Thursday, June 13, 2013

Supermovie #5: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

As I've said before, Superman IV was my favorite Superman film as a kid, since it featured an actual costumed supervillain. While I recognize the flaws that largely come from working with notoriously shady Cannon Pictures, I'll also note that one of my other favorite childhood movies, Masters of the Universe, was another Cannon flick. It was also, interestingly enough, basically and admittedly a New Gods movie. Like Superman III, I think this film is based on a solid idea--why doesn't Superman get involved in international conflicts?--but that potential is largely squandered. So here goes!

Even the credits sequence looks cheaper in this, like it's a knock-off they got from a dollar store. Nothing is quite on-model, including the S-shield.

We open with another space emergency, this time with a Soviet space capsule or station that collides with a piece of floating debris. While the zero-gravity effects on the cosmonauts are actually pretty good, I'm not sure I can believe any longer that a Superman can fly, not when he looks so out of place doing it. There's something about the lighting and the motion of Superman in this initial flight scene that doesn't look nearly as good as the previous films' versions, and I think a lot of it is that they seem to have taken a handful of flight shots, and are reusing them. Where it's more clearly done in-camera, the flight sequences fare a lot better.

Clark returns to the old farm, where he finds the green power crystal from the first two movies, still in the ship(!) in the barn cellar.
There are some issues with this. First is that there's a voiceover from Lara here about using the power crystal that is essentially exactly what Jor-El says when he comes back to restore his powers in the Donner cut of Superman II. I'd be curious to compare the dialogue, but the bits about the ship becoming cold, Clark finally being alone, really sound like they're the same lines. Which suggests that special effects weren't the only place where this film cut corners.
Oh god, that's the worst X-Ray vision effect I think I've ever seen. Both this and the crystal--and the disappearance of the ship afterward--look like effects from Disney movies of the early '70s.

I don't know if it's the transfer or the film or what, but there's a vertical line down the screen in a lot of these shots.

Clark knocks a baseball into orbit, presumably causing hazards for future space stations, and we get to see Lex Luthor in a prison work gang in a quarry, when Jon Cryer drives up in the most '80s outfit of all time, and a flashy car with a killer sound system. Which he naturally uses to try to kill the prison guards. He's Lex's nephew Lenny, the "Dutch Elm disease" of the Luthor family tree.

Back in Metropolis, Lois is learning French (might have been useful back before that Paris trip) when the subway conductor has a heart attack and causes the train to speed out of control. Since there's no budget for Superman actually stopping the train, he steps on the third rail, draining the energy and causing it to slow to a stop. It's not quite as believable as it could be, but at least it's clever. Less clever is Superman repeating the "safest travel" line from the first film, except about the subway.

Wow, Jimmy Olsen is starting to look more like Jimmy Old-sen.
Anyway, new Daily Planet owner David Warfield is berating the staff for the boring and unprofitable paper, and introducing his daughter Lacy, who will be helping to make the paper more sensational--naturally, at the cost of responsible journalism. Clark gets a good moment where he tells Perry not to do anything rash, and I get to remember Simone D'Neige.

Speaking of plots that got picked up by the comics, the elder Warfield asks Clark why there aren't any airfare expenses for him. Thankfully, they're interrupted by a news announcement that international peace talks have failed, leading American leaders to ramp up production of nuclear weapons. This leads to a kind of weird scene where a grade school teacher is discussing the crisis with her students, one of whom, Jeremy, kind of combatively suggests writing a letter to Superman.

We don't get to dwell on that, because we move quickly to a museum housing the worst Superman statue of all time, and their exhibit which has on display one of Superman's hairs, suspending a thousand-pound weight. It's another very comic book sort of detail, and one that I really like, up until Lex and Lenny show up and cut the hair with a pair of normal bolt cutters. Granted, it's not just scissors, but why make a show of how indestructible and strong the hair is if you're going to undermine that thirty seconds later? A quick explanation could have closed that plot hole, but alas.

Lex does explain his plan, which is to clone Superman, but use his scientific genius to make the clone stronger than Superman, and thus, able to kill him. It's not a bad plan, really.

Lacy Warfield tries to seduce Clark, which leads to Clark reading Jeremy's letter, which they spin into a big press event, bringing Jeremy out to Metropolis and, oddly, never saying his last name.
The paper's headline runs as "Superman says 'Drop dead' to kid," which prompts Clark to fly off to the Fortress, because of course it does. On one hand, I get that three of these movies are actually trying to tackle big questions--who is Superman? what happens when Superman wants to retire? why doesn't Superman deal with political issues?--and so it makes sense that he'd ask for guidance and help. But since every movie tries for that big question (except the third one), it looks like his first instinct when encountering any trouble is to run off and consult the Fortress. It drains a lot of the urgency and the agency from Superman.

The talking heads of the Science Council, as you might expect, tells Superman not to bother, even as he makes the point that all-out nuclear war would destroy Earth just as Krypton had been destroyed. Given how these same 'great minds' reacted to news of Krypton's impending destruction, it's not really surprising that they had the same opinion regarding Earth. Hopefully Kal-El could learn from his father's mistakes, then.

Back home, Clark's watching a statement by a Soviet leader that sounds identical to the one given by the American one earlier. Lois shows up, and Clark asks if she'll come with him to get some fresh air, by which he means taking her out and jumping off the balcony with her. This is probably the worst part of the movie, as Superman catches her, still wearing his Clark Kent glasses, and they go on a flight in front of some stock footage, which really showcases how awful the effects are here. Superman even lets her go once, apparently just screwing with her. They talk a bit, and she says that she remembers everything--until, of course, he kisses her, and she forgets everything again.

Superman and Jeremy go for a walk, which becomes an impromptu rally at the United Nations building, where Superman gives a speech.
The moment where the Secretary General says that Superman will need a sponsor in order to address the assembly, and every delegate raises their hand, is pretty great. Superman announces his plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and everyone seems surprisingly happy about it. And then the nations of the world just fire all their missiles into space, for Superman to gather in a giant fishing net. It's pretty dang unbelievable that everyone would just roll over for this plan, but either Superman is shockingly persuasive, or everyone realizes they couldn't stop him if they wanted. Which is...not great? But it ends up with the Earth's combined nuclear arsenal being thrown into the sun.

Lex Luthor takes the opportunity to meet with some international war profiteers, and explains his plan to put his genetically-altered tissue onto one of their nuclear weapons, leading to the creation of a nuclear (well, "nuke-you-lurr") man who would be able to defeat Superman, thereby making the world more fearful and selling more of their weapons. A more competent movie would have drawn more obvious parallels between Lex and David Warfield here, but this is not that movie.

Lex's missile gets thrown into the sun, and the Nuclear Man is born, all glammed out.

And for some reason, Clark is doing aerobics with Lacy Warfield. He and Lacy have a brief conversation about jerks, before inviting Clark, Lois, and Superman to her apartment for high tea, and before Clark gives the jerky personal trainer a bit of comeuppance.

Nuclear Man drops by Casa del Luthor, where he talks with Lex's voice and spins a really obnoxious Lenny Luthor around telekinetically. But it quickly becomes apparent that Nuclear Man shuts down when he's not in direct sunlight. A moderate design flaw, methinks.

Lois and Lacy are getting ready for tea, waiting for their respective dates and the inevitable sitcom hilarity. This scene is painful, watching Superman toy with the two women, who never quite notice that Clark and Superman are never in the room at the same time. And then Lex contacts Superman on a frequency only he can see and hear, threatening to blow up a nearby skyscraper. No one likes a fifth wheel, Lex.

"It's common knowledge that you hate children and animals, Luthor," is a great line. They exposit with each other a bit, and I really do like Lex and Superman's relationship here.
Reeve and Hackman have such chemistry, bantering back and forth while the Nuclear Man just paces. Then the fight begins, and oh goodness me are the special effects terrible.

Nuclear Man blows up the Great Wall of China, Superman rebuilds it with Rebuild-The-Great-Wall-Of-China-Vision, a power he only gets to use once in a great while. I suspect the script originally called for Superman to rebuild it at super-speed, but that corner got cut.

One thing I like about this movie is that when Superman talks to locals in Italy or the Cosmonauts at the beginning, he's speaking their languages. It's a nice nod to Superman being a real citizen of the world, and having a super-intellect at that.

Eventually Superman gets scratched with Nuclear Man's Casanova Frankenstein nails, which weakens him enough to let Nuclear Man kick him into the air so hard his cape comes off. Lois barges into the Daily Planet office, outraged at the "Is Superman Dead?" headline, and taking Superman's cape, which David Warfield bought from some bystander. Meanwhile, Clark's got a nasty fever, and Lois comes to give Superman a pep talk to Clark. It's a weird scene, where it looks a lot like the whole super-kiss thing has been Lois just playing along with a really bizarre unspoken game.

Lex double-crosses the war profiteers, which they really should have seen coming given that he's got a mostly invincible nuclear bodyguard at his beck and call now. And Clark, who appears to have aged considerably since the last scene, pulls out the green power crystal and gets a voiceover from Lara about using it to save his life.

Nuclear Man sees a picture of Lacy Warfield and decides to go all King Kong on her, but Superman returns (wait, that's tomorrow's post) to stop him. Not, unfortunately, before he sets a bunch of things on fire while Superman just kind of watches. I have to imagine most of the film's budget went to this sequence, because they do a bunch of just crazy things and all hell breaks loose. Also, Superman has telekinesis.

Eventually he traps Nuclear Man in an elevator (how did he learn his weakness? Did he just hope that would work?) and drops him onto the moon. But the doors aren't completely closed! Nuclear Man wakes up! Superman's wires are visible!
The battle continues at one of the Apollo (or Artemis) landing sites, and Superman takes a pretty brutal beating, to the point where it looks like he might have jumped the gun on using that Kryptonian power crystal. Nuclear Man pounds his nemesis into the regolith and buries him alive, then heads back to Earth.

Superman escapes, and in a bit that I somehow completely forgot about, moves the moon to cause a solar eclipse, robbing Nucelar Man of his powers. Which is completely awesome. He then rescues Lacy Warfield who, of course, Nuclear Man had brought into space, and who survived because why not. Nuclear Man is safely disposed of in a nuclear power plant, where somehow his body can provide energy to the city even though he was powerless when not in direct sunlight.

Oh, Perry White bought the paper back, just in time for a Superman press conference where he gets pretty inspirational, in a "Lex Luthor's defeat in All-Star Superman" sort of way. Finally, he captures Lex and Lenny, and drops them off at their respective prisons, before we get the fifth iteration of the closing scene. You have to give them points for consistency, I suppose.

Overall: It's a shame that this movie is such a mess, and I wonder what might have come of it with a bigger budget and a few more people doing script rewrites. Notably, there's a character arc for most of the major players here: Perry gets to play the hero, David Warfield gets taken down a peg, Lacy learns a lesson about journalistic integrity, and even Superman learns that there are some problems he just can't solve on his own. The plot has elements of brilliance, elements that would be used to great effect in other places, and the cast is still pretty amazing, but the cheap effects and the padding really weigh the whole project down. Of all the Superman films, I think this one is the most disappointing, because it had so much going for it, and so much that could have gone right if it hadn't all gone wrong.

That said, I wouldn't mind someone editing a fan cut that removed the double-date and super-kiss sequences, cleaned up the effects, and left us with sociopolitical Superman trying to help save humanity from itself. It's a story that deserves a good telling, and it's a shame it never got the chance.

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