In 1987 the rights to produce a fourth Superman film fell into the hands of the financially troubled Cannon Pictures. Producers Mehahem Golan and Yoram Globus set a budget of $36,000,000 for a third sequel which was then slashed to just $17,000,000 meaning that they couldn’t afford to shoot in New York and instead shot much of the film in and around Milton Keynes, England. Christopher Reeve only agreed to return to the role after the studio agreed to finance his pet project, Street Smart.
The directors of the previous Superman films, Richard Donner and Richard Lester were both allegedly offered directorial duties but declined to return, Donner having been fired by the previous producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Sidney J. Furie was eventually given the job having helmed Iron Eagle the year before. The studio cut the film’s length from 134 minutes to 90 minutes, presumably in order to allow more showings per day thus maximising ticket sales. It was a pointless exercise as the film was a failure both commercially and critically.
The restricted budget and B-studio origins are apparent from the off with the flimsy quality of the opening titles. The valiant attempts by Alexander Courage (of Star Trek fame no less) to replicate John Williams’ original score falls somewhat short throughout. Following this we have a nice but brief scene where Clark returns to Smallville to arrange the terms of sale of his family homestead. Sadly, Lana Lang has been unceremoniously dumped from this fourth film after being one of the strongest elements of the previous film.
Gene Hackman was somehow persuaded to return and first appears in a frankly lame prison breakout scene involving a car stunt that clearly went wrong on the first and only take with the budget not allowing for a repeat of the stunt. The less said about Lex’s nephew, Lenny the better. His presence in the film is one of many poor creative decisions that bring the quality of the film down. And make no mistake about it, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is an absolutely dreadful film but I’m sure that what’s come so far in this article has already pointed firmly towards this.
I’ll not waste your time with detailed plot synopsis but rather highlight some of the film’s many ills. Back in Metropolis we have The Daily Planet having been taken over by the blatantly Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul, David Warfield. This leads to a dreadful romantic subplot involving Clark and Warfield’s daughter Lacy, replete with a TV movie saxophone score to flag the fact that what we’re watching is supposed to be romantic. Throughout the film Christopher Reeve looks embarrassed and has an almost awkward gait in some scenes and the UK filming locations in Milton Keynes are certainly no adequate replacement for New York as Metropolis.
The Quest for Peace in the title refers to Superman’s decision to break the rules his father laid out in the first film and interfere in human affairs by ridding the world of nuclear weapons. What makes Superman’s decision feel so lame and forced is that it’s a decision made almost purely on the pleas of an unknown schoolboy. Scenes of Clark and his alter-ego moping around clearly fretting over this decision lead inexplicably to him deciding to reveal to Lois that he is actually Superman AGAIN! This raises the question that having done this exact same thing before in Superman II and then at the end go some ways to undo it, why is he doing it again? The resultant Lois/Superman flying scene features some of the very worst process shots you’ll likely ever see. No effort whatsoever seems to have been made to match the lighting of the actors with the background plates. This brief subplot ends with yet another memory wiping kiss that renders the whole reveal to Lois utterly redundant to the plot.
When Superman finally makes his mind up to rid the world of nukes he addresses the UN on his decision. Eagle-eyed nit-pickers may well question why the UN has a delegate from England as opposed to the United Kingdom. And following this they may also ask where Superman got the giant net that’s big enough to hold every nuclear weapon on Earth.
The quality of the script throughout is simply terrible and the shame of seeing the great Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman lower themselves to spout such trite dialogue will truly sadden fans of the previous films. Easily the most memorably risible aspect of Superman IV is its antagonist Nuclear Man. Mark Pillow makes his big screen debut as Superman’s solar powered nemesis. This role was also, perhaps unsurprisingly given the quality of his performance, Pillow’s last big screen acting role. The “science” or utter lack thereof, behind the conception of Nuclear Man typifies the risible quality of the film as a whole. I can’t even be bothered to detail how he’s conceived. You’ve either already seen it and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s ridiculous.
What you may not know is that Pillow’s Nuclear Man is actually Nuclear Man 2.0. Initially, British actor Clive Mantle played what fans have come to call Nuclear Man 1.0. All footage of Mantle’s character was removed from the final cut and you only need to search the internet for stills and clips to see why. Even in comparison to the poor quality of the Nuclear Man we ended up with, the original version was truly awful.
The gym scene with Clark and Lacy aims to offer much fun and hilarity, but actually provides nothing of the sort and showcases some particularly dreadful editing. The editing of the film as a whole is one of its biggest problems. The glut of excised footage has left several large and obvious holes in the plot and the pace of the film has an almost erratic, frantic feel to it like it can’t wait to end. This will be a sentiment shared by anyone watching the film.
The Lois/Superman, Lacy/Clark double date offers more unintentionally laugh-free entertainment. At least some of the out of place humour in the flawed third film was mildly amusing. Superman IV on the other hand is very much a fun vacuum. The only amusement that’s to be had by the viewer is down to the shoddy nature of the film as opposed to any intentional humour from the script.
The film rushes to a gloriously bad smack-down between Messieurs Super and Nuclear. Nuclear Man’s crippling vulnerability is that as soon as he’s out of direct sunlight he’s powerless. This should have allowed Superman to make short shrift of him but the film consistently defies its own poorly conceived logic at every step. Superman’s mysterious new “fixing The Great Wall of China” vision is another plot servicing device that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
The quality of the special effects is so bad that it makes the scene of Nuclear Man dropping the Statue of Liberty onto Manhattan completely visually uninteresting. After Nuclear Man wounds Superman with his nails (yes, he scrams him) he goes off the grid only for Lois to find Clark feverish in his apartment. Then all of a sudden he’s back in Smallville looking almost like a zombie before using the green Kryptonian crystal seen in earlier films to heal himself. One wonders if more excised footage led to what is now his abruptly sharp deterioration in health.
The film as a whole is so haphazardly edited together that it’s clear that considerable chunks of footage were removed. A subplot involving Nuclear Man’s infatuation with Lacy is skipped over leading to the confusing scene where he demands that Superman tell him where she is only for Superman to tell him that he’ll never find her even though his infatuation with her hasn’t been established in the final cut. We’re left asking ourselves how does Superman know who his foe is looking for?
The slow motion fight on the surface of the moon is laughable with both actors having clearly taken lessons in the Captain Kirk school of acting. This stuff is so beneath Reeve who has shown himself to be clearly capable of so much more. We are then treated to more absurdity as Nuclear Man flies Lacy into space where she is somehow immune to the freezing vacuum of that particularly inhospitable environment.
The final act briskly runs towards the film’s ultimate ham-fisted message of peace. Whilst the sentiment behind Superman’s speech to the world’s press is sound in its content, ultimately it just comes across as cheesy and forced. The ending fizzles out with none of the uplifting feel the previous films had.
I feel that I must apologise for the lack of any meaningful analysis or passion here but Superman IV isn’t the sort of film worthy of either of those things. Whilst Superman III was a flawed film, it had some great elements that saved it and certainly made it worth a watch. This pitifully low budget, shoddily made fourth film in the series has nothing on which to recommend it other than the fact that it’s so laughably poor that fans of bad films may glean some enjoyment from it. Prior to prepping for this article I hadn’t seen Superman IV for over a decade, but having enjoyed rewatching the previous films (yes, even Superman III) I was dreading having to sit through this embarrassing end to the series. Christopher Reeve’s tragic but ultimately inspiring personal story and the gift he gave us in the form of such an iconic representation of Superman is something for which he deserves our gratitude. It’s therefore so sad that Superman IV was his last on-screen appearance as the character that would define his career and for the damage it did the series I can’t recommend it in any way.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this retrospective series on the Christopher Reeve Superman films. The character has re-appeared on both the small and big screens played by numerous actors since but for many fans, this one included, it will always be Reeve that truly owns the role. I can’t think of any other role where an actor has so perfectly encapsulated the qualities of a comic book character and translated them so well to the screen. Reeve is sadly missed but his on-screen legacy is preserved for all time and the strength and courage that he exhibited in his own life proved that he really was a superhero in every sense of the word.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 2/10