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You think you know bad Superman movies? You don’t know bad Superman movies. (Part II) – Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Superman IV Movie Special #1)

July 18, 2013

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Batman & Robin has become the comic book movie shorthand for “cluster**k bomb” since its release, with character overload and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mangled Mr. Freeze line-reads standing as touchstones of terrible. Every time a new property is translated from stapled newsprint to celluloid, B&R is always there, poised at the fingertips of the internet fanboy cognoscenti, ready to be uncorked in This movie is as bad as Batman & Robin, or Now way in hell is this movie as bad as Batman & Robin message board declarations. It’s thus become the Ishtar of comics on film, a cautionary tale of all-star casts gone awry. Tread near its mephitic stench at your own peril.

This is very unfair to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, because that movie isn’t just a horrendous comic book adaptation, it’s a dreadful movie period, end of sentence, end of paragraph, set the type and send it to the printer. It has the dumb story, dodgy effects and general haphazardness necessary to cook up a righteously rank stew. That it was the last super-screen appearance for Christopher Reeve, who had managed to embody all that was good about the Man of Steel, only amplified the atrocity — and does so to this day.

So, of course, we should all dive in face first.  

Superman IV is one of those movies where you don’t even know where to start. Yes, Reeve was back in action (so to speak) as Superman, but he didn’t quite fill out the suit as well this time around (he wasn’t being trained by the Darth Vader suit-filler himself, David Prowse, anymore). Sure, the great Gene Hackman returned as Lex Luthor (a somewhat divisive figure even in the better two films), but instead of Ned Beatty and the gloriously breasted Miss Teschmacher as his hench-people, he now had a young Jon Cryer as his nephew/flunky, who turned in a performance that to this day makes viewers want to chuck things through windows. Margot Kidder, shunted aside as Superman’s love interest in Superman III, was once again relegated to the romance back-burner, and was this time replaced by Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of Ernest and proprietor of the flattest turn since Sofia Coppola was pressed into The Godfather: Part III service.

And Nuclear Man. Oh Nuclear Man, we hardly knew ye, with your wind-up toy powers, your voice dubbed by Hackman, your tinfoil suit, your beach bum hair and your radioactive Lee Press-On Nails. Mark Pillow showed up one day on set with his Venice Beach-y good looks, as if he too had been birthed in the sun, and just as promptly disappeared, never to be heard from again. Perhaps for the best.

This is just the cast and characters we’re talking about, and we’re already in trouble.

Peace started out with an interesting enough premise, one devised in part by Reeve himself: what would happen if Superman actually dug into real geopolitical problems, in this case nuclear arms proliferation? What if he got rid of them all in one fell swoop? What are the morals of that, the unintended consequences? Is he our servant or our ruler, or some mixture of the two? Granted, the plot has him going through the auspices of the United Nations, neutering some of the top-down dynamic (and making this an agitprop forerunner of World War Z), and it all degenerates into punching anyway, but the thought-provoking sentiment is still there.

Sadly, though, a lack of cash from the overextended production company, Cannon Films, made the whole thing look stupid. Sets were cheap, staging was limited, and the effects were chintzier than ever (rendering bitching about the rear-projection in the classic first film just that: bitching). Much like William Shatner’s undercut Star Trek V (another prime example of franchise fatigue), this one was doomed from the start to be a cobbled together hash. Still, Reeve tried his damnedest, bless his blue, red and yellow heart. Just look at this old Entertainment Tonight clip, which shows him A) trying to salvage this low-budget bomb on the set, and B) sell it to the public:

Those eyes just scream I know this is going to blow. I’m sorry. I tried. And every time he picks at his shoelaces or the hemming of his trousers, you can read it as him slapping his forehead with embarrassed disgust. (Still, you have to love it that Superman walks out of the moon crater set unaided, while Nuclear Man needs help from a production assistant. HE IS THE VERY DEFINITION OF HERO.)

The comic book adaptation is noteworthy in a number of ways. Scripted by Bob Rozakis, penciled by Curt Swan and Don Heck, and inked by Frank MacLaughlin, Al Vey, John Beatty and Dick Giordano — a true team effort, in the same way that the Washington Generals turn in team efforts – the comic diverges both from the screen version and Superman movie adaptation precedent. Remember how in the adaptation for III, Swan, unquestioned master of all things super, had made an effort to draw the familiar Superman characters according to the actors that portrayed them (well, everyone but Richard Pryor)? Here that’s out the window, and everyone looks like they have for the previous decades in comics. (Even Hackman’s Luthor, while not bald, is at least balding.)

Not only that, a number of events in the film are altered for the adaptation, and sometimes these things — the retro-looks and alterations — collide. Take for instance the early scene back in Smallville, where Clark Kent visits the unoccupied family farm and finds a green crystal (another one) in the ship that carried him from Krypton. While in the film it’s the voice of Lara-El (a returning Susannah York) who gives him a primer on its use, in the comic it’s Jor-El. And it ain’t the Marlon Brando Jor-El, but the longstanding Silver-Age Jor-El, Jane Fonda headband and all:

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We should recall that in 1987, the year this comic was published, Swan had been pushed out the door as the foremost Superman artist, and John Byrne was relaunching the post-Crisis character in The Man of Steel and the fresh Superman series. It’s doubtful, but one wonders if this wasn’t a little bit of Swan thumbing his nose at the new editorial direction that had kicked him to the curb.

Perhaps the most important — and baffling — distinction between the comic and the movie was its inclusion of an abandoned Bizarro subplot. Yes, Bizarro. In Lex’s efforts to create a clone of Superman to do his bidding, the screenplay first had him growing one (from the same bit of hair as in the movie) in a lab. The resulting Superman copy was big and dumb, with the bad hair and poor grammar that were part and parcel of the Bizarros, though he was never named as such. He was also incredibly nude:

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Thank heavens for that improbably dark and precisely placed shadow. (Nudity Note: Nuclear Man also first appears in the comic fully nude, and not with the costume already on as he does in the movie. I have no idea if that makes his emergence better or worse. Nor do I really care to devote all that much thought to it. It should be mentioned, though, that this nakedness propensity of the clones appears to be passed down from their genetic forebear.)

The Herman Munsterish clone, like the later Nuclear Man, has all the powers of Superman (though he’s a bit slow on the uptake), plus a few others thrown in. For some ungodly reason he winds up at a dance club, and we learn that his bare chest can repel discotheque hussies:

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Superman arrives and dispatches him — end of erstwhile Bizarro. And, lest you be under the misapprehension that this was pure “artistic” license on the part of the comic book folks, they actually filmed all this crap (apologies for the quality, both in terms of the video and its contents):

Enough said.

Anyway, Superman gets the bright idea to rid the world of nuclear weapons because of a letter from a young boy named Jeremy. After some soul-searching about the rights and wrongs of this, he finally decides to dispose of them — after a speech at the U.N. — by hurling them into the sun. Unbeknownst to everyone, Lex has left all the ingredients for the next Nuclear Man on one the missiles to be energized by the sun’s radiation, and he soon appears on the scene. You’d think that Superman would have learned his “never hurl nuclear weapons into space, or super-villains will terrorize the Earth” lesson after II, but apparently not:

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Much of the rest of the story follows all the beats of the film, such as they are: Superman fighting Nuclear Man, Nuclear Man scratching Superman with his Flo-Jo nails, Superman getting sick, Superman using the green crystal to heal himself, Superman fighting Nuclear Man again, et cetera, ad nauseam. One of the more bizarre moments unique to the comic is when Nuclear Man, in what is a metaphor sent from above, uses his bizarre powers to turn himself into a bomb:

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If a person somehow made it close to the end of the movie, had somehow gotten past all the dreadful storytelling to that point, they were in for a one last back-breaking straw, a coup de grace, if you will. Nuclear Man abducts Hemingway’s character, Lacy Warfield, and carries her up into space. Where she can breath. And scream. And fall like a bowling ball dropped from a building when Superman creates an eclipse and robs Nuclear Man of his life-giving sunlight. It’s an OH COME ON bit of junk, one that finally and thoroughly condemns this dreck to any Hall of Shame you want to put it in. The comic leaves this bit out, though, and the abductor and abductee are on terra firma when Superman shoves the moon in front of the sun:

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The movie closes with the Reeve Superman doing his customary flyby, though it’s worth noting that it was originally supposed to end, as the comic does, with Superman flying Jeremy around the Earth and showing him that there are no borders in reality, that we’re all one world. Oh, but the movie Jeremy wouldn’t have worn any protection while in orbit. (This was actually filmed.) The comic at least has some common sense, you have to give it that:

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The comic, for whatever it’s worth, is better than the movie, though that’s not saying much. Superman usually flows better on his native medium’s soil, and this isn’t an exception to that general rule. But these pages can never Lysol away the stink of the movie. Nothing can. As alluded to before, it’s a shame that this was the final view we ever had of the Reeve Superman. Yes, Superman Returns was a long-form tribute to his wholesome grandeur, but its imitation was just that: imitation. It was a photocopy, not a genuine original. I harbor a hope that in a couple of decades CGI will be honed to such a degree that Reeve’s take can be resurrected once more. That’s our only hope to exorcise this mediocre demon known as The Quest for Peace. Come on, Science, get your act together.

I’ll close with this: One of the oddest things I came across when doing some brief reading for this post came was when I watched several clips on YouTube. I scrolled down to the comments and saw words to the effect that Well, it’s still better than Man of Steel. I saw this more than once, more than twice, more than a dozen times. Even taking into account the trolling hyperbole found in internet comment sections, this stands out for preposterousness. These people clearly need to recalibrate their bad Superman movie meters. Hopefully this post and its predecessor will be of assistance. Excelsior.

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