With the release of Man of Steel last year Superman was back where he belonged, ruling the box office in a critically acclaimed new take on the most beloved of all superheroes. In 1987 it was a different story though as the release of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace would send the franchise into hiding for almost twenty years. Come with us now faithful reader as we look at the film that nearly defeated our hero.
The first two Superman movies despite all the behind the scenes problems with director/producer fall outs were both a massive success. Keen to capitalise on this father and son producer team Alexander and Ilya Salkind had released Superman III but this is where the rot started to set in. Richard Pryor’s casting as the comic relief was a gimmick intended to cash in on his fame while Gene Hackman did not appear being replaced by Man from U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn playing a millionaire businessman/genius who was a poor substitute for Lex Luthor. After a critical drubbing and the commercial failure of Supergirl the Salkind’s decided to sell up.
Enter The Cannon Group at this time owned by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Cannon had become a hugely successful company releasing several action movies which tapped into the cinematic trends of the time though their output was more diverse than most people credit them for. Their company would co-produce the new Superman movie along with Warner Bros.
If you watched a lot of movies in the 80’s this was a familiar site
When the producers approached Christopher Reeve about reprising his most famous role they did not even have a script and the star was reluctant as he was concerned the new movie would be a parody like the much maligned third film.
Golan and Globus were to make Reeve an offer that was impossible to turn down. They would give him story input on the new Superman movie and also finance his pet project a drama titled Street Smart. Ironically Street Smart though commercially not a success was highly praised by critics and led to co-star Morgan Freeman being nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. With their star on board the producers were also able to secure the return of Gene Hackman and series regulars Margot Kidder, Marc McClure and Jackie Cooper. The screenplay would be written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, the latter providing a DVD commentary some twenty years after the films’ release but more on that later. Sidney J. Furie who had helmed Iron Eagle for Cannon the year before would take the directors’ chair.
Not long before production started though Cannon was running into serious financial problems leading to the movies budget being slashed in half mere weeks before shooting. Christopher Reeve revealed in his autobiography that Cannon had 43 movies in production at the time but Superman was offered no special consideration despite the effects heavy nature of the project. This is unfortunately evident in the finished production with some extremely poor special effects which were not even close to the standard established by the first Superman movie which had been released nearly a decade before.
Look out, dodgy special effect ahoy!
Nowhere is this lack of money more obvious than in the scene where Superman strides down 42nd Street to the United Nations building. No money was available to shoot in the real location so Milton Keynes in England was forced to substitute. What should have involved thousands of extras gasping in awe as our hero leads a crowd to the U.N. is reduced to about 100 extras and no moving vehicles or wide reaction shots. In the scene where new bad guy Nuclear Man flies up through the Daily Planet floor by floor the strings are clearly visible round his wrists pulling him upwards.
Superman in Milton Keynes pretending to be New York
It’s the threat of nuclear war that is the main focus of the films narrative and during the 1980’s the world was as close to obliteration as it had ever been so the film makers can’t be accused of not being topical. However having a fictional character solve the worlds’ problems devalues the hero as we know no one person, possessor of outrageous powers or not can ever hope to achieve such a thing. For a much more complex and successful take on Superman tackling real world problems try the graphic novel Peace on Earth by Paul Dini and Alex Ross which shows how impossible a task this would be even for Superman.
Read this, it’s better than the movie!
When the film was completed it ran for 134 minutes but after a disastrous test screening (where studios show the film to the public before release to evaluate their feelings to it and gauge how well it comes across via score cards for audience feedback) it was cut down to 89 minutes. This shorter running time hurts the film even more as narrative strands are not followed up and characters, most notably the little boy Jeremy (who asks Superman to get rid of the planets’ Nuclear missiles in the first place) disappear entirely halfway through!
Jeremy, missing in action for the second half of the movie!
So would the film be better served if the extra material had been put back in? It’s hard to say, the Blu-ray release includes thirty minutes of deleted footage which include a prototype Nuclear Man (played by British actor Clive Mantle who would go on to find fame in the BBC series Casualty and can currently be seen in HBO’s Game of Thrones) being created and then battling Superman outside a nightclub. However the character is portrayed as a bumbling simpleton, offering even less threat than the blonde haired version that would follow him.
Here is an apt moment to talk about the movies villain, the original plan and one Reeve was keen on was that he play both the hero and the villain which would offer a fascinating duality and with his acting talent what surely would have been a superb performance. There is a taster for how this may have played out in Superman III when Clark battles an evil Superman in a junkyard. The slashed budget would unfortunately nix this idea and keep it from being filmed.
Instead we are left with the blonde beefcake that is Nuclear Man (version 2 though the audience wouldn’t know this) and the hope must have been to give Superman some one of equal strength to battle against. Unfortunately the character is a massive failure from the start, Nuclear Man is supposed to be primal and animal like in nature but grunting out dialogue and having animal sounds dubbed on to express rage does not make for a compelling villain. The less said about his costume the better and the part would do actor Mark Pillow no favours as he has not appeared in anymore films and has since given up acting. Another side effect of this is that many scenes featuring Lex Luthor with Gene Hackman at his mercurial best were left out of the final film.
Look out it’s Nuclear Man! Boo Hiss!
The films finale is simply the hero and villain slugging it out there is no sense of a grand scheme being foiled and no pay off of any kind other than with the minor subplot of the Daily Planet being bought back from its trashy headline loving new owners.
The Daily Planet has been a fixture of Superman for as long as the character has appeared and the subplot of the paper being taken over by new owners is potentially very interesting as veteran US stage actor Sam Wannamaker installs his daughter Lacy played by Mariel Hemingway (who had found fame in Woody Allan’s Manhattan) in charge of the paper. Presented as an 80’s yuppie uber bitch she goes through perhaps the most satisfying character arc in the whole movie as she falls in love with Clark Kent.
Lacy and Clark on a date in a deleted scene
The scenes with her trying to romance Clark maybe heavy handed but at least show some heart and offer a fun reversal of Clark trying to get Lois to notice him while she pines over Superman. The highlight is a scene where Lois and Lacy are meant to go on a double date with Clark and Superman. Having to be two people at the same time means our hero has to constantly find ways to get himself out and back into the apartment where the date is taking place. The editing here maybe sloppy and to slow but still gives us some great comic moments and allows Reeve to show off some admirable Cary Grant style character beats.
This is not the only moment to love, needing advice from someone he can trust completely Clark reveals his secret identity to Lois and yes the effects here are again very poor but their dialogue is good and when he takes her memory away with a kiss it offers a nice reversal of the fairy tale motif of waking the Princess with a kiss.
Ok so this photo is from Superman II but you get the idea
As mentioned earlier all the scenes with Gene Hackman as Lex are wonderful, he plays it just right with the comic moments knowing when to be flippant and when to be deadpan. He is joined by his nephew Lenny played by Jon Cryer (who would go on to star in the hugely successful comedy series Two and a Half Men). Lenny was created as a way to appeal to younger viewers and while now it is easy to look back and laugh as he “dudes” his way through most of the film he is still good for a few laughs and leads to the priceless put down from Uncle Lex “Lenny I have always thought of you as the Dutch Elm disease of our family tree.”
Lenny and Lex
After such a catastrophic production period it is no surprise that the when the film finally limped into cinemas it was not a success and any plans for a fifth instalment were immediately cancelled. This would be the last time Christopher Reeve would play the role he made his own and has been described co-scripter Rosenthal as one of the great performances of American cinema.
So if you have never seen it before is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace worth spending your time watching? The simple answer is yes. The effects and plotting maybe poor and the villain risible but Reeve still shines brightly and Hackman is delicious as always as Lex. Another notable feature is the score. John Williams was unable to commit to the film but did compose new thematic material while his friend Alexander Courage would write the majority of the music. It took almost twenty years for the music to see commercial release as part of the 8 CD set Superman: The Music. It has since drawn praise from critics and fans with many remarking it is the best thing about the film. If you ever do decide to sit down with this movie I recommend you watch it with the commentary track provided by co-writer Mark Rosenthal who goes into great detail about everything that went wrong with a film that was supposed to reinvigorate the franchise.
So Superman could not bring us world peace but he also proves that no matter how shambolic the final film you can’t keep a good hero down.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Special thanks to the insight provided by Mark Rosenthal on his commentary track.