You can speak of rubber-nippled Batsuits and emo-goth Peter Parkers. You can talk about Jessica Alba as an invisible woman or Brett Ratner as a director. But no superhero has ever suffered a greater indignity than Superman did in the form of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.”
To watch this film now is to glimpse into a terrifying world, a world known as 1987. I lived through this time, yet I do not remember it being this hideous. What’s with everyone’s hair? Why are all their eyeglasses so big? And where did they find these special effects? 1948?
The behind-the-scenes reasons for the film’s lousiness are the stuff of legend. The Superman film franchise had been bought by a production company that soon overextended itself, forcing “Superman IV” director Sidney J. Furie to operate on a severely (and suddenly) reduced budget. Of course, Furie had previously directed “Iron Eagle” and would go on to make “Ladybugs,” so it was unlikely that he’d have made a good film anyway. He doesn’t seem like the type. But laughably bad special effects — the kind where you can see the wires holding people up — certainly didn’t help.
The film is so boring I’m not sure I can summarize it in human language. It starts with Superman (Christopher Reeve) performing a boring rescue of a cosmonaut at a boring space station. Superman’s cape flaps in the “breeze” of outer space, but even that is boring.
Then things get exciting! Clark Kent is preparing to sell the Kent family farm! He talks to a REAL ESTATE INVESTOR!! Then Superman unconvincingly stops a runaway subway train, preventing passenger Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) from suffering mild injury! Next thing you know the Daily Planet is being bought out by profit-minded tabloid publishers! Meetings are held! Journalistic ethics are discussed! Theater management is not liable for heart attacks suffered by patrons unable to take the excitement!
Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) gets busted out of a prison chain gang by his Valley Dude nephew (Jon Cryer). Lex immediately moves into a luxury Metropolis apartment and lives a conspicuous lifestyle — I guess the rule is that if you break out of prison, they’re not allowed to come looking for you — and gets back to his prime directive: thinking up ludicrous and impractical ways of killing Superman.
He hits on a doozy of a plan, one of his most ludicrous and impractical yet. The movie wisely does not tell us what it is right away, as it knows we would stop watching instantly. It knows it is on thin ice with us already for being so boring.
First Lex needs a strand of Superman’s hair. He obtains this from a museum’s Superman exhibit, where a piece of superhair is being used to suspend a half-ton weight as proof of its superhuman strength. Lex cuts it loose with a pair of scissors. (Come on, movie! You’re not even trying!) Then we learn his plan. His plan is to extract Superman’s DNA from the hair, affix it to a nuclear missile, and send the missile to the sun. The result of the explosion will be, in Lex’s estimation, a nuclear-powered Superman clone.
At this point the movie shoves its hands in its pockets and whistles nonchalantly, hoping we won’t notice what it just said. Quickly the action switches back to Superman. He is experiencing some internal conflict because a little boy wrote him a letter saying he should end the Cold War by getting rid of all the countries’ nuclear weapons himself. Superman is capable of doing this, but he has also been warned by his dead Kryptonian forefathers, who for some reason can talk to him even though they are dead, about interfering too much with human history. Lend a hand, foil bank robberies, prevent buses from plunging over bridges, sure. But if you get TOO involved with the Earthlings, well, that … would … be bad. For some reason. The dead forefathers aren’t clear on this point.
To help him make up his mind, Clark Kent invites Lois over to his high-rise apartment, and then he grabs her and leaps over the balcony. He does not do this with the intention of killing her, however, although that would have been awesome. Lois doesn’t even look particularly scared as she plummets. Of course, it’s just Margot Kidder standing in front of a blue screen flailing her arms, but still. She could try harder. Clark Supermans up and rescues Lois from the certain death he sentenced her to, revealing his identity in the process, never mind that there were probably better ways of doing that. He flies around the United States with her to look at stock footage of famous monuments before whisking her back to his apartment, giving her the stupid Kiss of Forgetfulness that he used at the end of “Superman II,” and restarting the evening. The sequence ends with Clark deciding he WILL get rid of the nuclear weapons. How that relates to what just happened, I do not know.
Superman rounds up all the world’s nuclear weapons, puts ’em in a big ol’ net, and flings that sucker toward the sun. One stray missile has his DNA on it, though, courtesy of Lex Luthor, and sure enough, when it hits the sun, BLAMMO! Nuclear Man is the result.
Nuclear Man is a buff, vaguely European-looking fellow with feathered hair. He possesses all the same powers as Superman except for personality and mousse. He is the dullest supervillain in the history of supervillains. He even speaks in Lex Luthor’s voice (why?). I have called him Nuclear Man, but only because that’s what the closing credits call him. No one in the film ever calls him anything. That’s right, the evil menace that challenges Superman doesn’t even have an effing name. I don’t know about you, but I do not take people seriously who do not have names. That includes rappers-turned-actors like Common, The Game, and Ice Cube. Those are not names. Those are random nouns and adjectives. Come back when you have names and then maybe I will take you seriously.
Anyway, Nuclear Man and Superman have some boring fights that take them all over the world. Nuclear Man wrecks part of the Great Wall of China. (“Oh, great!” I thought. “Now the Mongol hordes are going to get in!”) Superman saves a tourist and then repairs the wall by, um, looking at it. Superman has telekinetic powers that he has been hiding all this time, waiting until juuuust the right moment, i.e., when a stupid movie about him is too lazy to have him fix the wall another way. (Or just leave the wall broken. Geez, there are a billion people in China. Surely some of them are masons in need of work.)
Superman eventually vanquishes Nuclear Man, but it’s boring and I don’t feel like talking about it. What I want to talk about is the fact that Mariel Hemingway is in this movie as Lacy Warfield, the daughter of the Daily Planet’s new owner, and she has a crush on Clark Kent. Lois tells her she’s never gonna get anywhere with him, stopping just short of saying what she really thinks, which is that Clark is gay. Lacy persists, committing many acts of low-level sexual harassment and making Clark’s workplace a hostile environment. Finally she arranges a double date with her and Clark and Lois and Superman. What’s that? Oh, yes, apparently Lois and Superman are dating. I’m sure that relationship is very healthy and stable and not at all predicated on deception, fantasy, or unrealistic expectations. Mostly I pity whomever Lois dates next.
The double date, held at Lois’ apartment, becomes a wacky farce of shenanigans and hijinks necessitated by Clark and Superman being the same person. Clark has to keep looking for reasons to go into the kitchen or onto the balcony so that he can instantly reappear elsewhere as Superman, and vice versa. It is only a slight variation on the familiar “two dates to the prom” sitcom device. Knowing that the Superman franchise is borrowing plots from “The Brady Bunch” should give you a strong indication of how desperate things have become. Then again, at least “Superman IV” doesn’t have human sleeping pill Kate Bosworth in it, so maybe it’s not so bad after all.