Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) (part 1 of 12)
Can you believe it? Another Superman movie is about to be released. After twenty long years, and an insane, tortured production history (described in detail on this very site, in a forum post that completely melted down the server when Slashdot got hold of it), Superman Returns is finally here.
In honor of this occasion, I decided to take a look at the last Superman movie, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a movie so utterly catastrophic that (just like Superman III, also recapped here) Superman Returns director Bryan Singer chose to completely ignore it when picking up the Superman saga. (Reportedly, the new film is a pseudo-sequel to the first two films, and the other two thankfully never happened.)
I also decided it was time to try something new. Because there are several moments in this movie that I can’t do justice with mere words, for the very first time, I’ll be including video clips from the movie, hosted by YouTube. Since this is sort of an experiment for me, you may experience technical difficulties while viewing a video clip. If that happens, rest assured that I’ll be doing my best to get it working again.
I prefer to think of the Superman movie franchise (1978–1987, originally produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and starring Christopher Reeve in the title role), as a four-part lesson in how a movie series can start out strong, and through utter lack of vision and mismanagement, turn into a steaming pile of shit.
The franchise began with a masterpiece: 1978’s Superman: The Movie is not only the best superhero movie ever made, but it’s also in my own personal top ten of best movies, ever. It’s everything a comic book fan could ever want from a superhero movie, and the secret of this movie’s success was director Richard Donner. Watch the special features on the 2000 director’s cut DVD, and you too will know Donner’s motto, spoken frequently during production: Verisimilitude.
It’s a concept that was eventually distilled down to the tagline “You will believe a man can fly!” One of the most famous movie taglines ever, it’s still frequently referenced and lampooned to this day (by, um… certain websites).
Every decision Donner made was towards a single goal: to make the audience believe that there really was a Superman. No expense was spared to make this the most realistic superhero movie ever. In particular, state of the art special effects were used to create the most convincing flying sequences ever seen at the time.
Donner made it clear from the start that this was to be a serious portrayal of the character. A screenplay was commissioned from Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, but Donner rejected it for being too campy. Virtually nothing from Puzo’s script made it to the screen, but his name was kept in the credits to give more legitimacy to the production.
The casting in particular was done to lend as much gravitas as possible: Marlon Brando, one of the greatest actors of all time, was paid the then-outrageous (and, actually, still kind of outrageous) sum of $3.7 million dollars (against 10% of the gross) for what was essentially a cameo as Superman’s dad Jor-El. Oscar winner Gene Hackman was brought on as arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, and Oscar nominee Ned Beatty was his bumbling sidekick Otis. Also in the cast were legendary Hollywood actors like Jackie Cooper and Glenn Ford (as Perry White and Jonathon Kent, respectively).
But most of all, the hiring of an unknown actor named Christopher Reeve to play Superman stands as one of the most perfect bits of casting in movie history. (I wouldn’t go that far in regards to Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, but after watching screen tests on the DVD of the other actresses up for the role, Donner clearly made the right call.)
The respectful approach to the material worked: The movie was an all-out blockbuster, topping the box office for twelve weeks, and eventually grossing $300 million worldwide. A sequel was a foregone conclusion. In fact, Donner had already filmed the majority of 1980’s Superman II simultaneously with the first film.
And then, without warning, it all came crashing down. Not long after Superman: The Movie opened, Richard Donner received a wire from the Salkinds letting him know that his services were no longer required. He was out of the Superman series, and quickly replaced by Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, but more importantly, he was the director of The Three Musketeers, and its sequel The Four Musketeers, two films also produced by the Salkinds.
To this day, no one really knows for sure why Richard Donner was fired. (And a lot of this has to do with certain parties being involved in litigation that was still winding its way through the courts as late as 2005 [!].) But the most obvious assumption is that the Salkinds were unhappy with how much they had to spend to fund Donner’s vision. The budget of the original Superman was $55 million, a staggering sum at the time, even for a large-scale motion picture.
The film may have been a global sensation, but the Salkinds themselves saw very little of that success; As the release date of the film approached, Warner Brothers got more involved in getting the film done on time, and thus the studio received a much bigger piece of the pie than the Salkinds had expected. Clearly, they wanted a director who would bring the movie in on time and within budget. Richard Lester was their guy.
Since then, Lester’s been vilified by fans of the first Superman, who blame him for turning the franchise into the kind of goofy, campy, demeaning treatment of the source material that comic book fans fear most; First, by reshooting much of Superman II to play up the comedic angles, and secondly, for making 1983’s Superman III a sad attempt at full-blown comedy, complete with a starring role for the otherwise funny Richard Pryor.
But honestly, it’s hard to blame Lester for the series being run into the ground. Much like Joel Schumacher, who took incredible heat from critics and fans (including me) for turning the Batman series into garish camp comedy, in the end, Lester was really only doing what his producers wanted. The sad, miserable fate of the Superman movie franchise rests solely with the Salkinds, who were too busy counting beans to realize how much potential for greatness this series really had. (There’s a tendency to invest more money in the sequels of a hit movie, but in this situation, perversely, the budgets dwindled as the series went on.)
Donner’s firing was the death knell of the franchise. Christopher Reeve was completely disenchanted after part III, and swore he would never play Superman again. Margot Kidder was openly critical of the Salkinds, and as a result ended up relegated to brief cameos at the beginning and end of Superman III. Gene Hackman had his own falling out with the Salkinds, and refused to even return for Superman II. (The only reason Lex Luthor appears in the second film at all is because Donner had already shot Hackman’s scenes before being fired.)
On top of all that, the diminishing financial returns made it clear that another Superman movie would never be made as long as the old management still ran the show. However, the Salkinds were more than willing to find other means to exploit their movie rights to the Superman universe. Thus came the all-out debacle of Supergirl.
The film, starring Helen Slater as Superman’s cousin, desperately tried to recreate the formula that made the first Superman at hit, right down to the all-star cast (Mia Farrow completely wasted in a cameo as Supergirl’s mom, and Faye Dunaway—basically playing Joan Crawford without the scary eyebrows—as the evil sorceress Selena). The film even had the silly plot gimmick of Supergirl’s alter ego going to school with Lucy Lane, Lois’ sister. And poor Marc McClure got dragged in to (just barely) reprise the role of Jimmy Olsen.
Supergirl tanked hard. And with that, the Salkinds finally threw in the cape, and gave up on pretty much everything Super-related (except for the syndicated Superboy series, which continued on for a few seasons, but was eventually forced off the air by Warner Brothers to make way for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman).
In a decision even more fateful than the firing of Richard Donner, Alexander and Ilya Salkind signed away the rights to produce another Superman movie to the independent studio known as the Cannon Group. And hello, Mr. Golan. Hello, Mr. Globus. You guys should have been on this site a long time ago.
Cannon Films, co-founded by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, churned out an astonishing amount of B-movie cheese in the ’80s. Cannon was famous mostly for Chuck Norris action pictures, Death Wish sequels, and an inordinate number of movies featuring ninjas, but they released everything from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo to Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello. Golan and Globus had no specialty when it came to producing films. If they thought it could make a buck, or help turn Cannon into a “legitimate” studio, they financed it.
Golan and Globus scored a major coup when they got the rights to Superman, and they were eager to put a new film into production. But they knew that no matter what, they had to get Christopher Reeve to play Superman. Any other actor in the role would have seemed like a cheap imitation, and the resulting film would have surely bombed. So they proceeded to use any means necessary to lure Reeve back to the role he had sworn off years ago.
First, they offered him a paycheck comparable to what he had earned on the previous films. Then they offered to produce and release any pet project of his choosing. (That film, Street Smart, came out the same year as Superman IV and garnered Morgan Freeman his very first Oscar nomination.) And lastly, they offered Reeve the opportunity to develop the story for Superman IV. And that would be the true death knell for the Superman franchise.
Reeve was a staunch liberal who had protested the Vietnam War, been an activist for environmental causes, and lobbied for funding in the arts. Unfortunately, he was also the kind of liberal that conservatives love to pick on: the wide-eyed, naïve kind, who thinks all the world needs now is love, sweet love, and all we have to do to bring about peace in our lifetimes is link hands, smile on your brother, and sing songs ’round the campfire.
Reeve couldn’t turn down Cannon’s offer, of course. And finally given the opportunity to create his own story for the character he had portrayed so memorably, he made the ill-fated choice of turning Superman into a crusader for Reeve’s own liberal agenda.
In this film, Superman uses (some might say abuses) his power to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This, contrary to what some might say, is not a terrible idea on its face. In fact, the idea of Superman using his godlike abilities to take over the world has been addressed in the comics a number of times, most recently in the 1999 “King of the World” storyline, or the 2003 limited series Superman: Red Son.
I think there’s an interesting tale to be told about a being with extraordinary powers who comes to earth and decides he knows what’s best for us, and forces the world to make peace. But this movie was made by Cannon Films. So any trace of an interesting story is completely lost in the ham-handed, horribly bungled script.
But here’s the good news: Superman IV has very, very little to do with nuclear weapons. In fact, the nuclear stuff ends up being nearly a peripheral B-plot to the main action, which involves Lex Luthor creating a goofy new supervillain named Nuclear Man to destroy Superman once and for all. Honestly, the whole anti-nuke angle could have easily been cut from the script without influencing the story much at all.
Unfortunately, Reeve realized early on that Superman IV: The Quest for Peace would be a disaster. He later lamented in his autobiography that the movie was just one of dozens of films being produced by Cannon at the time, and it was given no special attention by the studio.
Worse yet, years of mismanagement were finally about to catch up to Cannon. It had completely overextended itself (Superman IV was actually one of three expensive films Cannon had slated for 1987, along with Masters of the Universe starring Dolph Lundgren, and the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top). The studio was quickly falling upon tough financial times. In a desperate move, Superman IV—originally set to be a $40 million production—saw its budget slashed to a mere $17 million just days before shooting began. (Cannon would declare bankruptcy within two years.)
The original cut of the film, running 135 minutes, was test screened on my home turf of Orange County, California. By all accounts, the screening was a disaster. The filmmakers frantically made last-minute edits, chopping out an unbelievable forty-five minutes, leaving a cut that ran a lean (some might say anorexic) 90 minutes. Hell, most comedies these days are longer than that, and this was supposed to be a Superman movie!
Indeed, the cuts make the film even more of a travesty: Plot threads are set up and never resolved. Character motivations are completely lost. References are made to events that obviously ended up on the cutting room floor. But in some respects, I’m kind of glad for the edits. The movie is over long before you can really work up a hatred towards it, which is a good thing.
When I first saw this movie back in the ’80s, I’m sure I reacted to it with the same visceral horror as I might react to a film like Terror Firmer today. Upon a second viewing, here with loads of bad movies under my belt, I have to admit the film is really not as horrible as everyone says.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Superman IV is complete shit. But I’m mostly struck by how boring the whole thing is. It’s flat and lifeless, and plays as nothing more than a tired retread of every single aspect of the previous three Superman films, only made for one-tenth the budget. (Even the nuclear missile angle feels ripped off from when Superman was stopping Luthor’s nukes from setting off an earthquake in the first film.)
But, word is the cut footage has finally been discovered, like that’s any surprise, and some or all of it will be incorporated into a 14-disc, multi-film, End Of The World As We Know It, blow-your-brains-out because-it’s-1999 Superman DVD set due out later this year. So you can expect an expanded/updated version of this recap once that comes out.