Steve O’Brien tries to find something… anything… that redeems this superhero disaster movie
Prosecution: What was it in the late ’80s that made America want to screw up its biggest icons? In 1985, the mighty Coca-Cola relaunched as New Coke (the public hated it) and in 1987, Superman had the ignominy of starring in The Quest For Peace , clearly the dark inspiration behind Batman and Robin in how to kill a superhero franchise.
Defence: Okay, this is a difficult one, m’lud. The Christopher Reeve Superman series was by this time nine years old, and one might be expected to detect a little metal fatigue. And it’s clearly produced on a budget that would have paid for one of Marlon Brando’s Twinkies in the first film. But we maintain there’s a great film struggling to get out there. It says some important things about the arms race and posits Superman as a icon for peace. Is it a coincidence that the Soviet Union collapsed only a year or two after the release of Superman IV?
Prosecution: Yes. Let’s face it, Superman IV is a shoddy, low-rent piss attack on one of the great American superheroes. Whatever you and the cast might say about the producers of the first three movies, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, they were like a couple of Spielbergs next to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. They ran Cannon Films, whose output usually consisted of direct-to-video actioners starring Chuck Norris or genre potboilers like Lifeforce or The Barbarians .
Defence: Of course it’s a film that smells of direct-to-video. But don’t you just love the vaulting ambition of the movie? That it’s a film done with B-movie producers and a B-movie director that’s trying to play with the big boys! You may fault its special effects and its script and its locations, but you’ve got to admire them for aiming that high.
Prosecution: But the ghost of the previous Superman films constantly floats in to remind you quite how tawdry this effort is. It even makes Superman III look good, and that takes some doing! We gather, m’lud, that it was Christopher Reeve who dreamt up this film’s storyline, which is another example of why you should never let the acting talent near the scripting process. It’s so simple-headed in its political content that’s it’s almost like Edge of Darkness made by the production team of The Sooty Show . The scene where Superman addresses the United Nations to a round of applause... I mean, come on!
Defence: Superhero movies always work best with big broad strokes. You don’t want nuance in a Superman movie, do you?
Prosecution: What about the location work, with Milton Keynes doubling for New York/Metropolis?
Defence: What of it? Stanley Kubrick used London’s docklands to double as Vietnam the same year in Full Metal Jacket . That worked, didn’t it?
Prosecution: No. But still, at least he had the support of a large set design department. Nothing could help make a bland New Town like Milton Keynes (sorry to any jurors who live there) look like one of the greatest cities on Earth.
Defence: Ahem. It’s all about suspending your disbelief. You couldn’t believe a man could fly before Superman The Movie could you?
Prosecution: No, I couldn’t. And I stopped believing it again when I saw Superman IV: The Quest For Peace . The flying effects were so poor – and the wires occasionally so visible –that it was often more like watching Peter Pan in panto than a major film. Anyway, onto the villain. As if nabbing Gene Hackman to return as Lex Luthor weren’t enough (how did they afford him?), they had to go and hire some body-building thicko to play Nuclear Man.
Defence: Ah, Mark Pillow. Erm, yes, er...
Prosecution: An actor with so much promise and talent he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
Defence: Point taken...
Prosecution: Even some of the smaller details don’t make sense. When Luther steals the strand of Superman’s hair - which is encased in glass and is suspending a 1,000lb boulder – he manages to cut through it like it’s, well, normal hair. That, plus the fact that security at that museum seems to hardly exist.
Defence: Well, of course the hair is, um, strong, but easily... Oh, we give up on that one.
Prosecution: What about Jon Cryer, the poor man’s Ned Beatty?
Defence: One of the better things in the film. Although some of the ’80s-isms grate a bit, he’s a great comic actor, and surely flavour of the month after his turn as Duckie Dale in Pretty In Pink the year before.
Prosecution: Sorry, I can’t hear you… over the noise of the barrel you’re scraping. Anyway, let’s return to the special effects. I’m sorry. Why even attempt a film that needs as much green screen as a Superman film does without having the money to do it properly. The thick matte lines around Supes when he’s flying look no better than when ’80s comedy shows would do Superman parodies using an actor lying on a blue-table plonked in front of blue screen..
Defence: Yet there are some impressive special effects. Just watch the bit where Superman “corks” the volcano. And there are a few flying shots that are done without green screen that work very well. Most of the effects shots are pretty wretched, I grant you, but let’s give the better ones some credit.
Prosecution: The weird thing is, director Sidney J Furie was capable of good stuff. He directed The Ipcress File , for Jor-El’s sake! But he can’t make this work. It doesn’t feel authentically American, which is ridiculous for an icon of the United States like Superman. The few shots of Metropolis/New York we get are second unit or stock footage and most of the American supporting actors are those familiar British-based ex-pats like Sam Wanamaker and Robert Beatty.
Defence: Furie did as good a job as anyone could in the cash-strapped circumstances. And it’s surely good to see a Superman film take itself seriously again after the ghastly comedy indulgences of Superman III .
Prosecution: We admire the effort you’re putting into defending this runt of the Superman litter.
Defence: Thanks. It is rather taking it out of me.
Prosecution: But we still maintain Superman IV is a dismal little movie. Little better than Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four or Menahem Golan’s Captain America . And to think Cannon Films nearly had their hands on Spider-Man at one point.
Defence: You know what? I’ve got a headache, I’m not getting paid enough and I’m having counselling sessions as a result of the trauma of having to watch this movie multiple times in a pointless attempt to build as defence. M’lud…?
Judge: I’m hearing you. Case dismissed.