Super or sucky? All-star panel debates pros and cons of the still-polarizing 'Superman III' and 'Man of Steel.'

Looking back on "Superman III" and "Man of Steel" on their respective anniversaries

This month marks the dual anniversaries of 1983's Superman III and 2013's Man of Steel. (Illustration by Quinn Lemmers / Photo: Everett Collection)
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What do you get the Superman fan who has everything? How about a live-action Superman movie for all seasons. Since 1978, there has only been one universally acclaimed feature film staring DC Comic's Man of Steel — Richard Donner's Superman: The Motion Picture, which also laid the foundation for the modern comic book blockbuster. Every solo Superman movie released since has met with more mixed responses, whether due to director changes (Superman II), drastic budget cuts (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) or questionable story choices (Superman Returns).

This month marks the dual anniversaries of the two most divisive Superman movies ever made: 1983's Superman III and 2013's Man of Steel. Not coincidentally, both films also represent the biggest break with Donner's specific aesthetic, making them fascinating curiosities... as well as cautionary tales for writer-director James Gunn as he prepares to re-launch a new era for the Last Son of Krypton — and the entire DC Universe — with 2025's Superman: Legacy. Yahoo Entertainment assembled our own Justice League of experts to talk about what's super — and what's not so super — about these two controversial entries in the Superman movie canon.

Yahoo's Panel of Steel

  • Joel Christian Gill: cartoonist and historian, associate professor of art at Boston University's College of Fine Arts

  • Zaki Hasan: author, film critic, podcast host and Superman toy collector

  • Dan Jurgens: writer and artist for DC and Marvel Comics, author of many seminal Superman stories

  • Kendall Phillips: professor and pop culture expert at Syracuse University

Superman III

Released on June 17, 1983, Superman III saw Richard Lester — who replaced Donner during the making of Superman II — take over the director's chair full time. The film pits Metropolis's champion (played once again by Christoper Reeve) against shady business tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), who enlists tech genius Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) to execute his plans for oil industry domination in return for building the ultimate supercomputer.

Super: Lex Luthor and Zod were left in the dust

Meet Superman III's motley crew of villains: Robert Vaughn, Richard Pryor, Annie Ross, and Pamela Stephenson (Photo: Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Believe it or not, Superman III is the only big-screen Superman movie made in the past 45 years that doesn't feature Lex Luthor or General Zod as the primary antagonist. You have to go all the way back to 1951's Superman and the Mole Men to find another film that similarly omits the only two villains moviegoers have come to associate with the Man of Steel. And the majority of our panel agrees that it's well past time for filmmakers to dive deeper into Superman's rogues gallery.

"It's not as diverse as Batman's, but there's some heavy hitters there," Hasan says, calling out green-skinned cyborg Brainiac as an obvious choice to go toe-to-toe with Superman. "We've seen an awful lot of Zod and Luther," agrees Jurgens. "The bench of Superman villains does go deeper than that."

In fact, Brainiac was going to be a major player in an early version of Superman III developed by franchise producer Ilya Salkind — one that also included a trip back in time to the Medieval Age — but that iteration was scrapped due to budget costs. And Hasan notes that the film's ending does seem to set the stage for the cyborg's first-ever cinematic appearance, when Gus's supercomputer attains sentience and starts turning people into killer robots. "That feels like they were getting right up to the edge of introducing Brainiac." (For the record, Brainiac was heavily featured in Kevin Smith's never-made Superman Lives.)

Rather than pluck a different baddie out of the pages of DC Comics, writers David and Leslie Newman created the feckless Ross Webster, and his partners in crime — his stern sister Vera (Annie Ross) and "personal assistant" Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson), a blond bombshell that's secretly the smartest one in the room. While Hasan complimentarily calls Vaughn's bad guy "a really good Batman '66 villain," Jurgens ultimately feels that he's a little too much of a Luthor placeholder.

"For me, a good Superman villain comes down to 'what is their motive?' and 'what is their connection to Superman?'" elaborates Jurgens, who was involved in the creation of two key villains — Doomsday and Cyborg Superman — during his run on the Superman comics. "When I was doing the books, I tried to build in some connections that would go back to his time in Smallville, because if you have those touchpoints that relate to the character, you're going to end up with a better dynamic when they finally fight it out."

Not-Super: The Pryor problem

In 1983, Richard Pryor was still one of the biggest movie stars in the world, so it's no surprise that the always-enterprising Ilya and Alexander Salkind parlayed the comedian's self-confessed fandom for Superman II into a full-fledged role in the third film — with a $5 million paycheck to boot. And the father-son producers made sure they got their money's worth, with Pryor's screentime easily equaling Reeve's. "There's a lot of Richard Pryor in that movie," Phillips recalls.

But here's the thing: there's not a lot of Gus and Superman together. The two characters share a mere handful of scenes, and Gus has no personal relationship or quarrel with Metropolis's champion. Throughout the movie, he's presented as a reluctant participant in his employer's plan to bring the Man of Steel to heel. "Richard Pryor kind of got in the way," Jurgens says. "For me, it became too much of a detour from what a Superman movie could be. It just wasn't a good fit."

Gill, on the other hand, credits Pryor with doing exactly what the Salkinds paid him to do. "Richard Pryor was told to be himself, so there's lots of ad-libbing and him just kind of talking," says the cartoonist, who addresses the representation of Black heroes in his own books like Stamped From the Beginning and Tales of the Talented Tenth. "Which is great for me because I love Richard Pryor! For the movie, not so much."

"It's also a really interesting example of how Hollywood works," Gill continues. "The producers saw that Pyror was a bankable actor and were like, 'How do we squeeze out more?' It's like putting LeBron James on your basketball team! Putting Richard Pryor in a movie like Superman III would have guaranteed that people who would not have normally gone and seen a Superman movie — like Black people — would definitely have gone and seen that movie. They put him on the poster to get people in, but didn't actually think through the rest of it."

Super: The junkyard fight is one for the ages

Frankly, it's OK that Ross Webster is basically a C-list Lex Luthor. That's because Superman III's most memorable villain is... Superman himself. The Man of Steel goes to the Dark Side after Gus manufactures a piece of synthetic Kryptonite that unleashes the demon within. Instead of saving the world, Superman dedicates his time to pulling off super-pranks — like straightening the Pisa's famous leaning tower — and super-destructive acts, like causing massive oil spills. He also becomes a super-drinker, spending long afternoons in bars knocking back shots.

"They make him a chaotic kind of evil, like the Joker," says Gill, who thinks that's an interesting — if not necessarily logical — version of an Evil Superman. "In most Elseworlds stories about Superman turning evil, he's always a lawful kind of evil. He believes in the system that he's holding up, and he follows that system of rules."

Ultimately, the only person who can defeat Superman is his better half... Clark Kent. Midway through the movie, the two identities split and fight each other in a junkyard, externalizing an inner conflict that's long been present in Superman stories: Why does an all-powerful alien choose to embrace his humanity? "As far as I'm concerned, that's one of the best sequences in any Superman movie," says Hasan. "And I love that the good version is Clark — that's how he sees himself."

Jurgens says that the introduction of Evil Superman awards Reeve the opportunity to do some of his best acting in the series. "We get to see him play a darker version of the character with more emotion and a sense of rage," the writer notes, adding that a specific element of that Superman III storyline found its way into the comics during his time at DC. "When we see the darker Superman [in the film], his costume is a darker color. That was so effective that we ended up using it a couple of times in the comics — we'd use that muted-color Superman suit. It signifies a bit of a different character."

Not-Super: Superman can be funny... but maybe not like this

Having previously directed what may just be the greatest first scene in movie history — the Beatles racing through the streets London ahead of a mob of fans at the top of the 1964 classic A Hard Day's Night — it's understandable that Lester would want to give the same treatment to another fab hero. Superman III's opening sequence is an extended set piece where a series of little accidents on the streets of Metropolis accumulate into a big headache for the Last Son of Krypton.

It's an expertly choreographed sequence of pure slapstick that also foreshadows Lester's general approach to Superman as an action hero. Since there's not really anything for him to punch — apart from himself, of course — he mainly has to problem solve, whether that means freezing a lake with his ice breath to douse a chemical plant fire or using acid to defeat Gus's supercomputer.

But moviegoers would also be forgiven for watching that opening scene and wondering whether they'd accidentally cued up a broad comedy instead of a Superman movie. "It was an attempt to get beyond that Golden Age period where Superman was basically a god who did only good," Phillips says. "They wanted to add a little bit of the goofiness of the Silver Age. The problem with the DC Universe is that the characters are presented as gods and it's hard to make fun of gods. It was the same thing with the first few Batman movies — Batman & Robin tried to capture the goofiness of the '60s and '70s comics, but the audience had been sold on the idea that these were iconic figures."

"I think it went a little far," says Jurgens, who adds that humor can certainly be woven into the fabric of any Superman story. "It's not that Superman himself is necessarily humorless, and you can have him encounter a humorous situation. But if you take it too far, then you're stepping outside of what makes a good Superman story."

"Humor is used effectively in the first two Superman movies," Hasan notes. "But in that opening sequence in Superman III, you have people acting in ways that would only work in a Benny Hill routine. If we started this universe with the verisimilitude that Donner had, it goes out the window in the first scene of Superman III unfortunately."

Man of Steel

The Snyderverse began on June 14, 2013, when Zack Snyder launched a new era for Superman with Man of Steel. The movie re-tells Kal-El's journey from Krypton to Earth, framing the hero's familiar origin story as a kind of alien invasion disaster movie. As Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) struggles with his emerging superpowers, Zod (Michael Shannon) shows up with plans to remake their native planet on Earth.

Super: Henry Cavill isn't Christopher Reeve — and that's OK

Henry Cavill as Superman in 2013's Man of Steel. (Photo: ©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Henry Cavill as Superman in 2013's Man of Steel. (Photo: Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)

There's no question that Reeve's shadow looms large over any actor that puts on Superman's cape. That's certainly what hurt Brandon Routh's attempt to inherit the mantle in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006), a too-reverent ode to Donner's first movie. Cast largely because of his resemblance to Reeve — who died in 2004 — the actor never got the chance to put his own stamp on the role before his would-be franchise was discontinued.

With Man of Steel, Snyder specifically set out to present a different kind of Superman, one who struggles with being a stranger in a strange land. Cavill also cuts a strikingly different figure than his predecessor: stern, serious and seriously bulked up. "Henry Cavill looks like he was chiseled out of granite to play Superman," says Hasan, laughing. "Giving him extra weight on his shoulders was a good place to start. I appreciate that his journey towards becoming Superman isn't as much of a straight line."

"Henry Cavill is good in the role," agrees Phillips. "He does a nice job trying to reground the character in his humanity — discovering his roots and trying to figure out who he is. There's a lot of possibility there."

Gill similarly appreciates Clark's search for self in the first half of Man of Steel — "he works all these odd jobs, and he's trying to find his way in the world," he says — but thinks that Snyder saddled his leading man with a little too much dramatic baggage. "There's a coldness to Superman in that movie that I think is wrong. It's like he's saying, 'I've gotta be more like Batman.' But Superman was always the counterweight to Batman — he should be a little bit happier. It was almost like they were thinking this was the Oscar version of a superhero story."

Not-Super: Let Jonathan Kent live

In the words of Across the Spider-Verse, the death of Jonathan Kent — Kal-El's adopted father on Earth — has become a "canon event" in Superman's origin story, one that Snyder dutifully follows in Man of Steel. But does the Kansas farmer really have to die for Clark to become a hero? Jurgens, for one, doesn't think so... and he can speak with plenty of authority on the matter, since Jonathan was alive and well in his Superman comics from the '80s and '90s.

"I always thought that having both of Clark's parents alive was really good for our stories," Jurgens says. "It helped explain why Superman has this human sensibility, and I appreciated having them around. But in the world of the films, we saw Jonathan die in Donner's first Superman movie, and I think that became part of the [cinematic] lore."

Given that track record, Jurgens doesn't mind that Man of Steel's version of Jonathan (played by Kevin Costner) meets his maker — it's more the circumstances under which it happens. "I think there would have been a way for Superman to solve that one," he says of how Snyder orchestrates Jonathan's death, which involves him him expressly telling his son not to use his powers to save him from a tornado.

"The idea that Clark would let his father be swept away by a tornado to protect his secret — I could buy that if it was executed better," says Hasan, who adds that he's personally in favor of keeping both Kents alive as they were in Jurgens's comics. "I grew up on those books, and having Jonathan and Martha being there into Clark's adulthood and getting to see him become a superhero was something that was central to my experience with the character. I don't think that Jonathan's death has to be an essential element in everything — it's not the same as Uncle Ben's death."

Super: Man of Steel diversifies Superman's world

Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in Man of Steel. (Photo: Clay Enos/©Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in Man of Steel. (Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It's not a great look that, 40 years later, Richard Pryor's Gus Gorman is still the most prominent Black character featured in a Superman movie. Man of Steel does try to add more color to his universe, filling out the supporting cast with Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor in chief Perry White and Harry Lennix as an Army general who is revealed in the Snyder Cut of Justice League to be Martian Manhunter. While Gill wishes those actors were perhaps more prominently featured in the movie, he's glad they're at least in the frame at all, and as authority figures no less.

"In entertainment, we have spent so much time not showing Black people that we're going to have to overcompensate for awhile to get it better," Gill says. "We just need more Black actors playing roles that aren't stereotypes or typecast. That's the most important thing we can do to change the way in which people look at Black people because entertainment guides our pop culture."

Prior to the announcement that Gunn would be overseeing Superman: Legacy, DC had hired acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates to develop a movie starring a Black Man of Steel — potentially played by Michael B. Jordan — for producer J.J. Abrams. Gunn has since said that movie remains a viable project, and Gill would love to see it come to fruition.

"I would like to see how they do that as a story, but there are also other Black heroes they could do movies about," he says, citing the Milestone Comics character, Icon as one prime example. "Icon is basically Superman in that he's an alien, and his first contact was with Black people, so he becomes a Black person. It would be amazing to see what the story looks like of a hero who has lived through generations of being a Black man in America."

Not-Super: Superman doesn't kill... unless he absolutely has to

Forget Nuclear Man and his '80s mane: the most controversial creative choice in any Superman movie has to be Snyder's decision to end Man of Steel with the hero snapping his enemy's neck. While there's precedent for Superman killing his nemesis — the theatrical cut of Superman II depicts him throwing Zod into an icy crevice in the Fortress of Solitude, though the extended edition confirms that the power-mad general survives — it's never been shown in such a violent fashion. And our panel unanimously agrees that Superman doesn't kill.

"If I wanted an all-powerful figure who does horrible things, I'd watch Invincible on Amazon," jokes Phillips. "Superman's not supposed to be that. The moment where Zod is killed is the moment where the movie stops feeling like Superman, and that's part of the problem with the entirety of that iteration of the DC Universe. From that point on, it just didn't feel real."

"When I first saw the movie, I didn't have a huge problem with it, because there's precedent," Hasan admits. "But it's less about the idea than the execution: if you're going to have Superman kill, that's a moment you have to build up to. that's something you do in a sequel when you're trying to show Superman at his lowest. Man of Steel hasn't really spent any time on the formation of his vow of preserving life and why it's so important. They skip past that a little bit."

"Superman shouldn't kill," Gill says, simply. "That's just part of who he is. It's actually more creative to figure out ways for Superman not to kill people. It's an easy out."

Jurgens occupies a unique place in this debate, agreeing with the idea that Superman isn't a killer, but also having been involved with specific comic book storylines — most famously "The Death of Superman" — where he's directly confronted with that impossible choice. "I will say that in the movie, Superman is acting to save the lives of others," he says. "Zod is using his heat vision and innocents are clearly in danger. If that's Superman's only choice in that moment, he's going to make that decision."

"If I were doing that scene in a comic book, I probably would have said, 'And then this happens, so Superman doesn't have to make that choice,'" Jurgens continues. "But I've always said that there comes a point when Superman is carried to that extreme, is that still the reasonable stance? What is required of him to save someone's life."

Superman: Legacy

James Gunn arrives at the premiere of
James Gunn at the premiere of The Flash in Los Angeles. (Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

We're still more than a year away from seeing the Man of Steel soar again in Superman: Legacy, but it's never too early to speculate what version of the character we might meet in Gunn's movie. As a closing question, we asked our panel to pick what they're most hoping to see in Superman: Legacy. Spoiler alert: no neck-breaking is involved.

Gill: I'd like to see Bizarro or Lobo show up — one of those two. Also, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been really good in terms of mapping out how comics work with characters and big events [crossing over]. It would be great if DC could figure out how to do that.

Hasan: Let's bring Superman's bright red trunks back! And while Superman III overdoes it on the comedy, it really embraces the Silver Age of Superman, so I would love to see something in that vein that's not too corny. If James Gunn has shown anything from his various comic book films, it's that he's able to find the right tone for the project.

Jurgens: I always start with what I say to anybody: Stay true to the character. I have every bit of faith that James Gunn will. Also, the Fortress of Solitude has usually been depicted as this cold, icy place because of the comics and Donner's film. But I also always liked the idea that it's this storage place for symbols of Superman's great adventures, like the Bottle City of Kandor. Capturing that aspect could be a lot of fun.

Phillips: You've got to get back to him being an inherently noble and good character. The Justice League Unlimited series had some very good Superman stories about an all-powerful character who is put in situations that require him to make hard choices. And that's Superman, right? If you want to make a movie about an all-powerful character that's morally compromised, there's a ton of those in comic books — I don't think it should be Superman.

Superman III and Man of Steel are both streaming on Max.