Superman IV: 30 Years Later
By John Saavedra
At its very best — and this is a really big stretch — you might call Superman IV: The Quest for Peace a superhero romp. Perhaps if it had been marketed as a Superman parody, we would remember this movie very differently. Maybe we’d consider Superman IV incredibly subversive for its dedication to being bad and almost completely incoherent. But instead, this is supposed to be a true Superman movie, one that hasn’t aged well in the slightest. Even for 1987, the film looks incredibly cheap.
Superman IV was truly doomed from the start. After the franchise veered off course with the ill-advised Superman III — which took a decidedly comedic tone and featured a questionable performance by the late Richard Pryor — it seemed that Man of Steel’s days on the big screen were over. Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who had produced the first two movies, sold the rights to Superman to now-defunct Cannon Films, a low budget production company that could only do a new Superman movie more harm than good. And that they did when the company decided to slash the sequel’s budget in half, which pretty much crippled the production. You can certainly see the lack of funds in the film’s special effects.
It didn’t help that Christopher Reeve was reluctant to return for a fourth movie after Superman III failed to meet expectations, but was finally enticed back when he was promised partial creative control over the script. In fact, the movie’s nuclear disarmament plot was Reeve’s idea. So many years later, in the era of superhero mega-blockbusters, the concept that Superman would spend an entire movie fighting nuclear weapons is a bit dopey. That’s probably what screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal thought when they decided to bring back Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and introduce the spectacularly awful Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), who might be the worst superhero villain ever introduced to the screen — perhaps only rivaled by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze.
Nuclear Man, who is created by Luthor for the single purpose of killing Superman once and for all, is a complete atrocity. Powered by the sun like Superman — but also born from it, which allows him an edge over Supes early on — he is dressed in a Party City plastic suit, wears a bushy golden mane, and sports long, silver fingernails that don’t make any actual sense. (That one part where his nails expand is clearly ripping off Marvel’s Wolverine.) To make things worse, Nuclear Man doesn’t actually have his own voice but instead uses the poorly dubbed voice of Gene Hackman to express his caveman thoughts. It is such an astoundingly strange production decision that I doubt even director Sidney J. Furie can properly explain why Nuclear Man sounds like a lobotomized Hackman.
Speaking to Yahoo! UK in 2013, Pillow described his time as Nuclear Man and whether it was always planned for him to talk like Lex.
“No, that was an odd, late choice to have Gene do Nuclear Man’s lines and have me lip-sync to them. Gene didn’t expect that and neither did I. It led to a very wooden performance, which made it a challenge. All I was doing was following Gene’s voice, which gave me very little scope to do anything. To this day I’m not completely sure why they made that decision.”
You could almost call Superman IV an attempt at a bigger message. Certainly, the movie’s aim is clearly stated in the title. The U.S. and Russia were still in the midst of a Cold War — the destruction of the Berlin Wall was still two years away and the Soviet Union wouldn’t fall for another four — so the idea that one good and kind hero could help unite the world under a stance for the longevity of the planet is a noble one. In this way, Superman IV is almost ahead of its time in terms of its social commentary. After all, what kind of movie would Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight if it weren’t for its commentary on terrorism, surveillance, and post-9/11 politics?
The problem is that neither the director nor the writers really knew what to do with Superman IV’s message but wrap it up in a terrible costume, not to mention a bunch of comedic moments that don’t really land. In terms of humor, the movie delivers its best when Clark Kent is on screen.
I’d honestly forgotten how great Reeve was at portraying that duality. I’ve always really enjoyed the idea that the clumsy, dim-witted Clark Kent is Kal-El’s imitation of humanity, that he’s still alien enough to perceive humans in such a silly way. Reeve’s performance encompasses that perfectly throughout. I especially enjoy his moments opposite Mariel Hemingway’s Lacy Warfield, who can apparently survive in space without a spacesuit for some reason that’s beyond even the logic of Superman IV’s campy plot.
The scene where Kal has to switch between Superman and Clark during a double date shows Reeve’s flexibility with comedy. It’s unfortunate that Superman doesn’t get more serious moments in the movie — there’s a sense that everything is just campy all of the time — because this could have been a real showcase for Reeve’s range as an actor. This movie, despite the fact that it’s really bad, made me really miss Reeve in the role.
I also really appreciate Superman IV’s message of globalism at a time when it was still us versus them. The moment Superman walks into the United Nations and every country wants to sponsor him is admittedly touching. Here is a Superman almost universally loved for his kindness, intelligence, and willingness to save the world.
I actually really like the idea that Superman’s willingness to help might actually be detrimental to the planet — something that’s never fully explored in the movie beyond a warning from the Kryptonians because Cannon ran out of money and left 45 minutes of the film on the cutting room floor. . If the world can’t decide to save itself, should it be up to Superman to decide for them? It’s an interesting question that Superman IV asks that might have led to a really interesting sequel about humanity’s growing complacency in the era of Superman.
In comparison, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice portray Superman as more of an alien who is conflicted about helping the planet. Some might argue that it’s made for a more complex character than Reeve’s All-American smile, but I like to think Superman should be the best of us in spirit and not just in ability. For all of its faults, the Reeve’s era delivered that. It’s just unfortunate that it had to come to an end on such a terrible note.