WFTB Score: 5/20
The plot: Forced into making a decision by the pushy new owners of the Daily Planet, Superman decides to permanently rid planet Earth of nuclear weapon. His nemesis Lex Luthor sees an opportunity, however, and a combination of his scientific genius and a trio of arms dealers sees a deadly foe born from the heart of the sun: Nuclear Man. Nuclear Man has powers at least equal to, and an instinctive hate of, the Man of Steel, so Superman will need every bit of his Krypton-based strength and ingenuity to keep Earth safe.
Whereas Christopher Reeve’s first three outings as Superman are celebrated – to varying degrees, admittedly – Superman IV is almost completely overlooked, at best spoken of in whispers like an unloved, unfortunate relative; so a rare television showing presented an opportunity to view something I had only known as a franchise-ending dud. I am a big fan of Reeve, as he balances Supes’ muscular, clean-cut fight for justice brilliantly against Clark Kent’s oafish clumsiness. Not only can he not save this film from its deserved reputation, however, but as one of the credited story writers must take a share of the blame.
There is much going on in the world at the beginning of Superman IV. The Daily Planet has been taken over, for a start, by father-daughter team David and Lacy Wakefield (Sam Wanamaker and Mariel Hemingway), a profit-hungry pair who see taking the paper downmarket as the best way of making money. The old hands at the paper, including Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Clark Kent (Reeve), are aghast at the prospect, but when the paper decides to take up a young boy’s campaign to ask Superman to put an end to the USA/USSR nuclear arms race, Clark/Supes must take a stand, momentarily putting aside his love for Lois and Lacy’s unlikely attraction to Clark. Addressing the UN, Superman declares that he is going to dispose of the planet’s nuclear weapons, and he proceeds to do so by hammer-throwing a big net containing the lot of ‘em into the sun*. Meanwhile, super-villain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has been rescued from breaking rocks by his flash nephew Lenny, allowing him to carry out his plan of stealing one of Superman’s hairs from a museum and putting it on a missile with some other scientific gubbins. When this rocket hits the surface of the sun Nuclear Man is born, and the tall, blonde anti-hero heads back to Earth in search of his creator. Though initially arrogant about his power, Lex persuades Nuclear Man to do his bidding and gain control over his sponsors, a group of greedy weapons dealers; he then makes his progeny aware of the real reason for his creation: to kill Superman.
As someone who lived through the Cold-War posturing of the 1980s, the gesture towards promoting nuclear disarmament is welcome, particularly in the vaguely neutral terms in which this film presents it (Supes rescues Cosmonauts too!); however, the hero’s diversion into politics is probably unwise, and almost certainly ineffectual. But this is as nothing compared to Superman IV’s issues as a movie, which can unfortunately be ripped apart minute-by-minute. I won’t do that, but will point out that neither the opening credits nor the initial flying scenes look as good or as convincing as those from the 1978 original, which says a lot for this film’s production values (Superman taking Lois for a quick spin, a reprise from Superman: the Movie, is an especially bad idea). In fact, bad ideas abound, from the creation of the idiotically ‘hip’ Lenny – where’s Ned Beatty when you need him? – to the clunkiness of the script, e.g. just before Superman addresses the UN:
Lacy: What’s he going to say?
Lois: Something wonderful!
Worse than any of this, however, is Nuclear Man (played by the gorgeously-named Mark Pillow). Not a bad idea in theory, but in execution – as a false-nailed macho man with George Michael’s Wham!-era hair and Hackman’s deep voice – he is just silly, the main reason being not his looks but his Achilles’ heel: Nuclear Man’s weakness is, drum roll please – wait for it – shade. Yes, shade; meaning the closing of a blind, nightfall or clouds are enough to paralyse this otherwise all-powerful radioactive monster. Nonetheless, this handicap doesn’t stop him from dishing out some disturbingly violent beatings to our hero, who is given a nasty life-draining scram to the back of the neck and later on driven into the moon like a tent peg. Luckily, Superman has one last crystal of Kryptonian energy (confusingly looking very much like deadly Kryptonite) to give him, with enough motivation from Lois, a new lease of life.
But back to the production values. The story is weak and a humourless script, lacking in Richard Lester’s comic touch, doesn’t help matters; but what really harms Superman IV is the fact that it feels both very cheap and heavily re-edited, with a complete lack of attention to continuity, narrative or detail. Just a few examples: when Lacy is taken hostage by Nuclear Man, we are given no idea of how she can breathe in space, or where Superman subsequently drops her off; we do not know why Clark ages so suddenly after Lois visits him; and then there are the little things such as ‘England’ having a front seat at the United Nations – the rest of the United Kingdom says hello! As for the film’s cheap look, apart from the low budget exhibited in the ‘fight around the world’, Furie manages to film the rescue of a runaway subway train without any crashes, stuntwork or drama, apart from the driver collapsing; and when Nuclear Man and Superman grapple each other above the Earth, it’s all too obvious that they are standing up – maybe superhero powers allow you to get a firm footing in the nothingness of space.
I’m sure it has the best of intentions, but Chris Reeve’s last adventure as Superman is hampered by a surfeit of moralising and a deficiency of budget, a tragedy since a little money spent on polish and the services of an action-oriented screenwriter might have seen Reeve in the role for at least one more film. Luckily, he moved onto other things (including the glorious Remains of the Day) before the tragic accident that cut his career and life short. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is no way to remember a fine actor.
NOTES: You would think that after the first couple had been fired and lost, the Powers That Be would stop launching nukes if Supes was just going to scoop them into his massive net. But no, everyone carries on regardless.