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Superman IV: The Quest for Peace


There are those out there who will semi-defend this final Reeve Superman outing, at least ti the extent of claiming it’s better (or not as bad as) Superman III. But it really isn’t. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie – no, really – is Reeve’s bleeding-heart sentimentality over the nuke threat, since it musters the usually avoided question of, “If a superhero is so super, why doesn’t he (or she, natch) do something really super and incontrovertible for humankind?” Inevitably, though, having gone there, he and screenwriters Lawrence Konnner and Mark Rosenthal (a variety of projects and genres, most of them determinedly unremarkable in results) make a hash of things.

Jeremy: Dear Superman, my teacher spoke about the President’s speech on the arms race. We’re all very unhappy about it. And I said we should get Superman to rid the world of nuclear arms because only he could do it. Once you’ve destroyed all the nuclear missiles, they’ll see I’m right. Superman can make sure we don’t blow ourselves up. I know you’ll come through. Your friend, Jeremy.

Taking the threat of nuclear armageddon at face value also requires applying the same reading to Cold War rhetoric – specifically the breakdown of the Reykjavik Summit over terms of developing the Strategic Defence Initiative, “Star Wars” – so leading Reeve to a premise where Supes disposes of the world’s nukes in the Sun after a small boy asks just what is it he is going to do about world peace. (Notably, when Superman accuses Luthor of risking nuclear war for personal financial gain, Lex replies “Nobody wants war. I just want to keep the threat alive”).

Watchmen tackled superheroes instigating world peace in a much more cynical fashion the same year, and the strength of Reeve’s idea is also its major problem. It’s an elephant in the room. As long as a superhero restricts himself to one-on-one villainy, of evil masterminds or mutants or invaders attempting to wrest control of our freedoms in one form or another, he’s on safe ground. Pose the logical corollary, one that applies in a basically undefeatable character’s case (rather than a Batman, say), of why that hero doesn’t do something about those in charge, by which I mean ultimately in charge, who are perpetuating war, strife, inequality and injustice – because after all, who could be a better arbiter of what is right – and you enter a quagmire of hubris and messianic zeal… potentially.

Because Superman IV: The Quest for Peace never gets to grips with the idea once it’s introduced. Maybe it did in the 134-minute cut (it was reduced to 90 minutes, in the process excising Nuclear Man Mk I). Rather slackly, Superman disposes of all the nations’ warheads yet doesn’t sniff out those in the hands of arms dealers (and Lex Luther, until he wants him to). You’d have thought he’d be extra diligent in fulfilling such a task, since it would be no good getting rid of everyone’s nukes barring one nation, say, who decided to wield that power over others. Instead we get Nuclear Man, made from a Superman hair, and the movie becomes both pedestrian and risible in effects, performance and action.

Superman: We survived the threat of war and found a fragile peace. I thought I could give you freedom from war, but I was wrong. It’s not mine to give. We’re still a young planet. There are galaxies out there, other civilizations for us to meet, to learn from. What a brilliant future. There will be peace when the people of the world want it so badly that their governments will have no choice but to give it to them. I wish you could see the Earth the way I do. When you really look at it, it’s just one world.

Superman does deliver a closing speech, however. It’s the kind of antiseptic garbage that screams cop out. Superman retreats to a marginal line of avoiding righting wrongs when it comes to those instigated by governments, which makes him a very handy superhero for elites to have to deal with; he’s never going to reveal the lizard – or any – rulers behind the throne. One might just as reasonably apply his macroscopic argument to the microcosm of his usual milieu. How bad would a situation on an international level have to be for Superman to intervene? And would he not have rendered himself de facto ineffectual by that point, due to his extreme reticence? 

All of which might have made decent fodder for a philosophical subtext. Even Nuclear Man might have been okay, were it a serious suggestion that Reeve play him too. As it is, though, Mark Pillow, the least appealing name for an actor ever, makes his debut, and he’s as unimpressive as his outfit; he’s entirely forgettable. At least, apart from his sharp nails.

Gene Hackman returns, amid a period working on largely inconspicuous fare – the likes of No Way Out and Mississippi Burning being exceptions – that would put Michael Caine to shame. Jon Cryer was fresh off Pretty in Pink and does his best to make his acclaim there seem a big mistake. Mariel Hemingway strikes a decidedly hipless, boyish pose (forming something of an adjunct to her fake breasts; she’s from a select family, of course, as Ernest’s granddaughter). Margot Kidder looks very tired. Jim Broadbent shows up. Susannah York lends her voice, and no shit is too shit for William Hootkins (see also the previous year’s Biggles).

Rosenthal was clearly sore about the experience, relating it on both the DVD commentary and in Tales from the Script: “…Superman III was a real fiasco, and the cast said ‘We don’t want to do this anymore’”. He praises originator Reeve “We wanted to get back that feeling of the first two Superman movies, and we really worked hard with Chris on that. Luckily, our script got the whole cast back, and he was very happy about that”. The Salkinds’ deal with Cannon (rather than Warner Bros as Rosenthal suggests) resulted in Golam and Globus being typically shoddy “and they cut the budget in half, which meant all the scenes had to be downscaledTo watch Chris put himself out there for this movie and have such a terrible product come out at the end was heart-breaking”.

He did suggest “I think the one sequence in the film that still kind of works is the double date, sort of a farce scene… At least you can sort of see what the movie was trying to be”. Sort of. I guess. Much more notable, and definitely not in a good way, is the sequence in which Superman reveals he’s Clark, takes Lois for a spin, sets her down and makes her forget her experience, like some sort of “romantic” version of rohypnol (I see I’m far from the first to have that response). It’s much less forgivable here than in Superman II, because Superman’s action seems entirely opportunistic. 

I’ll never be completely down on Sidney J Furie, because he delivered the unparalleled classic that is The Ipcress File, with its smorgasbord of Dutch angles and jangly John Barry score. His work here is markedly unimpressive here, though. There’s a very nicely backlit stable door in Smallville at the start, and the effects in the opening space rescue aren’t that bad (compared to those that come later), but most of this is undeniably lousy looking. Still, Furie gets the benefit of the doubt, given the production burdens placed on him, replete with Milton Keynes doubling for Metropolis (“As dreary as a summit conference in Belgium” said Time Out’s Brian Case). The visuals don’t wow – they were never the series’ strongest suit anyway – and the plot grunts and groans. Reeve didn’t (doesn’t) like to talk about it, and one really can’t blame him.

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