Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection) Review
Following the disappointment of Superman III it was generally assumed that cinema audiences had seen the last of the Man of Steel. The producing father-and-son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind had apparently managed to kill off Kal-El far more effectively than a lump of kryptonite ever could with a deadly concoction of mediocre box office, critical apathy and a leading man extremely unhappy with both them and the film they had foisted upon him. Feeling its slapstick approach had been a betrayal of everything Superman was about, he wanted nothing more to do with the franchise while it remained in Ilya and Alexander’s hands, and declared he had played Clark Kent for the final time. But times change and people move on. Three years later the two producers, no doubt believing their property was now virtually worthless, sold the rights to Cannon Films, which almost immediately began to explore the possibility of making a new episode. Menaham Golan, one of the bigwigs at Cannon, contacted Reeve to try and sound him out about the possibility of enticing him to put on the red-and-blue tights once more, to see if there was the possibility that now Superman had changed hands he would be more amenable to another outing. At first the actor was not particularly keen, but over time slowly warmed to the idea, especially after Golan assured him he would be involved not just in front of the camera but as part of the creative team too. This appealed to the actor, as did the further incentive that Cannon would promise to fund a project of his own choosing (which swiftly became Street Smart), and so, after a few further rounds of negotiation, the actor was in. Shortly after production finished on Street Smart (for which, disappointing, Reeve attracted poor notices, although the film itself did fairly well) the Daily Planet was opened for business once again.
Sadly, despite his best intentions, Reeve had found himself once again lumbered with people who didn’t share his vision. His hope was for a brand new start for the franchise (before a single frame was shot there was already talk of a fifth movie, possibly directed by Reeve, should this fourth be a success), one which had the maturity and production values of the Donner films and the same respect for the character. That hope was very swiftly extinguished: it quickly became apparent that Cannon, who were renowned by making cheap, quick potboilers that turned a healthy profit, had no real love for Superman at all and just saw it as a title with a built-in fanbase that could be pumped as a potential cash cow (Golan also spent years trying to get the rights to Spider-Man.) Although initially it was agreed to put a bit more effort into the film than their average film, shortly before filming began the company recorded a massive loss which meant that the budgets on all their future productions had to be greatly reduced. Together with a flawed script, these budget issues resulted in a film which has virtually no merit at all: from script to cast to direction to look, it is a calamity that not even the Last Son of Krypton himself could have saved and makes not the fitting continuation of the once-great series that Reeve desperately wanted but instead a sad and pathetic conclusion.
Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal after lengthy consultations with Reeve, the aim of the story was originally to explore the idea: should Superman directly affect the destiny of mankind? It was something that had been touched on before (especially in the first film when Superman literally turns back time to change Lois’s fate) but the three men felt it could be applied to a more topical and realistic subject, namely the Cold War. The film opens with a schoolboy writing to Superman (care of the Daily Planet of course) asking him to do something about the threat of nuclear weapons following another escalation in East/West tensions. At first unsure what to do, finally our hero decides there really is nothing to stop him getting directly involved and declares before the UN his intention to rid the world of all such weaponry. However, as is so often the case the best laid plans of mice and supermen can come unstuck, and so it happens here. Supes begins his crusade at a particularly hectic time of his life: not only has The Daily Planet been taken over by David Warfield and daughter Lacy (Sam Wanamaker and Mariel Hemingway), who have plans to turn it in a trashy tabloid, but Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has escaped from prison once more. Determined to get revenge on his nemesis, the self-styled number one criminal genius steals one of Superman’s hairs from a museum display and uses it to make an evil clone called Nuclear Man, played by the superbly named Mark Pillow. With an adversary as strong as he himself, can Superman manage to defeat his genetic duplicate at the same time as honouring his promise to free the world of the nuclear menace once and for all?
Well, yes, of course he can, mainly because Nuclear Man isn’t such a threat; after all, he’s faced such a foe before. Or rather, he’s faced three such foes before, none of whom had as terrible haircuts as his adversary is lumbered with in this film. In one of many examples of the film
drawing unfavourable comparisons with its predecessors, it’s very difficult to take the threat of Nuclear Man seriously as even at his campest Terence Stamp in Superman II exuded more menace than the gurning, growling Mr Pillow. Indeed, in general this film is not so much a continuation of the first three films as a cut-price remake which sees favourite scenes from its predecessors replayed with dodgier effects. Instead of a runaway helicopter Lois is caught in a runaway tube train (complete with the same joke about safety at the end), Lex once again escapes from a prison with the help of a gormless assistant, Clark changes into Superman at one point by getting into a car ala Superman III, he gets his own back on a bully using his superstrength when no one else is looking ala Superman II, the climax is a punch-up around New York city between the two superbeings (with Supes even yelling at one point “Stop, don’t do it, the people!”): the list goes on and on. The most bizarre and out-of-place example comes when Clark reveals his secret identity to Lois, takes her for another romantic flight, then gives her another memory-zapping kiss… all because he wants to talk to her frankly for a few minutes about his problems. It's an absurd sequence which, if taken literally, seems to suggest that he is a deeply selfish man, playing god with those he knows simply to help himself, and makes one squirm with embarrassment. True, the film does insinuate after this that Lois subconsciously knows Clark’s true identity, but it’s not a theme that is developed nearly enough to be worthy of that cretinous scene (which has no bearing on the rest of the plot at all). The writers might argue that these are homages to those earlier, great scenes, to which the simple response is: why? If we want to see those scenes we’ll watch the old movies; one would hope that a new Superman film would be, you know, new.
Of the film’s many, many flaws this constant repetition is the one which irks the most. The annoying thing is that there are actually a couple of new ideas lurking in the shadows that could have been genuinely interesting. Although the plot is terribly naïve, the notion of Luthor becoming a nuclear arms dealer and playing East against West is an intriguing one, and in different hands could have been developed (especially in the era of glasnost when the Cold War was finally thawing a bit) while the movie’s subplot, of the plans to bring The Daily Planet downmarket, is a nice idea but totally unrelated to the main story, with the two strands only being forced together at the end when Nuclear Man develops a crush on Lacy (really, at times one wonders whether a five year old didn’t write the thing) and decides to kidnap her.
Fortunately, it turns out that Lacy is also a superhero, although she never actually reveals this during the course of the movie. Nevertheless, she must be, because she appears to be able to survive in the vacuum of space when Nuclear Man flies her out beyond the planet’s atmosphere. But then again maybe not, for space suddenly appears to be acting very oddly; for one thing, there’s an awful lot of wind up there, blowing Superman’s cape around fairly vigorously while for another, the moon seems to have developed black curtains in the background. Overall it’s quite depressing to see the series, which in the early days took justifiable pride in its effects work, reduced to the clunky, careless (in all senses of the word) stuff we see here. Originally many of the old SFX team, including modeller extraordinaire Derek Meddings, were to return for this new production, but another slash of the budget meant they were quickly replaced by… let’s just say less talented individuals. Despite trying really hard, it is impossible to dismiss the shoddiest of what’s on screen as almost without exception every effect screams at the viewer “This didn’t cost any more than three dollars fifty!” From the flying mattes that don’t blend in properly to the background, to the visible wires, to the clumsy modelwork (check out the volcano, which looks exactly like a relatively famous publicity still for Thunderbirds) it’s horrendous stuff to watch. And it’s not just the effects either. To cut further corners, most of the location filming was done in Milton Keynes, the most glorious example being when at one point a railway station doubles for the UN building. I'll just say that again, because it won't be very often you'll get a chance to hear it: A railway station doubles for the UN building. (Although let's be fair: you don't actually see any tracks). It doesn't get any better when Superman actually enters the building either: no one seemed to tell the producers that usually if you’re going to make a movie which has a recognisable interior, make sure you have the money to pay for a replica that looks vaguely like it, and not be content with one that looks like, say, a regional assembly meeting hall. (Having said all that, at least the interior of the Fortress of Solitude doesn’t look too bad, even if its new background makes it more Emerald City than Hall of Krypton).
But then even the film with the biggest budget in history would have found some of the asks in the script too difficult to make convincing. Nuclear Man is a very silly man indeed, with a distinct sense of the theatrical. To show just what a rotter he is, the first battle between the two involves the rogue employing such typically naughty tricks as blowing a hole in the Great Wall of China (fortunately Superman can somehow rebuild it quick as a flash) or picking up the Statue of Liberty and chucking it onto a crowded city street. Not exactly General Zod-level villainy. As mentioned, he also convincingly out-camps Zod, with his lustrous golden locks, lengthy fingernails (with which he attempts to scratch Superman’s eyes out) and disco-style costume. How Superman doesn’t burst out laughing the first time he sees him I don’t know. (And another thing: if he’s meant to be a clone of Supes, how come he doesn’t look exactly like him?)
What Gene Hackman must have thought is beyond me. That he agreed to come back was a considerable coup, but at times one wonders if he knew what he was letting himself in for. Apparently not; often in the film he’s clearly coasting, although he does come alive at certain points (most notably when he confronts Superman directly, the two actors renewing their antagonistic chemistry well). True, he’s hampered by a comedy sidekick who makes Ned Beatty’s Otis look like the model of decorum, a surfer dewd nephew called Lenny Luthor, played by comedian Jon Cryer with a voice like Snake from The Simpsons and a look like a punk Bill and Ted. Not once is he remotely funny, either in performance and word, although as it’s plainly a schtick he’s been told to ham up as much as possible one wonders how much is his fault (although, in one legacy, it’s said that Scot Evil is based at least in part on the character). Hackman also had the dubious pleasure of dubbing Nuclear Man's voice, but even that fearsome combination produces nothing but ridicule; as far as antagonists go, Robert Vaughn was more threatening, and that’s saying something. (That said, the film could have been even worse: see Deleted Scenes in the Extras below.)
The sad thing is that poor Christopher Reeve is as committed as ever. Both he and Kidder turn in genuinely good, sincere performances and, given the limited material they have to work with, are good as they’ve ever been. It’s no coincidence they share the one decent scene of the film, the one in which Lois visits the battered Clark in his apartment after his first fight with Nuclear Man. She gives him Superman’s cape, which was ripped from his back during the brawl, and they share a touching moment that, while flirting with schmaltz, feels real and loving and shows the deep, complex bond between the two (three?) characters, far more so than the banal flying sequence earlier on. It’s here that the one point of that earlier moment is revealed, and the screenplay almost begins to be worth something in exploring how much Lois does and doesn’t know. If only there was more stuff like this we might have been on to something.
It’s not even level tonally. At least Superman III always knew that it was a comedy and had no pretensions otherwise; this film is so uncertain as to be positively schizophrenic. On the one hand you have the nasty effect of the punch-up (complete with Kal-El going white-haired and almost pegging out) and the well-intentioned theme of nuclear disarmament, on the other you have scenes such as the farcical (and badly-paced) double date sequence and Lenny Luthor. At one point the movie takes itself deadly seriously, the next it’s as though it says “Aw, to hell with it, this is crap, let’s acknowledge that and have some fun.” Unfortunately, it has the nasty habit of getting the two the wrong way round: the serious moments usually raise a guffaw, while the comedy falls flat. It’s difficult to know who to blame for this: director Sidney J Furie is essentially a hired gun (he had already developed a relationship with Cannon which had proved profitable for both parties) but one who brings no spark or wit to proceedings and instead directs everything, from the light comedy to the supposed action highlights, with the same leaden weight that stultifies the viewer into apathy. Even the titles look cheap and garish.
I want to like this film. I want to because it’s the last time we see this team in action, this Clark, Lois, Lex, Jimmy and Perry together. I want to because Christopher Reeve was so well meaning and wanted the film to redeem the tragic flaw that was its immediate predecessor. I want to because there’s a certain tragedy in seeing a once noble franchise come to such an ignoble end and one searches desperately for any sign that it’s not as bad as it could have been. But there isn’t one, and it is. Any film that sports such witty dialogue as (between Lex and Nuclear Man) ““You have my voice.” “No, you have my voice!” that decides that Milton Keynes would make a suitable replacement for New York, that has a lead villain who takes more care over his hair style than his supervillainy and throws the Statue of Liberty around - hell, any film that gets rid of Miss Teschmacher - is not worth the time or effort invested in it. It’s amusing in a genuine “I… just… don’t… believe… it” way, a film far closer to Troma than Oscar and finally makes an upsetting farewell for the man who will always be the only true Man of Steel. As ever, he is the only man who comes close to saving this terrible mess, just as the character he played had to single-handedly save the world time and again. An idealist who cared deeply about the character who made his name, he deserved far better than the shoddy treatment he got over the years from people who knew and cared far less about Superman than he did. Fortunately he got one great and one pretty good movie out of it, but of this turkey the less said the better. A travesty.
On first putting the disc in, one has to plod through the multi-screen language option screens to get to the Main Menu. This is a simple affair, a static screen with a simple montage of Reeve, Hackman and Hemingway (no Pillow?) over the film’s logo and the four options: Play Movie, Scene Selections (29 chapters), Special Features and Languages, accompanied by the Superman theme. Submenus are accompanied by stills from the film. If one doesn’t do anything within a minute or so on the Main Menu the film begins to play automatically.
The video transfer is the same as used in the 2001 Complete Superman Collection and thus has the same problems that one did. There’s a resolute softness of image throughout, as well as blocky compression artefacts and blurriness, especially around faces, which is a bit tiresome. There’s a layer of thin grain and the colour palate is dull, although that is down to how the film was shot. It’s perfectly watchable but don’t be watching it on a large screen.
Totally unexceptional. No expense was used in the making of this audio track, and you’ll get no visceral thrills as the supermen fly around resolutely in front of you in this two-channel experience. That said, it’s probably very faithful to how it was in the cinema…
“You can tell from the very first credit that something is terribly wrong in Metropolis.” So begins Mark Rosenthal’s brutally honest commentary of what he calls the “sad saga of Superman IV.” He lambasts the slashing of the film’s budget, the incomprehensible editing and the shoddy effects, all valid criticisms, but what he never once admits to are any mistakes on his own part. Constantly explaining what the original intentions in the film were, he doesn’t seem to realise that some of those ideas weren’t that good in the first place. That said, it comes across that he cared far more about the production than did many of those involved behind-the-scenes, and one can’t help but believe him at the end when he says that when they set out to make it they had such high hopes for restarting the franchise and giving it back some of its credibility.
Deleted Scenes (30:56)
The most infamous sequences from this collection is that involving the first Nuclear Man. In a storyline completely excised from the final cut Lex made not one but two clones of Superman. The first was played by ‘im-off-of-Casualty Clive Mantle as an idiot manchild who had a spiky haircut and called Lex “Father.” Lex sends him off to fight Superman outside a nightclub where our hero manages to vanquish him (in a setpiece that reportedly cost $1 million, which was apparently still not enough to pay for a convincing stunt double of Reeve). It’s an absurd character and a bizarrely unfunny sequence which comes complete with whoopsy-doodle music, but should be seen at least once: it makes the final cut of the film look so much better. Other scenes of note here include an actor doing his best Marlon Brando impression and a sequence which explains why Nuclear Man in the film demands to know (referring to Lacy) “Where is the woman?” That said, it would appear not all the missing scenes are here; according to several accounts at least two scenes from the rough cut, one in which Clark visits the grave of his parents and the sequence with Clark and Lacy in the nightclub aren’t included in this collection
Theatrical Trailer (1:26)
Not the best trailer in the world in that it doesn’t hide the relative cheapness of the production (ill-advisedly showing the volcano scene, for example) but still manages to be slightly better than the film itself.
Justice League Heroes Videogame trailer (1:47)
A game featuring all the JLA characters, including Supes, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern. An irritating inclusion on all these discs.
It’s about as good a treatment as you’re going to get for this turkey.
A quick word about The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection as a whole. As the smaller brother of The Ultimate Superman Collection it's obviously inferior, but if you're just after the four Reeve films it's pretty good. The one absence that sticks out like a sore thumb is a proper tribute to Reeve himself. There's a very brief aside in the Making Of Superman 1 but it's not nearly enough and is an odd exclusion that should have been a priority. That aside, these discs do full justice to the movies and, with Superman IV you even get a nice coaster to put your drink on while watching the films, making either this collection or its bigger brother an essential purchase.
Please note: This Deluxe Edition of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is only currently available as part of The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection and The Ultimate Superman Collection box-sets.