Film Torments: Superman IV – The Quest for Peace (1987)
BY THE TIME Superman III farted its miserable way out of cinemas, beleaguered fans of the Last Son of Krypton might well have thought, hoped, prayed that the worst was over. Enter Golan and Globus’ Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Oh dear.
With the patronage of Cannon Films and the ejection of the Salkinds – largely responsible for Richard Donner’s unceremonious departure halfway through Superman II – one might have been lead to believe that Quest for Peace would be a triumphant return to form for Superman. Hmm. Superman IV is an absolute mess. It’s a campy, schlocktastic 90 minutes of nonsense piled on bullshit piled on rubbish. With budget cuts running rampant, scenes that go nowhere, a disastrous script, a terrible villain and groaning special effects, it’s a film that’s been justly maligned since its 1987 release.
What went wrong? You have Christopher Reeve returning as Superman, magnetic and charming as ever. Gene Hackman is Lex Luthor again; Margot Kidder as Lois Lane has an actual role as opposed to the glorified cameo she had in Superman III. There’s even an interesting premise about Superman taking an active role in shaping the politics of the world he protects when he hurls the entire global nuclear stockpile into the Sun. Unfortunately, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal wrote the script. You know, the people who did Planet of the Apes. Tim Burton’s one. Yeah.
It’s a half-baked moral of nuclear disarmament that falls flat on its face, sure, but it certainly tries to embrace the previous films’ sense of campy adventure. Scenes like Lex getting busted out of his chain gang incarceration by his nephew (Jon Cryer); Clark Kent having to juggle his double identity when Lois Lane and corporate heiress Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway) pop round for an interview and dinner respectively; Nuclear Man in general. It’s always trying – usually too hard – to be silly fun and I can’t deny it’s entertaining.
Whenever the bouffant-haired, radioactive-clawed Nuclear Man awkwardly trudges onscreen with his terrible vomit-orange costume, we can’t help but crack a smile. Played by Mark Willow but voiced by Gene Hackman, Nuclear Man is a hysterically unintimidating threat to Superman, more closely resembling the unseen fifth member of Manowar than a super-powered villain born in the union of a nuke and the sun. With absent motivations and an obvious, crippling weakness (shade), it’s impossible to believe that this moron could possibly duke it out with the Man of Steel, but he promptly does. On the Moon. In slow-motion. It’s great.
Hackman as Luthor looks like he’s wandered on-set half-asleep, mumbling his lines with all the conviction of a man who really doesn’t want to be there (clue: he doesn’t). Kidder blusters around with energy and verve but the script and direction fail to give her enough to work with. Reeve, happily, once again has his portrayal of Superman dead right. He’s astonishingly charming, he’s sincere and he’s so adept at delivering schlocky lines at this point that it (almost) feels natural. His handling of Clark Kent is also spot-on. Even in a film as wholesomely terrible as Quest for Peace, Christopher Reeves still gets Superman.
Less obvious are his abundance of new and unexplained powers. When did Superman obtain the ability to rebuild the Great Wall of China using blue eyebeams? How is he suddenly able to wipe the memory of Lois Lane after a blatant rehash of the Superman: The Movie flying sequence? Why is he suddenly able to levitate whole groups of people simply by looking at them? Never explained. I suppose none of these powers are as bizarre as the cellophane ‘S’ he throws at Zod in Superman II but hey.
Director Sidney J. Furie, fresh from the roaring success (?) of Iron Eagle, offers little to get excited about, often slowing the pace to a crawl. The film is desperately sluggish, the flight scenes look terrible and the actors are often left groping in the dark as to what they’re meant to be doing. Then there’s the question of the budget cuts. 45 minutes of the film were cut (in hindsight a wise decision; can you imagine this thing lumbering on for 2-odd hours?) due to budget constraints and it shows. Dodgy lighting in cramped bedrooms, about 50 extras on the streets (compared to the hundreds that Donner/Lester had for Superman II), a UN summit that looks like it was filmed in a lecture hall in Rotherham; Quest for Peace looks cheap. Really cheap.
Reeve in his autobiography chalks it up to the plethora of films that Cannon had on the go at the same time – 43 to be exact – and it’s not surprising where their priorities lay. With such classics as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, Over the Top and Masters of the Universe released in the same year, it’s perfectly understandable to put those over a Superman film.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is rubbish, of course, but it has its heart in the right place. It has a (naff) sense of humour and a healthy dollop of charm amidst a sea of shambling awfulness, and it’s certainly an incredibly entertaining ride for that very badness. At least it’s still better than the charmless ponderous navel-gazing shite of Man of Steel.