Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Recent Watches: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

The sordid history behind “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” is well known. After “Superman III’s” underwhelming reception, the franchise appeared to be more-or-less over. Hard up for money, the Salkinds sold the Superman film rights to the Cannon Group, those beloved and infamous purveyors of eighties cheese. In order to lure back Christopher Reeves, Golan and Globus promised him more control over the project. (They also promised to finance his pet project, “Street Smart.”) Reeves envisioned a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that would also spread a socially relevant message about nuclear weapons. Cannon, however, was used to doing stuff cheaply. Right before filming started, the budget was cut from 36 million to 17. The released film featured crappy special effects, a cheesy story, plot holes galore, and annoying new characters. Another Superman movie wouldn’t be released for nineteen years.

Superman isn’t having the best time. In Smallville, Clark Kent’s mother has died and land developers want to buy the family farm. In Metropolis, a sleazy tabloid publisher has bought the Daily Planet, degrading the quality of the paper. The president promises to increase the development of nuclear weapons. After receiving a stirring letter from a school boy, Superman decides to make nuclear disarmament his new goal. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor escapes from prison, with help from his nephew Lenny. Noticing his arch-enemy’s new passion, Luthor sets out to subvert it. Combining Superman’s DNA with nuclear power, he creates Nuclear Man, a dangerous new enemy that stands against everything Superman represents.

The previous “Superman” movies took place in a fantasy setting. Though the films made attempts to update the characters to then modern standards, the films were still set in a world that only partially resembled our own. Despite this, “The Quest for Peace” made the sudden decision to use Superman as a delivery system for social commentary. This shift is generally attributed to Christopher Reeves. A man who often used his celebrity status to draw attention to important causes, it seems likely that Reeves saw “Superman IV” as a chance to educate the world on nuclear disarmament. Yet the change in tone is still surprising. Superman marching into the U.N., demanding changes from world leaders, and making grand speeches is the kind of thing that never would’ve happened in the first three movies. Moreover, “The Quest for Peace’s” approach to nuclear disarmament is childish. Superman scoops all the world’s nukes into a giant net, which he then tosses into the sun, ignoring any number of social-economic issues wrapped up in the arms race.

If only a short-sighted, overly ambitious script was the only problem with “Superman IV.” The series making the jump from a big budget, mainstream studio to a low budget, B-movie production house is all too apparent. The special effects in “The Quest for Peace…” They’re shit. They’re just total shit. Superman’s ability to fly, his most iconic power, is so poorly executed. Each time Superman or his enemy flies, it looks like the actors are awkwardly posing in front of green screens, the effects blending in an ugly fashion. The miniature effects are uneven. The mountain tops or Statue of Liberty arms looks hopelessly fake. This isn’t even mentioning the lame shortcuts the money-strapped production took, such as Superman resembling the Great Wall of China with a look. If the special effects in the original “Superman” are mostly timeless, the effects in this sequel are hopelessly hokey.

The producers of “Superman IV” managed to get Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman back, mostly on account of them not being the much loathed Salkinds. The movie can’t even handled the already established romance between Superman and Lois Lane. There’s a horribly embarrassing scene where Clark reveals his secret identity to her and they go for a terribly executed flight around the world. Afterwards, he wipes her memory again. How often does Superman do that, anyway? The sequel also throws in an additional love interest, for some reason. Muriel Hemingway plays Lacy, the daughter of the Daily Planet’s new owner. The love triangle plays out in groan-worthy scenes of Lacy and Clark going to the gym. Or how about that awful scene of Superman and Clark going on a double date with Lois and Lacy, the kind of low comedy antics you’d expect to see on “Three’s Company?” Hemingway has okay chemistry with Reeves but she’s mostly an unnecessary addition to the story.

Speaking of unnecessary additions! Lex Luthor is back and Gene Hackman hams it up, being one of the film’s sole redeeming qualities. Yet Luthor is not alone. If you thought cousin Otis was bad, Jon Cryer as nephew Lenny makes him seem subtle and nuanced. Dressed as a bizarre new wave/rockabilly kid, Cryer shrieks and mugs painfully throughout his scenes. Yet even Lenny Luthor isn’t the worst new character. Nuclear Man is the solar powered, nuclear energy infused quasi-offspring of Superman. He speaks with Lex Luthor’s voice, saying few words. He attacks with electric press-on nails, cutting Superman’s flesh. He wears a goofy spandex costume and has a feathery eighties mullet. Despite his many abilities, Nuclear Man’s powers falter when he steps outside of sunlight. Aside from being portrayed inconsistently, this is a seriously lame weakness. Some guy named Mark Pillow, in his sole film credit, plays Nuclear Man by screaming blankly and stiffly moving his arms. In other words, Nuclear Man makes Gus Gorman look like a worthy member of Superman’s rogues gallery in comparison.

Cannon had loose plans for a “Superman V” but “Superman IV’s” disastrous critical and box office response put an end to that. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that this movie is a complete fiasco. The film’s reputation more then proceeds it. The likes of “Batman & Robin,” “Catwoman,” “Elektra,” or Josh Trank’s “Fantastic 4” would later define the ill-conceived superhero flop. “The Quest for Peace” pioneered that particular, unfortunate cinematic fad. Cheap special effects, a sloppy screenplay and annoying new characters made sure this “Quest for Peace” would only succeed in killing the franchise. [4/10]

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