by Steve Habrat
Richard Lester’s 1983 debacle Superman III had shifted the Superman franchise from serious to shaky ground. It was a bloated and unfunny two-hour sight gag that failed to make you laugh and relentlessly mocked its own hero. Plus, it had Richard Pryor in a major role, which basically says it all. Things went from sort of bad to unfathomably awful in 1987 when Sidney J. Furie released Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, an awkward plea for world peace that was co-written by series star Christopher Reeve. About the only positive thing that can be said for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is that it does away with most of the comedy that plagued the third installment of this rapidly dying franchise. Lacking producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and in the hands of a new production company, Golan & Globus, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a cheap and poorly thought out franchise killer that simply borrowed from the previous three Superman movies all while trying to make a straight-faced statement about the nuclear arms race. It is a 90-minute mess that couldn’t even be saved by strong performances from Reeve and returning cast members Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder. They certainly try but their lack of interest bleeds through on nearly every single frame.
After news breaks that the United States and the Soviet Union may engage in nuclear war, Superman (played by Christopher Reeve) contemplates how he should handle the situation. Desperate for advice, he travels to the Fortress of Solitude to confide in the spirits of Krypton, who advise him to find a new planet to call home. Superman soon receives a letter from a young schoolboy about the threat of nuclear war, which leads him to attend a United Nations convention and vow that he will rid the world of nuclear weapons. Just as the world is breathing a sigh of relief, Lex Luthor (played by Gene Hackman) escapes from prison with the help of his spaced-out nephew, Lenny Luthor (played by John Cryer), and the two begin cooking up a plot to send the world back into chaos. Luthor decides to steal a strand of Superman’s hair that is on display at a museum in Metropolis, attach it to a nuclear missile, and launch it into the sun in an attempt to create a superhuman that can match Superman’s strength. The result of this experiment is Nuclear Man (played by Mark Pillow), who travels to Earth and begins taking orders from Luthor. Meanwhile, the employees of the Daily Planet are stunned to learn that they have been taken over by tabloid tycoon David Warfield (played by Sam Wanamaker) and his daughter, Lacy (played by Mariel Hemingway), who has been brought in to replace Perry White (played by Jackie Cooper) as editor. To make thing worse for Lois Lane (played by Margot Kidder), Lacy begins trying to seduce Clark Kent.
Under a very limited budget, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is like something that would have sent straight to the VHS bargain bin at a hole-in-the-wall video store. Even for 1987, this is a seriously chintzy production that is weighed down by poor special effects, lame prop work, and some of the laziest sets ever put on celluloid. The sets in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space were more convincing than the moon set at the end of Superman IV. The opening credits will certainly have you chuckling as they look like they were ripped from a Super Nintendo video game, but wait until you see some of the flying effects. When the strings aren’t clearly visible, you’ll be shocked by all the shaky superimposed images of Superman as he hurtles himself towards the viewer. The superimposed image that is used of Superman never changes, making you wonder if the filmmakers even considered doing another take of Reeve in his flight pose. Things don’t get much better when Reeve and Pillow are asked to play around with massive styrofoam props that look like they were spray painted in the director’s basement. When it comes time for the big brawls, Reeve and Pillow look like they are just trying to hug each other to death rather than seriously hurt each other. There is barely a punch thrown and the two just roll around in the dirt like they are participating in a high school wrestling match. It is beyond painful to have to endure.
If there is any saving grace to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, it is the performances from Reeve and returning cast members Margot Kidder, who was reduced to a brief cameo in Superman III, and Gene Hackman, who wasn’t present at all for the third film. Reeve somehow remains strong as Superman/Clark Kent despite seeming well aware that the movie around him is just a disaster. Reeve also helped develop the story but it seems like it got away from him in the filmmaking process. He still manages to excel as Kent and emit warmth as Superman, even when the script starts piling on made-up superpowers. Kidder is still her feisty self as Lois Lane, but she never reaches the level of her first two performances. Hackman is clearly having fun as the scheming Lex Luthor. By this point, he was clearly phoning it in but he’s immensely enjoying himself. Hackman is nearly brought down by an awful performance from Cryer, who is supposed to serve as the comic relief, something that we could have done without. Pillow is downright hilarious (and not in a good way) as the stomping and scowling menace Nuclear Man. You’d think it would be neat to have Superman facing off against a villain who can match him but Pillow is the furthest thing from menacing. As far as the Daily Planet players go, Cooper is on autopilot, Wanamaker is reduced to a snapping businessman with no bite, and Hemingway is here to add a bit of sex appeal to the project.
When you’re not covering your eyes due to the horrendous special effects and embarrassing action sequences, you’ll be in openmouthed disbelief over the countless other flubs in the script. I’m still trying to figure out how Luthor was able to snip that strand of Superman’s hair even though it is able to hold 1000 pounds, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around how Lacy was able to breathe in space without some sort of helmet. Then there is Nuclear Man’s lame weakness, which seems like it would make him very easy to defeat. And don’t even get me started on the made-up powers that Superman has here. Oh, and then there is the relentless preaching about world peace and nuclear weapons that practically makes you want to tear your hair out. Overall, you could fill a book with everything that is wrong with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The actors all seem thrilled to be reunited but every other aspect of the film is just downright awful. The film runs skimpy, filling out its runtime with slow-motion fights that are unintentionally hilarious and side plots that we could honestly care less about. It is no wonder that this film killed the Superman franchise and left it shelved for almost twenty years. Not even Reeve, who made the third film tolerable, was able to make this flaming turd work. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is one of the worst superhero movies out there and one of the worst movies you may ever see.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is available on Blu-ray and DVD. You’ve been warned.