REEL RETRO CINEMA: “You like this kind of thing?”
UPDATED 7/24/21: Superman IV came out 34 years ago! Perfect time to re-present this piece from 2018’s SUPERMAN WEEK. Dig it. — Dan
It’s SUPERMAN WEEK! We’re celebrating Action Comics #1000 — and the 80th anniversary of the Man of Steel. For the complete index of features and tributes — many by some of the top creators in comics — click here.
For SUPERMAN WEEK, we’ve celebrated the best of the Man of Steel. We’ve had tributes from more than 13 of the top artists in comics, including Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Mike Allred and Dave Gibbons. Thanks to a battery of guest columnists, we’ve looked at why Superman still inspires us after 80 years, saluted creators like Curt Swan and looked ahead to the much-anticipated run by Brian Michael Bendis.
What’s obvious is that after eight decades, from the Depression to today, through good times and bad, Superman not only endures, he soars. He can survive anything.
Even a really, really, really crappy movie.
As a coda to SUPERMAN WEEK, we bring you Superman Movie Minute co-host Rob Kelly’s latest REEL RETRO CINEMA column, in which he hilariously eviscerates what is in all likelihood the very lowest point in the life of the Man of Steel.
Because a hero is nothing without adversity. Especially when you’re talking about film critics.
By ROB KELLY
“No, don’t do it—the people!”
That’s of course a line from Superman II, delivered by the Man of Steel just as the three Phantom Zone villains are about to toss a bus full of innocent bystanders at him. But it also could have—should have—been delivered by some Warner Bros. executive upon seeing the first cut of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace: “Shouldn’t someone think of the innocent moviegoers we’re foisting this movie upon?”
Anyone who visits this site even casually has assuredly already seen Superman IV and probably knows the pathetic backstory of its production. While Superman III had been a financial success, critically it was lambasted and the hoped-for spin-off Supergirl franchise failed to materialize. The Superman movie series had been presumably laid to rest, mostly since star Christopher Reeve had understandably tired of the role and wanted to move on to other projects (if you haven’t seen him in 1982’s Deathtrap, do so).
But, to use a term original Superman screenwriter Mario Puzo coined for another one of his movies, Reeve was made an offer he couldn’t refuse when it came to making another installment: He could write the story, thereby giving him more creative control of the final product. Combined with a promise that the studio would financially back a film he desperately wanted to make called Street Smart (a hard-hitting drama about a journalist covering the drug epidemic), Reeve agreed to suit up one more time.
Unfortunately, by the time Quest for Peace was put into production, the Salkinds—who produced the first three films—had sold the rights to infamous low-budget titans Golan-Globus. (Why Warner Bros.—which owns DC Comics and therefore Superman—didn’t simply buy the rights back is a riddle worthy of Edward Nigma). So while all the parts were present—Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marc McClure, Jackie Cooper, even Gene Hackman—they found themselves stranded in the cheapest, cruddy-looking Superman production ever put to film.
There is so much wrong with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace it’s hard to know where to begin, or stop. Right of the bat, Superman’s goal—to rid the world of nuclear weapons—is a poor premise for a movie. Like the crew of the Enterprise searching for God in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, audiences know going in that the heroes are not going to accomplish their mission, so what’s the point of this journey in the first place? But maybe, maybe, if Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (who were both asked to return and smartly refused) had been the ones tackling this tale, they could have made it work.
But even that’s a stretch, given how cheap a production this is. The green-screen work is atrocious. When Superman rescues Lois on a runaway subway train, they are clearly not in any American city known to man. When the Man of Steel visits the United Nations, it looks like it’s in an abandoned industrial park, not on New York City’s East River. Hell, you can even hear an echo when Reeve and Kidder recite their dialogue in the scene at his apartment, the kind of sound recording you get on porno films. Golan-Globus wouldn’t even spring to fix the main titles, so the Superman logo is weirdly stretched out, a result of superimposing the title on squeezed anamorphic film without first squeezing the title to match.
But perhaps all the money in the world wouldn’t have helped with this screenplay (which Reeve did not actually write). At one point Clark drops himself and Lois off his balcony, revealing himself to be Superman, then taking her on a cross-country flight. They return and he plants another Super-Kiss on her, so she forgets everything of the last few minutes–a fine example of what the internet has come to refer to as Super-Dickery.
The main bad guy, Nuclear Man, is embarrassing. Apparently the filmmakers realized too late that the actor they cast, Mark Pillow (whose sole film credit this is), was so bad that they cut all his dialogue, so he is reduced to screaming and grunting a lot. I’m trying to imagine what, if any, conversations he had with Gene Hackman, one of the greatest film actors of all time, while killing time around the craft service table.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace has a gleeful disregard for any notion of reality. Sure, it’s a Superman movie and you can’t get too caught up in the science part of it, but why oh why does this movie insist objects and people can travel into space and not burn up? After we see a baseball (hit by Clark Kent while on the family farm) manage the feat, the movie tops itself when Nuclear Man kidnaps Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway) and drags her into space, no spacesuit or oxygen mask required! Scenes like this suggest that the filmmakers regard the kind of the people who watch Superman movies as dullards who won’t notice basic rules of science being violated willy-nilly. As a comic book fan since before I could read, being talked down to or thought stupid because I liked comics was always a sore spot (more on that in a moment).
There’s more, so much more. With the movie’s budget so limited, we get way too much goings-on at The Daily Planet, as Perry White fights off a hostile takeover from some fat cats who want to turn it into a scandal rag to increase profits. There’s a double-date scene featuring Clark Kent and Superman, which is embarrassingly not funny, and makes both Reeve and Kidder look silly. At this point the actors were 35 and 39 years old, respectively, and they just look way too old for these kinds of youthful shenanigans. But since showing Superman doing anything super cost money, they had to keep cutting back to all this boring stuff, because that was cheaper to film. Lois interviews Superman again, and Lex does another “secret message” that only the Man of Steel can hear, reminding you of when this kind of stuff was done before, but better. Jon Cryer as Lex’s nephew steps in for Ned Beatty’s Otis and manages to sink every scene he’s in.
I generally try to be positive for these Reel Retro Cinema columns, and I especially want to be so during SUPERMAN WEEK here on 13th D, because I have always loved the character and in particular Reeve’s take on him. But I despise this movie so much, and it makes me angry that this was Christopher Reeve’s swan song as the Man of Steel. Even though it was (again) done as a cost-saving tactic, I guess one measure of comfort can be taken that the last scene of Quest for Peace—the very last shot of Christopher Reeve as Superman—is him flying and smiling at the camera, shamelessly cribbed from the classic original film.
Reeve as Superman is the single greatest piece of casting in the history of superhero movies (just FYI, I’d put Chris Evans as Captain America and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the second and third slots on that list) and seeing him waste his time in this movie just fills me with such sorrow. It degrades Superman, something that should never be done. As Richard Donner said about his approach to the material, “You don’t mess with Mom and apple pie.”
Warner Bros. knew what a turkey it had on its hands. All the Superman movies run at least two hours, but Superman IV: The Quest for Peace clocks in at a brisk 91 minutes. Wanting to grab as much money as it could before the bad word got out, the studio lopped a half-hour out of the movie, guaranteeing more screenings could be jammed in, as fast as possible, plot coherence be damned.
I was at one of those screenings in 1987, still too young to drive myself to the theater. This was of course pre-internet, so I had no sense of the negative notices that surrounded this film. Loving the Superman movies as I did, I cheerfully showed up with my Mom, who normally hates any kind of fantasy or science fiction (my Dad must have been busy).
About 20 minutes into the movie, when it became clear it was just awful, she turned to me and said, “You like this kind of thing?” in a tone that suggested how aghast she was to learn that her son was some sort of knuckleheaded moron. I tried to explain that no, no, the other movies were better, but it was no use. Her one glimpse into the world of Superman movies forever cemented her opinion that this stuff was, indeed, garbage aimed at, and for, stupid people.
There are people who defend this movie, and they tie themselves into Plastic Man-esque knots coming up with justifications for doing so. Well, if the full cut had been released…well, if the budget had been bigger, well…if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a wagon. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace should be judged for the film as released, and it is a sorry, pathetic way for the original Superman film series to go out.
Could there be a better version of this story? I’m dubious, but a Not Totally Awful take can be found in the accompanying DC Comics adaptation by Bob Rozakis, Curt Swan, Don Heck, Frank McLaughlin, Al Vey, John Beatty and Dick Giordano. Boasting a beautiful Jerry Ordway cover (is there any other kind, really?), this 64-page version works from the original script, so at least it doesn’t feel as absurdly rushed as the movie.
The most noticeable difference is Superman has an encounter with a proto-Nuclear Man whose unstable molecules reduce him to a pile of dust after a run-in with the Man of Steel. It gives Lex’s plan a little more depth and nuance and raises the stakes when the second version emerges.
Also, thanks to the work by Superman mainstay Curt Swan, Lois, Jimmy and Perry look like they have always have in the comics, giving the story a more timeless feel.
Rozakis wisely excises a lot of the bad jokes, and Nuclear Man gets to have dialogue a little more involved than the Frankenstein monster. Superman’s super-feats (the battle on the moon, rescuing the Statue of Liberty, etc.) are handled as smoothly as always, unlike the exposed wirework and inch-thick green screen halos evident in nearly every frame of the film. It seems so absurd that there is no comic-book adaptation of the first two Superman movies (thanks to a financially onerous clause in Puzo’s contract) yet DC had to put so much time and effort into making sure kids had a take-home souvenir of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
I have no proof of this, but something tells me the whole debacle left a lasting impact in the halls of Warner Bros., because in just two short years it would release Tim Burton’s Batman, which would usher in a new age of “serious” superhero movies, backed up by healthy production and marketing budgets. Eventually, the movie rights to every DC character would be under studio control, to guarantee no cinematic disaster like Quest for Peace would ever be made again.
Of course, we all know it didn’t quite work out that way, but that Reel Retro Cinema column will have to wait until 13th Dimension does a BATMAN AND ROBIN WEEK.
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the host or co-host of several shows on The Fire and Water Podcast Network, including Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, The Film and Water Podcast, TreasuryCast, Pod Dylan — and Superman Movie Minute.
— For the complete SUPERMAN WEEK index of features and tributes, click here.