Superman III, and childhood nightmares

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Superman III was supposed to be (and is, in large part) a family friendly movie – right up to the part involving Annie Ross and a massive computer.

Spoilers lie ahead for Superman III.

As much as the first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve were huge hits and regarded as classics of superhero cinema, they were also massive gambles at a time when the comic book film was still a relative stranger to the big screen. As the first expensive superhero feature, the original Superman The Movie is rightly held up as an influence and a kitemark, affecting everything from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to the more recent Wonder Woman 1984. Its sequel, in larger part made back-to-back with that original, kept the standard up.

Yet film historians, with some justification, suggest that the Superman boxset took something of a wrong turn with 1983’s Superman III. B then hindsight is nice and easy, for at the time, it looked like something of a sure thing.


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Long story short, the producers – Alexander and Ilya Salkind – opted to gamble on a big star for the third film, effectively throwing away the Christ metaphor of the first two movies and instead wrapping a story around the wattage of the brilliant Richard Pryor. The resultant movie traded superheroism for comedy, was widely criticised (not least by some of those involved with it, Reeve included), and I simply love it. I don’t think there’s been a superhero sequel anything quite like it (the closest I can think is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, which at least gives it a run for its money in terms of tonal changes).

Of the many elements of the film that tend to be discussed when Superman III does make it to be a welcome topic of conversation? Well, there’s the excellent Reeve on Reeve fight scene, the incredulous drop that Richard Pryor survives, and the absolutely early 1980s tech plot that was cashing in to some degree on the home computer boom.

What doesn’t often get the focus it deserves though is the work of Annie Ross in the movie. Appreciating that 1980s family cinema isn’t short of characters and movies that have quite a scary edge to them, I do wonder why Ross’ name doesn’t get mentioned more.

It’s not as if there’s much clue as to what’s coming with her character when watching the film. Inevitably we have to start delving into Superman III spoilers here, with the setup being that Richard Pryor’s Gus Gorman becomes – thanks to a quick course at the start of the movie – a computer programmer. A bloody good one as it happens, who soon becomes one of the world’s finest hackers for reasons that the film doesn’t quite explain so I feel no guilt about glossing over that bit either.

In fact, Gorman becomes so good that he comes to the attention of Robert Vaughn’s dastardly Ross Webster, and Ross plays his sister, Vera. To the untrained eye, she spends most of the movie in a henchperson role, assisting her brother as he attempts to, well, hack the weather and stuff. Again, let’s just paper over that. But you could be forgiven for thinking she’s there to add a little more boo-hiss to it all.

As the film goes on, we get slightly more of Vera, at one stage accompanying Gorman to Smallville as the plot develops. But I remember as a youngster watching Superman III at the cinema and being sideswiped by what came next. I, and many others, thought that sequence where Superman fights Superman – a really terrific scene, I’d suggest, and it’s boggling to think of the logistics of it – would be the peak of it. After all, big movies of this ilk tend to build to a fight of some sorts, and this was going to take some beating.

What I thus didn’t see coming was the creation of a frankly enormous computer come the end of the movie, and the moment when Vera would step into it. Surely, at most, this was going to be the bit when Superman would destroy the computer trying to do such nefarious things? Well, sort of. Because as the villainous personnel flee the innards of the machine – it’s that big a computer – Vera is last out, and she finds herself blasted by it as she tries to leave. Then, before our eyes, she’s turned into a robotic creature, accompanied by her screaming.

Avert your eyes, for whom this led to childhood trauma. Here comes the picture…

It might all look a bit hokum now, but I can tell you it scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. Even Doctor Who tends to hide the moment where a human is turned into a Cyberman behind a cloth or a door, or something like that. Here, it all happens before our eyes, in a family-friendly movie.

It builds to a denouement where Reeve’s Man Of Steel has to do battle not just with the computer but with RoboVera instead, a battle involving, well, a jar of gunk. Furthermore, Superman III wasn’t the cut-price production Superman IV would become, and as such some proper money was spent on the effects – and you can tell.

Here’s the resultant scene. Don’t watch this just before you go to bed…

At the heart of Vera of course is Ross’ performance. She passed away in the summer of 2020 at the age of 89, leaving behind a body of work in music and film that’d take a whole other article to explore. Closer to my heart, she’d take on another antagonist role in fact in another favourite of mine, 1990’s Pump Up The Volume.

But right throughout Superman III, I found myself more uneasy around the character of Vera than the de facto villain of the piece, Ross. No slight on the hugely entertaining Robert Vaughn there, rather I just think Annie Ross is really quite brilliant. There’s an argument I strongly subscribe to that if you want to get under someone’s skin, then a human in a suit tends to make a far more compelling monster than even the most wonderfully-created purely-CG effect. What absolutely makes RoboVera work isn’t just that the effects work does enough lifting to visually make it effective, but crucially the human at the heart of it is really excellent. A monster you can, even given how much the plot stretches basic logic, comfortably believe.

The checklist of traumatising family cinema of the 1980s then already has the likes of The Dark Crystal, Return To Oz, The Never Ending Story and Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom on it.

But when Annie Ross steps out of that enormous computer as an early prototype for RoboCop? She gives most of them a real run for their money. Genuinely, I struggled to sleep for days…

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