When I spoke to Richard Lester about his career he was at pains to make clear that his work on SUPERMAN (as a go-between going between Richard Donner and the Salkinds) and SUPERMAN II, finishing the film Donner started, was strictly professional and impersonal. “You were able to get more of your sensibility into SUPERMAN III,” I ventured. “Yes. And that didn’t work.”

SUPERMAN III is indeed flawed, there is some kind of mismatch between Lester the satirist, grounded in some kind of social reality, and the comic book fantasy of Supes, and this weirdly results in a film that’s MORE comic-book and juvenile than its predecessors, maybe because Lester can’t take the thing seriously enough to indulge in the epic chunkiness of Donner, whosaw the thing in terms of myth. Well, to Lester, myths exist to be examined and debunked.

It’s probably a perfect entertainment for the under-tens, but as a fifteen-year-old I remember being offended by nonsense like a weather satellite being reprogrammed to make weather instead of analysing it. When the baddies try to slip some kryptonite to Superman, pretending it’s an award for his services, they don’t sculpt it into a convincing medal, they just hand it to him in a lump. That seems kind of charming to me now, and there’s something benign about a superhero movie actually aimed at little kids, as it should be.

But what’s with the mustard motif?

This first appears as a literal splash of mustard on Jimmy Olsen’s sweater, before the very very Lester title sequence, a chain reaction of Tatiesque chaos on the streets of Metropolis (Calgary). In the next scene, Clark Kent spots the stain using his supervision. But even before then, a girl in mustard coloured kneepads and cap rollerskates into the hot dog cart and propels it into a set of mustard call boxes, toppling them into mustard plantpots.

To say nothing of the mustard dicky-bows of the runaway wind-up penguins, and the jumper worn by the chap Superman rescues, echoed by the parking sign he’s run into:

There’s more. I think it maybe has something to do with Superman’s colours being mirrored throughout the film: a traffic jam is all red white and blue and yellowcabs. One green car (for kryptonite?) has crept in. Lana Lang is associated with a softer yellow, matching the Kansas wheatfields (of Alberta) while the Smallville sweater than nearly gives Clark’s secret identity away is definite mustard.

Maybe the further answer is that when the defective synthetic kryptonite turns Superman bad, the colours of his costume get muddied, turning the yellow of his S emblem into a muddy… mustard?

The car wrecks are all red, white, blue and yellow too. A lot of effort has been gone to, Antonioni style, in this Milton Keynes junkyard.

Okay, I’m satisfied that this is all about the costume. Although it should be noted that Superman gets his powers thanks to earth’s yellow sun, which we see in the closing shot. Turns out it really is yellow. Sorta mustard, in fact.

11 Responses to “Mustard”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Superman” has never interested me very much, but I’ve always been crazy about “Jimmy Olson” — or more specifically Jack Larson. Here he is on Letterman, making mention of hs non-“Superman” career

  2. bensondonald Says:

    I remember being impressed with Superman rescuing people from a factory fire because the stakes and the setting were rooted in reality. The climax with the giant monster computer was a letdown, because there was no reality to give anything even physical weight.

    Also: Superman saving the coffee crop or whatever was somehow diminished by it being presented as illustration for Richard Pryor’s after-the-fact description. It felt less “real” than if the same footage was shown as present tense. I briefly thought they somehow saved money that way.

    I did forgive the Superman versus Clark Kent nonsense, simply because it was so fun to see the Mean Drunk of Steel disappointing kids.

    Trivium: Robert Vaughn’s villain was conceived as a parody of Alan Alda, praised and mocked for epitomizing the Sensitive Nice Guy. Alda was reportedly approached, but turned the part down.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I remember seeing Superman III on TV as a kid (dubbed in Hindi) and the main thing I remember is the junkyard fight between Clark Kent and Superman. I’ve never revisited it since though I’ve seen a lot of Lester and liked his stuff (i.e. Juggernaut, Robin and Marian, A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia).

    Superman generally produces a lot of good music. This one by Kinks I like a lot (and maybe captures the Lester-esque spirit better than the movie that got made):

  5. The junkyard is very good, hardly any special effects to make two Reeves, just good doubling. Critics thought Robert Vaughn was too lightweight as the villain, but I think Lest was influenced by having met George Bush at the White House screening of II. “A strange, nerdy man. It was very hot, and he said, ‘Hey fellahs, let’s all take off our ties!’ as if this was the most daringly bohemian thing imaginable.”

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The Best Use of The Kinks —

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    ALSO —

  8. The penguin man in that scene of Superman 3 is played by Henry Woolf, who passed away this week. He was Harold Pinter’s oldest friend and collaborator, commissioned his first play The Room. He also appeared in “the Bed Sitting Room” He’d only recently arrived in Canada to teach drama, so this must be a personal touch from Lester.

    I saw it again recently and thought that Superman 3’s opening slapstick sequence could’ve benefitted from a little *more* Jacques Tati. Imagine a full “Playtime” like sequence of increasing chaos, where Superman appears at the end. Instead it’s problem isn’t tone, but that it’s not chaotic enough. Perhaps Lester asked for Tati and the writers gave him the best they could

    My favorite moment in Superman 3 is that moment where he visits Lana Lang and awkwardly sits down on a couch, and the way it’s framed, you’re suddenly aware of utterly ridiculous the concept of Superman is when he’s not flying through the air.

  9. despite how impersonal he found it, I always enjoyed Lester’s work on Superman 2 more. There are definite little Lester touches: Richard Griffiths & Anthony Sher’s performances, the vulgar Americana, but more than that the balancing of tone. In Soderbergh’s interview book, the Lester of 30 years ago talks about how in Superman 2 he was at pains to balance one scene of spectacle with one scene of drama, and it’s why I like the film a little more than its predecessor, and most other films in this genre

  10. Yes, and it was partly because, I think, the effects stuff was just work, whereas dealing with actors was a bit more enjoyable. With III he tried to reduce things even more, starting in a job centre, with the inciting incident being a book of matches.

    The visual gags in Lester’s previous films were semi-improvised around suggestions in the script and available props and actors. Here, everything was storyboarded, because Lester was taking the opportunity to see if he could work in a more pre-planned way, and obviously it’s hard to wing it with huge special effects and a giant budget. But that’s going to result in a less chaotic feel.

    I’m pretty sure Superman saving the coffee crop happened that way because the money ran out, as usual, and Lester would not go over budget. The writers wrote Pryor a monologue, figuring he’d ad-lib and improve it, but he just did it as written. Lester admitted at the time that Pryor was still suffering very much from the effects of his burns injuries.

    Lester said he took the job on the condition that everybody would get promptly paid every Friday, unlike on the previous films. But this never happened. He invited me to imagine the interest accrued from this huge budget just by having the salaries stay in the producers’ bank account a few days longer each week…

    He took the job because they offered him a record-breaking fee and his wife threw a sponge at him when he said no to it.

  11. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Speaking of coffee cups. . .

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