Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 24, 2007)
As I prepared to write this review of 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, I tried to think of other films that were the fourth in a running collection. Frankly, this wasn’t easy, as very few series make it to a fourth offering; there are a reasonable number of trilogies, but not a lot that reach tetralogy status.
Actually, the number of fourth - or even fifth or sixth - films has increased in recent years due to direct-to-video programs. These have extended the lives of many series, not that many people seem to care, or even know about them. For example, how many are aware they can watch House IV or Air Bud IV?
If we narrow the field to movies that played theatrically, the prospects decrease. One common factor occurs, however: very few of the fourth entries receive a lot of praise. Probably the best-regarded fourth is 1965’s Thunderball, a film some feel is the best of the bunch. While I don’t much care for it, 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is also one of that series’ most popular releases. Some folks really enjoy 1988’s A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master as well.
Otherwise, the pickings tend to be slim, at in the court of public opinion. Despite its enormous financial success, 1999’s The Phantom Menace remains the least-liked of the four Star Wars movies to date. Rocky IV also did well at the box office, but time has not been kind to it, and many fourth entries did poorly financially and critically. 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge tanked, and Alien Resurrection and Batman and Robin - both from 1997 - failed to regain their prior audiences.
The curse of the fourth film also affected Superman IV. After the silly comedy of 1983’s Superman III, fans thought the series couldn’t get any lower, but this inane and moronic affair proved them wrong. This was too bad, as SIV actually had some elements that might have allowed it to be a decent film.
In this sequel, three main plot lines occur, each of which affects Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) in a different way. Of global significance, Supes decides to ignore the non-interference directive sent to him by his Kryptonian relatives/mentors. They told him not to direct alter the course of human events. Hmm… isn’t that what he does every time he rescues someone? Apparently Supes interpreted this to preclude more history-changing events, such as, say, ridding the Earth of all nuclear weapons.
He receives a letter from obnoxious urchin Jeremy (Damien McLawhorn) that requests he do exactly that. After a struggle with his conscience, Superman decides that he is enough of an Earth resident and not just a visitor from the stars, so he concludes he must take this pro-social action.
At the same time, Superman’s old arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from jail with the aid of his moronic Valley Boy nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer). Since Supes has rid the planet of nuclear weapons, Luthor decides to kill two birds with one stone. He becomes involved with the illicit trade of such bombs partially to rake in the dough, but he does it mainly to enact the downfall of his foe. Luthor steals a lock of Superman’s hair located in a museum exhibit, attaches it to a nuclear device, and ensures that Supes will toss it into the sun, the location he uses to destroy the bombs.
From there, science does the rest. The nuclear energy combined with that of the sun takes Superman’s DNA and creates a new ultra-powerful dude: the creatively named Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). He’s as strong as Supes, and apparently his razor-sharp nails can poison our hero as well. NM’s one Achilles heel? Without sunlight, he collapses into a heap.
While Superman rids the world of nuclear weapons and Luthor plots his enemy’s downfall, another matter concerns alter ego Clark Kent. A Rupert Murdoch style media mogul named David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) buys the Daily Planet and instantly turns it into a muckraking tabloid. He installs his daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) as the head and instructs her to keep an eye on the bottom line. Instead, she espies Kent and immediately tries to woo him. This leads to some alleged comic hijinks, especially when Lacy and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) double date with Supes and Clark.
From what I understand, Reeve didn’t want to do another Superman flick after the debacle of the third edition, but the film’s producers lured him back with the promise to use his creative input. As such, Reeve got a story credit for SIV; apparently he pushed the nuclear disarmament aspects of the tale. While his heart was in the right place, these parts of the film were appalling in their corniness. As a whole, the movie often felt like one of those TV shows touted as “a very special episode of…”; the scene in which Supes lectures the United Nations came across as downright embarrassing.
I also felt bad for Hackman. He acquitted himself well in 1978’s Superman and 1981’s Superman II; along with Marlon Brando, he actually made it acceptable for “serious” actors to play comic book roles. However, Hackman’s turn in SIV has “paycheck” written all over it; he mails in his work as he seems to try as hard as possible not to actively embarrass himself.
Unfortunately for Hackman, he was saddled with Cryer. Lenny was clearly envisioned as a replacement for Otis (Ned Beatty), Luthor’s sidekick from the first two films. I don’t know why Beatty didn’t reappear here, and I can’t say if the producers attempted to hire him and he declined or if they always intended to omit Otis from the story. In any case, Lenny showed virtually no characteristics that differentiated him from Otis. In fact, composer Alexander Courage - best known as the writer of the theme from Star Trek - simply appropriated Otis’s music from the first film and used it for Lenny. Cryer was an actively grating presence during SIV; he added nothing to the flick and strongly detracted from any positives it may have offered.
Granted, I’m not sure what those positives might have been. Actually, Nuclear Man could have become a good villain, and it should have been fun to see Luthor again, especially after the tepid baddies of SIII. I can’t fault the good intentions of Reeve’s anti-nuclear message, and the new ownership of the Daily Planet should have provided some sparks in that milieu.
That’s a lot of “should haves” and “could haves”, all of which add up to diddley in the final product. Unfortunately, SIV was an absurdly amateurish production, and the story was told in an incoherent, disjointed manner that rendered any possible positives moot. Quite a lot of footage was shot for SIV but not used past test screenings. I have no idea if this extra material would have formed a more cohesive product, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Even for a fantasy film, SIV seemed absurdly illogical. I usually turn off the part of my brain that questions those aspects of these kinds of films, for I think many of them just have to be accepted. For example, when my girlfriend and I saw Shrek, she complained due to a scene in which a character removed an arrow from his body but no blood appeared. I pointed out to her the fact that she happily accepted the concept of a talking donkey but strangely had trouble with this other bit of artistic license.
Unfortunately, SIV was filled with “talking donkey” elements that made it even harder to stomach. For example, in one scene Nuclear Man takes Lacy into space with him. It was bad enough to see hair and capes waving in the air-free environment, but the simple fact that she couldn’t survive in such a place made the scene excessively absurd. I won’t gripe about movies that show explosions in space, for I understand that they provide a necessary dramatic impact. SIV, however, simply crossed the line of reasonable liberties and became stupid.
To add insult to injury, SIV featured easily the worst effects of the series. You need to see the flying scenes to believe them. Sure, those elements of the first film don’t seem as convincing now as they did in 1978, but they still seem reasonably positive. The shots from SIV wouldn’t have looked good in any era. The characters appeared as though they’d been cut from other frames and simply plopped onto backgrounds, and I’ve never seen such heavy bluescreen artifacts; a very obvious blue halo surrounded the actors at all times. Shouldn’t the effects have improved as the series progressed?
Unfortunately, nothing about Superman IV seemed superior to any of the prior entries. For those who thought Superman III was as bad as it could get, think again. SIV suffered from an incoherent narrative, flat acting, ridiculous logic flaws and some of the worst special effects ever captured on film. I hate to report that the Superman franchise went out on such a poor note, but Superman IV was the dregs.