Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Superman: following the peacekeeping exploits of super-powered alien Kal-El, who was sent to Earth moments before his home-planet exploded, and was then subsequently raised by middle-American farmers under the name of Clark Kent. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster as a comic book character, the franchise has expanded into pretty much every single conceivable medium, spanning from 1938 to the present. For our purposes here, we’ll only be examining the theatrically released live-action films.
The Installment: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Despite the fact that the Soviet Union is imploding in slow-motion and just a few years from dissolving entirely, here in 1987 the world is on the brink of nuclear Armageddon! Fortunately some enterprising little kid finally thinks to write Superman a letter telling him to get off his ass and do something about it. So Superman cockblocks the US and USSR and steals all our nukes, then throws them into the sun. Problem solved! Psych! Lex Luthor is back out of jail, and he stole Superman’s DNA and put it inside one of the nukes that got tossed into the sun and if science has taught us anything we all know that will lead to the creation of a nuclear-powered Superman clone-esque-being. Meet Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). Oh yeah, and some rich jackass buys the Daily Planet and cheapens the quality of its reporting. But, really, that’s not that important compared with the fate of the world. So who cares.
Somewhere buried in this rubble heap of cinema is something that resembles a decent Superman film. I can’t actually say anything in the film “works,” but I like some of the concepting at work. While it is lazy to keep reusing the same villain over and over, the lame Luthor Gang knock-offs in Superman III made a strong argument for just getting Gene Hackman back — I always respect a franchise trying to turn into a skid. I’ve never liked Hackman’s Luthor that much, his return is a welcome one at this point; he’s the only actor who manages to work his way around the film’s awful script too. John Williams also makes a return, of sorts. Unable to make full time for the film, he passed on his blessing and his buddy Alexander Courage to score the film, while adding a bit of music himself here and there. So there is that.
What Doesn’t Work:
Superman III made me actively angry while watching it. Superman IV just made me sad. All the more so knowing that Christopher Reeve had creative input on the film, and was specifically trying to right the wrongs of III for the fans. Freeing the franchise from the Salkinds’ grip should have been a good thing, but handing it off to Golan-Globus and Cannon Films was not a forward move. It wasn’t even a lateral move. Cannon holds a special place in my nostalgic heart, but Golan and Globus were schlock-mongers. They made movies on the cheap and turned profits. Superman IV was their attempt to evolve, but unsurprisingly the film’s budget got slashed into oblivion, yielding a cheap product that makes Supergirl look like Ben-Hur. Part of why the original Superman turned out so good was that the Salkinds were in it for the glory, they had the balls to swing for the fences and lose an epic amount of money if it didn’t work out. Cannon just wasn’t the company to make this film (though, upside, part of Reeve’s deal included Cannon producing the excellent Street Smart; so don’t cry for him). That said, there is no reason to view this as a film-that-could-have been. Superheroes are fantasy. Dramatically they operate best when working in metaphors and allegory. While it has always been a staple of superhero comics to at times confront the villains and problems of the real world (Captain America punching Hitler, etc), this is also when shit gets the silliest and most “kiddie.” A story about Superman taking it upon himself to destroy all the nuclear weapons in the world is an interesting set-up, but only if it is followed by an interesting story of realistic complications. Despite what Superman IV says, call me skeptical, but I don’t think the UN council would applaud (literally) Superman’s announcement that he was going to supersede the officials of every world power. A lot of people would not be cool with that, for both direct political and symbolic reasons — it wouldn’t only be lowlife arms dealers and nefarious Russian generals rebelling against Supes (as we see in the film). Most disingenuous of all, we all know that the US government would be the most outraged of anyone. Superman would be labeled a terrorist. Governments would start teaming up, trying to figure out ways to destroy him. Ironic to Superman IV‘s story, this would actually be the incident that united the world. Now, obviously, that isn’t a story that fits Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Which is exactly why we shouldn’t have opened this door in the first place. But at the end of the day, a naive and corny concept is the least of IV‘s problems. This movie is a horn-of-plenty of badness.
The production values. This is a spectacle franchise, so it is fair that we should expect quality spectacle. But from the moment the opening credits (which look like something my friends and I might have created on the old Video Toaster back in high school) come on screen we know we are in trouble. Superman IV looks like wet shit. We could be here all day siting examples, so let’s just boil it down to the film’s flagship spectacle. The first film hyped that “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And we did. Here the once revolutionary flying FX have been reduced to cable-access-grade blue screen embarrassments. It is actually surprising that the film has so much flying in it, as you’d think they would have decided to not even bother, like Superman and the Mole Men. The film’s sorry retread on Superman‘s romantic flight with Lois really says it all. The compositting looks heinous, and their movements aren’t even that clear. At one point Superman lets go of Lois (to be funny I guess?), and it took me a second to even realize what I was looking that — that she was supposed to be coasting through the air instead of hovering by herself. It is bad FX coupled with bad filmmaking.
The acting. This is the first film in the Reeve’s series that Reeve can’t walk away clean from. Even Reeve can’t act his way out of IV‘s script. Reeve still nails it as always as Clark (he has a great near-prat-fall during the film’s double date sequence), but his performance in many of the Superman scenes is uncomfortable to watch, like seeing a beloved signer who is no longer able to hit the notes in their own song anymore. Margot Kidder triggered an even worse pitying reaction. Kidder was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 90s, and I don’t know if she’s had substance abuse issues too. That ain’t our business, I suppose, and I feel bad that she was having problems in real life, but we still have to watch her act here. She looks tired and haggard in the film. It seems like she has to put real effort into her enunciation, which completely destroys her ability to deliver the same kind of zesty energy and timing that she did in the other films. As a result, most of the once delightful Daily Planet scenes are now ghastly moments of awkwardly paced banter. Again, watching this movie just made me sad. Though Jon Cryer as Lenny Luthor gets no pity from me. Lenny is a classic example of old people trying to write a modern teen as they see teen, so the character seems from no true time period. Cryer’s grating “whoa, dude” performance does nothing to help this. It’s like watching a 50-year-old make fun of his teenage son.
Mark Pillow as Nuclear Man is an easy punching bag, but he is just a causality of the inevitable disaster that was Superman IV. The role was originally meant for Reeve before budget cuts made that impossible. I guess to keep some of that flavor that decided to dub all of Nuclear Man’s lines with Gene Hackman’s voice (since Nuclear Man also shares some of Lex’s DNA). Nuclear Man is an embarrassment of a character from top to bottom. He looks stupid. Sounds stupid. Behaves stupidly. Since he is powered by direct sunlight, he has the all-time stupidest weakness — shade! And what is up with his silver Lee Press-on Nails (see pic below)? Point being, I’m not sure what any actor could have done to make Nuclear Man a good character, because he isn’t even a character. He’s Luthor Golem, with no personality or agenda of his own. He might as well have been a robot. At least a robot wouldn’t have had Mark Pillow’s hair. Nuclear Man is both ‘nuclear’ and part Superman. That feels like two different ideas that got pushed together. Doing one or the other makes sense, but doing both muddies thing. And the solar energy thing muddies things worse. When Nuclear Man scratches Superman with his stripper nails, Superman gets poisoned and turns into a sweaty old man. But I’m not sure why. Because of his own DNA? The nuclear power? Nuclear powered DNA? I don’t know. Then, boringly, Superman is saved by the MacGuffin Crystal he found at the beginning. Speaking of the crystal…
This has never been a franchise concerned with plausibility, but things fall apart hard in IV. As a story beat I like Kal-El returning to his family farm to wistfully sell it. But he visits his old space ship, where a new glowing crystal randomly appears. Via this crystal his mother tells him the crystal is the last piece of his home-world (aside from Argo City in Supergirl, riiiiiiiight?) and removing it will render the ship dead or something. But, wait… from his mother’s message it seems like Kal-El was meant to hear it years and years ago, as it references his arrival on Earth. When was he supposed to get this message? Why is he getting it now? And who the hell is the guy he gets another message from when he uses the crystal in the Fortress of Solitude? I dislike that the film seems to put zero thought into its own mythology like this. Also, Luthor gets Superman’s DNA from one of Kal-El’s hairs, which he steals from a museum. In a cute bit, the hair is displayed holding up a 1000 lbs weight. Yet Luthor cuts the hair with no effort whatsoever, using simple bolt cutters. Why even do the 1000 lbs bit if you’re just going to immediately ignore how strong Superman’s hair is? You bothered to set it up in the first place, movie!!! That is just irksome. And I don’t even want to think about the fact that Mariel Hemingway’s character is brought into space. She goes into space!! With no suit or helmet! Outer space! Is this an Ed Wood movie?
The relationship between Kal-El and Lois was once the backbone of this franchise. III criminally ignored this to serve petty behind the scenes egos. I’ll give IV the credit of putting the relationship front and center again, but they totally bumble it. IV does what III should have done with Lana Lang. Almost. Mariel Hemingway plays Lacy Warfield, the daughter of the Daily Planet‘s new owner. She has the hots for Clark. IV at least has the sense to involve Lois in this, yet it doesn’t have the sense to make Lois jealous. She doesn’t care what Clark does. Instead of creating a love triangle between the characters, IV‘s usage of this subplot is to have Clark and Superman inexplicably make dates with Lacy and Lois at the same time, so Reeve can scurry in and out of the scene like he’s in a French farce. Ignoring the missed opportunity for dramatic tension here — the sequence is fun in parts. But it also raises questions about Superman’s motivations. For one thing, why the hell did he even make the double date? It just furthers the uncomfortable feeling that he only uses Clark to fuck with us humans — specifically Lois. I mean, one of the wacky things he does to sneak off and switch identities is cause the dinner Lois is making to smoke, which of course humiliates her. That’s kinda mean. Way, way worse though is when Superman willingly reveals himself to Lois, has a quick romantic afternoon with her, and then erases her memory again!!! What the fuck?! The scene is awful, unto itself. Lois has almost no reaction to finding Clark is Superman, other than to say, “I remember everything.” The movie doesn’t have time for a real scene here because it just wants to get to a flying sequence. But the implications for our hero are creepy. And rapey. Has he done this before? When he’s feeling down does he keep revealing himself to Lois, then erasing her memory? Maybe that’s why Lois seems so off-kilter in the film! Superman is giving her brain damage! And as long as we’re talking about ‘rapey’ things — at the end of the film Superman takes Lenny Luthor to Boys Town, a Catholic school, and hands him off to a creepy priest. To be molested I assume, as punishment for his crimes.
What really kills the film above all else though is the simple fact that it is boring. It is telling of IV that Superman doesn’t fight crime in the film, other than his two big encounters with Nuclear Man. All the general Metropolis peacekeeping is pushed aside from his global peacekeeping. What this means for the movie is that his only non-Nuclear Man moment of superheroing is when he stops a runaway subway. And that scene is hardly exciting. If the Nuclear Man battles had been on par with the Superman II super battles, I think we would have been okay. But of course they aren’t.
Body Count: 1
Number of Times Superman Smugly Lets a Villain Shoot Him in the Chest: 0
Best Villain Dispatching: Since Superman doesn’t fight normal crime once in the film, I’ll have to give it to using his heat vision to burn the duck Lois is cooking Superman. Take that Lois!
Superman’s Superest Feat: Pushing the entire moon to create an eclipse, thus powering down Nuclear Man.
Best Use of His Brains: Somehow figuring out, within seconds, the convoluted science behind Nuclear Man’s creation. Ah, I see, you got some of my DNA and put it inside a bomb and then tricked me into throwing the bomb into the sun. It’s all so obvious.
Should There Be a Sequel: Dear god no.
Up Next: Superman Returns
previous franchises battled
Back to the Future
Planet of the Apes