Super Movie Monday – Superman IV, Part 1

So last week, it was mentioned that Supergirl was the last gasp of the Salkinds’ interest in Superman as a property (at least in theaters; they did come back to produce a syndicated Superboy series in later years). But four years after Superman III, a movie did come out titled Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. So what happened in between?

Well, this happened…

The Salkinds sold their interests in Superman to the Cannon Group, an independent movie studio that came to prominence in the go-go financial revival of the mid-80’s. It’s easy to dismiss Cannon as just another Grade-Z flop factory, but Cannon actually had ambitions to become a major player.

So yes, their movies included horrendous failures like Assassination, starring Charles Bronson and the Ninja trilogy with Sho Kosugi (Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination). And they also made B-movie copycats intended to ride the coattails of successful movies, like Invasion USA with Chuck Norris (a rip-off of Red Dawn) and King Solomon’s Mines (an attempt at their own Indiana Jones-style franchise).

But they also made some well-regarded smaller films, like Runaway Train and The Company of Wolves.  Morgan Freeman even got an Oscar nomination for his role in Cannon’s Street Smart. And they tried breaking into the higher end of the market with some big-budget spectaculars that flopped, like Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra and Over the Top, or Masters of the Universe with Dolph Lundgren.

And on the back end of this came Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, directed by Sidney J. Furie and starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. And as you can tell from the screen cap above, the budget for this film was drastically lower than that of the previous entries in the series. Instead of the stylish slitscanned titles  of previous films, the titles are now cheaply step-framed in garish colors.

And yes, the opening titles still use the same Superman theme by John Williams, although now instead of Ken Thorne, it’s Alexander Courage doing  the reworking. Courage had worked with Williams extensively, doing orchestrations for him, but Courage is best known as the composer of the theme music to the original Star Trek TV series. So the music here is decent.

The film opens in space, with astronauts working aboard a Russian space station (the Mir space station had launched just a year before the movie was released, so this was very topical at the time). One of the cosmonauts is outside in his space suit, working on an antenna, when this piece of space debris flies by and knocks him off the station (hat tip to Agony Booth for pointing out that it knocks the guy’s head clean off at first impact). I think there may be a Wilhelm in there as well, though it’s hard to tell through the sound effects.

Superman saves the cosmonaut with some badly-matted flying…

The flying in this movie is pretty uniformly awful, because they didn’t have the money to use the Zoptic front projection system used for the best flying shots in the earlier pictures. Instead, they use models and traveling mattes exclusively.

The problem with mattes is that, in those days when blue was still the preferred color over green for matte screens, Superman’s blue costume presented a big challenge. They had to do some tricky stuff to pull the matte properly, and it didn’t always work just right, which is why Superman’s costume so often ends up looking green, even in the Salkind films. So expect a lot of  ugly flying shots in this film.

So Superman saves the cosmonaut, and then talks to him in Russian before closing the airlock door. This scene offends me as an American, not because he speaks Commie, but because he’s talking in a vacuum. Again. Geez.

And allow me to make a brief digression here, because the special effects come under a lot of ridicule in this movie (and believe me, I’ll be doing more than my share of the same thing here). But the people making fun usually go on to denigrate the guys who did the special effects as idiots or morons or retarded children or whatever.

Which I won’t do here, because the movie’s effects supervisor was Harrison Ellenshaw, who also supervised the special effects on TRON. He got his start as a matte artist at Disney, following in the footsteps of his father, Peter Ellenshaw, and went on to do matte paintings for The Black Hole, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. He’s done a lot good work, when he had the budget for it, and the effects credits include a lot of similar names, guys who had worked on some of the biggest effects blockbusters of the time.

So the effects, yes, are really bad, but not because the crew were incompetent. They just had to turn out a lot of product for not a lot of money.

So we next see Clark in Smallville. The farm is dusty and abandoned. Clark heads out to the barn, where he uncovers his old baby spaceship still under the floorboards. Some people just save shoes.

The ship plays an automated message from his mother (voice by the late Susannah York) about the trials of Clark living on Earth, just in case somebody in the audience knows absolutely nothing about Superman. And lo and behold, there’s another Tube of Prell in the ship, because you can never have too many Dei Ex Machina. Also because this movie tries to capitalize on the past popularity of the series by stuffing in as many cheap references to the previous movies as possible, like the way this scene echoes the one where young Clark discovered the first Tube of Prell in the first film.

Clark then meets with a realtor trying to sell the farm, but Clark refuses to sell to a developer. “I don’t think we need another shopping center,” he says in insisting the farm be sold to an aspiring farmer, because you can never have too many people losing money in dying businesses (as will be confirmed later in the film).

Oh, and another thing you can’t have too many of? Moments ripped off from earlier films in the series. Like when Clark hits a baseball into space immediately after the realtor leaves, the way he kicked the football into the sky in the first film. Only in the first film, it was a way to illustrate Clark’s frustration, sexual and otherwise, while in this film, it’s just stuck in to be there, a sad callback to better times in the past.

Cut to a rock quarry, where Lex Luthor, once again played by Gene Hackman, is on a chain gang when a Caddy pulls up, driven by Lenny Luthor, played by Jon Cryer.

In a pretty lame scene, Lenny dispatches the guards, then everybody else just sort of stands around while Luthor and Lenny take the guards’ van. Seriously, there are like a dozen other prisoners at the site, and they all just watch quietly while Lex ‘n’ Lenny have a brief conversation before leaving. Because as we’ll see over and over again, the filmmakers treat anyone who’s not a main character as living furniture. I mean, all movies do this to an extent, but it’s really badly handled in this one.

Next, we go to Metropolis, which looks nothing like the Metropolis of the other movies (because the first two movies actually filmed in New York, while this movie filmed on location in England). Almost every location in the film looks small and cramped and dingy and old compared to the Salkind films.

Lois boards a subway to work, but the doors close before Clark can get on with her. Suddenly the animator suffers a fatal heart attack… sorry, I mean, the subway driver, who clutches his chest without warning and falls on the throttle, causing the train to speed up wildly. Lois begins screaming for help, while everyone else just stares, because they’re living furniture. Clark hears Lois screaming, so he steps into a dingy wooden phone booth to change and saves the train. And after another weak callback to the first film as Superman extols the safety of public transportation, we see that the English crew on this film manages to be even more careless about the Metropolis/New York distinction than previous films.

And yeah, Superman looks really small in that shot.

Clark arrives at the Daily Planet to find that tabloid magnate David Warfield (another trendy reference to Rupert Murdoch) has bought out the paper. Notice the staging here, where only the major cast members get to sit down and the rest of the living furniture are plastered against the wall.

Of course, the evil Mr. Warfield has some ridiculous notion that a business should try to make money, so he announces some changes, including changing the format to a tabloid with sensationalistic headlines and installing his dishy daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) as publisher. Lacy is interested in Clark from the moment she meets him.

As Warfield is going over the paper’s financials with Perry, Clark and Lois (because who else would you go over the financials with? Accountants? Please…), the President comes on TV with an announcement that an arms control summit has failed to reach a resolution, therefore, the arms race will continue.

Cut to a classroom, where a teacher turns off the TV just as the President is about to announce what actions he plans to take in the wake of the failed summit. Just cause, you know, it’s so much more productive to speculate than to know. And to put the icing on the cake, the teacher mentions a “crisis,” which is not what the President said. But if you can’t scare kids into becoming good liberals with a made-up crisis, why become a teacher at all? She asks for suggestions from the class about what they can do, and young idealist Jeremy suggests writing a letter to Superman.

Meanwhile, at a natural history museum, there’s an exhibit with a strand of Superman’s hair that Lex wants so he can have genetic material for a cloning experiment. Just a single hair supports a ball with “1000 lbs” painted on it. Amazing.

And just BTW, Gene Hackman spends the entire movie saying “nuculer” instead of “nuclear,” which sort of works against the whole “Luthor as genius ” image. He should have run for President.

Lacy summons Clark to her office to assign him to a new series of feature articles on Metropolis nightlife. But there’s this really subtle undercurrent that says she might have another agenda.

But then Lois walks in with a letter for Superman from Jeremy, asking him to get rid of nuclear weapons. Lacey thinks they can exploit this for big bucks. And when Superman doesn’t answer right away, Warfield puts up the headline, “Superman Says ‘Drop Dead’ to Kid.”

So Superman flies to the Fortress, where he consults the elders of Krypton, who give him the sage advice not to interfere. And though the Fortress set is obviously smaller and cheaper than the one from the earlier movies, it’s not horrible.

One elder offers the helpful suggestion that if the humans blow themselves up, Kal-El can just go to another, more civilized planet, which of course, begs the question why Jor-El didn’t send him there in the first place. Oh yeah, and for some reason, Christopher Reeve affects the same sort of cultured accent that the Kryptonians have for just one line. It’s weird.

So Clark’s moping in his apartment when Lois shows up in a fancy, yet frumpy, velvet dress, because they were supposed to go to a press awards dinner together. But Clark isn’t in the mood, so he suggests fresh air (a phrase Lois has to repeat three times before she figures out what the words mean). Clark grabs Lois’s hand and drags her off his balcony. Lois falls to certain doom, but then Superman catches her while wearing Clark’s glasses, a scene obviously meant to hearken back to the famous “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” scene in the first film.

Then follows a pointless callback to the “Can You Read My Mind?” scene in Superman, as Superman flies Lois across the country via bad bluescreen while not singing, “I can show you the world…”

They return to Clark’s apartment, where Lois reveals she remembers everything about their Superman II tryst, although it’s not clear whether she’s always remembered  or whether it was the shock of two near-death experiences in a row that brought it back (the first was falling off the building, and for the second, be here tomorrow).

And Margot Kidder looks really old, and Christopher Reeve looks thin and ill, and I vaguely remember there being some sort of rumors back then about him having AIDS. It was probably some sort of intestinal distress from being in England, but still…

Superman hypno-kisses her again (as he did in Superman II) to make her forget, and I wonder if maybe he doesn’t do this a lot. I mean, the guy must get lonely. So maybe every couple of weeks, he reveals his identity to her, and they go off and frolic, then he brings her back home and acts like it’s the first time he’s ever done this, like the way Joey Pants manipulated Guy Pearce in Memento. Then he hypno-kisses her to wipe out her memories until the next time he wants a date. It’s like a super 50 First Dates. Maybe the accumulated brain damage from all those memory wipes is what makes her such a ditz. Just thinking out loud here.

So Superman takes Jeremy to a chintzy-looking United Nations (when the secretary-general says he will need a sponsor, every hand in the room goes up) as he announces that he will unilaterally rid the world of nuclear weapons and gets a standing ovation.

And this is really getting long, so I won’t go into all the ways this scene is stupid, because you already know them probably.

So the Americans and the Russians blithely shoot all their missiles into space without even a hint of protest, to be caught by Superman and deposited in a giant net, for easy solar disposal. Wow, that was easy.

So now Lex Luthor has a plan. Actually, two plans. He meets with some arms dealers to propose rearming the world for profit. And hey, look who one of them is!

Recognize him? Let’s try it with a hat.

Inspector Eckhardt from Batman. Still no? Okay, a different hat.

Yeah, it’s Porkins again. They apparently couldn’t afford Ratzenberger. And wow, is Hootkins bad in this one.

Anyway, the arms dealers want to get rich by rearming the world (with all those extra nuclear missiles they have hidden away somewhere, just in case), but in order to do that, they’ll need to get rid of Superman. So Luthor proposes planting a special Build-a-Clone kit on one of the warheads still slated to be tossed into the sun, to create a Nucular Man to destroy Superman. The missile is launched with the special box attached, and from the sun’s energy is born… this guy.

Yeah, I’m really looking forward to coming back next week to see how this turns out.

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