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Superman III went too far in the direction of cheap laughs and sight gags.

With Man of Steel opening on Friday, Dave McGinn examines what the early Superman movies can teach us about the superhero genre, for better or for worse. Today's instalment: the downward spiral of Superman III and IV

Yuk it up

Unlike so many of today's superhero movies, the Superman franchise starring Christopher Reeve was actually made for kids. But the third instalment, which featured comedian Richard Pryor as a computer genius, went too far in the direction of cheap laughs and sight gags.

Losing direction

When a new director is brought in to helm a franchise, things are either going to improve mightily or get much worse. When Superman producers fired director Richard Donner, who objected to making the series campy, well, we got Superman III. Directed by Richard Lester, who had previously directed the Beatles movies Help! and A Hard Day's Night, the third chapter signalled the beginning of the franchise's end.

Villain fatigue

Lex Luthor was again featured in Superman IV after already appearing in parts I and II. It doesn't take a brainiac to know there are plenty of other bad guys from the comics that Supes could battle.

New, lame bad guys

Evil Superman from Superman III was an interesting conceit, but Nuclear Man? Who is Nuclear Man? Answer: a lame, blond clone who shoots electricity out of his fingers. His appearance in Superman IV was a clear sign that filmmakers had lost touch with their source material.

The numbers game

Despite being savaged by critics, Superman III turned a profit. It was made on a budget of $39-million and had a U.S. gross of $59,950,623. But Superman IV tanked. Made on a budget of just $17-million, the movie's U.S. gross was only $15,681,020. Such poor earnings from two poor films shuttered the franchise for 26 years.