes for a lesson on how not to make movies. Independent producers with big bucks to spend seemed bonded in having very limited aesthetic judgement. Dino DeLaurentis was another. So after Superman III, further big-budget lapses in any kind of mustered audience interest amassed with Supergirl, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and Santa Claus: The Movie. Superman II made two-thirds of Superman’s gross, while Superman III would make a quarter of its gross. Still, even such a bottoming out looks rosy next to Superman IV’s eighth of Superman’s worldwide take. If it was unwise to work with the Salkinds, it was brazen stupidity to make a movie for the Cannon Group. 

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