Typically my least favorite of the series, but I'm willing to give it another shot. Heck, I rewrote it once, and I maintain that it has a core of good ideas, even if they're largely squandered.
It's notable that this movie starts with Gus Gorman at the unemployment office, doing a bit of comic banter in the fairly tragic situation of being unemployed and apparently unemployable, until he sees a back-of-the-matchbox ad for computer programming jobs.
And then we launch into a slapstick opening sequence, following an attractive blonde woman who's basically doing Otis's tour of the city from the first movie. Except this time with phone booth gags!
We get a glimpse at Gus Gorman's preternatural computer skills, then head to the newsroom to get an introduction to our new villains. To date, this is the only Superman theatrical movie (excluding the serials and "Superman and the Mole Men") to not feature Lex Luthor, a category soon to be joined by Man of Steel. Illustrious company, that.
Jimmy Olsen's photos serve as our window into the opposition: humanitarian businessman Ross Webster, his sister Vera, and Lorelei Ambrosia, the buxom blonde from before, subject of most of Jimmy's photos and probably the most risqué shot in this film series
Cut back to Gus Gorman, who is apparently receiving his first paycheck for a morning's worth of work. He complains about taxation and the social safety net, until someone else explains about the rounded-off fractions of cents in the system, laying the groundwork for the plot of Office Space. Gus, naturally, hacks the computer, and it's slightly more believable than most hacking sequences in movies from about 1989-on.
Jimmy's discussion of the sociopolitics of Olsen family Thanksgivings is interrupted when the bus to Smallville stops near a chemical fire. Jimmy decides to get some shots of the action, while Clark changes to his work uniform in the back of a police car.
It's nice to see Jimmy getting some action in this flick, even if it is mostly because Lois isn't around. He action here is very good, with Jimmy getting in over his head while the number and severity of crises escalate. Superman gets some clever moments--using a pipe to help the workers to safety, freezing the top layer of a lake so he can use it to put out the fire, casually telling a paramedic how Jimmy's leg is broken--and Chekov's acid gets dropped in here in a way that's not beat-you-over-the-head obvious.
Clark goes to his reunion, where he runs into Martha Kent--I mean, Lana Lang. One thing about Annette O'Toole is that she's great, no matter what role she's playing. She and Clark catch up, before she uses him as an excuse to get away from her drunken high school beau, Brad Wilson.
Gus Gorman gets his payday, which is $85,000 bigger than he expected, and there's a quick cut back to Clark and Lana cleaning up after the reunion. Lana's a real quick-talker, which leaves Clark fumbling a little more than usual, but also demonstrates that he has a definite type. Also, we get a glimpse at young Christopher Reeve, who, strangely, looks nothing like Jeff East, who played young Clark Kent two movies ago.
The Websters learn about the embezzled money, and we learn that Ross Webster is a future-thinking kind of guy. Ledgers are yesterday, computers are tomorrow, and this becomes a driving force for the rest of the movie. We also learn that Lorelei Ambrosia's official job title is "psychic nutritionist." Ross is condescending, Vera is belligerent, and Lorelei is Audrey I, minus the abuse. None of the characters has quite the menace or charm of Zod or Lex Luthor, but at least they're all fairly distinctive, and clearly the bad guys. There's a nice gag where Gorman's extravagant spending marks him as the embezzler, which feels like the most "'80s comedy" moment of the movie so far.
Back to Clark and Lana, Lana's young son Ricky gets picked last for bowling, and we get a real sign of the changing times when Lana describes him as the only boy in town without a father. Then, Brad the alcoholic quarterback saunters up, and it's strangely difficult to remember that he's not Lana's ex-husband, just a guy from high school. He's like a sleazier, sloshier Steve Lombard. There's the same kind of surreptitious superpower comeuppance, resulting in a bunch of shattered pins.
Not surprisingly, Webster wants to see Gus, who is naturally somewhat nervous about being thrown in jail with the rapists and robbers. Not a phrase I expected from a Superman movie, but there you go. He and Webster have this weird conversation about what rich people do with their socks, which segues awkwardly into Webster explaining his desire to control the coffee market by using computers to destroy the Colombian coffee crop. The plan: take control of a weather-monitoring satellite and reprogram it so that it will control the weather instead. Which makes no sense, but feels like a pretty standard Bronze Age plot. People rag on Lex Luthor's real estate obsession in these movies, and that's somewhat fair, but it seems positively sensible compared to Webster's notion. This is the kind of petty villainy that you expect from Cobra. They'll need an untraceable computer to carry out the plot, so naturally Gus gets sent to Smallville.
The scene where Clark, Lana, and Ricky are out on a picnic is charming and funny, and it's interesting to see the interplay between Clark and someone who actually likes him as Clark. Naturally, Ricky gets into danger, and Clark hears it with a weirdly comic-bookish special effect.
Gus Gorman shows up at the Wheatking office, where Brad works as a night janitor/guard. Luckily for Gus, he's a smooth talker with a suitcase full of liquor, so he gets Brad blackout drunk and goes to work on the weather satellite. Also, he's wearing a giant foam cowboy hat.
Ross Webster celebrates the hilarious news of Colombia's destruction by using the ski slope on top of his skyscraper, which is amazing. The success of this plan leads Vera to suggest taking control of the oil supplies, but then Gus explains how Superman saved the Colombians with a budget-friendly improv routine. This leads, naturally, to the decision to kill Superman with kryptonite, which involves scanning the sky with the weather satellite and determining what kryptonite is made of. Leading to that classic bit where, discovering an unknown substance in the kryptonite makeup, Gorman replaces it with "tar" after looking at his cigarette package.
Superman comes back to Smallville, ostensibly for Ricky's birthday party, but Smallville being Smallville, they throw a town-wide festival instead. Which gives Gus the opportunity to dress up like a general for some reason and present Superman with the fake kryptonite, under the guise of talking about...plastics. Naturally, nothing happens, which eventually prompts the great line from Ross Webster: "I asked you to kill Superman, and you're telling me you couldn't even do that one simple thing."
Reeve does a nice job of subtly portraying the effects of the fake kryptonite, with Superman becoming blasé about an emergency and hitting on Lana in a really creepy way. Reeve is so damn talented. Of course, then we get the Superdickery, with the Man of Steel straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa and whatnot. The smug looks Reeve gives in these scenes are great. One thing I appreciate about "evil Superman" here is that he's not taking over the world, he's not becoming a super-murderer or super-tyrant. Superman is so good that even when turned evil, the wors he thinks of doing is petty stuff like blowing out the Olympic torch. It's pranks more than anything.
Wow, Webster has a full on flip-over Bond villain display beneath the fountain in his office. And another one behind the wall!
Lorelei entices a now darker-colored Superman to meet her on the top of the Statue of Liberty, where she seduces him until he agrees to disable a rogue oil tanker for Webster.
The scene with Superman at the bar is so perfect, flicking nuts like bullets at the shelves, heat-vision warping the mirror. And of course, Ricky and Lana show up just as he staggers out. It's nice to see that Ricky is the last person who believes in the Man of Steel, even if it's with the line "Superman, you're just in a slump!" Again, something you'd see on a Silver Age cover. And that leads to the best damn scene in the movie, and one of the best in the franchise, where Superman lands in a junkyard and beats himself up. It's worth wondering if Clark and Superman are actually, physically separate entities in this situation, or if Superman's in a Fight Club-style scenario (spoilers), but in the end it really doesn't matter. This scene is just wonderful, and Reeve really sells the evil Superman look.
The Websters and Lorelei lure Superman to the super-computer, leading to a pretty goofy video game sequence. When Superman finally gets to the computer, Gus tries to distance himself from the villains, as though he weren't in on the plan to kill Superman from the beginning. But eventually Pryor sells the second thoughts better than the script does, and deactivates the computer. Unfortunately, the computer reactivates itself, having become at least somewhat sentient. This leads to the other really memorable scene, and the reason that I didn't watch Superman III much as a kid, where Vera gets cyber-converted. Absolutely horrifying.
Superman returns with a canister of the acid from before, which becomes quickly volatile and wrecks the computer, bringing the cave down on everyone. He saves Gus (while we saw Lorelei and Vera safe, there's no real indication that either one escaped) and tries to get him a job at a coal plant, where he stops to make a diamond for Lana. Clark gives Lana an enormous ring, and Brad comes into the hotel room (how'd he know where it was?), attacks Clark for being "nice," and gets a little comeuppance.
We get one last scene in the Daily Planet newsroom, where Lois returns from vacation with a fake tan and a real story, and where we learn that Clark got Lana hired as Perry White's new secretary. She shows off her giant diamond, and Lois is a little upset by the competition. Clark ducks out, puts the Leaning Tower back the way it was, and we end the movie with that shot of Superman flying over the world. Again.
Overall: Maybe it's just because I've been reading a lot more Bronze Age Superman stories lately, but this movie comes out like something from that era. There are clever uses of powers, nice escalations of threats, and a plot that asks you not to think too much about the logistics or sense of it. Also, I like Annette O'Toole a lot better than Margot Kidder, and it's a shame that we didn't get to see any real Lois/Lana rivalry in the fourth installment. Richard Pryor does his Richard Pryor thing, and if there were a little more consistency to his character, it'd work a lot better than it actually does. For as maligned as this movie is--yes, I've often contributed to that--it's strange how much stuck, from the black kryptonite (at least the concept) to the businessman villain. Ross Webster ends up being almost a template for post-Crisis Lex Luthor. I'm definitely not as sour on this film as I used to be.