Comicbook Movie Retrospective – Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)

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Title: Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marc McClure
Studio: Cannon Films, Warner Bros.
Release Date: 1987


After the lukewarm reception of the experimental project of trying to fuse a Superman film with a Richard Pryor comedy in Superman III, the Salkinds figured their Kryptonian cash cow was now good for nothing but sour milk and put the franchise up for sale. Step in notorious Israeli filmmakers Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus of Cannon Films, who snapped up the rights and put a fourth film in to production almost right away. Cannon were known for their super-tacky and cheap productions in the ’80s which spawned a few wonderfully cheesy cult classics such as the American Ninja films, but ultimately didn’t seem like the right fit for an epic franchise such as Superman.

The film was almost universally panned for its cheap look, overly moral story and plot that often forked out then went no-where. Superman IV is a bit of a disaster, there’s no getting away from that, but does that mean it has absolutely NO redeeming qualities whatsoever? The answer is actually no. There’s a few things in Superman IV that make the film not quite as bad as everyone says it is, but they are so hideously overshadowed by the bad shit that they are quite hard to find without a shovel and a gas mask.

The budget was always going to be an issue and it’s painfully obvious too. The films effects are 90% pure cack, and are probably the thing most people think of when they remember it. The same shot of Superman flying towards the camera is used until it probably dissolved from overuse. The blue screen scenes are painfully obvious with raggedy outlines, mismatched compositions between subject and background and some awful lighting. Cannon Films initially set out a budget of around 30 million for the film but they had nearly thirty other productions on the go at that time too and unfortunately Superman received no special treatment and it’s budget was slashed to 17 million. Some of the effects are done 1950’s style which are actually drawn on to the print by hand. Animators brought to life effects such as Nuclear Man’s lighting and powers and to be fair they are actually pretty good for what they are. The same techniques were used in films like Forbidden Planet and while they might be (very) dated it doesn’t mean to say that they are bad as there is proper craft at work here.

The films structure appears to go haywire at a certain point in the film. Token annoying child Jeremy is never heard from again after a certain scene and the last 15 minutes or so seem ill thought out and ultimately pointless. It’s laziness of the highest order as are the location choices. Previous Superman films had the Luxury of being allowed to be filmed in Manhattan and New York in general, but in Superman IV we are limited to cheap locations in England. The producers even had the cheek to try and double up one of the worlds most famous buildings the United Nations with an industrial estate in Essex which had a few cardboard fire hydrants placed randomly around.

If the film has at least one good point is that we get to see Christopher Reeve playing Superman again which is never a bad thing. Reeve was coaxed back into the role on a promise that Cannon would fund his own project Street Smart and that he would have a hand in the films story. Here he’s as good as always although appearing a little thinner and the suit seems to have gotten about twice as bright but he still carries the same brilliant personification of the character he always did. The film also manages the rather amazing task of reuniting almost all the main cast from the first film. Margot Kidder, Marc McLure and Jackie Cooper all return as Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White.

It’s interesting to see these character interact now. Some time has obviously passed and they all seem settled as a tight team of very good long term friends with White acting a little more fatherly. The relationship between Lois with both Clark and Superman is also another intriguing watch. Clark appears (acting at least) to have given up his pursuit of Lois and now they share what looks like a very strong and supporting friendship. Similarly the scenes with Lois and Superman, while heavily suggesting there is still much romantic feeling there on both sides, seem to have come to some sort of unspoken agreement that any romantic relationship would be more trouble than it’s worth and once again the friendship aspect of their relationship is very much the focus as Superman really needs her to turn to in times of doubt. This slightly new angle with Lois is refreshing for both Clark and Superman as it not only shows that the characters have matured into slightly different people than in the previous films but it prevents any usual over-brooding on both sides.

Gene Hackman is back as Lex Luthor and while he does his usual good work he’s unfortunately a victim of a pretty piss poor ploy. Instead of some maniacal plan to do something creatively criminal he’s reduced to little more than a cartoon robber, even pictured at one point with counting piles of money Loony Tunes style and that’s his only real motivation. Nevertheless, Hackman has some good fun with the role and he’s always pleasure to watch, even if it is this light-hearted.

The script and story isn’t what I’d call fantastic but it’s actually not bad either. The moral message of Superman ridding the world of Nuclear weapons has come under a lot of fire for being overly preachy but if disposing of the things that could potentially blow us all to Kingdom come then personally I think it’s a pretty damn good reason for Superman to get off his arse. The fact that this side of the story was Reeve himself making a contribution doesn’t make it seem so bad and what with the huge dispute over things like Trident which exist today some 30 years later it really makes you think was it so silly after all? Small snippets of decent dialogue combined with some good delivery from the actors actually sounds ok for the most part. Standout lines such as at the UN where superman is about to speak and Lacy asking “What’s he going to say?” to which Lois replies “Something wonderful!” is just a perfect description of what Superman’s character and influence is all about and overly sentimental pap it may be, but the world could do with a little more of that if you ask me.

There’s also a surprising social commentary on corrupt media influence in the film via the newspaper industry. David Warfield is obviously a Rupert Murdoch type character who is intent on turning the Daily Planet into a smut filled sensationalist rag. It’s a theme that’s just as important if not more so in today’s world and the film makes a really good go at having it’s say on false and heavily biased headlines and irresponsible reporting. By the end Lacy Warfield even turns on her father for going too far with media lies.

The score to the film is some new takes on the Superman music which I actually think are quite good. Not many people know that John Williams only ever did the music for the first Superman film. Superman II and III were done by Ken Thorne and he adapted and added too many of John Williams themes. Here Alexander Courage of Star Trek fame handles the music and there are some interesting interpretations from what was at the time a fresh set of ears. A nice timpani led and slower rendition of part of the Superman theme as Supes walks towards the UN is particularly good and although you can tell it’s done with a smaller orchestra it’s still rather exhilarating. John Williams did actually write some new and original music for the film. Three pieces in fact – Lacy’s Theme, Jeremy’s Theme and Nuclear Man’s theme. The most exciting of which is Nuclear man’s theme which is eerily reminiscent of the Emperor’s theme from Star wars in parts and is quite a nice addition to the music overall.

No review of the film would be complete without mentioning the ‘other’ main villain of the piece. Nuclear Man was a character conceived purely for the film and was portrayed by Mark Pillow. Made out of a combination of radiation and Superman’s own DNA Nuclear Man is actually quite badass as he just looks cool! He has Superman’s boots and cape but they are black he has his own cool custom Sun logo on his chest and cape and apparently shares the same hairdresser as Dolph Lundgren’s He-Man (another Cannon film released the same year!). He’s buffer than Superman as well and wears a sleeveless costume with heavy metal wristbands. It’s an interesting observation that Nuclear Man is the first example of a super hero type character in film with a textured costume and is almost identical to the ones we have today as seen in the post 2002 Spider-Man films and the suit of the newer Superman Franchise Man Of Steel starring Henry Cavill.

The conflict with Nuclear Man and Supes do provide a few ‘imaginative’ scenarios it has to be said. Some are borderline ridiculous, such as Nuclear Man blowing Superman into a giant ice cube and the oh so nonsensical trashing of the great wall of China where Superman uses his ‘Super-Brickie’ vision to magically rebuild the walls. The look on Reeve’s face at this part is all you need to know and one can almost hear the man of steel think a sceptical “F**k sake!” from his mind. Others segments include Superman plugging up a volcano by using the top of a mountain he has freshly snipped off with his heat vision which is pure comic book and thoroughly enjoyable nonsense. The Moon battle for all intents and purposes is actually pretty ok. It’s a bit of a throwback to Superman II’s moon scene and people claim that they can see the black curtains in the background doubling as space but after about a million watches of the film I still can’t see it and I think people just like repeating IMDB trivia snippets.

Interestingly enough one of the films flaws was it’s erratic pacing which is due to almost one THIRD of the original film being cut out after a disastrous test screening which included a tornado scene featuring Reeve’s own daughter which was included in the original VHS/Betamax video tape but has subsequently been removed also. Another few bits and bobs aside this footage mainly comprised of the original Nuclear Man. Yes there were two Nuclear Men and the first one (played by Clive Mantle of Game Of Thrones fame) engaged in a street battle with Superman after attacking punters in a nightclub where Clark and Lacy were out researching a story for their nightlife article briefly mentioned earlier in the film. This footage was considered lost for years and rumours spread that it rivalled the street battle in Superman II in terms of scale and for years some fans blamed the lack of this on the films apparent failure. Unfortunately when the footage did surface it was an embarrassingly childish action scene complete with goofy music and cartoon sound effects which when seen fans wish that it had remained lost.

The character of Nuclear Man (2) actually starts out to be quite interesting. When he first flies into Lex’s Penthouse and declares “I am the father now!” it’s actually quite sinister and appears to suggest that he has a brain of sorts and this will be an added element of drama in that Lex himself will have to struggle to keep a lid on his creation. This falls on it’s arse as Nuclear Man for no apparent reason descends in to cave man like speech and a severe IQ drop resorting to mindless violence for no apparent reason other than the hell of it like a child who’s been given an Uzi.

Nevertheless he’s still cool as f**k!!!

This begs the question though, in a world where the comic book source has a wide range of pretty cool villains is it fair to come up with a brand new one for a film? The same logic could be applied to Superman III where even in the idealised version without Richard Pryor and Supes fighting his own evil self would it be fair to not include a comic baddie even though the film concept is pretty damn cool? It’s one for the film and comic book philosophers to decide for sure.

Superman IV was pretty doomed from the start. It was in the wrong hands and just didn’t get the love and attention that it deserved and the result is a pretty shallow mess which lives mostly on past glory and a cast appearing out of obligation. There is pleasure to be found though. Watching the old team one last time has some sentimental value and while it lacks the epicness of the previous films it’s at the very least a fun B-movie that’s fun to pick apart.

It’s the worst of the franchise for sure with poor effects and a confused story but it has some saving grace in the returning cast and while it may not have been the send off that Christopher Reeve deserved it doesn’t change the fact that he is still the very best portrayal of Superman the world has ever seen and that doesn’t change…not even here!

profile picThe writer of this piece was: Alan Stares

Alan is a sound engineer, retro gamer, and general all-round geek from Glasgow. You can read more of his thoughts on a range of topics at ‘The Scots Perspective‘ and on retro gaming at ‘The Old Oilhouse‘.

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