It's a Bird, It's A Plane, It's A Franchise-Killing Case File # 125: Superman IV: Quest For Peace
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"You can tell from the very first credit that says Warner Brothers that something is terribly wrong in Metropolis," frets Superman IV: Quest For Peace screenwriter Mark Rosenthal at the beginning of the DVD's audio commentary. He's not kidding. By the time a third sequel to Superman began pre-production, Superman was in bad shape. Metaphorically speaking, the Man Of Steel was clad in nothing but a pickle barrel with straps, a homemade "will work for truth, justice and the American way and /or food" sign in one hand, a sad little bindle in the other.
By 1987 our nation's greatest hero had been auctioned off to Israel's greatest schlock merchants, Cannon head honchos Menahim Golan and Yoram "Golden" Globus, the evil geniuses behind Over The Top, at least one of the lambada movies and, yes, The Apple as part of their wildly unsuccessful, decade-wide bid to buy some class. A national treasure was now at the mercy of the people behind the Lemon Popsicle teen sex comedies.
The Superman films had fallen from grace. The first Superman wasn't just a movie: it was a seismic cultural event, a movie that put the most sophisticated special effects in film history in the service of first-class myth-making. Superman II was bigger and better but Superman III reduced Superman to playing second fiddle to the comedy stylings of Richard Pryor. It could be worse. Bryan Singer's perversely reverent reboot of the series, 2005's Superman Returns, focused so heavily on Superman's love interest that it essentially became the Lois Lane story with a brief guest appearance from Superman.
The failure of 1984's Supergirl—attributable perhaps to Christopher Reeve opting out of a cameo in which he visits his good friend Supergal and tells her he can't wait to see all the adventures she'll have against a colorful backdrop—raised troubling questions about the series' future. Had Superman run his course? Had the concept of a spit-curled alien flying around in his pajamas saving people finally lost its cultural resonance? Was this the end of Supy?
Christopher Reeve only agreed to return for a fourth go-round as Superman if Cannon let him have input into the script and agreed to fund a pet project of his choice, namely the 1987 drama Street Smart, which introduced Morgan Freeman to the public as a vicious pimp with the voice of God. Alas, Superman IV was only one of dozens of projects in production at Cannon, each more ridiculously sublime than the last. As Golan and Globus overspent wildly on their other films—though, to be fair, you wouldn't want to skimp on the codpiece budget for Masters of The Universe—Superman IV's budget dwindled. An A-movie from a mini-studio with major delusions quickly became a glorified B-movie. Golan and Globus set out to make a Superman movie. Instead they Cannonized the franchise out of existence.
In the words of Rosenthal, "The movie became an emblem of greed and chaos on the part of people who were in over their heads." According to Rosenthal, special effects that dazzled the world and set a new gold standard devolved into "a wonderful funhouse of bad special effects, wires showing… and cheesy flying." Rosenthal to come back and talk about Superman IV is more than a little sadistic. It's like asking a man still raw with grief, to do an audio commentary for footage of his wife's miscarriage. Between its first disastrous test screening and its theatrical release, Superman IV shrank from an appropriately epic 134 minutes to 89 mildly incoherent minutes. Subplots were jettisoned and scenes shortened to a frenetic rush. The first incarnation of universally unloved villain Nuclear Man disappeared completely. The result suggests the Cliffs Notes' version of a book that wasn't worth reading in the first place.
Superman IV begins with a sequence that replaces the instantly recognizable, adrenaline-pumping, widely imitated and ripped-off swooshing names of the original, non-terrible Superman with an opening credit sequence that looks like it was hastily assembled by a Junior College student on a Collecovision as part of a senior project.
We're then re-introduced to America's greatest hero (Christopher Reeve) as a Russkie-loving internationalist of questionable patriotism who sashays into outer space so he can save some dirty communist bastards on a space station from their no doubt Lenin-inspired incompetence and practice his Russian on his new space friends. In Superman IV, Reeve promises to wipe out the United States' nuclear capacity (and consequently its virility/ability to impress pretty girl countries in bars), battles proud capitalist/champion of free enterprise Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and spends much of the film delivering peacenik messages in front of his beloved United Nations. I was half-ready to report him to the House Committee On UnAmerican Activities. Fucking Commie, hiding behind the red, white and blue when he's really only got love for one of those colors.
Aforementioned capitalist Gene Hackman begins the film on a chain gang, where the filmmakers apparently believe all proponents of the free market belong. It isn't long, however, until Hackman's zany nephew Jon Cryer busts him loose by luring a pair of beet-red prison guards into his car, a sweet-ass convertible with his name (Lenny) painted on the side. It turns out to be a brilliant trap: soon the hapless guards are stuck inside the car when it rockets off a cliff, leaving Hackman to escape. Now I'm no criminal mastermind but I have to doubt the wisdom of scrawling your name on a car you plan using while committing a major felony. If I were going to use a car to help a relative escape from prison I probably wouldn't have "Nathan Rabin Awesomemobile" painted on the side the day before the big prison break.
As Rosenthal notes in the commentary, Cryer, a new waver in leopard-print sharkskin pants, a copper-colored fauxhawk and a wardrobe that combines the worst sartorial excesses of the new wave, punk, rockabilly, glam, and cross-dressing crowds, was added to the cast to the film more appealing to young people. Gosh, you know what I'd imagine young people might find appealing: fucking Superman. When you've got goddamned, cock-sucking motherfucking Superman, the real pimp of the century, do you really need the kiddie appeal of Ducky or Mariel Hemingway's gorgeous gams? That'd be like owning an amusement park and thinking, "Man, you know what would finally make this attractive to children? If I reunited O-Town. Then kids might enjoy my amusement park."
Then again, this was Cannon in the mid-'80s so maybe we should just thank our lucky stars that the filmmakers didn't resort to that omnipresent crutch of budget-minded Reagan-era b-movie-makers: the utterly gratuitous breakdancing sequence. Can you even imagine what kind of helicopters Superman is capable of?
Yet Superman IV goes right on ahead trying to fix what's broken, then breaking what its predecessor already fixed. Early in the film, Reeve takes girlfriend Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) on a magical nighttime joyride through the sky. That was a wonderful scene—in the first Superman. In Superman IV all it does is highlight just how badly the series' flying effects have deteriorated. Superman spared no expense when it came to production values; Quest For Peace spares every expense. I suspect Reeve drove to set everyday, packed a brown-bag lunch and was asked to do both his own stunts and special effects.
The flying scenes in the original Superman constituted one of those rare instances when the phrase "movie magic" could be used without poisonous sarcasm or air quotes. "You'll believe a man can fly," famously crowed the film's tagline, deservedly so. If the stunningly believable flying scenes in Superman are movie magic, then the clumsy airborne sequences here are "movie magic" only in the most bitterly ironic sense. Getting Reeve, Kidder, and Hackman to reprise their roles lends the film an air of authenticity but The Quest For Peace still feels like one of those creepy DirecTV commercials that drop clumsy commercial plugs into classic movies. It looks real but it still feels disturbingly ersatz.
In his part-time gig as a hapless reporter, Reeve stumbles on a letter from a plucky young moppet asking Superman why he hasn't done more to curb the threat of nuclear war. Incidentally, why didn't Superman do anything about the recent crisis in subprime lending? What's the point in having a God-like savior if he doesn't solve all your problems? The letter gets to Reeve, who decides to singe-handedly end the threat of nuclear apocalypse by rounding up the nuclear weapons, even those owned by God's own U.S.A, (USA! USA!) and tossing them into the sun. That oughtta solve mankind's problems forever, right?
But not all our problems can be solved by rounding up all the nuclear weapons in the world into a giant space net, then hurling them into the sun. Hackman cunningly uses a strand of Superman's hair to create a solar-powered clone of Superman he alone controls named Nuclear Man. Why do I get the idea that no ideas were thrown out for being too stupid when the writers brainstormed the plot?
As played by Mark Pillow, Nuclear Man combines Frankenstein's ungodly origins and his rhetorical gifts. "Destroy Superman!" is about as wordy as he gets. As both the film's villain and the living embodiment of the nuclear threat, Nuclear Man is a feeble excuse for a bad guy. Considering the rogues gallery of super-villains found in the Superman comics did they really need to invent an entirely new character, Clumsy Socially Responsible Message Man?
Despite sucking in every conceivable way, Nuclear Man nevertheless manages to destroy Reeve's strength via his radioactive nails (yes, radioactive nails), rendering him as weak and impotent as a polio-stricken little girl. But Reeve has one last trick up his sleeve: a fantabulous crystal from Krypton he uses to get his mojo back and finally defeat the crappiest menace Metropolis has ever faced. Oh, and it turns out that since Nuclear Man gets his power from the sun, an eclipse can destroy his powers.
Earlier in the film, Reeve switches back and forth between his Superman and Clark Kent personas so that he can double-date both Kidder and a new love interest, Mariel Hemingway, the daughter of the Planet's new owner, in what is clearly the most pointless use of super-powers in cinematic history. It's the kind of convoluted farcical contrivance that would have been rejected by Three's Company. The strained physical comedy that ensues highlights one of the film's biggest problems: everything in Superman IV had been done before, and with infinitely more craft and soul, in its predecessors.
Superman IV lacks the wonder and awe of Superman, that giddy sense of boundless possibilities. Superman had gotten old and familiar and the message-movie trappings feel tacked-on and desperate. Still, Superman IV did fulfill at least one of its noble aims: Just a few years after Superman IV warned us of the dangers of letting Golan-Globus anywhere near a beloved American icon, and to a much lesser extent, the danger of nuclear weapons, the Cold War ended. Coincidence? I think not.
Director Sidney J. Furie's murder of one of American cinema's most lucrative and legendary series transforms the iconic into the moronic. It's death by a thousand budget cuts.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure