How bad does a movie have to be before a guaranteed cash cow is put out to pasture? How many clueless executives does it take the strangle the promise out of a character? How painfully stupid does the writing have to get, despite pretensions of intellectualism, before the audience and critics revolt? Superman as a character/property/whatever seems intent on answering these questions. While it sounds like I’m ready to wind up and take another whack at Zack Snyder’s nutsack, presumably in hopes of re-starting his thinking pieces, I’m actually talking about the 1987 Golan-Globus production Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Tagline: Nuclear Power. In the best hands, it is dangerous. In the hands of Lex Luthor, it is pure evil. This is Superman’s greatest battle. And it is for all of us.
More Accurate Tagline: Superman’s sick, son. We’re just going to have to take him out behind the barn.
Guilty Party: This absolutely kills me to say it, but Christopher Reeve. I am an enormous fan of Reeve’s iconic performance as the Man of Steel. He is the only actor who ever successfully captured Superman’s towering but not jacked physique, his matinee looks, the duality of his alter egos, and the essential decency of his nature. Divorced from the quality of the films, Reeve’s Superman might be the best superhero performance in history. The problem is this movie. It wasn’t going to get greenlit without Reeve signing on, and Reeve wouldn’t sign on without making this movie as a soapbox. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment having a political agenda. The problem is when political agendas try to be entertaining.
Synopsis: Superman (Christopher Reeve) is doing Superman stuff. No, that doesn’t mean causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people for no reason. He saves lives and averts catastrophe.
Superman’s life is getting a little more complicated. He’s selling the family’s Smallville farm, though insists it be sold to someone who will use it as a family farm and not a land developer. The Daily Planet has also been purchased by Rupert Murdoch (okay, his name is Warfield, but still), and he’s turning the paper into a tabloid. His daughter Lacey (a high-powered exec in her own right), instantly falls head over heels for Clark Kent, finding him to be a sweet, decent man. This is while ostensible love interest Lois has this weird starfucking power fantasy with Superman. Yeah, at this point, I’m pretty much an anybody-but-Lois guy.
Superman gets a letter from a kid asking him to do something about nuclear weapons. Hilariously, the letter is delivered to the Daily Planet. There’s a handwave explanation, but I prefer to think that everyone knows Superman and Clark Kent are the same guy, but they’re just humoring him. Superman is basically the subject of a worldwide catfishing.
Superman decides that the only way to deal with nuclear weapons is to gather all of them up and throw them into the sun. Everyone is super-psyched about this, too. You know, rather than at least a portion of people being terrified that a godlike alien has decided to permanently alter the balance of power on earth on some kid’s whim. What happens when some brat wonders if there’s a Santa? Is Superman going to kidnap a bunch of dwarfs and force them to make toys in the Fortress of Solitude? You don’t know! This guy’s crazy!
Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) breaks out of prison with the help of his possibly developmentally disabled nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer). As part of a scheme to sell more nuclear weapons… okay, I need to pause here. That’s too much for just the opening clause of a sentence. Because… seriously? I mean, at least it’s not another fucking real estate scam, but come on. At this point, Luthor’s criminal schemes play like something Frank Reynolds would blurt out in the middle of a night terror.
Okay, so Luthor steals a piece of Superman’s hair from a museum, and using the genetic material in it, makes some protoplasm. He attaches it to a nuke and when Superman hurls it into the sun, it creates Nuclear Man, a nuclear-powered supervillain and possible Adult Contemporary musician.
Nuclear man only has to scratch Superman with his radioactive Lee Press-Ons to give him radiation sickness. It works once (which Superman cures using the last relic from Krypton), and then Nuclear Man never tries it again. He has Superman on the ropes several times, and he could so easily give him a rake across the face, but he never does. Superman eventually gets tired of waiting for Nuclear Man to remember he has an I Win button and throws his nemesis into a nuclear reactor. Nuclear Man dies and powers the city… wait, I thought this was an anti-nuke screed?
Then, Superman delivers Lex back to his work gang and Lenny to this creepy Catholic priest who looks the young man up and down and is like, “There’s always room for boys here.” That’s sort of the end.
Life-Changing Subtext: Solar power is a form of nuclear energy and thus inherently dangerous. I should probably explain. Nuclear Man, aside from being just stunningly stupid, is intended as the physical manifestation of the evils of nuclear power. Fair enough, right? Well, what’s his weakness? Since he was born in the sun (which the movie correctly identifies as being a nuclear reaction), he needs constant sunlight or he powers down and is helpless. So he’s really more solar-powered than nuclear-powered, isn’t he? Doesn’t that make him green?
Defining Quote: “Destroy Superman!” This is said by Lex, Lenny, and Nuclear Man multiple times. Based on what this film did to the Superman brand, they weren’t far off.
Standout Performance: Lenny Luthor needs to be set on fire. Right now. If I had a time machine, I would go back to 1987 with a flamethrower and do it myself, but science has not caught up. He’s sort of this new wave valley guy abomination, and is the only reason I wished Metropolis had a C.H.U.D. problem, because those guys would sort that shit out right away.
What’s Wrong: The movie is rightly dinged as a lesser copy of the original Superman, but The Force Awakens made all the money in the universe doing more or less the same thing, so I’m letting it off the hook for that. Other than Reeve, though, nobody cared. The great vulgarians at Cannon Films had bought the rights from the increasingly disinterested Salkinds, and slashed the budget to the bone. So a movie built on some verisimilitude (that was the source of the oft-mocked catchphrase “You’ll believe a man can fly!”) now looked chintzy and fake. Cannon Films didn’t employ writers so much as dump out entire boxes of Alpha-Bits and then sign Chuck Norris to star in the result.
Flash of Competence: Christopher Reeve will always be Superman.
Best Scenes: It’s sad that I even have to say this, but Superman saves innocent lives. These are always a highlight, and the incidental scenes are better than the bizarrely Rube Goldbergian disasters in Superman III. The film opens with Superman saving a Russian cosmonaut before giving him a totally Superman-chiding in Russian. This is during the Cold War when the entire plot hinges on that power being one of two to end the world. Superman doesn’t give a fuck: if he can save your life, he’s going to do it. Because that’s what a hero is.
Nuclear Man sees a picture of Lacey in the paper (as the Planet’s new publisher) and decides he has to have her, so he goes on a mini-rampage. Superman shows up out of nowhere, and when Nuclear Man demands to be taken to her or he will hurt people. That’s the exact threat. Then he proceeds to do just that. And the scene keeps going. And going. Nuclear Man using his weird nuclear telekinesis and eyebeams wrecking shit. And presumably Superman is just standing there, waiting patiently. What feels like five full minutes later, it cuts back to Superman and he’s like “No, the people!” Dude. You could have stopped him at any time, but you had to take a leak, and getting out of that leotard is a bitch and a half.
Transcendent Moment: Because Superman acts like a hero (albeit a dumb one) for most of the movie, his one act of superdickery is that much more jarring. He goes to ask Lois for advice about whether or not to listen to this kid’s letter, then casually reveals he’s Superman. They do a quick re-enactment of the “Can You Read My Mind” scene from Superman, (this time, Superman just drops her, I guess to fuck with her), then he lands. And what does he do? Gives her the Rufie-kiss that might be the worst part of Superman II, and that movie features a cellophane-S ninja star. This begs the question: how many times has Superman wiped Lois Lane’s mind? Does he know what that does? He could be giving this woman brain damage for all he knows.
Quest for Peace was long considered the worst Superman movie ever. Make no mistake, it’s absolutely terrible. Still, its reputation is beginning to fade, if only because this movie remembers that superheroes are still fundamentally heroes.