ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Superman IV: The Quest For Peace’ (1987), Part One
As we continue our in-depth look at super-hero movies, Chris Sims and David Uzumeri take on the Superman film franchise.
Chris Sims: Welcome back to ComicsAlliance’s in-depth reviews of the Superman film franchise, everyone! Of all the Superman movies, this week’s subject, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, is probably the most maligned. I have to say, though, as much as it might defy conventional wisdom, I really thought this was an under-appreciated classic.
David Uzumeri: When you think about it, it’s easily the most effective at expressing Superman’s capacity for widescale social justice, as well as the franchise’s ability to deal with real social issues and relevant themes.
Chris: It’s really the truest to the character and — okay, I can’t keep that up any longer. We’re just kidding, folks: This movie’s atrocious.David: It’s cloying, hamfisted, patronizingly didactic and hilariously low-rent.
Chris: But before we get into the specifics of just how terrible it is, a little background. After Superman III underperformed and Supergirl was an unmitigated flop, the Salkinds apparently just figured people didn’t like Superman anymore, and ended up selling their stake in the franchise to Golan & Globus, which I think was a bad guy in GI Joe: The Movie.
David: I guess it never occurred to them that people just don’t like bad movies. Reeve agreed to do the movie on the condition that G&G make Street Smart, a movie where Reeve plays a reporter who makes up a pimp for a human interest piece, and then Morgan Freeman claims to be the pimp, and he gets stuck in his lies. Which is basically The Wire Season 5 twenty years early, with a soundtrack by Miles Davis.
Chris: Golobulous and Nemesis Enforcer were part of Cannon Films, which I’m mostly familiar with as the studio that brought you Breakin’, Breakin’ 2 and American Ninja 1 − 5. That ought to give you an idea of what we’re going to be dealing with here. Wikipedia describes their output as “a distinctive line of low-to-medium budget films,” and Superman IV was no exception. Both Reeve (who starred and got a story credit) and director Sidney J. Furie were continually frustrated by having to cut corners during production, but to be honest, this thing could’ve had a hundred million bucks to throw around and still come out pretty terrible.
David: I wish this movie was as entertaining as any of those.
Chris: What’s weird about this movie is how clear it is that it seemed to go in with the idea of fixing “problems” that the producers saw in the first three films. For one thing, it’s the Superman Returns of its day, completely ignoring the dynamic that was set up at the end of Superman III and going right back to trying to recapture the relationship of Superman I and II, right down to the incredibly creepy amnesia kiss.
David: Which is even creepier in this one, for reasons I’ll get into later. Like much of the movie, I don’t think that plot point was particularly thought through.
Chris: There’s also the understandable idea of wanting to actually give Superman someone to fight. We can say all we want that Superman’s real power is his steadfast morality, but that’s not always fun to watch on a movie screen. Even the Phantom Zone Criminals didn’t really provide a physical scrap, so it’s understandable that they’d want to give Superman something he could actually punch. The problem is that it’s… well, that it’s really stupid.
David: I think the best thing I can say about this movie in comparison to the first three is that it’s thirty minutes shorter.
Chris: It’s all the flaws of the first two movies, but with none of the stuff that’s good, and even though I remember liking it a lot when I was five, it’s pretty easy to see why this more or less killed the movie franchise for the next 20 years and left TV shows like Lois & Clark and Smallville with the unenviable job of rehabbing the character for mass media.
David: This is a movie that absolutely nobody involved liked, and that comes across on the screen. It’s not even incompetent, it’s just heartless.
Chris: Since we’re already starting in on the review, let’s get right into the breakdown for the first half of the film!
Chris: The first thing this movie has to offer, and the first sign that we’re dealing with a throwback to the first film, is another one of those godforsaken credit sequences that’s just five minutes of flying names against a static shot of space. Words can’t even begin to describe how much I hate these.
David: We’ve had three credits sequences so far in this series. One of them was the iconic Superman credits sequence from the first film, which was beautifully animated if basically the same idea. The second one was similar, but overlaid over a recap of the first film. The third was the utterly hilarious Richard-Lester-goes-crazy-with-slapstick citywide Rube Goldberg machine, and this time it’s just movingearth.mov downloaded from a government website with some text that looks like it was overlaid on it on an Amiga. It sets up the main theme of the film, which is “we don’t give a s***.”
Chris: Seriously, at least 75% of the reason why I loved Superman III can probably be attributed to the fact that there’s actually stuff happening under the credits. They’re enjoyable to watch. These are literally just flying names, and in a movie that’s ostensibly meant for children, it’s a bad idea to open your movie with something so boring. This film is tedious before it even starts. But to be fair, once we trudge through getting buzzed by the cast and crew, the actual opening scene is really solid.
David: It’s a daring rescue in space, so they don’t even have to bother coordinating the wirework and green screening with a moving background. It also opens up with a shot from space, and then cuts to a satellite above Earth, instead of, I dunno, panning to it like any movie with a greater than $40 budget would at least try. It’s like if Star Wars kicked off with the credits over a still shot of Tattooine and then they cut to a Star Destroyer. This isn’t even low-rent, it’s a subprime mortgage.
Chris: There are some Soviet cosmonauts hanging out in space – including one singing a Russian version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which is pretty fun – and when he gets knocked loose and almost floats out into the void, Superman pops up and saves him. It’s a really nice reminder of one of the themes Reeve and Furie actually do their best to put in this movie, that Superman’s here to help all of humanity, not just one nation.
David: I’ll say this: his story credit in the movie, if nothing else, shows that he has as good an understanding of the character as his acting made it seem. With the exception of superkiss round two, but we’ll get there, because that scene is insanely creepy.
Chris: Well, he does and he doesn’t. The very next scene puts us right back into hamfisted worship at the altar of Richard Donner. Clark’s selling the family farm back in Smallville, so he heads there for one last chat with Ghost Mom about how he will Truly And Forever Be Alone, because he’s definitely not human. Also, here’s this glowing green McGuffin that’ll be handy in Act Three. XOXO, Space Mom.
David: They don’t even get new dialogue cut here. To be fair, I thought this scene largely existed so that they could throw in some exposition about Superman’s powers.
Chris: It’s not exactly the most subtle foreshadowing you could ask for. Even the crazy acid cloud in Superman III wasn’t this obvious. Clark drops the glowing crystal into his jacket and then gets into an equally subtle argument with his real estate agent about how he wants the farm to be sold to a farmer, and not be turned into a shopping center by the march of your so-called progress, man.
David: The best part is that when he drops it in it’s clearly still sticking out of his jacket pocket, but then it’s gone in the next footage.
Chris: Clark pretends to suck at baseball for Mr. Hornsby’s amusement, and then the scene cuts to what appears to be Cartoon Prison, current home of one Lex Luthor.
David: Dear God, Thank You For No Otis.
Chris: Do you really hate Otis so much that you’re willing to take Jon Cryer instead?
David: Yes. Happily.
Chris: Wow. You really hate Otis.
David: I don’t think you understood the depths of my hatred until now.
Chris: Luthor is apparently spending his time lecturing his fellow inmates at the rock pile about Mozart and dreaming up ways to kill Superman, which, if we’re being fair, is pretty much exactly the sort of thing Lex Luthor would do. But his routine is interrupted by the arrival of his nephew, Lenny Luthor, as played by Two and a Half Men star Jon Cryer.
David: Nasthalthia he ain’t.
Chris: He ain’t even Miss Tessmacher.
David: But he’s still better than damn Otis.
Chris: Lenny’s presence initiates an escape plan that identifies Luthor’s guards as the single dumbest cops in the history of the world. Seriously, they are two men willing to just cold start ignoring a guy who once tried to nuke California the second someone drives up with surround sound, and they end up being driven off a cliff by remote control for it, which is about what they deserve.
David: Except they have the obligatory shot of them coming out of the pit, making absolutely no sense. And the car rolls over in midair while the radio’s playing “Roll Over Beethoven,” which, to be fair, almost felt like a Richard Lester moment.
Chris: I’m just not sure why it was necessary to even have a plan to escape from these morons, let alone one that involved destroying a car. I think Luthor could’ve probably just pretended to throw a tennis ball and distracted them long enough to make a break for it.
David: He’s also held with all of a single chain between his legs, which Lenny breaks with the almighty boltcutters, Lex Luthor’s secret weapon.
Chris: Those bolt-cutters, man. As we’re about to see, they are some serious customers. But first, it’s time for Lois to almost die, because that’s what Lois Lane does. This time, it’s because the guy driving the subway train has a heart attack, sending it speeding through the tunnels.
David: This is convenient, because when Superman rescues the train, they can just take a simple flying-forward-over-a-greenscreen shot and overlay it over stock traveling-through-subway-tunnel footage. Four thousand dollars saved for Globus!
Chris: Also Superman can stop a subway train just by shorting out the third rail, rather than actually physically using his strength so stop it. That’s another five grand!
David: Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve saved the cocaine mountain budget!
Chris: Once Lane and Kent arrive at the Daily Planet, though, there’s trouble – and not just in the form of Perry White cosplaying as Mr. Rogers for whatever reason. In a subplot that’s as boring as it is inexplicable, the Planet has been sold to tabloid publisher David Warfield, who intends to install his ’80s-Hot Daughter Lacey as publisher in hopes that her comedically huge glasses and glittery jacket will help the paper turn a profit.
David: Lacey Warfield, I’d like to point out, is played by Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of noted elephant-killer and immortal literary giant Ernest Hemingway. I wish she’d taken Clark out on animal-hunting safaris as part of their dates later in the flick. Let’s also not forget her epic shoulderpads, son! And let’s be fair, women in gigantic glasses has already circled back around to hipster hot.
Chris: Their plan is to make the Daily Planet into a sensationalist tabloid that’ll bring in the money by pushing the world closer to the brink of nuclear war. I’m not kidding: This is actually Warfield’s business model.
David: And yet, somehow, he’s not the villain. I’d love to be at the story conference where they named him. “Well, he sees, like, the world as a field for war, right? War… field…”
Chris: Except that he is a villain, just not of Superman’s story. He’s Perry White’s arch-nemesis, because apparently that’s what these movies were missing all along. Clark gives Lacey a relatively stern talking-to by saying that their duty is to the truth, and she immediately decides that she is a predator, and wholesome farmboys are her prey.
David: How come all the blondes are bad girls in this series?
Chris: Ursa was a brunette! Also, we would be remiss at not mentioning Lacey’s line to Lois, which is pretty amazing: “Don’t be silly! All men like me, I’m very very rich!”
David: I really have to wonder how that line of dialogue snuck its way into the movie.
Chris: Lois is miffed about not being able to go to paris to cover an emergency peace conference, but it doesn’t matter anyway because talks break down within the next two minutes and the President comes on TV to tell everyone that they’re about to build hella nukes, y’all. Needless to say, this kind of bums everyone out.
David: I wonder if the US showed up to the peace conference after that, like “yeah, uh, I guess we could still try for this. By the way, our nation is rolling hella strapped.” I did enjoy how Lois seemed way more disappointed about missing Paris than missing the conference, though, even if the last time she was in Paris in these movies she ended up trapped with a nuke in the Eiffel Tower.
Chris: Somewhere in Middle America, a bunch of schoolchildren are watching the nuclear arms conference (?!), and their teacher, who looks to be about sixteen years old, suggests they write to their congressman. In response, young Jeremy stands up and, in a speech that is hilariously overdubbed and way deeper than you’re expecting, demands that they write to Superman instead.
David: It does seem like an idea that a kid would have, just not stated so eloquently. I do love what a facile idea writing to someone’s Congressman is, though. “Let’s teach these children disappointment and the ineffectiveness of government at an early age!”
Chris: Yeah, that is a weirdly cynical ten year-old. Meanwhile, at the museum, Lex and Lenny stroll up to an exhibit about Superman, where a single strand of his Super-Hair is holding up a 1,000-pound weight. This is a very Silver Agey sort of idea, and I’m not gonna lie: I love this part.
David: What comes next, not so much, but yes, that part is great.
Chris: Unfortunately, my love is slightly mitigated by the fact that Gene Hackman seems incapable of correctly pronouncing the word “nuclear.” You’d think with as much as he says it over the next hour, it’d stop being annoying, but you would be wrong.
David: And nobody on the set bothered to correct him, I guess, because he’s Gene Hackman. I think maybe my favorite part of Hackman’s appearance is that he’s balding, which means that Lex Luthor is wearing wigs that make him look like he’s balding.
Chris: Luthor and Lenny smash the glass case holding the super-hair before cutting it, because apparently those damn bolt-cutters were forged of Uru by the dwarves of Skartalfheim.
David: They don’t even have some sort of offhand line about how they’re kryptonite bolt cutters or something, which would even be believable for Luthor. They just use regular ol’ bolt cutters to cut this strand of hair holding a thousand pounds.
Chris: Superman IV: The Quest For A F*** To Give.
David: And man, Lenny’s annoying, but at least he isn’t Otis. I’m mean, he’s dumb, but he’s not THAT mystifyingly dumb.
Chris: It’s that combination of his stupidity and that goofy voice that Cryer’s putting on for him in lieu of actual acting that makes me hate him so much. Then again, I did think “I’ve always considered you the Dutch Elm disease of my family tree” was a pretty amazing line.
David: He’s still not a stupid bumbling goon stereotype who can’t spell that was clearly put in to pander for the children. I hate Otis as much as I hate Jar Jar Binks. Lenny’s just dumb.
Chris: You also have no love or joy in your shriveled, rotten, soul, but that’s unrelated. Back at the Daily Planet, Lacey has set her sights on seducing Clark Kent, and intends to do so by sitting on her desk in increasingly awkward “sexy” poses. It’s actually a pretty great bit.
David: I like how Reeve doesn’t play Clark here as oblivious, but as someone who knows exactly what’s going on and is generally unimpressed playing oblivious.
Chris: I agree, but the whole thing with Lacey and her father is just there to set up this weird love-quadrangle between Clark, Lacey, Superman and Lois, and if they wanted that, why didn’t they just get Annette O’Toole back and do it with Lana, like they set up in Superman III? Either way, the whole point of this scene is for Superman to get Jeremy’s letter about how he should go stop nuclear war from happening.
David: Of course, a kid sending this letter to Superman is incredibly cloying and hamfisted, which, to the film’s credit, is why Warfield runs after it like a rabid wolf chasing a bus full of kids.
Chris: Warfield ends up making Little Jeremy and his overdubbed voice a celebrity, and when Superman’s response isn’t forthcoming, he gives us a pretty hilarious headline:
David: I love how the Warfield Publications logo is now dominating the masthead, too. It’s a nice touch.
Chris: Obviously, a little kid asking him to stop nuclear war puts a lot of pressure on Superman. So, like the pillar of moral strength that he is, he carefully considers the options, and trusts himself to know the best thing to do. Ha ha, just kidding! He flies to the Fortress of Solitude and talks to a bunch of floating heads because Movie Superman can’t decide a goddamn thing for himself!
David: I seriously just yelled “oh, seriously, AGAIN?” at this. And they can’t afford Superman’s mom OR dad this time, so now it’s just a bunch of random-ass floating heads known as the Elders, one of whom looks like Jack Kirby.
Chris: Once again we have this thing where the Kryptonians tell him that he’s “forbidden to interfere” and… I’m sorry, what exactly does he think he’s doing all the time?
David: “It’s totally cool to save the Earth from angry aliens, but if a bunch of humans are going to blow it up, that’s not on you, dude.” Like, should he have not stopped Lex Luthor’s plan in the first movie?
Chris: I guess! And if that scene threw Superman’s character under a bus – seriously, dude goes and asks permission from a bunch of dead dudes before doing something – this next one throws it underneath the whole damn highway. Clark is lost in thought at his apartment when Lois shows up, and after they chat for a bit, he takes her by the hand and jumps off his balcony.
David: At first, I thought he was going to just show back up as Superman and go “oh, uh, I already saved Clark but had to take him down the street! But we need to talk.”
Chris: Yeah. Instead, he reveals his identity and we get a way-too-long reprise of the flying-around scene from the first movie, complete with the “Can You Read My Mind” love theme – though thankfully not the actual lyrics. This movie is trying so hard to be the Richard Donner movie that it’d be embarrassing, if I didn’t know that Superman Returns was a thousand times worse.
David: But still, we’re nowhere near the most egregious part.
Chris: They eventually land back on Clark’s balcony and Superman confesses that he’s not sure what to do, and Lois just basically tells him to follow his gut. She also reveals that she remembers everything – including, presumably, getting it on in his tinfoil love nest – and then he kisses her, making her forget again. What in the actual hell, Superman IV?
David: I can’t stress enough how utterly angry this scene makes me. This is just morally reprehensible. Superman basically uses Lois to feel better about himself.
Chris: And there’s also the unspoken implication that he’s done this before, and that he just terrifies her into remembering who he is whenever he feels like it, and then wipes her memory afterwards because it’s more convenient for him. It basically makes Superman a creepy monster.
David: In that case, you can argue that it’s perfect character setup for Superman Returns, then!
Chris: No kidding. I mean, it actually follows pretty logically from the end of Superman II, just taken to the next step of being even worse. Up ’til now, this has just been a kind-of-lousy movie, but this just completely breaks it. It’s gross, dude.
David: “I, Superman, would like to endorse topically applied Rohypnol on the lips as the secret ingredient that led to my decision to end nuclear war.” He’s just using her emotionally instead of sexually. It’s abhorrent.
Chris: Ugh. Whatever it’s supposed to be, Superman’s hypnotic domination of Lois Lane apparently makes him feel good enough about himself to decide on a course of action, so he grabs Jimmy and takes a walk over to the UN. The scene where he needs a sponsor to be able to speak and every delegate raises their hand is nice…
Chris: …but after that last bit, it’s to little, too late.
David: Yo, can I just point out that the UN is apparently a municipal auditorium in England?
Chris: It looks like the UN is going to have to clear out as soon as Superman’s done speaking so the local wrestling promotion can get set up for their show tonight. No wonder this world’s on the brink. Lois claims that Superman is going to say “something wonderful,” presumably because of Stockholm Syndrome, and Superman gives a speech about how Earth’s his home and he’s going to destroy all of the nuclear warheads. Deal with it.
David: So rather than Superman flying around the world and destroying them, they just launch them all into the sky compliantly while Superman collects them all in a giant net and throws them at the sun.
Chris: I assumed that Superman was actually just hijacking the missiles whenever anyone launched a test, but your explanation actually makes more sense, since they’re already out in space when he catches them.
David: Yeah, and it takes place over a short period of time. Also, I’d argue that saying that explanation “makes sense” isn’t entirely accurate.
Chris: Well, “makes sense” on a strictly relative basis. While all this is going down, Lex and his two new henchwenches (who never show up again) meet up with three “nucular” arms dealers, promising to “make the world safe for war profits” by killing Superman. To that end, Lex and Lenny put a big ol’ gross chunk of raw skinless chicken into a little box, tie it to a “nucular” missile, and wait for Superman to throw it into the sun. Obviously.
David: Because I guess Superman was just chilling around in space waiting for stragglers after throwing the gigantic net into the sun. What the Hell? Also, how does he know that there aren’t just… unlaunched missiles?
Chris: I think it’s fair to say that nothing in this entire movie makes any sense at this point. I mean, Luthor’s plan is to use the power of the sun to kill Superman by “breaking his skin and making him sick,” but… isn’t movie Superman still powered by the sun? Isn’t the “radiation” that Luthor’s counting on to poison him actually what gives him his strength, even if it comes from a dude who looks like he’s about to be eliminated from the Royal Rumble? Either way, Lex Luthor – in the grand tradition of Gus Gorman – dresses up like a general and this is apparently enough to get the world’s most wanted criminal onto the site of a “nucular” missile launch.
David: I wonder if this is how General Zod got the job. I mean, it’s worked twice on Earth now…
Chris: Superman catches the missle, tosses it into the sun, and sure enough, Luthor’s plan reaches fruition.
David: Can I just point out how totally amazing the scene where Nuclear Man gets formed is? He just starts floating out of the sun into a golden 2001-style space fetus before turning into a crappy wrestler in a knockoff Golden Age Atom outfit.
Chris: The Space Fetus turns into Nucular – sorry, Nuclear Man, and we now have our villain. Sort of. Join us next week when we find out how Lex Luthor’s bouncing baby bad guy fares against the Man of Steel when we wrap up Superman IV: The Quest For Peace!
ComicsAlliance Reviews the Superman Films: