Bipolar Lens: Superman 3

My brain went on one of those fun, weird tangents yesterday when I happened to see someone online mention that as a child they were terrified by the “robot” in Superman 3. I hadn’t thought of it in years and years, but their mention of it brought some long-repressed childhood horror freshly to my mind, so of course I had to revisit it.

What folks are remembering is this scene in the end where Vera Webster’s machine turns on her and begins to “cyber-ize” her. Though this apparently traumatized many children of my age of eighties-era pop culture, and while the isolated images of it online still look quite impressively disturbing, as an adult (at least to me) the scene is quite brief and plays as fairly campy and innocuous now.

What struck me about the film this time was Superman’s reaction to Kryptonite.

Setting aside the hilarious fact that Richard Pryor was inspired by his package of Camel cigarettes to add the “secret ingredient” to the Kryptonite recipe, Kryptonite affected Superman quite differently than I expected. I thought that it would weaken Superman’s powers, but instead it seemed to weaken his—morals? soul? conscience? —which is arguably worse, because he can use his powers for bad, and does. He does in some ways that show a callous disregard for human life, but of course me being me, I related most to him giving in to his lust for alcohol and women. In what I found to simultaneously be one of the saddest and funniest scenes in the film, after Superman uses his laser-vision to make some beer nuts explode in a bar and tries to drunkenly fly away, you can hear spectators disgustedly saying things like “Superman’s changed,” and “You’re washed up, Superman.” Only one little kid, who still idolizes him, sends a different voice out over the crowd, “No, Superman’s just going through a slump.” “You’re just going through a slump, Superman!” Ricky encourages him.

You can probably see where I’m going with this now.

“Evil Superman” has a metaphorical battle with his inner good guy Clark Kent in an auto wrecking yard. To me this battle is metaphorical on a few different levels, but I think most of us who have dealt with a serious mental health issue can relate to the feeling of having done things we’re not proud of when in the throes of a bad episode, and then having to wrestle with our inner demons of depression or trauma to get back to our “real” self.

When a floozy recognizes the recovered Superman from an earlier indiscreet tryst, he boldly and confidently tells her, “That wasn’t me.” Gosh, I sure do feel that way about some of my manic encounters, and I wish I could be as badass and well-respected as Superman and say “That wasn’t me.” It *was* me, though—I just wasn’t in the driver’s seat at the time. It’s hard to emphasize to someone who hasn’t experienced it just how little control you truly have over your actions in a full-blown psychotic state. The really hard part is, you’re still accountable for them. Sadly, you can’t explain to someone that Kryptonite reconstructed from the input of a deep-space weather satellite and the tar from a Camel cigarette (I’ll never get over that) caused my behavior, but in the same strange way something I didn’t expect came out of the clear blue sky and messed with my chemicals to the point where it pinged all my impulse centers and lowered all my inhibitions, and I really wasn’t, for all intents and purposes, myself. I feel you, Superman.

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