Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

It shouldn’t have been this bad.

Superman portrayer, Christopher Reeve (Rear WindowThe Remains of the Day), had a vision to make a statement with the fourth film in the series, offered a return to the film, despite not yet having a script idea.  Reeve had been reticent to return, but couldn’t turn down the offer of a blank canvas from which he could do the Superman film he thought would return the franchise back to the fans and the respect for the character he felt was mostly ignored in Superman IIIand he would do so with one of the most noble of pursuits for the character, which is to rid the Earth of nuclear weapons once and for all.  Reeve’s return would also offer the stipulation that he could some second-unit director chores, and even take the chair as director for a future Superman film if the fourth installment were lucrative enough.  On their end, the studio agreed to produce another film Reeve had his eye on, Street Smart, to give him a meaty dramatic role to try to stave off typecasting.  

Alas, as lofty as his goals were, Reeve would soon find that budgetary issues would kill his dream in the end.  First, the production moved from the Salkinds to Golan Globus/Cannon Films for a fee of $5 million. Golan Globus which was in dire straits financially at the time due to trying to tackle too many other projects, and they couldn’t afford to spend money on a big budget release that wasn’t guaranteed a profit, which they though they could turn if their installment made even half of what Superman III did.  Nevertheless, they were feeling more than a pinch, and the budget for Superman IV was gutted, with less than $20 million to spend overall, despite the fact that Warner Bros. was bankrolling much more than that (they ended up funneling that money into other projects).  Obviously, this cut into the most crucial aspect of the film, the special effects, which now seem very low-tech, even for the times.  Then, once the two hour and ten minute film was in the can, test audiences weren’t feeling it. 

Cannon did what many studios do when a potential turkey is on their hands — they reduce the film to 90 minutes so that they could get extra showings every day, and hopefully, recoup some of its money.  They also thought that they could cut even more corners, should the film prove successful, by using some of that excised footage in a follow-up entry, though the inability to push funds for the remainder, as well as Reeve’s complete disinterest in returning for another round with them after his experience, made it a moot proposition.  Wishful thinking, notwithstanding, the result of paring down the shooting budget and then gutting the finished product is a film that looks cheesy, often makes little sense, and inevitably killed the this iteration of the franchise, and to add insult to injury, Reeve and the producers were slapped with a lawsuit claiming that they had stolen their idea from another party (they prevailed in the suit, but at great legal cost).

It’s a shame too, because Superman IV, for all of its foibles, is an extremely likable movie, even if it isn’t up to the standards laid out in the first Superman.  Reeve is excellent, Hackman (Crimson TideUnforgiven) is back as Lex Luthor, and for the first time, Margot Kidder (The Amityville Horror) looks like she is enjoying playing Lois Lane again.  The awful humor is kept to the right proportions (mostly supplied by Jon “Duckie” Cryer (Pretty in Pink) as Luthor’s nephew, and who is excruciating), and this time, there is a heartfelt message behind the intent.  It was the right movie to get Superman back on his feet, but just the wrong time for the wrong studio.

In this one, Superman confronts a moral dilemma.  He is sworn to not meddle into the affairs of Earth, but only he has the power to stop the problems associated with the nuclear build-up. In a gut-wrenching decision, he decides to rid the planet of all nuclear weapons, gathering them all up and launching them into the sun.  His arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, senses an opportunity to make some money by concocting a way to stop Superman, because living in fear generates lots of revenue for those who can exploit it.  Using Superman’s DNA, he sets about creating his own super-powered villain, one who is equally as powerful, Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). 

The original intent of the screenwriters was that Reeve would play the bad-guy role as well.  The cost of the effects necessary to render two Reeves, in addition to the fact that something similar had already been done in Superman III made Cannon not consider the idea in the end. Also, there were two Nuclear Man characters that had been put into the film, with the first, a prototype meant to resemble long-time Superman foe from the comics, Bizarro, being taken down by Superman earlier in the story.  The one that appears in the film after the first one was left on the cutting-room floor is the second Nuclear Man that Luthor created, born from the nuclear energy of the sun, to take down the Man of Steel.

Cannon unsuccessfully tried to get Richard Donner and his uncredited screenwriter of choice, Tom Mankiewicz, to return to the series, which they entertained for a while before deciding that they had already exhausted all of their good ideas for the first two films.  Cannon looked elsewhere, including to director Wes Craven, who reportedly didn’t see eye to eye with Christopher Reeve, ultimately settling on veteran filmmaker Sidney J. Furie, who had been in negotiations already with Golan Globus on another project he had wanted to makeFurie had once been considered an upper-tier director, helming such features as The Ipcress Files and Lady Sings the Blues, and though he hadn’t made something critically praised in some time, he was coming off of one of his more successful movies financially in 1986’s Iron Eagle, and one that was economical in execution, which made Furie most attractive to a studio barely scraping by.

In addition to bringing back most of the core original cast, John Williams’ original score is back, with a few new compositions of his, although not actually conducted by Williams himself due to prior commitments, and was done by one of his trusted friends, Alexander Courage.

All things considered, it seems a miracle that the film was actually able to get made, and I respect the fact that a low budget film like this would actually be able to supply a few good moments, like the destruction of the Great Wall of China, and the abduction of the Statue of Liberty.  Still, it’s easy to see that this has but a fraction of the previous efforts’ budgets, with any of the shots of Superman flying obviously done with blue screens and false backgrounds.

As with the other films in the series, logical questions do abound. At the beginning of the film, Superman visits his old farm in Smallville where he checks in on the vehicle that shuttled him to Earth as a baby, and the voice of his mother, Lara, tells him that the green crystal from Krypton within it will give him the remaining power of Krypton, but it can only be used once.  However, in the original Superman we only see one green shard being placed in Kal-El’s ship, which was used to create the Fortress of Solitude.  In Superman II, a green shard found within the Fortress is used again in order to restore Superman’s powers.  And yet, here is another example — either you can use them more than once, or there were multiple such shards sent along with Superman than we were originally shown.

Lex Luthor, along with his perpetually annoying nephew Lenny, break into a museum display housing a strand of Superman’s hair supporting a 1000-lb. weight, which Luthor easily clips with a pair of shears.  Shouldn’t such a hair be indestructible?  And shouldn’t the DNA make Nuclear Man resemble Superman in more than powers?   And speaking of hair, Luthor was established as being completely bald in the first two films, only having hair due to a wig he would wear more of the time.  Yet, Hackman’s mane is clearly not a wig in this film (if it were, it is a wig no one would ever choose, as he is balding), as he still has quite a bit of hair to tout as his own.

Superman also shows a couple of powers we had not seen in the prior films.  One involves the ability to move bricks back into place at the Great Wall of China, using beams from his eyes that appear to be something similar to his heat vision.  Nuclear Man, whose appearance and demeanor will have many comparing him to a professional wrestler (Mark Pillow awkwardly lip-synched to Gene Hackman’s voice), seems to also have the telekinetic ability to levitate people and objects, which Superman also uses to bring them back down to Earth.  Superman’s kiss of amnesia, used at the end of Superman II to make Lois unaware that Clark and Superman are the same, and of their relationship, is employed yet again, despite the fact that some fans detest the use of it as a narrative cheat.

In terms of its themes, it is, perhaps, a victim of its times.  In the Reagan era, where people are flocking to big business, and sold on the notion that wealth trickles down from the top, having scenes such as the one where Clark Kent refuses to sell his family farm in Smallville unless its to another farmer, rather than to someone wanting to build a strip mall, may have seemed a bit old-fashioned in its idealism.  The corporatizating of the news is another issue, where the tabloid mogul immediately puts his imprint on the publication by going for what’s sensational rather than what’s newsworthy, causing the rift between journalism as a public good versus the news media as a for-profit business.  And, in the waning days of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, the nuclear care that had been so pervasive just a few short years before seemed more of a remote possibility in 1987, lessening the stakes involved in Superman’s noble pursuits.  That Luthor leads a conglomeration of businessmen dedicated to the profits that can be derived from war is but another of the heady issues it touches upon, but doesn’t grapple with enough to make a lasting impact overall.  One could go even further with ascribing themes from the environmentalist perspective by stating that Superman, whose powers come from being near the yellow sun (i.e., solar power) is taking on a man whose powers come from nuclear energy, though this angle gets a bit murky when it is revealed that Nuclear Man needs direct sunlight to stay powered.

As expected by most people involved in the film, including Reeve, who knew the film would not turn out to be any good once it was slashed to bit by Cannon Films, it tanked at the box office, making just a little over $15 million, making it the lowest earner by far in the series, not counting Supergirl the year before.  As Cannon decided to pass on making a follow-up, the rights to the franchise reverted back to the Salkinds, who had ideas on making another entry that would ignore the evens of Superman IV, in addition to their own Superman III, but the delays resulted in them losing the rights back to DC Comics when they did not produce another entry within the five year period from the previous one.

Alas, we’ll never know if Superman IV ever had a chance to revive the franchise, as it was dead before it ever left the gate.  Perhaps one day we’ll be able to view the extra 40 minutes which were sliced out, but given the state of the production that we can see, and the rather weak script, a return to glory seems too much to ask for.  But still — it shouldn’t have been this bad.

Qwipster’s rating: D

MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 90 min.

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Mariel Hemingway, Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, Mark McClure, Jon Cryer, Sam Wanamaker, Mark Pillow
Director: Sidney J. Furie

Screenplay: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal