Film discussion

Throwback 30 – Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

You’ll believe a man can fly, but not when the same visual effects shot is used over and over again that’s for sure, a sentiment which  pretty much sums up the fourth instalment of the Christopher Reeve Superman series, simultaneously the worst of movies and the most enjoyable too, albeit for wrong reasons.

In 1987, the Superman movies had been absent from screens for four years when the series came back, doing so after the mixed reception afforded to Superman III. That movie had been directed by Richard Lester and produced by the Salkind family, who had been involved in the first two movies as well, but the mixed reception of the third movie, not to mention the commercial failings of 1984’s Supergirl, meant that the producing family decided to cut ties with the theatrical Superman, selling the film rights to Cannon Studios, but retaining television rights which led to the late 80’s Superboy.

Say what you want about Superman III and its problems (too much comedy and Richard Pryor for one thing), but at the very least it still retained the high production values of the first two movies, something that was always key to any movie produced by the Alexander and Ilya Salkind; The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers and Santa Claus:The Movie. Admittedly the latter may not be the greatest movie ever made either, but it didn’t look cheap.

The same could not be said of Cannon Studios and the two producers who ran it, cousins Menahem Golem and Yoram Globus. Throughout the 80’s, Cannon Studios were notorious for their shady way of business within the industry, not to mention the schlock that the studio produced, not least the repugnant Death Wish sequels, plethora of Chuck Norris action movies, anything directed by Michael Winner and Tobe Hooper’s insane Lifeforce.

Buying the rights to Superman, as well as producing a live action version of He-Man and spending an insane amount of money to have Sylvester Stallone star in, of all things, an arm-wrestling movie, the studio was attempting to enter the big leagues in producing bigger budgeted movies, although as was always the case with the studio, these attempts were somewhat backward and half-hearted.

Budgeted at $35 million, that budget was eventually halved in order for Cannon to save money as the studio faced increasing financial problems that would eventually lead to their eventual collapse. The budget is unfortunately evident on a movie that would show every inch of its problems on-screen. To top it all off, in order to get Christopher Reeve back in the role, he would be given a freer hand  in crafting the story and opted to go for something close to his heart: the issue of nuclear weapons which would see the character take it upon himself to rid the world of all weapons of mass destruction.

Admittedly the image of Superman making an impassioned speech at the United Nations is one that looks the part, but having the character effectively interfering in human affairs like this those feel like a betrayal of his comic book roots. Managing to get everyone back in their roles, including Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman, it’s an almost epic disappointment that the movie is the flop that it is. For a series of movies that started as gorgeously crafted big budget affairs, to see it finish with essentially a “cheapie” made by one of the most schlocky studios to work in Hollywood is sad on an incredible level.

Special effects shots like the one of Superman flying towards camera are used over and over and over again, the “epic” fight sequence between Superman and his new nemesis, the Lex Luthor-created Nuclear Man, feels amatuerish and badly choregraphed, whilst its clear that a massive amount of material has been cut at random; towards the end Nuclear Man shows up at the Daily Planet looking for Lucy Warfield (Mare Winningham) even though there is no prior acknowledgement of Superman knowing his intentions  , whilst his infatuation is basically set up in one scene before he starts fighting Superman for her. Also, it features scenes of human beings breathing in space without any sort of space suit. A big thumbs up for science.

Suffice to say a film like this was not going to be a hit. In an era when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were delivering the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and following the grand production values of Richard Donner’s visionary work on the original Superman movie, Quest for Peace is incredibly lazy. It feels as if everyone involved has tried to do their best, but they’ve been prevented by a studio that is trying their best to save a dollar, or seventeen million.

All one has to do is read an excerpt from Reeve’s biography Still Me where he writes about how when filming in Milton Keynes (yes, Milton Keynes doubles as Metropolis), both himself and director Sidney J. Furie begged Cannon to allow them to film outside the UN building itself, but instead had to make do with a Milton Keynes industrial estate. It pretty much sums up the film in a nutshell. Well, that and the fact that Nuclear Man actor Mark Pillow was dressed in character when meeting Prince Charles and Princess Diana at the film’s British premiere.

It would be nineteen years before Superman flew again on the big screen, and only after years of being stuck in development hell. That this would be the last time Christopher Reeve would don the costume makes one sad that the film is the way it is, and also due to the turn his life took several years later. Thankfully the film is not enough to destroy the legacy of both of his performance and the films that came before. Those original movies are so good, that forever in the pantheon of superhero cinema, Christopher Reeve always made us believe that Superman could fly in the movies.

Are you (secretly) a fan of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? Let us know what you think of it!

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