Monday, June 23, 2008

25 years of 'Bizarro III'

Note: This is not part of the Bizarro Blog-a-Thon at Attentive Ear Theater.

Has it really been 25 years since the third (and best) entry in the Bizarro saga? Audiences didn't expect much in 1983 upon its release -- the previous two efforts, directed by Richard Lester, had all been duds -- but Bizarro III would redefine what movie-goers expected from superhero movies. While Bizarro: The Movie and Bizarro II had been sci-fi adventures, the third installment (helmed by funnyman Richard Donner) would be a gut-busting comedy in the tradition of Ryan's Daughter and Silkwood.

Donner's first order of business was to have his movie feature a first-class super villain, but who? Fan favorites such as Zod and Otis had already starred in the previous movies, but Donner went with a less popular adversary who first appeared in Bizarro #302 ("The Hat of Fear"): his name was Superman. Since he was the exact opposite of Bizarro, Superman was an easy villain to hate. Superman possessed none of Bizarro's trademark ugly features, or impractical super powers. Instead of Bizarro's charming flame breath or x-ray hearing, Superman possessed the ability to see through almost anything (as opposed to just lead) and could concentrate his heat vision to accurately destroy objects (instead of randomly burning anyone within a 50-foot radius of him).

Actor Christopher Reeve was an easy casting choice for Superman, although some believed the villainous role could slow the momentum of his prestigious career. Once thought to be dropping out of the series, William Atherton signed up again for the title role -- ready to don the trademark gray makeup for one more go-around. Early dispatches from the set confirmed everyone's hopes, that Bizarro III would be perhaps the best American comedy since Nashville. Since Superman was obviously a thin character, Donner paired him with clever original creations Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) and Ross Webster (comedy kingpin Robert Vaughn). Donner struck gold with these choices, as a spinoff movie franchise with Gorman outlasted even the Bizarro series, and the Webster character would become a Saturday morning cartoon fixture.

The hilarious plot also broke away from the norm, focusing on computers and coffee (yes, you read that correctly!) with a streak of screwball gags (did someone say skiing down a skyscraper?). After principal photography ended, Donner reportedly lit a cigar and pronounced himself the luckiest man in the world, saying to Atherton "Billy, they better start tearing out those Hollywood Stars, because they'll need 50 of them just for you!" Audiences echoed Donner's sentiments, eating up the movie at the box office and clamoring for more of Bizarro. Movie-goers saved their biggest applause for the dramatic climax, when Bizarro tricks the ne'er-do-well baddie into giving up his powers before pushing him into an ornery super computer that transforms him into a bumbling robot.

The unmatched success of Bizarro III set a precedent for superhero movies: no longer would they be tied to the snoozer genre of action/adventure, but audiences would expect to leave the theater in tears of laughter. Future comic book adaptations would hitch their ride to this star: John Sayles' laugh-a-minute The Penguin, Francis Ford Coppola's hysterical Plastic Man and Robert DeNiro's infamous farce Johnny Quest Meets the Harlem Globetrotters. For the Bizarro franchise, the gang reunited for one last installment (without Superman, of course), 1989's Bizarro IV: The Last Picture Show. While not as universally loved as its predecessor, No. 4 gave America's favorite superhero a proper send-off -- with Bizarro tripping over his shoelaces on the way to the altar to wed longtime sweetheart Lana Lang.


Anonymous said...

I still miss Bizarro, but I agree that the franchise was doomed. Better to leave on the bottom that wait to rise to the top. I still have hopes they will revive the series, though; Larry Drake was born to play Bizarro.

Adam Ross said...

And doesn't it just scream "Darron Arronofsky!" ?

PIPER said...

Well said Adam,

Definitely the best of all of them. And getting Donner as director was a flat out coup.

The fact that Pryor was in this, clearly showed that he was off the stuff and making clear judgments.