THE HISTORY OF DC COMICS ON FILM
PART 8 – SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE
For part 7 of our journey through the history of DC Comics on film, we come to a film that is widely regarded as one of the lowest points in the big screen journey of the Man of Steel, Superman IV – The Quest for Peace! Released in 1987 on a shoestring budget of $17 million, its box office take of $36.7 million made it both a commercial and critical failure. Directed by Sidney J.Furie, best known for his fantastic work on The Ipcress File 22 years earlier, and with most of the principal players from the previous film back on board, (Reeve, Hackman, Kidder, McClure etc), any hope the film had of living up to its billing were scuppered by severe budget constraints and purse strings that were tighter than a spandex superhero costume.
The reason for the lack of funding was due to the rights of the Superman franchise being sold by the Salkind family to Cannon Films. After the extremely disappointing box office performance of Supergirl, the Salkinds decided it was time to cash in their chips and sell off their cinematic rights. Cannon had built up their reputation as producers of a seemingly endless string of low to medium budget films, each one made with varying degrees of success. (Well worth a view is Electric Boogaloo – The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. An extremely entertaining documentary). Also in production that year from Cannon, was Masters of The Universe, their ill-fated attempt to bring He-Man to the big screen. With their budgets being stretched so thin that they were almost translucent, Superman IV unfortunately felt the pinch due to Masters taking up the bulk of the available production funds. The result is a film that looks incredibly cheap visually, with special effects that are a clear backwards step from the Donner movies.
At the height of the 80’s nuclear arms race, with American and Soviet relations hanging over a precipice, a young schoolboy writes a letter to Superman, begging him to intervene and stop a potential Armageddon. After consulting with his Kryptonian ancestors at the Fortress of Solitude, he decides to rid the entire planet of all nuclear weapons. His disposal method? Stockpiling every missile in a giant net in outer space, then tossing said net into the sun, incinerating them. Meanwhile, his arch nemesis Lex Luthor is broken out of prison by his nephew Lenny (possibly the most annoying character in cinema history, more on him later…) Seeing a chance to destroy Superman, they steal a strand of his hair from a museum and incorporate it into a genetic matrix, which is then strategically placed onto the side of a missile (you can see where this is going).
After said missile is tossed into the sun, a glowing ball of energy is discharged, which almost instantaneously transforms into a fully grown man. This is the “Nuclear Man”, who, after receiving instruction from his “father” Luthor, sets out to destroy the man of steel. Seemingly outmatched by this immaculately coiffured atrocity of a man, Superman must overcome overwhelming odds to find a way to win. What ensues is a fight for the ages that takes in the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty and the moon to name just a fraction of the various locations that get demolished by our titans in capes. Can Superman come out on top? Watch the film and find out…..
As previously mentioned, the main stalwarts from the previous Superman movies are back here to reprise their roles and all of them give performances that are consistent with those they had already given in the earlier movies. Christopher Reeve still remains the definitive live action Superman to date, as he maintains the wonderful dichotomy in his dual performances of Clark/Superman. He truly inhabits the character in a very special way that nobody else has done to date. The ensemble cast of Margot Kidder, Marc McClure, Jackie Cooper and the great Gene Hackman make the best of roles that don’t serve them as well as the previous movies, but they do remain top of their respective piles when it comes to portrayals of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and Lex Luthor respectively. Previous reviews in this series have discussed this section of the cast in greater detail.
It’s the two newcomers to the franchise that have made the biggest impression on me, although not really in the best of ways! Jon Cryer as Lenny Luthor is the most annoying/inexplicable character ever seen in the DC Universe. Cryer is a fine actor, with some great work on his cv, but this character is a real career nadir for him. From his surfer dude accent, to his utter stupidity, I get as exasperated as his uncle Lex by his very existence. Throughout the film, even the most casual of viewers must wish that Superman would temporarily suspend his moral code and break him in half!
The main villain of the film, Nuclear Man, is brought to life by the amazing Mark Pillow. A former Chippendale dancer from Leeds, England, Pillow had very little prior acting experience when he landed the role, but refused to let such details hamper him in mustering up a villain that we all still remember to this day. With a blond mullet that defies description and a jacked up physique that makes him resemble a Vince McMahon creation from the 1980s, he certainly is a physical match for Superman! Sadly, Mark Pillow didn’t get to voice his own dialogue in the film. Instead, Gene Hackman provided the voice of the character, based on the fact that he was a clone. It mystifies me though that his voice wasn’t the same as Reeve’s as he was supposed to be cloned from Superman’s hair strand? Indeed, the original plan was for Reeve to play both characters on screen, which would have been very effective and brought elements of the wonderful scrap yard fight from Superman 3. But, alas, the fact that the film was made for the Hollywood equivalent of loose change saw the idea nixed. But, making the best of it, Pillow gives his all. So invested in the character was he, that he attended the London Premiere of the film in full costume! Don’t believe it, see below picture of him meeting Princess Diana as evidence….
For all you Nuclear Man fans out there, the character was brought back from obscurity recently in the comic pages of Superman, as he (briefly) emerged in the depths of the Phantom Zone to take on Rogol Zaar. (see Superman issue 2 by Brian Michael Bendis for reference).
What, on the face of it, was a great concept, was ruined by the film’s incredibly cheap production values and outrageous plot holes. Where the earlier films in the franchise had looked expensive and used special effects that were at the very cutting edge for the time, this film clearly shows it’s lack of funding with it’s onscreen visual effects. Numerous shots of Superman flying are recycled and used more than once throughout the film. During the climactic battle on the moon, the most eagle eyed of viewers will be able to spot black drapes hung in the background, designed to look like the blackness of space. Numerous aerial shots of our combatants are sadly ruined by clearly visible wires. It is a shame, as a bigger effects budget would have elevated the film’s quality immeasurably.
What isn’t down to the budget are some inexplicable moments that make logistical sense. When Nuclear Man decides to kidnap Lacey Warfield, the object of his affection, they journey into outer space. Somehow, Lacey survives exiting Earth’s atmosphere, the cold vacuum of space and then reentry. Truly bizarre. Also, numerous shots of Nuclear Man in outer space show his golden locks moving due to a breeze. Now, I am not an astrophysicist but I thought space was an airless vacuum, which would render such an event impossible.
I view this film as very much a missed opportunity and a victim of circumstance. If it had been made with the same budgets as the blockbusters of the time, then it would have been an entirely different proposition. Despite its best intentions and its very noble message, it just falls short of where it should have been. Such a prestigious comic book property deserved better treatment than it got here, and one can only dream about the potential film that sadly didn’t come to fruition. The poor box-office takings of this would see the Superman movie franchise go into a hiatus that lasted almost 20 years, until the release of 2006’s Superman Returns. One thing I take with me from the movie and what I will end this piec with, is perhaps its most poignant and memorable line of dialogue, which is perhaps more relevant than ever in the times we all are living in now. Please take the below to heart.
And there will be peace. 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 just wish you could all see the Earth the way that I see it. Because when you really look at it, it’s just one world.
In the next history of DC Comics on film….The Return of Swamp Thing….