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“Destroy Superman, now!”
Thus spoke Nuclearman, from the lips of model Mark Pillow but the voice of Gene Hackman (rather awkwardly, Pillow had to speak his lines on-set in time with a cassette tape of Hackman’s pre-recorded dialogue). Little did any of the actors know that that very line would be prophetic for the Superman film series – Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ultimately shelved the Superman film franchise, dooming it to development hell for 19 long years after which it staggered back to life, never again to know the glory it once did.
But is it really that bad? Honestly, while Quest is objectively a bad film, there’s nevertheless a charm to it. It may be crap, but it’s cheerfully crap – combining the best of the series’ altruism, with the worst of its lazy plotting and none of its visual innovation.
The first thing anyone one will tell you is that the visual effects just aren’t there. Compared to the breathtaking first film and much of the second and third, Superman IV is a laughing stock. At the start of the film, following the worryingly Windows XP Movie Maker-esque opening titles, Superman saves a bunch of cosmonauts from drifting off into space and we see an awful stock clip of the Man of Steel pasted on the screen as he slowly drifts into the top of the frame – this sets the precedent for how lacklustre and slapdash the rest of the flying effects are – they could have been accomplished on a 1980s TV budget. The majority of the film is much the same, with quick cuts hastily diverting your attention from where a breathtaking effect was originally supposed to take place (a later action scene called for Superman to repair the Great Wall of China, by rebuilding it brick by brick at super speed – instead of that costly and ambitious effect, they simply had him use ‘Brick Vision’ to rebuild it). It’s a sorry conclusion to the series, especially when less than a decade earlier, Superman: The Movie won an Academy Award for its visual efforts.
The second problem is the script – with the greatest respect to Christopher Reeve (who demanded creative input as part of his negotiation to return to the franchise) and screenwriter Mark Rosenthal – it’s a mess. This is no doubt in part due to the studio tampering of Golan Globus (the renowned hack filmmakers that owned the rights to Superman for a very short stint of time and slashed the budget of Quest), but putting a fantasy character like Superman in a film about the very real threat of nuclear war was always going to be ill-advised. Seeing a roomful of UN delegates giving Superman (a hero who champions “The American Way”) a standing ovation in the halls of the UN (in reality, a hotel function room in Milton Keynes) is a bit farcical and could only have been thus at the time as well. Not helping matters is the boring side-plot about the Daily Planet being taken over by a tabloid tycoon and Clark Kent being caught in a clichéd love triangle between Lacy Warfield (a miscast Mariel Hemingway) who loves Clark, and Lois Lane who is still hopelessly devoted to Superman.
Where the film finds its charm however, is in the dedication of the leads. Gene Hackman is at his ham-tastic best as a warmongering Lex Luthor in this film. The point can be argued that without Ned Beatty’s Otis to upstage him, he steals scenes in a way that he wasn’t always able to in the earlier, better films. He’s deliciously evil in a pantomime way and while Hollywood has never gotten Lex Luthor quite right, Hackman’s spirited conman/mad-scientist hybrid trounces over Kevin Spacey’s thuggish man-child and Jesse Eisenberg’s unwatchable coked-up, Zombie-Zuckerberg. Tragically however, Hackman’s best scene is cut from the film – in the deleted scenes we see Luthor speaking in front of the American senate, convincing them that “World Peace is just a Communist Plot!” before subsequently appearing before the Kremlin and saying the exact opposite. It’s a good thing that the enlightened people of 2017 don’t elect crazy land-grabbing megalomaniacs like Hackman’s Lex Luthor as president of the United States, let me tell you.
While newcomers Mariel “Manhattan” Hemingway and Jon “Two and a Half Men” Cryer make no particular splash, the other returning actors acquit themselves well – Jackie Cooper and Mark McClure were never really given anything of much interest to do in these films as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, but they are wonderful additions to the Daily Planet (even if McClure was getting a bit long in the tooth to be playing a cub reporter). Margot Kidder isn’t the best Lois Lane, but there’s something eternally lovable about her – even a mildly unsettling romantic encounter between her and Superman (where he reveals his secret identity to her, only to brainwash her into forgetting again, with one of his trademark Magic Kisses) with awful blue-screen flying effects, ends up being quite lovely, only because Kidder’s chemistry is as strong as ever with Christopher Reeve.
The key saving grace of the film that truly prevents it from sharing a table with the true disgraces of the DC cinematic pantheon (Batman & Robin, Catwoman, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice) is Christopher Reeve. No Superman film starring Reeve could ever be devoid of merit and there is no greater example of that than Superman IV. While the material is weak, Reeve devoted himself to it anyway and managed to turn some really dismal lectures into beautiful reflections on humanity. There’s a moment where Superman and Lois are looking at the view of Metropolis (which by the way, is actually stock footage of the New York skyline) and Lois remarks how beautiful the city is from that height. Superman responds “The whole WORLD is beautiful…I just wish people could see it the way I do,” in a way that none of Reeve’s successors could hope to accomplish. The man was supernatural in the role and is unbeaten to this day.
The most interesting element of Superman IV however is not its acting performances, nor is it its terrible effects or its ridiculous moon battle. With its budget slashed, Superman IV was forced to shoot in some pretty underwhelming locations – chief among them was Milton Keynes, a glorified industrial estate with a modern-looking shopping centre in the background that was supposed to pass for a typical Manhattan building. As Reeve himself put it in his autobiography ‘Still Me’:
“[Richard] Donner would have choreographed hundreds of pedestrians and vehicles and cut to people gawking out of office windows at the sight of Superman walking down the street like the Pied Piper. Instead, we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere…”.
Looking at the scene in 2017, it’s obvious if you’ve ever been to New York that this is not the Big Apple, but there’s just something so cheerful about the crappiness of this production design. A fire hydrant lies in the middle of the foreground near a hotdog stand (selling some delicious Pepsi Cola) and the extras (presumably a hodge podge of local Milton Keynesians) muster up their best bewilderment in the face of the mighty Man of Steel. Look, I know it’s cheap, but there’s something so much more interesting, more endearing, more lovable about the idea of the mighty Christopher Reeve freezing his ass off in the middle of what is basically England’s version of Blanchardstown, surrounded by people for whom this must have been one of the most exciting moments of their lives. And if the excellent recreation of the Milton Keynes scenes by the locals some 30 years later is any indication, it just might have been. Not only that, but so captivated are the cult fans of Superman IV by its crappily creative use of Milton Keynes that DenOfGeek visited the town and painstakingly sought out the locations – well worth a read. This is why I can’t bring myself to dislike the film.
While it will never win any awards (because it doesn’t deserve to) there’s just something really charming about Superman IV that makes it stand out regardless, even all these years (and all these superhero movies) later. Where the budget, the script and the studio let them down, the innovation of the stars and the filmmakers made it an altogether more interesting film than many superhero films (and all of the SuperMAN films) since. I know it’s bad and I know it’s cheap, but the hours and hours I spent watching my VHS of it in Kilmuckridge holds a place in my heart too special to destroy. And for what it’s worth, the child in me will always believe that Milton Keynes is Metropolis.