Since more ink is being spilled on Spider-Man 3 than the Bible these days, we thought we’d reach back for our Smackdown, almost a quarter-of-a-century to 1983 for Superman III. Here we have two successful comic book sequels where the main character’s essential goodness is put into graphic relief by creating an anti-hero version from the dark side. Kind of like a “Superego -vs- Id” Smackdown. Oh, and in each installment, they also get to fool around with potential new girlfriends.
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Let’s see… I’m betting that even if you haven’t seen Spider-Man 3, you feel like you’ve seen it. The trailers have been multiplying and getting hyped for the better part of a year, I’ve got Venom wallpaper on my iMac, Tobey Maguire’s just wrapped up a world tour with the triumphal interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Let’s try to do it in a single sentence. Spider-Man gets A) cocky, B) a new spider-suit from space, C) flirts with a new girlfriend possibility, and D) fights the new Goblin, plus the Sandman, played by that guy we haven’t seen since Sideways, and Venom (who gets to wear the suit) by the kid from That ’70s Show. This film is all about more, more, and more. There are some groaners in the film — notably Peter Parker’s “Saturday Night Fever” walk and his dance number in a jazz bar — but the action is superb (and it ought to be, given the film’s price tag).
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The Defending Champion
This third time out for the original Superman franchise basically re-tooled the series into a middle-of-the-road comedy. The story involved the usual plot to control the Earth. Lex Luthor was replaced with a warmed-over Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn as a villain with a name you’d have to look up in the credits to remember, along with Richard Pryor, who came aboard as a computer nerd. Even Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) got reduced in favor of a new super-babe Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Satellites were being used to screw with the weather (pre-global warming), Lois was on vacation, Clark went back to Smallville for a high-school reunion, and a new kind of Kryptonite got let out of the box creating a new Superman with a bad attitude.
In 1978, the first Superman movie really did shake things up in the film world as much as the first Spider-Man did when it was released in 2002. Both franchises were generally acknowledged to have improved in their sequels (2 and II), and to have dived just a bit in their three-quels (3 and III). How do they stack up against each other? On the subject of tone, Spider-Man 3 keeps the winning formular from its predecessors going, even if it is a little too cluttered for its own good. Superman III, however, veered off in an unsettling direction for most fans. On the subject of villains, Spider-Man 3 probably has too many, yes, but at least they are really, really cool, and they fight back in a challenging way. Adding new female interests didn’t bother me in either film, and from all accounts, it was necessary in Superman II because Margot Kidder was imploding in real life. And Peter Parker still ends up with Mary Jane (although, to me, I’d go with Bryce Dallas Howard and not just because we share a first name).
And the winner is…
It’s no surprise here. Superman III was a colossal misfire. It stopped the franchise dead in its tracks, threw away its power and charm, and became a major disappointment. Spider-Man 3 still works. If anything, it is not guilty of doing too little, but of trying too hard. But here’s the bottom line: Don’t ever, ever bother to see Superman III, because there is only so much time in your life, and you need not to waste it. But do get out and see Spider-Man 3 in the theaters, because this film is all about the spectacle.