Friday, May 16, 2014

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

I'm not mad; I'm just disappointed. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) is a bad movie, make no mistake about it, but it doesn't infuriate me the way Superman III does. Unlike its predecessor, Superman IV makes a good-faith effort to return to the themes and tone of the earlier entries, to take things seriously again and not reduce them to a cheap comic level. It fails but not for lack of trying. I don't hate the movie; I feel sorry for it.

The Daily Planet has been bought out by a slimy media tycoon who puts his daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) in charge. The paper soon publishes and sensationalizes a letter from a little boy who asks Superman (Christopher Reeve, who receives a story credit) to stop the Arms Race between the United States and the Soviet Union by ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Superman hesitates but then decides to do so, and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) decides to use the void to make a power play. Using a piece of Superman's hair that he attaches a nuke thrown into the sun, Luthor creates Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) a being powered by the sun with a mission to destroy Superman.

Superman IV raises an interesting question: where does Superman draw the line between helping and interfering with human affairs? In the original Superman, Jor-El tells his son, "They (people of Earth) can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son." Superman is the example we as humans should strive to be; he is a beacon of all that is good and can be good, and we could achieve great things if only we more like him. Superman is not just a super hero; he's a symbol for good.

But does that mean he should dictate how we live our lives? Should he challenge those governments whose actions he disagrees with? When questioning how to respond to the boy's letter, Superman turns to the ancient elders of Krypton for answers, and he is told, "If you teach the Earth to put its fate in any one man, even yourself, you're teaching them to be betrayed." Yet, Superman resolves to rid the world of nukes, and even though his intentions are pure and he believes he is doing the right thing, it creates an opening for the evil Luthor.

Unfortunately, the movie around this idea is terrible. The special effects look cheap (the wires are visible in a number of spots, the blue screen work is awful, and the same shot of Superman flying straight at the camera is used over and over again), Nuclear Man is a hilariously lame villain (every time he shows up in front of people he does this over-the-top bellow that I was laughing at every time, his voice is dubbed by Hackman, and his ability to grow longer fingernails reminds of Meg Griffin),  and the movie feels incomplete as a number of plot threads either aren't supported or don't go anywhere (reportedly 40 minutes of footage was cut out prior to release, and at 90 minutes, this is the shortest of the Reeve Superman movies). Plus, it can't resist some idiotic decisions, such as the inclusion of Lex Luthor's teenage nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer).

There are also some Ed Wood-level logic gaps. Superman makes a speech to the UN about how he plans to eliminate the world's nukes, and there's a huge round of applause, and no country seems to give him any problem as he takes and destroys millions of dollars worth of military hardware. Near the end, Nuclear Man becomes obsessed with Lacy for some reason, so he kidnaps and flies her into space, where somehow she survives being in the cold vacuum, not to mention passing through the atmosphere without being incinerated. The fights between the super powered being are so lethargic, shot mostly in slow motion, and they pale in comparison to the fight between Superman and Zod and company. Even the Superman's feats - saving a Cosmonaut from drifting into space, catching a missile - just feel small scale and less heroic than what he pulled off in the previous movies and are just straightforward without much tension or sense of awe. They just kind of happen.

Reeve, God bless him, is still out there, trying to sell it, trying to keep the movie dignified, but it's too much for any one man, even Superman. Superman IV is a whimper, a sad end to a series that had started out so gloriously.

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