Before Capes Were Cool #11: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Let me get this out up front: I actually kind of like this movie, so if that is a dealbreaker (and it’s understandable if it is), you might want to bail out here. Much of my affection is rooted in nostalgia; this is the Superman movie that the independent stations played most often when I was a kid, probably because it was the shortest and thus easiest to program. Even so, when I watch this with a critical eye, I find quite a few things to like.

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I mean, it’s cheap as hell and looks like shit. No illusions there. This is a film that was budgeted at $36 million (less than any of its predecessors) and then had that slashed to $17 million before filming. That means worse special effects than the first movie that came out nine years earlier, that means skimping on locations,1 it even means the impressive opening titles of Superman movies past need to be replaced with a pretty rinky-dink effect. And even then, what that $17 million bought was not all shown on the screen, because the producers cut a staggering 45 minutes out of the movie, under the rationale that A.) a shorter runtime could mean more screenings at the theater, which would theoretically mean the movie could make more money, and B.) they could possibly use that 45 minutes to jump-start a Superman V. 2

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There’s not a lot of analysis needed to figure out why this movie is the way it is. Cannon Films’ Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus3 acquired the rights to Superman and were looking for the cheapest, quickest, and easiest way to make some money off it, and that meant cranking out a chintzy-looking bit of nonsense that had just enough name recognition to lure unwary audiences in.

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And that almost might be the end of analysis right there.  Every movie we’ve talked about in this series has been rooted in a fear that superheroes are dumb and cheesy and that producers have to find some way to prevent the audiences laughing at juvenile men-in-tights punch-ups, but in truth, this much-feared “cheesy superhero movie” is mostly an imagined strawman; because of Hollywood’s pervasive terror of making this type of movie, relatively few of those movies actually exist. Superman IV is just about that, though: the superhero movie that shows what happens when you don’t care.

Except for Christopher Reeve.

This was important to him. He thought if he was going to come back and do another Superman movie, he wanted to do something notable with it. And so he wrote the central thematic conceit of the movie: Superman vs. nuclear war. It was both a worthy goal and doomed to failure.

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I actually don’t mind that the movie gives you a very ’80s look at the nuclear arms race (“Nobody wants war; I just want to keep the threat alive”), because this movie gives you an ’80s look at everything. There’s a subplot in which the reliable but weakly selling Daily Planet is bought up by a sleazy tabloid merchant, and another one where the new publisher’s daughter takes Clark Kent to a gym full of era-appropriate meathead jocks. It’s a very of-its-time movie, certainly, but I like that. If, like me, you believe that Superman stands for (or at least ought to stand for) something greater than having big muscles and punching monsters and robots, you like to see a Superman whose struggles reflect—symbolically or otherwise—what’s going on in the America psyche. Perhaps it makes the individual story less timeless, but I’m fascinated reading old Superman comics as historical documents. I like uncertain 1970s Superman grappling with his place in the world. 1950s and 1960s Superman comics are at times almost a mythological version of Mad Men in which the Ultimate Masculine Ideal is confronted with obsolescence, alienation, loneliness, and his own mortality4 every month. At the same time, the Silver Age Superman is also an immigrant’s story of a man with one foot in the “old country” of Krypton and the other in his new adopted home of Metropolis/Earth. When Superman was rebooted in the Reagan era, he became the ultimate assimilationist immigrant who all but rejected his homeworld because “What matters is that I think and feel as an American.”5 I hate that change to Superman (and it was basically phased out over the next few years) but I can appreciate seeing it as indicative of its time.

So I like watching Superman IV as Superman vs. the Eighties. But the problem there, and it’s a problem a lot of creators have with Superman, is that there’s only so far you can take this sort of thing, because if Superman were to solve your societal problem at the end of your story, the story no longer reflects reality. Imagine an alternative version of Alex Ross and Paul Dini’s Superman: Peace on Earth where Superman’s crusade to end world hunger actually succeeds; it would feel a little hollow when you go back to your real life, and hunger’s still there. Superheroes can win specific battles but not the broader war; Golden Age Superman can smack around a wife-beater, but he can’t “solve” domestic abuse. Yet, creators keep trying to do these stories of the Superman concept taken to its most literal real-world extreme, and all Superman can do is ultimately fail in trying to definitively solve the world’s problems. So ultimately, Superman’s actions here vis a vis ridding the world of nuclear weapons end on a vague and unsatisfying note.

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But the journey there contains one of my favorite scenes in the entire Superman canon. A boy has written to Superman asking him to intervene in the nuclear arms race. After much soul searching, Superman appears, and brings the boy, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen to the UN.6As Superman walks in, he is met with applause. When he is told he will need a country to sponsor him, every single delegate stands up. I don’t care if it’s dorky, I’m tearing up just writing this out here. And when the boy asks Lois what Superman is going to do, she says, “Something wonderful.” This is the Superman at the heart of this movie, and the Superman concept in general, and it goes without saying that Christopher Reeve sells the hell out of it.

There’s also an interesting element in this movie that rarely gets talked about, which is a scene between Lois and Clark. Superman is dying, poisoned by Nuclear Man, and it results in “Clark Kent” sitting in his apartment, looking “sick.” Lois comes to visit him and talks to him about how Superman is missing, and one day watching this movie, it suddenly occurred to me that in this scene, Lois knows. She gives him the cape, at the end, like, in case he happens to see Superman, and it’s really poignant, in my interpretation here at least, that in this moment they seem to be sharing a secret that they don’t dare say aloud.

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Much less poignant is the Nuclear Man business itself. Look, again, it’s cheap as hell and unsophisticated, but it’s also a lot of fun watching them wail on each other on the Moon. There are worse things a Superman movie could do than provide dumb thrills for children. Jon Cryer is cursed to be a Valley teen in this movie, but Gene Hackman is reliably colorful, even if he’s not 100% checked in to the performance. It’s pretty on the nose, but I love that this movie opens with Superman saving Russian cosmonauts who are portrayed as brave and sympathetic and not merely instruments of the sinister Soviet Union. Fans often cite the “Superman/Clark Kent double date” scene as dumb, but I find it delightful.

This is a mixed bag. I don’t know if it’s a good movie hampered by its budget; it’s possible you could spend what they spent on the first Superman, and Nuclear Man would still be dumb. You could leave in the full running time, and the plot might make more sense but it might still vaguely insult your intelligence. But there’s good stuff in there, whether it’s there by design or by accident, and maybe this is all just because seven-year-old Great Boos Up has a very strong memory of watching this in the TV room at his grandma’s house, but there are some things you cannot separate yourself from, and no one’s paid me to write anything professional anyhow.

HERO/ZERO/SIDEKICK/ANTIHERO: I’m going to say Antihero, but it may just be a lovable Zero.

NEXT WEEK: We might not think of 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a superhero movie, but I’ll argue that it is, and one that would chart a course for the comic book movie for the next decade.