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Review: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Directed by: Sidney J. Furie

Premise: The last of the Christopher Reeve Superman films. Superman takes it upon himself to rid the world of nuclear weapons. At the same time, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) creates Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), a super villain with the same powers as the Man of Steel.

What Works: Superman IV was an attempt to correct the mistakes of the third film and although its faults are many the movie does display some earnestness on the part of its filmmakers. The story premise, as didactic and simplistic as it may be, was an attempt to do something relevant and to tell a Superman story that recalls the fun of the first two films. The filmmakers don’t accomplish what they set out to do but in the quarter century since its initial release, Superman IV has a gained kitsch value. It is frequently silly but it is also strangely entertaining in the same way as other late 1980s action movies like Rambo III or The Running Man. Unlike the other Superman pictures, which all ran in excess of two hours, Superman IV clocks in at just ninety minutes and that brevity helps the movie. The last half hour is nearly constant action with Superman and Nuclear Man tussling like the WWF professional wrestlers who were popular at that time. The cheap effects, hokey villain, and obtuse political themes make Superman IV charming in the way that cult movies often are and despite its faults (or maybe because of them) the movie is entertaining schlock.

What Doesn’t: After the critical and commercial disappointment of Superman III and the similar failure of Supergirl in 1984, the film rights for the Superman series were sold to Cannon Films, a small studio notorious for picking up discarded franchises and making quick-buck sequels such as Death Wish II and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as well as ambitious but frequently under-budgeted fantasy films like 1987’s Masters of the Universe and the 1983 version of Hercules starring Lou Ferrigno. In Hollywood, as in the rest of life, past behavior predicts future behavior and the results speak for themselves in Superman IV. The movie looks really cheap with bargain basement special effects; wires are visible in the flying scenes, a lot of the composite shots are awful with the background visible through the foreground, and some of the effects shots are recycled later in the movie. The low production values are also apparent in the non-action portions of the picture and Superman IV frequently looks like a made-for-TV movie. The Metropolis scenes lack the scope of earlier installments and when the action moves to recognizable locations, such as the headquarters of the United Nations, the set design just doesn’t cut it. Superman IV is terribly hokey at every turn, but especially in every scene involving Nuclear Man. The character is probably supposed to be scary but he is frequently and unintentionally hilarious, with actor Mark Pillow dressed in a costume that looks like it came off a Halloween clearance rack and he growls and roars as though he were auditioning for the role of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. The movie also has a ham-fisted way with the nuclear arms issue. In the story Superman is spurred to unilaterally disarm the world because of a letter from a twelve year old boy. That is fitting since the story of Superman IV often feels as though it were written by a child. It does not make a whole lot of sense, it makes giant leaps in its pacing and logic, and in the end absolutely nothing about the nuclear issue is resolved.

DVD extras: The Blu-ray edition includes a commentary track, deleted scenes, featurettes, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a bad movie with good intentions (which is more than can be said for Superman III). It is sabotaged by a lousy story and worse production values. In the end it is amusing but probably not in the way that its makers intended. 

Episode: #444 (June 23, 2013)