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Intro 1: Superhero Movies
May I conflate two vaguely related cultural events and pretend that this ‘means’ something? Thank you.
The tail end of the 1930s witnessed the creation of the comic book as we’ve come to know it. It also heralded the first real explosion of color in Hollywood movies. 1939 is generally regarded as the single greatest year Hollywood has ever had, and Technicolor wonders such as Gone With the Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Wizard of Oz dazzled audiences. Although it would be several decades before color film stock became economical enough for everyone to afford, the slow death of the black & white movie had inexorably begun.
Meanwhile, the same period saw the introduction of the two seminal figures that largely define the comic book medium to this day: Superman and Batman. Superman, initially appearing in 1938, was especially known for the vibrancy of the bold primary colors with which his adventures were chronicled. With color exploding on both the printed page and the silver screen, it was obvious that superheroes and the movies were meant for one another. It was just a matter of motion picture technology getting to the right place.
It was a slow upward crawl, however, before they could portray in a film what they could on printed paper. Thus radio became the first successful electronic medium for superheroic adventures. After all, if there’s anywhere the fantastic can be more easily visualized than on paper, it would be in the mind*. Soon characters such as Superman and pulp literature’s The Shadow – granted on radio the ability to ‘cloud men’s minds’ and turn invisible — had their own series. Superman’s show ran weekday afternoons, daily, for fifteen minutes in serial form. Batman eventually became a recurring guest star, forging a link between the two characters that remains to this day.
The radio show also provided the Superman mythos with one of its most enduring elements. The actor who played Superman was to go on vacation. The scripters, looking for a way to write the lead character out of the show for a week, invented an element that would rob Superman of his powers and even kill him with prolonged exposure. And so kryptonite came into existence. Superman fell prey to a trap, and generic moans were used each day to indicate an incapacitated and increasingly weaker hero. Batman took over the action duties, looking to locate and free his fellow crimefighter before it wasâ€¦too late. Afterwards, the writers of Superman’s comic book adventures eagerly glommed onto this Achilles’ Heel for their character. The omnipotent Superman was difficult to keep exciting, since he was never in genuine real danger.
*There was also theatrical animation, of course, but that was generally too expensive. The Fleischer brothers famously were offered a commission in the ’40s to create a series of Superman cartoons to be shown in theaters before the movies. Which is what all cartoons were then produced for, this being before the days of TV. Unsure of taking on such an epic task, they put in an extraordinarily high bid on their services. To their amazement, the got what they asked for and went on to create what remains perhaps the most successful attempt to portray a superhero in animated form. The complete run of these cartoons, for those interested, is available on DVD.
Ironically, it was from the cartoons that Superman gained his ability to fly. In the comics, he could only “leap a tall building in a single bound” – that whole ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ litany began with the cartoons as well – much like the Hulk does now. However, this proved hard to animate without it looking silly. Therefore the Fleischers requested that Superman just be allowed to fly. As with kryptonite, this idea was not only approved but actually washed back into the comics.
In the Hollywood of the ’40s, superhero characters were generally used in serials. Serials would typically consist of twelve to fifteen twenty-minute chapters, shown sequentially on a weekly basis before or between the feature presentations. It was a way to bring young patrons back, for if they saw the hero facing certain death the week before, they would be more likely to return the following Saturday to see how he managed to escape – and to see what the next cliffhanger would be.
Serials typically featured adventurer heros, ala Indiana Jones, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s homage to the genre, and occasionally heroines as well. So they were a natural place for superheroes to make their first real theatrical impact. Batman, Superman, Captain America, The Shadow, and, in the best of them, Captain Marvel, all had serials based on their adventures. Still, with their generally low budgets and scant production values, not to mention the often paunchy actors picked to portray the characters — Batman particularly suffered in this regard, and the Adam West TV show was more a spoof of the two Batman serials than of any other particular version of the character — these adaptations generally left much to be desired.
Then came TV. Again, the special effects were primitive, when even attempted, but first Superman in the ’50s and then Batman in the ’60s had successful television shows. (Of course, Batman was a satire and, whatever it’s very real strengths, it continues to account for such abominations as the two Joel Schumacher Batman movies.) Even more successful during this period were an ongoing succession of Saturday morning cartoon shows featuring the poorly animated adventures of a long list of superheroes. However, the only superhero to appear on the American silver screen during this period was the ubiquitous Batman, via a theatrical adaptation of the TV series.
The Batman-inspired satirical take took hold with an iron grip. It was so popular that it tainted the appearance of almost every superheroic character to hit theaters through much of the ’60s and ’70s. The Europeans especially were captivated by this esthetic, and they rolled out zillions of comic book-y movies. Barbarella is the most prominent, but there’s also Modesty Blaise and Judex and Diabolik and Avenger X and the Superargo movies and many others.
On our side of the pond producer George Pal’s catastrophically bad Doc Savage followed suit in 1972. Indeed, only in Mexico, with their innumerable pictures featuring superhero wrestlers like Santo, Neutron and the Wrestling Women, did an unironic take on such material hold sway during this period. Even today, many in Hollywood still consider this sort of material beneath them. Thus such spoofy, and failed, pictures as the Schumacher Batmans, The Shadow and Mystery Men.
Superheroes roared back as television characters in the ’70s. More on this subject can be found in my review of the two made-for-TV Captain America movies. Then, in 1978, a watershed event occurred: The release of Superman: The Movie. For the first time, special effects had become good enough to allow for a — more or less — faithful adaptation of a comic book character. (Although only recently have they become good enough to allow for truly spectacular films.)
Superman was a huge hit, begetting one good sequel and two horrible ones. Two years after that run ended, with our present subject in fact, Superman’s fellow DC Comics’ character Batman was brought to the screen by director Tim Burton. This film also sired an initial superior follow-up and two subsequent awful ones. Batman Returns, in fact, remains possibly the best superhero movie to date. (Admittedly this, to my amazement, remains something of a minority view.)
And so DC prospered while competitor Marvel Comics remained mired in the cinematic doldrums. No Marvel character had ever been brought to the silver screen, perhaps because they didn’t have the weight of history that Superman and Batman did. (Spider-Man was about forty years old when he finally hit theaters in his recent film.) Moreover, DC Comics was by this point a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. A major studio, they had both the capital and production muscle to make big-budget films out of their properties.
Marvel, on the other hand, seemed to sell the rights to their most popular characters to anyone who waved a twenty-dollar bill at them. And so Captain America and The Punisher starred in truly lame direct-to-video movies, while the Fantastic Four starred in a film so bad it was never released. In fact, it was only made to re-secure the rights to the characters so that they could be sold off to a major studio. With Spider-Man‘s massive success, this long brewing big budget Fantastic Four movie might actually get off the ground. In fact, the situation now is ironically reversed from what it’s been during the last twenty years. DC characters are now MIA from theaters while Marvel properties like the X-Men, Spider-Man, Blade, Daredevil and the Hulk are flooding the screens.
And now we’ve finally entered the Golden Era of superhero movies. It’s not just that special effects are finally good enough to make really spectacular live-action fantasy films workable. (Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing a big budget CGI-animated superhero movie.) More important, the studios have finally noticed a certain historical trend: When superhero movies are played more to less straight — Superman, Batman, X-Men, Blade, Spider-Man — they make huge money. When they are played for camp — Superman III, Batman and Robin, Mystery Men — the public loses interest. How it took so long for this elementary fact to hit them remains somewhat puzzling. Still, the scent of money is now in the air, and as long as writers and directors with a genuine respect and, in some cases, love for the material continue making the films, things should continue looking good.
Intro 2: Superman: The Increasingly Poor Movies
In the ’70s, things were looking up for the father/son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind. As a team, the two had earlier made two De Laurentiis-level messes in Europe. Kill!, was a reported tepid and confusing thriller starring James Mason. This was followed by the notorious Bluebeard, starring Richard Burton and reviewed here on our own site. However, they then achieved international success with two Dumas adaptations, the twin features The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). For those interested, the latter is less a sequel then the second half of one whole. With this achievement under their belts, they were soon in a position to put into play not only a Hollywood film, but one of the biggest ever made.
I mentioned Dino De Laurentiis above, and it seems to me that he’s the producer the Salkinds are most reminiscent of. The difference being that the Superman series is what the Salkinds remain primarily remembered for, while De Laurentiis is mostly associated with his numerous and often lavish high profile stinkers. Even so, more knowledgeable buffs will be aware of how close the Salkinds came to achieving a De Laurentiis-esque level of notoriety. These are, after all, the men responsible for such memorable major-league turkeys as Superman III, Santa Claus: The Movie and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.
In other words, only one film, and the key insights behind it, really saved them from this fate. Sure, the Musketeer films were hits. Yet, De Laurentiis had his hits as well, although this is often overlooked. The fact isn’t exactly surprising, though. You don’t get to produce nearly one hundred and fifty films if they’re all stinkers. Back in his native Italy, for instance, Dino had shepherded the Fellini classic La Strada. Other successful films he’s been associated with include Barbarella, Serpico, Death Wish, Three Days of the Condor, Manhunter and the recent Hannibal. If it wasn’t for the fact that his crap list is about five to ten times this long, he’d have a better all around reputation.
So what separated the Salkinds from De Laurentiis? One key decision. The Salkinds were aware that science fiction and fantasy films were hot in the ’70s, partially because of the vast improvement in special effects heralded by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey back in 1968. So they decided to jump on the bandwagon. Of course, De Laurentiss spent much of the same decade trying to do the same. Only De Laurentiis’ conception of getting in on the action resulted in a series of awful films that aped the recent and massively successful Jaws. (And I mean ‘ape’ literally; his King Kong remake was partially conceived as an answer to Speilberg’s film. More slavish imitations included The White Buffalo and especially the killer whale epic Orca. One of the saddest might-have-beens for the dedicated Jabootuist is the knowledge that De Laurentiis never made his bandied-about team-up film pairing both King Kong and Orca.)
However, and this is what I was getting to, the Salkinds didn’t fixate on one particular hit, such as, say, Star Wars, and dementedly try to recreate it in another form. Instead, they wisely looked at the larger picture. Fantasy and Sci-Fi were big. What was an established property that they could bring to the screen that would tap into that market segment, rather than chasing after the (admittedly gigantic) audience of one particular film? Their answer, of course, was Superman.
Another central decision was to really examine this range of hit movies and deduce that audiences liked their genre movies straight up. Another producer would have followed Hollywood’s primary axiom, which is that no one ever got blamed for ripping-off what has been done before. Their film might bomb, but the producer wouldn’t be held responsible, since he would have been perceived as making all the ‘right’ decisions. This is why studio executives today would rather make an expensive box office disaster with Tom Cruise than a modestly budgeted film that turned a decent profit.
Had the Salkinds followed this logic, as many others would have, they’d have made their Superman film intentionally campy. This was, after all, how superheroes tended to be portrayed in movies and TV following the successful Adam West Batman show. Instead, the Salkinds wanted to treat the subject seriously, as American mythology. Which, of course, is what Superman is.
From the start they unabashedly set out to make, not just a big box office popcorn flick, but an important film. The budget for the picture was huge. Top stars were brought on board, including the respected Gene Hackman. Richard Donner, a veteran director who had recently helmed the gigantically successful The Omen, was hired. Almost inevitably, John Williams, who at that point could seem to do no wrong, was picked to write the score. This decision was of no small import. I remember sitting in theaters for the entire ten plus minutes of end credits so that I could listen to Williams’ music thundering out of professional grade speakers.
Then there was the hiring of Mario Puzo to provide the screenplay. Puzo was the author of The Godfather, the adaptation of which was already being recognized as one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest films. His name definitely announced that this wasn’t going to be an airy spoof sort of deal. Puzo publicly opined that he viewed the material as being more on the order of a “Greek tragedy.”
Even more important, to the Salkinds at least, was the signing of legendary method actor Marlon Brando. (This was back before he became sort of a joke.) Brando’s participation leant the production the gravitas the Salkinds were looking for. And they paid dearly for it. Brando received a then record breaking 3.7 million dollars for his short screen appearance. Much marveling centered on the fact that Brando was receiving something like, if I remember correctly, ten thousand dollars for every word he uttered up on the screen.
If the Salkinds were rewarded for their instincts, though, it was in the lightning-in-the-bottle casting of the unknown Christopher Reeve to play the lead role(s). Reeve was seemingly heaven sent, an actor who differentiated Clark Kent and Superman so convincingly that you almost believed no one would notice they had the same face. Just as importantly, he conveyed Superman’s sheer boy scout goodness without making him in any way sappy. He even wore the suit without looking laughable. Some argued against the initially scrawny actor, but the Salkinds figured it was easier to bulk up the right actor than to teach a guy with muscles to act. They were right.
Also, it seems likely that they thought an unknown would help keep the skyrocketing budget down. Considering that nearly every ‘name’ in Hollywood, from Robert Redford and Warren Beatty to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Jenner and Sylvester Stallone (!) were considered during the long casting process, the casting of Reeve seems tantamount to an act of divine intervention by the Movie Gods. Who know, maybe Jabootu threw his horns into the ring, too, foreseeing the day the actor might bring about Superman IV. (By the way, if the stories about Schwarzenegger and Stallone seem unlikely, remember that just a few years ago the equally inappropriate Nicolas Cage was all but signed to star in a new Superman movie. Again the Movie Gods were benign, however, and the picture eventually fell through.)
As we now know, Superman: The Movie was a smashing success. With the carefully wrought tagline, “You will believe a man can fly,” the Salkinds promised and delivered a film meant to be taken at face value. No winking at the audience here. After all, if audiences could believe in Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, why not Superman? They could, they did, and the picture raked in box office lucre.
Needless to say, the film called for a sequel. Now for some historical context. This was the dawn of the summer blockbuster era. I should know, because I was in high school from 1978-82. Now we expect a big action or genre film to come out every week during the summer season. Back then we were thrilled to know that one or two big name movies were due out. These were the years just following the blockbuster summer successes of Star Wars and, particularly, Jaws, and the whole thing was just beginning. For the first time studios were aggressively searching for flicks with built-in sequel potential, what were soon to be termed ‘tent pole’ properties.
For the movie fan unused to such things, it was a heady time. There were the Star Wars movies, whatever Steven Spielberg was up to, including the Indiana Jones series, the Superman flicksâ€¦ Best of all, our excitement was pure, because we had not yet learned the harsh lessons of diminishing returns. Especially since the second Star Wars and Superman movies were championed by many as being better than their predecessors.
Of course, there’s a reason for that. Superman II, you see, was always envisioned as not a sequel but as the second half of Superman: The Movie. It was the same idea behind the Salkinds’ Musketeer movies. This is why what seems like a weird digression in the first film, the imprisonment of General Zod and his lackeys in the Phantom Zone, turns out to be the set-up to the next film’s main plot. The fact that this was the follow-up film also allowed for less exposition and more character stuff. Hence Clark/Superman’s deepening romance with Lois Lane. (Clark’s inability to give up his role as Superman and live a normal life with Lois is probably what Puzo was referring to as being akin to Greek tragedy.)
However, sharp eyes could spot signs of danger. Director Richard Lester had taken the reigns from Richard Donner for the second film (who was fired mid-picture), and his historical propensity for physical comedy began making its mark. (On the other hand, the film also contained the series’ most gruesome violence, as when the film’s supervillains killed a lunar astronaut by ripping open his spacesuit.) Still, as a continuation of the first film, Lester’s inclinations towards comedy were somewhat held in check. That, unfortunately, was not to last. By the time the second movie came out, Reeve was already making noises about becoming tired of the series. Still, economics seemed to demand a third film, and work progressed.
With fears that the box office take would inevitable diminish with each film – the pattern for this phenomenon was beginning to make itself clear – the Salkinds decided to shake up the series. The big coup was was in hiring the man who, at the exact moment in time, might well have been Hollywood’s biggest star: Richard Pryor. You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Pryor was as big at this point as Eddie Murphy was to be after the hat trick of 48 Hours, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop.
Obviously, the hiring of Pryor indicated a new, more comedic direction for Superman III (1980). Richard Lester was therefore retained as director and allowed to give reign to his preference for shtick. (The film’s opening scene is a long, elaborate physical comedy routine that would have been at home in an old Charlie Chaplin short.) As is this wasn’t change enough, many of stars and supporting players of the first two films, including Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder – who only appears in a cameo – are not part of the package. Presumably they wanted more money at this point, and with the hiring of Pryor, it was decided to forgo their involvement.
Superman III isn’t a complete fiasco or anything, but it’s a definite misfire. The lame comedy stuff with Pryor ranges from dull to painful, and he wasn’t all that believable as a savant computer whiz. Nor was veteran hambone Robert Vaughn much of a replacement for Hackman. Annette O’Toole, though, playing Clark’s hometown sweetheart Lana Lang, was quite good.
On a side note, this was the first film I remember having one of those incredibly long, plot-blowing coming attraction trailers. Sitting with a group of pals, my friend Andrew Muchoney and I exchanged dropped-jaws looks when a bit from what was obviously the end of the movie was shown. How naÃ”ve we were. Now 80% of trailers are like that.
Unsurprisingly, the box office returns for this one were the lowest yet. Moreover, Reeve was definitely making his boredom with all thing Superman public knowledge, and he all but vowed never to don the cape again.
The answer to all concerns, in the short run anyway, proved to be Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Warner Brothers, the production company for the prior films, farmed out the job to the cheesemeisters extraordinaire over at Cannon Films. With their history of churning out cheapo but financially successful flicks, Warners undoubtedly believed that Cannon could shoot the film more economically. Which they did, to Warners’ eventual ire, since they were later suspected of diverting part the production budget Warners provided to other projects. Even if this wasn’t true, there’s little doubt that Warner Brothers executives were apoplectic after seeing what their money had bought them.
That was later, though. The big question was how to draw Reeve back, as nobody thought a Superman movie would be viable without him. Since Reeve’s belief in ‘socially conscious’ films was well known (see next intro), it was decided to offer him the opportunity to help shape the production’s storyline. Intrigued, Reeve agreed, even reportedly cutting his acting fee.
The results of Reeve’s involvement are examined below. In the end, though, the film buried the Superman series in a kryptonite coffin. The sneak preview of the original two hour and fifteen minute cut was disastrous. With panic setting in, the picture was hacked down to a (somewhat) less audience abusing hour and a half. The critical reaction to the movie was savage, good intentions or no, and the box office returns were commensurate.
Warner’s has spent much of the last ten years trying to revive the Superman series. (Their efforts are also extended to equally moribund Batman movies.) No doubt their labors will become all the more frenzied in the wake of Spider-Man‘s success. Let’s just hope that Nic Cage is busy elsewhere.
For those who are still interested after plodding through my review, a fascinating and extraordinarily in-depth site on the Superman films — all of them, including Supergirl — can be found at http://www.deceptions.net/superman/. Of special note are pages detailing what Donner and Lester each respectively shot for Superman II, and a list of all the deleted footage from the original cut of Superman IV. Thanks to reader Hurricane Helms for the tip.
Intro 3: Christopher Reeve
A few years ago the satirical newspaper The Onion did a story featuring Christopher Reeve. The premise was that the paralyzed actor, wheelchair and all, was being installed upon the top of the Washington Monument to make it more “inspirational.” I’m sure they caught a lot of flack for this particularly insensitive bit. (Although that didn’t stop them from reprinting it in one of their trade paperback anthologies.) Still, I understand what they’re getting at. Without question, Christopher Reeve has dealt with an unimaginatively horrible personal tragedy in a manner that can only be called heroic, and, yes, genuinely inspiring. Really, you can’t say too much about the man’s personal fortitude.
Howeverâ€¦and this doesn’t take away from what I just said, but he’s also been a bit tone deaf on how he allows himself to be used. (Which, actually, adds to the black humor of The Onion story.) Famously, Reeve starred in a Nuveen commercial touting medical advances supposedly on the horizon. This premiered during the 2000 Super Bowl, and thus was witnessed by one of the largest audiences of all time. The climax of the ad showed Reeve standing up out of his wheelchair and walking away from it. This, too, was meant to be inspirational.
However, many who saw the ad were not aware that Reeve only ‘rose’ from the chair with the help of computer trickery. Many viewers actually believed that Reeve had somehow been cured of his injuries, and that similar help would soon be available for others. Sadly, this was not the case. One has to imagine that amongst an audience numbering in the hundreds of millions worldwide that some hopes were callously, if inadvertently, raised and then dashed.
The purpose of the ad was to foster investments in medical technologies. Surely no one believes that Reeve meant anything but good to come from the commercial, and many defend his appearance in it as effective in raising awareness of the issue. Others, however, thought the add at best tasteless and at worst cruel. Others even found it patronizing to the great majority of paralyzed people who will never see such things happen in their lifetimes. Paralyzed commentator and medical doctor Charles Krauthammer wrote a particularly scathing Time Magazine piece on the subject.
Rather more germane to our topic today was the actor’s appearance at the 1995 Academy Awards. Reeve was wheeled out – literally – to provide the assembled glitterati a rather narcissistic opportunity to bask in his reflected heroism. He then gave a speech extolling the socially transformational power of film. (This is a primary reason I hate the Oscars. Hollywood spends the whole year arguing that films and TV don’t affect the behavior of viewers. Then they get together every year and talk about the socially positive effects of the latest PC extravaganza. Sorry, buddy, but you can’t argue that films can change society for the better and then turn around and say it’s unable to change things for the worse.) Anyway, here’s a report I found on the web:
In an emotional moment, recently paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve testified to the power and influence of motion pictures. “When I was a kid, my friends and I went to the movies just for fun,” Reeve said, “but then we saw Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. It started us thinking about the madness of nuclear destruction. Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones taught us about race relations and we began to realize that films could deal with social issues.” Reeve went on to praise “motion pictures that have courageously put social issues ahead of box-office success.”
“Hollywood needs to do more,” he said. “Let’s continue to take risks. Let’s tackle the issues. In many ways our film community can do it better than anyone else.”
Despite Reeve’s no doubt heartfelt words, he’s wrong on several counts. First, the films he speaks of didn’t “courageously put social issues ahead of box-office success.” Most of them made money, and all were intended to. Moreover, the ones he specifically names were both hits and critically lauded. And of the two filmmakers he directly referred to, it’s interesting to note that Kubrick eventually abandoned such pictures. Meanwhile, Stanley Kramer’s films strained harder and harder to remain relevant, until they became so awful that nobody wanted to go see them anymore.
You might think this is my political bias talking. OK, I dare you. Watch the decline from The Men to The Defiant Ones to On the Beach to Look Who’s Coming to Dinner and then all the way down to the dreadful “revolting hippies” flick R.P.M. After that, if you still disagree with my contention, I’ll be glad to discuss the matter. (On the Beach has been provided a stirring defense by Liz Kingsley, whom I respect as much as anybody, and she presents her usual strong case. Still, I believe I’m fair in saying that hers is not a universally held opinion.)
Moreover, the biting satire of Dr. Strangelove is leagues away from the pious and often overweening moral self-satisfaction of Kramer’s later work. Kubrick might have been overtly attacking the insanity of the military and political classes, but he was really contending that all humankind is nuts. This cynicism is why the picture remains such a classic while more earnest flicks like On the Beach and Fail-Safe are largely forgotten. Those films, like Superman IV, seem to believe that if the better people were running things, the world would be a place without war or injustice. Dr. Strangelove shows that the better people are running the world, and that’s at least partly why it’s in such a mess.
Finally, say what you will about Kubrick and especially Kramer, but they made their movies for adults. Superman IV is quite obviously aimed at children, as demonstrated below. This makes Reeves’ goal of using the film to push a political message much more morally problematic. And make no bones about it; Superman IV is an unmitigated, out and out propaganda piece. (Albeit a terrifically clumsy one.) There’s no debate of ideas here, it’s intended purely to instruct its young viewers on how to see the world.
Our Feature Presentation
We open in space, in a tight orbit around the Earth. Now, I know Superman would never lie to us. So I’m somewhat confused by the opening credits. Boxy and yellow, they zoom around, trailing Doppler streamers of blue or red behind them. In this they are similar to those from the first movie, which remain perhaps the most distinctive opening credits of the last thirty years. And then there’s that familiar John Williams’ scoreâ€¦
No, wait. If you look more attentively, you can tell see that the credit animation is noticeably less, I don’t know, accomplished. And the music is somehow lacking, as if it’s a cover orchestra version of John Williams. Then, after the (somewhat) reassuring Warner Bros. logo appears, we see, inexplicably, an announcement that this is “A CANNON GROUP, INC. GOLAN-GLOBUS Production.” As if that weren’t enough – and believe me, it is — there follows the coup de grace: A streaking credit that informs us that this is “a SIDNEY J. FURIE film”. Jabootu help us.
Mr. Furie is mostly remembered for his genre films. However, that’s largely because horror and sci-fi fans never forget anyone, no matter how modest their rÃˆsumÃˆ. Furie made a number of low-budget British horror films in the early ’60s, including Snake Woman and Dr. Blood’s Coffin. Those were, in fact, two of the five movies he churned out in 1961. His most famous picture from that period remains the stolid killer-dummy flick Devil Doll. This status has been conferred solely because the flick became a subject of mockery on MST3K.
However, in 1964, the same year that Devil Doll was made, Furie was assigned a rather more prestigious project. This was the Michael Caine espionage thriller The Ipcress File, adapted from the novel by Len Deighton. The twist being that Caine’s Harry Palmer was the spy as low-grade civil servant. In essence, he was the anti-Bond. Palmer’s job might occasionally be as dangerous as 007’s, but it was more often mundane and even somewhat grubby. The Ipcress File is a pretty neat little film, probably Furie’s best effort, and available on DVD. Certainly fans of Caine’s superlative work during this period, in movies like this and the original Get Carter, should make sure to seek it out.
The Ipcress File was successful enough that two sequels quickly followed, Funeral in Berlin and The Billion Dollar Brain. Sadly, the latter film killed the franchise. In a counterintuitive fit, the producers hired the quintessentially baroque Ken Russell to direct the picture. Again, Caine’s Harry Palmer was meant to be a rather more realistic spy than Bond and his numerous surreal knock-offs. Therefore the decision to have his comparatively down to earth adventures helmed by such a stylistic oddball is somewhat mystifying.
(Note: Caine returned to play Palmer two belated TV movie follow-ups in the ’90s. Meanwhile, aside from The Ipcress File, the actor’s Funeral in Berlin and Get Carter are also available on DVD.)
From here Furie worked steadily, occasionally turning out a comparatively respected piece like the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues (’72). This winning streak was not to last, however. In 1976 he helmed one of Hollywood’s legendary turkeys with the dreadful Gable and Lombard. The only question lingering from that one was whether James Brolin’s (!) Gable was more epically inadequate than Jill Clayburgh’s (!!) Lombard, or vice versa. Furie’s slide continued apace, and by the following decade he was working for Cannon, the schlock kings of the ’80s. In an amazing trifecta of crap, Furie helmed Iron Eagle in 1986, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987 and Iron Eagle II in 1988. Amazingly, Superman IV is easily the worst of the three.
Any initial doubts about the project were probably held in check by some of the names that follow. Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder, absent from Superman III, are back in the fold. Jackie Cooper was back as Perry White and Marc McClure (whose career of late largely consists of cameo appearances in lame killer snake films like Python and Venomous) returned to play Jimmy Olsen.
It’s a measure of how Kidder’s career was going that she’d return for this one, especially given that she was to receive ninth (!!) billing. Hackman, on the other hand, presumably received his full salary from the earlier films, and might well have been the most single most expensive element in this one’s budget. (As noted, Reeve, for the first time getting his credit higher than Hackman’s, took a pay cut in order to get the film made.) I’d certainly like to see some figures on this.
If many of the names struck a familiar chord, however, some of the others presumably sowed only confusion. Jon Cryer?! What’s he doing here? Sam Wanamaker? OK, he’s a fine actor, but… Mariel Hemingway?! Mark Pillow?! Are you kidding? Pillow plays the film’s supervillain, although the character’s voice is provided by Hackman. Even so, he receives billing above Margot Kidder. And remember what I said about the music earlier? Well, Williams still gets a credit, but it’s followed by another reading “Music Adapted and Conducted By ALEXANDER COURAGE”.
Let’s see what else we’ve got here. OK, Reeve worked on the story with the screenwriting team of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. After this was bashed out the latter two wrote the actual script. Konner and Rosenthal were then coming off of the only comparatively good movie they would ever be associated with, the Romancing the Stone sequel Jewel of the Nile. That was their first film, and it was followed by the sizable cult flop Legend of Billie Jean. The latter starred Helen Slater, who coincidentally had just assayed the title role in the Superman series spin-off Supergirl.
Superman IV was Konner and Rosenthal’s third script, and its quality tells the tale. Subsequent screenwriting endeavors included Desperate Hours, a remake of the 1955 Humphrey Bogart film starring Mickey Rourke (!) and wasting the talents of co-stars Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers and Kelly Lynch. Then there was Sometimes They Come Back, a made-for-TV adaptation of the Stephen King story. This spawned two comically titled DTV sequels, Sometimes They Come Backâ€¦Again, which starred Hilary Swank (!), and Sometimes They Come Backâ€¦For More. To be fair, neither Konner nor Rosenthal worked on those.
A slight career up tick was achieved when the pair contributed to the story for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Then it was back down in the pits with the screenplays for The Beverly Hillbillies, the Bruce Willis stinker Mercury Rising and the needless gorilla movie remakes Mighty Joe Young and The Planet of the Apes. Astoundingly, with all that, Konner at least has managed to reclaim some cred with a writing credit for HBO’s The Sopranos.
Finally, the IMDB reveals that none other than the legendary David L. Hewitt oversaw the film’s special effects. Yes, when you have the special effects maestro from The Mighty Gorga, Monstroid and Al Adamson’s Horror of the Blood Monsters working on your film, you know you’re in good hands.
Hmm, I keep putting this off, don’t I? Well, time to pay the piper.
Our first post-credit visual is of a space station. Here we will quickly get a whiff of the film’s political leanings. (Three guesses.) We hear a merry song being sung in Russian, quickly identifying for us whose station this is. Then we recognize the tune, which is “My Way.” Ha, ha, see, the Russians are just like us. Anyway, the crooning cosmonaut is working outside of the station. One of his co-workers calls him “Comrade Sinatra” over their radio, just so we get how avuncular a bunch they are.
Unfortunately, a huge chunk of space junk comes along and smashes into the fellow. Instead of killing him outright, which would seem likely, it instead cuts his tether and sends him adrift. Meanwhile, the station, along with its remaining crew, is spent spinning out of its orbit.
Now, I’m a moron at science stuff. And believe me, that’s not just modesty speaking. Still, the luxury car-sized hunk of debris hit the cosmonaut square on, while merely scraping against the station. If I’m following this at all correctly (and I admit I may not be), then while all these respective objects are weightless, they still have mass. Moreover, the debris would have a sizable amount of momentum. So how the guy getting hit by the full body of the thing would merely be knocked aside while the entire station, which was merely swiped, would go more wildly adrift, would seem to make little sense.
Speaking of making little sense, here comes Superman, who comes flying through space with the greatest of ease. (His introduction, I might add, provides the film with its first really appalling f/x shot.) Admittedly, during Superman’s long existence as a character he’s often been given the ability to fly through space without suffering any ill effect, including from lack of air. Of course, they also once showed him pushing the Earth out of orbit by shoving on it with his two hands. However, in recent decades I think they started realizing how silly this was, and now Superman generally is given at least the fig leaf of an air helmet or something. Not so here. In fact, Supes is quite visibly breathing here. Plus his cape is waving up a storm. Oops.
Superman grabs hold of the station and stops it from spinning. This is a neat trick since he doesn’t have any leverage. Actually, he’s presumably using whatever force he employs to propel himself in flight to counter the momentum of the craft, so I’m just being snide. It’s not like I won’t have a bunch of fatter targets coming down the pike. For instance, while he stops the craft from spinning, he’s not seen pushing it back into its former orbital pathway. Which means that that craft is either farther away from the Earth or, worse, closer. Wouldn’t that result in a more quickly decaying orbit? Either way, it’s seems kind of sloppy.
Via another horrible matte shot, Superman flies out to grab the floating cosmonaut. He then deposits the fellow into an open airlock hatch. Finally, he gives they guy a friendly little farewell speech. This is in Russian, which I could buy, and in space, which I definitely couldn’t. And even if Superman could ‘talk’ in space, how the hell could the cosmonaut hear him? Plus, doesn’t Superman usually ‘hear’ cries for help? Makes you wonder how he managed to just stumble across the space station seconds after it was hit.
Let me get back to the political leanings thing. I know with some readers I’m undoubtedly considered a paranoid kook who sees a Red under every bed. (This habit being scary and nutty, unlike, say, seeing an overt anti-Communist message in every sci-fi film made in the ’50s.) Even so, it’s pretty clear that Reeve & Co., are taking a bit of a shot at then-President Reagan here. First, of course, Reeve takes Superman out of the “fighting for the American Way” box by having him not only saving Soviets, but speaking to them in their native tongues. None of that jingoistic nationalistic parochialism for this Man of Steel! Also, how could the USSR be an “evil empire” when their cosmonauts were singing Sinatra songs, for cripe’s sake? The fact that this event opens the film only strengthens one’s suspicions.
Admittedly, this is a slim reed to hang a rant on. Don’t worry, there’s a lot more of this sort of thing still to come. Most noticeably, we will eventually be shown that no political leaders of any country, even the totalitarian ones, are evil. Instead, this attribute is reserved for – three more guesses — Military and Business Guys. Hmm, Military and Business Guys. Just the sort who had the dithering, witless President Reagan in their pocket! The liberal left also associated Reagan all things nuclear, from missile to power plants. (Actually, so do I, God bless him.) And so the general badness of nuclear stuff will be a prominent aspect of the film.
Actually, I don’t know why anyone would seriously doubt any of this. Reeve’s politics are a matter of record. More generally, Reagan has been loathed by the Hollywood establishment since the day he was elected governor of California. Also, keep in mind that Reeve explicitly intended this film to convey a political – or, as he more likely thought of it, a ‘social’ – message. That was his entire motivation to returning to the role. And yes, the sharp-minded Jabootu fan is now realizing, this pushes the film into that most fecund of modern day Bad Movie categories: The Vanity Picture.
Anyway, another really poor matte shot zooms the Man of Steel back into Earth’s atmosphere. We subsequently cut to Clark hiking down the dirt roads of Smallville, on his way to visiting the old homestead. Unsurprisingly, he’s outfitted in the Official Rural Uniform of jeans, flannel shirt, boots and down vest. I don’t really recall Clark’s mother dying off (his dad, played by Glenn Ford, passed away in the first film), but then I haven’t seen Superman II or III in a while. In any case, I’m assuming both that both his adopted parents are now supposed to be deceased, since the barn, when Our Hero enters it, is festooned with cobwebs.
Clark lifts up a hay-covered trapdoor, as established in the first movie. Below it is hidden the crystal space capsule the infant Kal-El arrived on Earth in. It glows a pulsating green, which should mean it’s radioactive kryptonite and thus should presently be killing Clark. But never mind. Suddenly the voice of Kal-El’s mother is heard. It couldn’t be Jor-El, his father, because there’s no way Cannon would cough up however many millions of dollars it would take to get Marlon Brando to do a voiceover bit.
The message is the same one heard in the first film, about how the Earth’s yellow sun will give him powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Well, not in those exact words, maybe, but that’s the gist. The voice also explains that the craft holds an “energy module – all that remains of a once-powerful civilization.” Right on cue, this particular crystal starts pulsating. Again, this kind of blows series continuity. Didn’t Clark already remove this, take it to the North Pole, and use it to create his Fortress of Solitude? Or is there a limitless number of these things that he can come and collect whenever the urge hits him? In any case, this is what powers the ship. “Once removed,” the voice continues, “the ship will grow cold and silent.” Moreover, the “power in the module can be used but once.”
In other words, yep, Clark’s getting yet another magical deus ex machina get-out-of-jail card. Like when he turned back time to keep Lois from dying in the first movie. Then there’s the second film. Clark, learns that through, hey, another magical crystal he can give up his powers, become fully human and thus take a wife. So he reveals his secret to Lois and becomes her human lover. However, he is forced to reassume his superpowers in order to save the Earth. Of course, this left Lois knowing who he was. So he magically erased just these specific memories with a kiss. The fact that he can give up and get back his powers but once is yet another deus ex machina device. Meanwhile, there might have been one of these in Superman III, but as I’ve said, I have almost no memories of that film.
Clark’s X-ray vision alerts him to an approaching truck. He removes the brightly glowing module and sticks it in the pocket of his down vest. Oddly, it doesn’t shine through the thin material. On the other hand, it’s too long to fit in completely and so a pulsating segment of it remains in clear sight. (!!) Following the removal of this artifact, the freshly decommissioned space capsule becomes covered with a cheezy-looking cartoon glow and then, rather conveniently — not to mention stupidly — just ceases to exist. Huh?
The fellow in the truck is Mr. Hornsby, the local realtor selling the farm for Clark. Personally, I don’t think Clark would ever sell his parent’s farm. This is arguable, of course, but to me it seems out of character. So why is this scene here? So that he can forthrightly refuse to sell the land to *gasp* “a big developer.” Because Big Developers are bad, don’tcha know. (Left to our imaginations is why anyone would wish to turn the Kent’s remote farm into, as we’re told, a *choke* “shopping mall.”) Again, this all seems to have been thrown in to let fans now that Superman is no damn money-grubbing conservative. Or what Hollywood considers a conservative to be, anyway. Take that, Big Business!
Next comes a maudlin bit where Hornsby and Clark look over a conveniently weird assemblage of junk just sitting out by the barn. There’s Clark’s crib, which has fractured walls from where he kicked it as a baby. (Ho ho!) Then Clark picks up from the crib a baseball and mitt, presumably the ones he and Jonathon Kent played with in the first movie as he was growing up. (Where’s the other mitt, though?) This is all meant to show us that Clark misses his dead parents. Thanks for that keen insight.
Kindly ol’ Mr. Hornsby hectors Clark into grabbing a bat and taking a swing. Oh, so that’s why the other mitt is missing, so that they will use the bat instead. Clark misses on purpose with a clumsy wild spin, so at least they kept him in character and avoided a dumb gag. However, after Hornsby leaves Clarks swings again and smacks the ball into outer space (!). Because, remember, he’s really Superman, and he could have done that the first time had he wanted to. You’d think a baseball would burn up if traveling fast enough to escape Earth’s gravitational field, but I guess not. Even more amazing is that you could hit the ball that hard without it exploding, or without even breaking the bat.
Cut to a prison rock pile. Here we get more of the lowbrow humor that would increasingly plague the series. This is where we catch up with Lex Luthor, naturally enough. He’s supposedly bewigged so that Hackman doesn’t have to wear a bald wig throughout the film. Luthor is whistling some Mozart and stops to pick up a flower to adorn his prison tunic. See, this shows how humorously fastidious he is. Another convict asks him what that “awful noise” is he’s whistling. See, it’s funny, because Mozart generally isn’t considered awful noise, but instead the opposite. Get it?
This sets Luthor off on one of his supposedly comedic orations, accompanied by a tuba music version of John Williams’ “March of the Villains.” The music ensures that we know that this is meant to be funny, lest we miss this aspect due to the scene’s complete lack of mirth-generating qualities. Also, why did the series keep making Luthor such a clod? Doesn’t that sort of rob him of any real sense of menace?
Just as the guards start to chastise Luthor for his lack of toil, a classic Cadillac convertible appears, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” booming from its speakers. Insanely, the guards utterly ignore the fact that this car has driven right amongst their collection of prisoners and instead continue to yell at Lex. Again, I believe this was meant to be funny in some Bizarro-World fashion. Actually, on Bizarro-World this film must work like a charm.
Eventually they do run over to the car. We now see that this gorgeous piece of machinery has been horribly customized. There are big silver geegaws attached all over it and a number of logos meant to suggest that it’s a radio station promotional vehicle. The driver is Lenny (Jon Cryer [!]), sporting what I believe is meant to be an ’80s punk look. Or something, that’s not really my area. In any case, his hair is dyed blond down the middle and he speaks in that awful-’80s Valley Girl sort of argot. Cryer is replacing Ned Beatty as Otis, who in the first two movies was Luthor’s comically oafish sidekick. Presumably, and here’s the really sad part, the substitution was meant to provide a younger character that the kids in the audience could more easily ‘relate’ to.
Lenny invites the guards to climb into his car, the better to appreciate the sound system. Being the sort of movie this is, they enthusiastically agree. Lenny moves out and they jump in. It’s a trap, though, and the car automatically seals up and launches itself off a cliff. Seems like a lot of work to incapacitate two rather stupid guards. For instance, Lenny could have just arrived with a pistol and shot them. Instead, we see the two dazed, dust-covered guards crawling from the wrecked car. The crash of which, from what we saw, would definitely have killed both of them. This is like something out of The Dukes of Hazzard (which, actually, had then just recently left the air), and further indicates that this movie is, unlike the prior chapters, meant mostly for kids.
Lenny, we learn, is Luthor’s nephew. “I’ve always considered you the Dutch Elm on my family tree,” Luthor quips. Ha. Ha. Revealing that his number one goal is life is the destruction of Superman – well, duh – Luthor and his flunky climb into a conveniently waiting van and drive away.
Cut to Metropolis. Clark is heading into work, and nearly ends up joining Lois on a subway train. (Lois’ comic trait in this movie, apparently, will be that she’s studying to learn French.) Instead, he allows himself to miss it, becauseâ€¦I don’t know. Then the train moves off. Behind it we see a PSA mural featuring McGruff the Crime Dog and Smokie the Bear. Clark ends up standing in a tableau with these cartoon characters, which is obviously meant to beâ€¦I don’t know. Witty? Droll? Inspiring? Ironic? Anyway, I’m sure it means something, because the shot was obviously carefully set up.
Oh, now I see why Clark missed the train. IITS. See, if he were actually on the train, it would have been harder for him to secretly turn into Superman and save it when, thirty seconds after it pulls out of the station, the driver has a heart attack. (!!) Now, I’m not exactly Tech Guy, but even I know these things come with dead man’s switches that stop the train automatically if the driver becomes incapacitated. Hmm, perhaps they lack these in Metropolis because Superman lives there. “Mr. Mayor,” the Transportation Chief might have said, “if we don’t install Dead Men Switches on our subway trains, we’ll save half a million dollars. And it’s not like we need them. If we lose control of a train, Superman will take care of it!”*
[*Actually, in the paperback novel Superman: The Last Son of Krypton, author Elliot S. Maggin plays around with this exact idea. A social theorist appears on a Metropolis morning talk show, positing this theory. Lois Lane, a fellow guest, derides it. The theorist responds by asking what she would do if trapped in a mineshaft with a limited amount of air. Her reply is something like, “I’d be wondering what was taking Superman so long.” The sociologist points out that her answer concurs with his assertion, which is that mankind is becoming more stagnant because the expect the god-like Superman to solve their problems for them. In a way, this whole movie is like a poorly skewed take on that same, intriguing premise.]
Being a seasoned reporter, Lois is the first to detect that the train is whipping past stations and traveling three times faster than it should be. So she wisely begins to shout, “Help! Help!” This causes the rest of the passengers to start panicking. Good one, Lois. Hearing their cries – I mean, c’mon, they’re not even in the vacuum of space – Clark steps into one of the station’s rather, uh, retro full-length phone booths and instantly steps out as Superman. (How often does he end up losing his street clothes and briefcase and wallet and stuff when he does this? What a hassle!) In other words, the hypothetical transportation chief’s plan works.
Utilizing another bad matte shot, Superman zooms ahead of the train. (Note how none of the passengers at the next stop turn around and watch as Superman supposedly flies past them.) He steps on the third rail and shorts it out, stopping the train. Or some damn thing. And even if that worked, wouldn’t he have shut down every train in the system? Good work, Superman. Before flying off, Our Hero gives a short speech about how the subway is still the safest means of public transport. (!!) Given what we’ve just seen, I presume he means that they only lose a dozen or so people a week, whereas the municipal bus system kills hundreds of passengers a month.
We catch up to Clark at the offices of The Daily Planet. (Apparently he was able to retrieve his stuff from the phone booth.) The main workspaces are empty, and he finds everyone assembled in a meeting room. It apparently takes less people to turn out a Great Metropolitan Newspaper than I had imagined. I would have said hundreds or thousands, but there are maybe twenty to thirty staffers here, total.
Being a big cheese, Clark sits at the meeting table with Perry White and Lois. Staff photographer Jimmy Olsen hovers behind them, since he’s more of a secondary character. The meeting is to introduce David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker), a tycoon who’s just bought The Planet. He’s obviously meant to evoke media mogul Rupert Murdoch. So that we don’t miss this, we first see him castigating the current issue of The Planet. Which is presumably this universe’s analog to The New York Times, albeit one run by roughly three and a half people, if you count Jimmy. Warfield intends to turn it into a gossipy tabloid, like Murdoch did with a number of American papers. Although the extent of these transformations was generally somewhat exaggerated by critics.
Warfield is accompanied by his equally corporate-minded daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway). We can tell what she’s like by the fact that she wears glasses and sports a conservative hairdo. Of course, all they care about is profits, which rankles the staffers. Being in the Media, they only care about The Truth and The Public Weal and that sort of thing. They’re outraged that Warfield plans to make them generate more income than they spend to put out the paper. Warfield has some weird word for this, I think it’s ‘profits’ or something. I hope he’s not planning to cut staff, though, since the paper’s down to two reporters already.
As you may have gathered by now, this isn’t the world’s most subtle film. Therefore the mock-up for the ‘new’ Daily Planet is ten pages long, features a half-naked woman on the cover (not even page 3!) and a goofy headline. “SUMMIT KAPUT! Is World At Brink?” this reads. When Clark points out the headline is grossly exaggerated and thus irresponsible, Warfield smiles. “Maybe,” he replies, “but it’ll sell a hell of a lot of newspapers!” Actually, I don’t think people looking for cheesecake photos in their morning paper are all that interested in even the most sensationalistic foreign summit news. But what do I know? I’m not an Evil Media Tycoon.
The staff (well, Clark, Lois and Perry) is outraged, of course, but the new owners hold their contracts. Apparently these don’t include an opt-out clause in case the paper is sold. This makes me wonder what brainiac agent or lawyer negotiated them. Besides, if Warfield wants to so completely redo the paper, wouldn’t he fire all of them anyway? Then comes the final straw: Lois’ trip to Paris – which is why she was studying French — for the “Minister’s Conference” has been canceled to save money. Making this less heartbreaking to the viewer is the clear impression that she was looking forward to it mostly as a free trip and not as a story opportunity.
Clark, feeling that they’re being treated unfairly – oh, yeah, now that he mentions it, I see what he means – walks over to talk with Lacy. We can tell (this being the sort of movie where you can instantly ‘tell’ everything) that she’s smitten with Clark’s Midwestern manners and polite mien. Lois senses this and gets kind of protective of him, although she doesn’t admit feeling anything herself for Clark. As we know, she’s more into Superman. Kind of ironic, eh? Because Clark isâ€¦oh, you guys already got that part.
Cut to Warfield’s office. “Why are those no air travel expenses for you, Mr. Kent?” Warfield asks. Way to cover your secret identity, Supermoron. And nobody noticed this all these years? Maybe The Planet does need new ownership.
Olsen runs in to announce a special Presidential Address on the tube. Clarks fears the worst, while Warfield lusts for it. “We can double our circulation with a good international crisis,” he gloats. An international crisis? The Planet must have a pretty low circulation. If he really wanted to sell more papers he’d cover that whole Brittany Spears/Justin Timberlake thing more prominently. That would quadruple their circulation.
Here’s where the film really starts becoming obnoxious for yours truly. The President, an older man with a pompadour obviously meant to invoke Ronald Reagan, tells the nation of the collapse of the “international summit.” Given this, he continues, “We have no choice but to strive to be second to none in the nuclear arms race.” This announcement is made with Tragic Music playing in the background. Needless to say, everyone in the newsroom looks properly horrified at this news. I find this strange, since:
- I don’t know why they’re surprised. When the hell did an ‘International Summit’ ever solve a problem?
- America’s nuclear arsenal had been guaranteeing comparative world peace for over forty years by the time this film was made. So this pronouncement strikes me as less than ominous. In fact, I’d call it a no-brainer.
More annoying is the implicit idea that America’s drive to maintain a lead in the nuclear arms race is part, indeed perhaps the main driving force, of the ‘madness.’ The central idea behind all this being that, in sum, nuclear weapons are ‘bad.’ It’s bad to have them, bad, and mean, and, well, altogether not nice. This is not an overly sophisticated view. Nor has history been kind to this movie, or more generally to any proponent of the ’80s nuclear freeze movement. Truly historic arms reduction eventually occurred because President Reagan wouldn’t sign an agreement that favored the Soviets, despite taking a literally historic amount of flack.
To further emphasis the film’s take on World Events, we cut to a pretty young grade school teacher. Her class is listening to the same address. Yes, that’s what I remember doing in school, too. When the President is heard talking about maintaining our military superiority, she turns off the set in evident disgust. She’s unable to take any more of the Madness, I guess. Actually, I know how she feels. I had the exact same sickened reaction for eight straight years when I saw or heard the words “President” and “Clinton” appearing on my TV at the same time.
“I know you’re upset by the crisis,” she tells her class. Yes, I also remember as the childhood terror I felt whenever the latest International Summit failed. “The best thing we can do is try to think positively,” she continues. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean taking a positive view of the President’s call to maintain a strong military. She means, you know, to think positively as in visualizing world peace. That sort of thing.
By the way, what’s the deal with the whole Children’s Letters to the President thing? You know what I mean. A debate is going on about some complicated issue, like whether signing the Kyoto Treaty or some chemical arms treaty is actually in our national interest. Sure enough, some local news channel will feature a class of second graders whose teacher has had them crayon notes to the White House saying things like, “Mr. President, please stop the pollution. It scares me. Signed, Billy.” This sentiment would presumably be accompanied a picture of a crying tree or something.
Oddly, these notes never say, “Mr. President, please don’t implement potentially harmful policies until we’re more aware of the actual nature and extent of these complicated problems.” Oh, wait, that’s not odd. That’s right, the notes are being written by children. Despite the fact that the kids are merely regurgitating whatever their teachers told them, the end result is always to cut back to the news anchor, who sagely nods his head as if to say, “From the mouths of babes, huh?” No offense, but if eight year-olds are so wise, why don’t we elect them President?
Sure enough, the teacher suggests that her class of fifth graders write to their congressmen. In the back, though, is one kid who’s obviously a thinker. How do we know? He’s actually posing like Rodin’s The Thinker. “Jeremy,” she calls, “what could we do about the crisis?” Another student replies that, “He doesn’t even know what’s going on.” This, of course, if meant to be a snide and cruel remark, although the vast weight of probability supports this contention. Jeremy, however, with a Child’s Wisdom, gives out with the film’s central plot device: He suggests writing not to Congress but to Superman. Actually, given the existence of Superman in this universe, wouldn’t classes be writing him all the time about stuff? Anyway.
We cut to a museum. A new exhibit is a strand of Superman’s hair, seen holding up a steel ball weighing half a ton. A tour group moves on, allowing us to see Luthor and Lenny hanging about in regular guy disguise. By which I mean baseball jackets, ball caps and plaid pants. Isn’t that wacky?! “Do you know what I could do with a single strand of Superman’s hair?” Luthor asks. Uh, make the world’s first indestructible cheese-slicer? Hey, if you thought my joke was stupid, Lenny replies, “You could make a toupee that flies.” Oh, my sides.
“That hair is a sample of Superman’s genetic material,” Luthor continues. Gee, thanks. “With my genius and enough nuclear power to mutate his genes, I could create a being who’s more powerful than him.” Now, I really don’t think you could mutate Superman’s genes with nuclear power. You could probably do it with Red Kryptonite, which historically has mutated Superman into some bizarre form whenever he’s exposed to it. (Luckily, the changes traditionally wear off after exactly twenty-four hours. And what are the odds of that?) Red Kryptonite won’t do, though. Remember, this movie’s about the evils of Nuclear Stuff.
By the way, if you probably couldn’t mutate Superman’s genes with nuclear energy, you definitely couldn’t cut a strand of his hair with a simple bolt-cutter. Which is what Luthor does here. Moreover, how would you extract genetic material from it? It’s Superman’s hair.
Cut to The Planet. Lacy is trying to look alluring for when Clark drops by her office. Given the politics of this film, and the fact that she’s Warfield’s daughter, there are only two character options for Lacy:
- She can be forthrightly evil, like her Dad.
- She can be a bit of a ditz, not understanding the ramifications of her father’s actions, but basically good-hearted and reformable.
Since she’s meant to be a possible romantic foil for Clark, it’s unsurprising which of the two personality types they went with. I really can’t remember what happens to Lacy, since this is the first time I’ve watched the film since it came out fifteen years ago. Still, I think I can safely guess that her association with Clark will lead to a moral awakening. This, in turn, will announce itself when she stands up to her father at some point later in the movie. [Future Ken: Believe it or not, I proved to be absolutely right!]
Lacy ends up splayed across her desk in a sort of ’40s cheesecake pose. This is another example of the film’s subtle sense of humor. At this point in the series they’re about one step away from being a Joel Schumacher burlesque. Lacy pitches an idea, to have Clark write a lifestyle column called “Metropolis After Dark.” The joke being that innocent Clark is exactly the wrong guy for such a thing. Actually, though, the column is meant to provide occasions for Lacy to go out with Clark as he’s doing research. Learning that Lacy would be considering this a date, Clark nervously rears up and bumps his knee on her desk. Again, this whole thing seems to be written for children, with the boy all nervous about going out with girls and stuff. Eeeew, maybe she’ll want him to kiss her! Blechh!
Lois comes in, having been sent Jeremy’s letter to Superman. Why? I don’t know. Anyway, she thinks the letter should be given to Clark in lieu of Superman. Why? I don’t know. Pretty convenient, though, because Clark really is Superman. Clark reads the letter, in which Jeremy asks Superman to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This is supposed to be a really big and inspiring moment, although personally I was rolling my eyes so far into the back of my head that I was afraid the rubber band would break.
Lacy is delighted. She feels the letter can be publicized and Jeremy’s request made into a big story. Lois, of course, is horrified. Why? I don’t know. As I noted before, in the real world the media does this sort of thing all the time. Still, the idea is that anything Warfield does, or that Lacy does while she still working for him, is ipso facto a bad, bad idea.
Jeremy is flown to Metropolis. Warfield and Lacy meet him, which I think this is meant to be all sinister and stuff. (By the way, is this how billionaire media tycoons really spend their time?) He hauls the kid to a waiting press conference. This seems counterproductive. If the idea is to exploit the kid to raise The Planet‘s circulation, why share him with all these other news sources? Wouldn’t it be better to splash the kid’s letter across the front page of their paper and then limit outside access to him as much as possible? “I just wish Superman would have said ‘yes’,” Jeremy tells the assembled reporters. This pronouncement cues, that’s right, a spinning newspaper. It’s the ‘new’ Daily Planet, and the headline screams “SUPERMAN SAYS ‘DROP DEAD’ TO KID!” Man, that’s some finely hone satire there, boy.
The original Planet gang are horrified at the paper’s antics. (Who’s writing all these stories, by the way, if none of the senior reporting staff are aware of them? And just what is Clark and Lois working on if all the paper’s content is guff?) Perry goes to complain to Warfield, and it’s supposed to be an evil sign that he’s being forced to wear a suit to work instead of the lovable blue sweater he normally wears. Yeah, yeah, John Sayles will make a movie about you. Clark, meanwhile, is discomforted by the coverage. “It’s up to Superman now,” Lois says reassuringly. “I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.”
Of course, Lois’ faith in Superman perplexes Clark further. He strolls out into the hall for some alone time. He’s next seen as Superman, flying out to the Fortress of Solitude for some real seclusion. Mom’s voiceover tells him he must listen to the sage counsel of the Elders of Krypton. Luckily, his omnipotent crystals allow him to do this, and pretty much anything else the script requires him to do.
“I know I’m forbidden to interfere,” Superman announces. “And yet the Earth is threatened by the same fate as Krypton’s.” This is news to me. As I recall Krypton fell prey to a natural cataclysm. I guess Superman just means the Earth faces complete annihilation, as befell his home world. I know we’ve delved before into the issue of whether anything short of an all-out, worldwide nuclear war, if that, could literally destroy the Earth. So we won’t go into that again. And there’s no real point. Debate of issues, much less the introduction of stubborn things like facts, isn’t what this film’s about.
“Earth is too primitive,” one Ghostly Elder thunders. “You can flee to new worlds, where war is long forgotten.” Well, that sort of far-sighted policy advice helps explain what happened to Krypton, I guess. I can see why Superman’s been entreated to listen to these guys. The second dude, though, is closer to the mark. “If you teach the world to put its faith in any one man,” GE #2 advises, “even yourself, you’re teaching them to be betrayed.” At this the first GE starts repeating “Betrayed! Betrayed!” Then they fade from sight. Well, Superman, now your course is clear. It’s all so simple now! (You pretty much have to believe this was one of the scenes they radically shortened when the film was whittled down to 90 minutes. The weird thing is that out of forty minutes of jettisoned material, they couldn’t find anything better to keep than this odd and truly pointless little segment.)
We see Clark watching a TV broadcast. In a bit of Sophisticated Irony, the Russian Prime Minister (I’m assuming) is giving a speech that, translated, is pretty much word for word the same as the American President’s. But wait! How can we have military superiority if the Russians also have it, and vice versa. Oh, wait, I get it! That’s what the film’s getting at! Ho, ho. Good one! Again, this is meant to suggest the madness of, well, MAD. A system that actually worked pretty damn well for forty years and, quite arguably, prevented a third and maybe even a forth world war. Even so, thoughâ€¦nuclear weapons. Ick!
Lois shows up at Clark’s apartment, reminding him that he’s supposed to escort her to a press function. He’s too roiled up, though, in agonizing over Jeremy’s request. Of course, he doesn’t tell Lois that. She asks him if there’s anything she can do, and he says he needs some fresh air. They head out to his patio and Clark dives them off the building. Lois falls floor after floor, screaming. (She’s perhaps reacting to the horrendous quality of the bluescreen work.) Finally, though, Superman appears and catches her. What a hilarious piece of japery, my alien friend! You really have a way with the ladies!
Superman is still wearing Clark’s glasses, and so Lois learns his secret identity. Again. She removes them and hangs them off the sash of her dress, so as to establish why Clark will still have them later. (Right, like Superman wouldn’t have a spare set of spectacles!) This all allows for a reprise of the “Can You Read My Mind” sequence in Superman: The Motion Picture. They even play an instrumental version of the song in the background. The fact, however, that they’re resorting to nakedly recreating sequences from the earlier pictures, and in the shortened version of the movie, just shows how little point there is to this film.
Superman and Lois fly romantically about, side by side – I never did figure that part out – and apparently around the entire country or maybe the globe. Par for the course here, the bluescreen effects range from barely acceptable to embarrassingly bad. Then, and this really freaked me out, there’s a bit where Superman again lets go of Lois, watching her fall for a short distance before he laughingly catches her again. As the punch line of the joke goes: You’re a mean drunk, Superman.” This goes on for a straight minute of screentime, which is way too long. Although the editing suggests that in the original cut of the film it was probably longer yet.
Superman eventually takes Lois back to his balcony. Here I honestly was waiting for Clark to suddenly wake up in his chair and discover that it was all a dream. Because the scene’s so completely moronic that I couldn’t believe that it was actually supposed to be ‘real.’ Especially, and I mean especially, because Clark’s balcony is completely exposed and surrounded by other apartment buildings! Yet he goes leaping off of it, with Lois yet, and then returns later, lands on it in broad daylight whilst dressed as Superman (!!) and stands around talking to her for a good minute or so. Right in view of what must be dozens of windows, some of which are literally about ten feet away!
Amazingly, though, all this is meant to be ignored. Superman finally asks Lois what she thinks he should do vis-â€¡-vis the whole nuclear arms issue. (I hope she’s got something better to offer than the twin Elders of Krypton did.) Another thing that’s weird is that Reeve, now a bit older and more gaunt than in the earlier films, looks right here quite a bit like Richard Chamberlain. Really! I swear! Take a look yourself if you don’t believe me. I think it’s the eyebrows more than anything else. (Now that Reeve was working with Cannon, maybe he had hopes of snagging that third Allan Quatermain film.)
Lois, it turns out, remembers everything from Movie #2. To be charitable, let’s say that Superman’s psychotic little aeronautic jaunt has reawakened her memories. Otherwise, why would she have screamed when Clark pulled her off the roof? Anyhoo, Lois’s contribution to his dilemma is repeating, “You’ll do the right thing, no matter what. You always have.” Thanks, Lois, that really puts things in perspective. Actually, given the kind of movie this is, it’s surprising she wasn’t given some pseudo-meaningful piece of twaddle to say, like, “Look into your heart, Superman. The truth’s there. It always has been.” (Gads, I think I’m been watching stuff like this for way too many years.)
At this point I was still waiting for the “It was all a dream!” thing. I finally realized it wasn’t coming when Supes leaned in to deliver unto Lois another of his patented Amnesia Kisses. As with the second film, this amazing smooch somehow causes Lois to lose only those exact memories that Superman wishes. Hmm. I know Superman’s not gay, but why doesn’t he take one for the team and kiss Lex Luthor? Perhaps he could make him forget how to be Evil, or at least how to construct all his various superweapons. Hell, it could take Luthor years to relearn all the physics and stuff behind them. Then Superman could just kiss him again. After all, we now know it’s safe to use the Kiss on someone more than once.
Anyway, Lois goes into a spell after the Kiss, and Clark unhooks his glasses – still hanging by an earpiece from her dress! — and heads inside to resume his secret identity. Safely Clark again, he calls to her and she awakens.
We cut to Jeremy, seen standing outside the UN Building. Jimmy Olsen buys him a hotdog from a street vender. It’s so New Yawk, you know what I mean? Oops, I guess in this universe this is in Metropolis. Anyway, Superman soon makes the scene. In a pretty funny throwback to the George Reeves Superman show, Reeve quite obviously just jumps into frame to simulate Superman coming in for a landing. You know, it’s moments like this that make all the work worthwhile.
The Man of Steel and Jeremy go for a walk, with Jimmy tagging along to take pictures. Let’s see: This is a Superman who repeatedly screws around with the mind of the woman he loves, invites news photographers to follow him around as he yaks with a kid, and is contemplating more or less establishing himself as a one-man One World Government. And Warfield’s the bad guy?
Soon Superman is surrounded by a veritable parade of youthful admirers. He leads the crowd into the UN Building, where attendees break into applause upon seeing him. He sends his followers upstairs to the viewing gallery. I hope there aren’t many folks already up there. Then again, why would there be — this is the UN. In any case, Superman and enters the delegate’s chamber.
I remember when I first saw this movie. This was the only scene I thought really worked. And it still does – until you start thinking about it. Still, for the young of heart and mind it remains one of the great moments of the four Superman movies. Superman enters the chamber and receives a standing ovation from the entire assembly. He then asks for permission to address the delegates. Told that he requires a sponsor to do so, each and every delegate raises their hands. This image, of a world showing its gratitude to a person who’s done so much for people everywhere, is a powerful one.
Looking at it as an adult, however, it strikes a shriller note. Lacy, up in the gallery, asks Lois what he’s going to say. Lois assumes a reverent visage and hushedly replies, “Something wonderful.” Now, Superman has been and can be, with a bit of a stretch, viewed as a Christ figure. This is problematic, I think, but I’ve seen it used as an interesting piece of subtext. Here, however, the notion is used explicitly, and frankly it’s a bit creepy. As he gives his speech, the crowd reacts with beatific smiles and looks of transcendental joy.
“For many years now I’ve lived among you as a visitor,” Superman begins. “I’ve seen the beauty of your many cultures. I’ve felt great joy in your magnificent accomplishments. I’ve also seen the folly of your wars. As of today, I’m not a visitor anymore, because the Earth is my home too. We can’t live in fear. And I can’t stand by idly by and watch us stumble into the madness of possible nuclear destruction. And so I’ve come to a decision. I’m going to do what our governments have been unwilling or unable to do. Effective immediately, I’m going to rid our planet of all nuclear weapons.” At this pronouncement, the assembled delegates and spectators leap to their feet, wildly cheering.
I don’t use profanity on this site very often, for various reasons. One, I consider this a family site. Second, it’s a cheap way to get a laugh and I don’t want to use it as a crutch. Third, I think overuse of profanity undermines its purpose, which is to cause shock. If you hear or use profanity all the time, it loses its power to offend and thus its purpose.
Well, the time has come to inject a note of vulgarity. Because this “inspirational” scene, with it’s enraptured masses, messiah figure and manipulative, syrupy music is One Hundred Percent, Grade-A, Government Approved Bullshit.
This is never truer than in the response to Superman’s speech. Or, actually, ultimatum. OK, yes, many would applaud Superman’s ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Others would be swept up in the euphoria of believing that Man’s finally being delivered from his benightedness by a superior being. And not one of those irritatingly ethereal ones. No, one you can see and touch. Imagine the bliss of the adherents of the Church of Superman – and you know there’s got to be one – that he’s finally cast off his role as helper of mankind and revealed himself to be our shepherd and protector.
“We can’t live in fear,” Superman asserts to explain his intercession. Well, guess what, Supes? A pretty significant percentage of the world is crapping their pants right about now. Yep, there goes that whole Free Will thing, out the window, not to mention the idea of participatory democracy.
And what would other pop culture icons think? Imagine, say, Captain Kirk’s reaction to hearing this. How many planets did he rid of ‘gods’ because they were negatively impacting human progress, moral, intellectual and otherwise? How many worlds did he cast into brutal turmoil because he felt they were too comfortable? Man, I’d like to see him listening to all this. (Of course, Superman would be the first superbeing Kirk ran into whose powers didn’t emanate from an easy to destroy machine.)
There are other problems with the universally positive reactions to Superman’s announcement. What about, for instance, Israel? Its nuclear arsenal, and its evident will to use it if forced to, is about the only thing that’s kept the country on the map. Wouldn’t Israel’s representative be freaking out about now. (Not that the U.N.’s ever worried much about Israel’s concerns). Wouldn’t he or she demand to know if Superman’s going to make it his personal responsibly to safeguard Israeli citizens against those seeking to harm them?
And what about countries that would be more militarily expansionist if it wasn’t for their massive conventional forces being offset by relatively cheap nuclear arms? Is Superman going to somehow keep China, the Soviet Union, Libya, and all the others in line on his lonesome? As I’ve argued, nuclear weapons have done the world a lot of good over the last fifty years.
Take America as an obvious example, since we’ve been involved in all the really major conflicts of the last hundred years or so. We can start with the Civil War. Really, really big. Then World War I. Bigger. World War II. Huger yet. Then Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the development of the hydrogen bomb and the arms race. Mankind lives in fear of complete and utter annihilation for the first time. Paranoia infects millions and millions of people. Millions, perhaps billions, are unnerved, some go mad, a handful even take their own lives.
And yetâ€¦ Wars, for the first time in human history, start getting smaller rather than bigger. Superpowers constrain their conflicts, lest a nuclear exchange result. They begin fighting through ever-smaller proxies instead of directly matching their militaries against those of their direct rivals. Arguably, quite arguably, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people who might have died in those wars instead remained alive.
Once Superman gets rid of these weapons, all this is gone. What will Superman do if a bunch of radical Islamic nations suddenly launch a war against Israel? What if the leaders of the Soviet Union, fearful of a closely guarded but imminent total economic collapse, were to suddenly find itself undeterred by NATO’s nuclear might? Might they not launch a war just to plaster over their economic plight, as countries have been doing for centuries? Isn’t it at least possible? What will the Last Son of Krypton do then? Take away our aircraft carriers and subs, our bomber planes, our tanks, our mortars, our rifles, our bayonets?
What about the professional haters of America? During the period I wrote this article, France’s # 1 best-selling book argued that the U.S. Government blew up the Twin Towers. Beacons were placed in the buildings to draw the planes in and bombs planted at the base of the support pillars to ensure that the towers came down. Furthermore, the Pentagon wasn’t, as reported, even hit by a plane. That was a hoax, faked with a car bomb to foster the illusion of a attack, the better to pump up the Military/Industrial complex that really runs everything. This book has already sold more than a 100,000 copies over there. I’m serious.
Now, imagine that Superman was real. No matter what he did, the usual collection of European intelligentsia and dictators and Communists and Islamic reactionaries and whatnot would view Superman as not only an aspect of America’s malign military and cultural imperialism, but it’s very symbol. Look at how he flies around, they’d mutter, using his sheer brute strength to manipulate the world into his own image, yet without ever addressing the root causes of anything.
And how about those totalitarian regimes? Remember the famine in Ethiopia? Huge issue in the ’80s, “Hands Across America” and all that. Remember how Americans raised tens of millions of dollars to buy food? Unfortunately, despite our good intentions, not to mention self-satisfied moral preening, the food sent over there rotted away in harbors rather than feeding anyone. Why? Because the famine never was a natural disaster, or due to a lack of infrastructure. No, the famine was purposely created and wielded as a weapon by the government of Ethiopia against its own people.
What would Superman, especially this interventionist Superman, be doing around this time? Would he have been as concerned about the famine’s actual millions of casualties as he is here about the potential deaths that might one day be caused by nuclear weapons? You’d have to think so. So what could he have done? Well, given the nature of the problem, the permanent solution would have been for Superman to bring about an end to the Ethiopian government. Chances are, though, that he’d avoid this option, because otherwise where do you stop? A more contained alternative would have been to airlift food in himself. Superman can fly at super-speeds, and he could have brought in enough food to feed the entire country in less than a day.
Since the government couldn’t shoot him down, they might have reacted by staging massacres of their own citizens. After all, that’s essentially what the famine was, a gigantic staged massacre. Then Superman would be back at square one. But let’s say that, for fear of drawing world ire, Ethiopia allowed him to fly in the food without resistance. Superman’s mission is a success (although not really a long-term solution), and much of the world applauds him. Not all of it, though. However things turned out, totalitarian regimes would become increasingly chary of the Man of Steel.
For another example, what if Superman had been around and tried something similar in regards to Stalin’s calculated starvation of tens of millions of Kulaks. Even if Stalin proved impotent to stop him – which is unlikely – the fact is that Superman be hated and feared and tarred as a lackey of Western imperialism. People in the US like the Rosenbergs would be organizing anti-Superman protests. (At least until Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin. Then overnight Superman would have become a Champion of the Peoples.)
Now imagine that this same fellow walks into the UN and basically says, “You people are nuts. I’m taking over this shindig now.” Oh, yeah. That’d go over like a Superman-can’t-see-through-it lead balloon. Hell, what about the Black Helicopter people, the ones who already mistrust Superman because he’s not even a human being? What are they going to be up to after this?
Ironically, the main reason comic book movies are usually so stupid is that the people making them think the term ‘comic book’ translates more or less to ‘dumb.’ “It doesn’t have to make sense,” you can almost hear them saying, “it’s a comic book movie.” The irony is that for the last decade and more many comics have been displayed more intelligence than most movies out there. The idea, for instance, of Superman or the Justice League taking over the world for its own good has hardly gone unexplored. In the comics, though, this pretty much always results in a totalitarian government that’s worse than problems it’s meant to fix.
And by the way, I don’t care how much Lois Lane loves and trusts Superman. She’s a hardnosed, take-no-crap woman who runs her own life, thank you very much. She’d wouldn’t be approving of what Superman’s doing here. She’d be thinking about how to talk him out of it first and about organizing a resistance movement to stop him second.
However, this isn’t actor Reeve’s agenda. Frankly, he just wouldn’t agree with many of the above scenarios. Which is fine, except that he doesn’t exactly give them a fair hearing. More pertinently, he’s cramming his, say we say, dangerously sunny political ideology down the throats of unsuspecting children. Moreover, as with the nuclear freeze movement of the ’80s – a cause which, if memory serves, Reeve was a vocal proponent — there’s a stink of moral equivalence here.
The problem, you see, is nuclear weapons, not the nature of some of the regimes that have them. Nuclear weapons are as bad when held by democratic nations, as intrinsically dangerous and immoral, as those owned by totalitarian states such as the USSR and China. This belief blossoms from the proposition that no form of government is fundamentally more prone to using force than any other. If the USSR and China have gigantic militaries, it’s not because they might actually wish to use them imperialistically, if given the chance. It’s rather that they fear the huge militaries of their superpower counterparts, primarily America, and seek to counterbalance them. Thus, if a ‘neutral’ figure, like Superman – hence the opening scene where he saves the Russian space station – were to arrive on the scene and offer, nay, demand, to be given control of their stockpile of nuclear arms, even totalitarian regimes would be relieved to hand them over. Because, really, they don’t want to have them any more than we do.
And sure enough, so things prove. Superman is basically handed the keys to each and every nuclear power’s silos and told, “Thanks, man. Just turn off the lights and lock up when you’re finished.” Meanwhile, presumably, folks like Moammar Gaffidi can breath a sigh of relief. Now that the protection of their subjects doesn’t require a nuclear, chemical or biological weapons capacity, they can instead use the money earmarked for same to improve education and other such social programs.
I have to wonder what Superman would have done had a nation refused his edict. Would he overthrow their governments? Attempt to barge in and take the weapons by force? What if some nation threatened to fire their missiles rather than be dictated to by a being not even from this planet? We know from the first movie that Superman can handle, at best, one missile. What if even four or five were launched in opposition to his plans?
Luckily, none of that occurs. Everyone is as happy as clams to get rid of their nukes.
American nuclear subs and Russian launch platforms fire their missiles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. There they are caught by Superman. In a series of clumsy bluescreen shots, he shoves them into a mammoth net (!!!) that, once full, he hurls into the Sun. (Good thing the net didn’t break while Superman was spinning it around and around, as the thousands of missiles would have come plummeting down all over the place.) Is the launching-and-catching thing really the safest and most efficient way to get these weapons to Superman? And was it really better to propel the net into the sun by a spin-and-release system instead of just flying it out there until the Sun’s gravitational force began inexorably pulling it in? Maybe not, but it’s sure was cool lookin’!! (Well, not really, but you know…)
But, of course, there are always those who don’t want Earth to be a paradise. Cynical bastards likeâ€¦well, me, I guess. Here, though, it’s Lex. Three men are waiting in his penthouse apartment. Hearing someone approach, they draw guns. This lets us know they’re bad guys. The footsteps are Luthor’s, who arrives with a couple of blond bimbo types named Dixie and Trixie. Again, it seems to be undercutting your own film’s drama to make the villain such a doofus. But hey, what do I know?
Lex introduces the men to each other, which means we learn who they are too. Convenient, eh? The fat guy in the suit with really wide, almost gangster-like (hmm) pinstripes, turns out to be Harry Howler (!), “nuclear strategist from America’s top think tank.” You might not have known that strategists from American think tanks carried pistols, nor pulled them at the slightest provocation. But, you know, this guy’s a nuclear strategist. So what do you expect? He is also, of course, “a great little warmonger.” You know the kind. Howler is such a literal fat cat that you wonder why they didn’t provide him with a monocle and spats. He does, however, sports a diamond pinkie ring. (!!)
From France — OK, I admit it, I never heard an insult against the French I didn’t like — comes the cleverly named Jean-Pierre Dubois. He’s a “nuclear warhead dealer to the world.” We’re also told that he’s a black marketeer, as if the great nations of the world procured their nuclear weapons illegally. I’m not sure what they’re even going for here, and I’m not sure they do either. And again, if rogue nations had bought nukes through the black market, would they really have willingly admitted it and given the weapons up to Superman?
Finally, there’s General Romoff from, oh, I don’t know, maybe the Soviet Union? A lot of folks, Lex declares, think of him as “the Mad Russian.” (Oh, bru-ther!)
In case you don’t ‘get’ it, these snakes in the now nuclear-free garden are politicians, capitalists and military types. See, they’re the only ones who want war, because blah, blah. Luthor has called them in because he’s got a plan to make the world “safe for war profits.” Why the think tank guy would find that appealing is left to our imaginations. Oh, wait, sorry, he’s the nuclear strategist think tank guy. Query withdrawn.
Actually, let me acknowledge the unusually sly quality of the propaganda. For this film, anyway. Especially slick is Howler’s role. You might wonder why the political class is represented by a rather obscure personage like a think tank analyst, rather than the more obvious Senator or Congressman. That’s because, particularly in the ’80s, ‘think tanks’ were almost solely identified with the Republicans and especially the Reagan administration. Institutions like the Cato Institute were created to marshal evidence and intellectual support for conservative and libertarian policies, since the news media was partial to dismissing such out of hand. Thus Howler’s job is pretty clearly meant to signal that it’s not both political parties that are dangerous, just the Republicans. Using a Senator in this role would thus have necessitated explicitly identifying his political affiliation, which would be outright accusation rather than the film’s preferred used of innuendo.
Well, back to our evildoers. Lex promises to accomplish their goal of nuclear rearmament by destroying Superman. Apparently without his iron fist hanging over the human race like the Sword of Damocles, er, I mean, him watching out for us all, we’ll go right back to stockpiling weapons. Which seems weird, considering how freely we gave them up. Apparently their owners didn’t place much value on them. I mean, if we really want nuclear weapons so badly, why give them up and then spend billions and billions of dollars to reacquire them? Why not tell Supes to screw off in the first place and just keep the ones we had?
Luthor has created a “genetic stew” from Superman’s DNA. If attached to a nuclear missile the result will be Superman’s “worst nightmare, a ‘Nuclear Man.’ ” Lex is surprisingly specific about this prospective being’s powers. “He’ll pierce [Superman’s] skin. He’ll make him mortal. He’ll become sick.” How does Luthor know all this? My guess is that he read the script.
By the way, let’s get back to the think tank thing. This scene is infuriating as only grossly dishonest propaganda can be. The guy playing Howler all but smacks his lips as Lex promises to help ‘them’ sell missiles. Which is weird. First, a think tank guy wouldn’t be in a position to profit from the sale of nuclear weapons in any but the most indirect way. Perhaps the weapons manufacturing industry would pay for a junket for him. Maybe they’d even hire him outright. Even then, though, you’re not talking huge riches, just a cushy job. Meanwhile, the intimation that policy analysts who believed that, say, putting missiles in Europe would stabilize the Cold War — which, in the real world, is what occurred — were actually hoping to trigger a conflict so as to reap what Lex calls “war profits” is the grossest demagoguery imaginable. For Reeve to champion another view is fine, even potentially admirable. For him to paint those who disagree with him as murderers-for-profit, however, is disgusting and not a little cowardly.
Cut to Lex and Lenny in a ‘comical’ version of a mad scientist’s lab. I should mention, to provide a further taste of what the film’s like, that Lex’s every appearance is underscored by a particularly broad and cartoonish arrangement of his theme music. Williams’ score for “The March of the Villains” has always had comic undertones; here it sounds like music from a Laurel & Hardy short. Meanwhile, Hackman is indulged to the point that they show Lex performing doing a Robin Williams-esque Richard Nixon impression. (!!) If you ever wondered if anything could beat you over the head harder than Superman himself, the answer is yes: This movie.
Lex has created a blob of protoplasm, grown from Supes’ DNA. This is locked in a small case. The glob, we’re told, will “duplicate creation itself.” This is followed by a bit that’s moronic even for this film. Lex puts small pieces of black and gold fabric into the case also. “The computer inside [the case],” Lex expositories, “will weave enough material” to costume the being that will result. (!!) Since the being’s genesis is to follow the case’s emersion into the very body of the sun, the computer had best ‘weave’ this outfit quickly before being atomized.
Admittedly, the Nuclear Man appearing fully clad would be pretty stupid. In this case, though, we’re provided with an ‘explanation’ that’s at least as stupid. Worse, it calls attention to a situation that otherwise might not have been noticed. This kind of thing happens often enough that I guess we should give it a name. Hmm. A left-handed compliment is an accolade that’s actually functions as an insult. So maybe we’ll call this a Left-Handed Solution, for an explanation that’s dumber than the problem it’s meant to cover.
And so the movie continues on its merry way, getting dumber and dumber as it goes along, like a snowball rolling downhill and becoming boulder-sized. Howler and Luthor, disguised in military uniforms, attend the launching of the missile bearing the DNA kit. Why? I don’t know. Especially since if they were caught it would jeopardize Lex’s entire Evil Scheme. I think it’s really just an opportunity to put Luthor in another ‘wacky’ outfit, as his uniform sports five stars and a supposedly comical amount of military ribbons. Oh, and here’s a typically hilarious piece of japery:
“General” Luthor: “What’s your name, Sergeant?”
Sergeant: “York, Sir!”
Hahahahahaha!! Sgt. ‘York.’ Oh, my sides. Hey, is there a Sgt. ‘Pepper’ anywhere around? Hahahahaha!!
Suddenly, for the purposes of ‘tension,’ the missile launch nearly gets scrubbed because of bad weather. (!!) (And, it’s not even raining or anything!!!) Luckily, Lex knows the secret “inclement weather override.” This restarts the countdown, although Lex leans over at the count of eight and prematurely pushes the button. You’d think somebody would question this or least find it odd, but they don’t. Why? Because this movie was made by morons, or for morons, or both. Anyway, because he punches the button early, the missile almost ‘comically’ crashes into the launch bunker – again, no one says anything about this – but it corrects its trajectory and ends up in space. A waiting Superman catches it and hurls it into the sun.
The missile explodes upon contact with the sun – wouldn’t it actually have melted away before reaching the surface? – and a cartoon ball of fire erupts outward. It’s like the creation of Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster in his first appearance, only not nearly so awesome. Instead, we watch the cartoon fire create a cartoon fetus, which then grows into a cartoon man. Finally, the blond Nuclear Man, adorned in the gaudy black and gold costume the computer “weaved” for him, emerges. Energy crackles over him and his eyes glow orange, letting us know that he’s EEEE-vil. We also are shown that he sports long, equally EEEE-vil Lee Nuclear Press-On Nails. Grinning in a, well, EEEE-vil fashion, he flies off towards Earth.
Now we cut to what is perhaps the film’s most successfully horrifying sequence. No, the Nuclear Man doesn’t go on a murderous rampage. Instead, we cut to a health club for some especially desultory ‘comic relief.’ Needless to say, this involves an aerobics class – sorry, Sam from Heavenly Bodies is nowhere to be seen – because this was, after all, made in the ’80s. Lacy and Clark are in attendance, for obvious reasons. In other words, aside from providing bad comedy, the scene is an insultingly obvious excuse for showing Mariel Hemingway in a tight shiny leotard. All their mostly female classmates are equally svelte and tightly clad, and as usual with ’80s aerobics scenes, completely sweat free. At least when there’s a shower scene in a WIP film, they aren’t pretending what they’re about.
This film, despite having the most purportedly serious message, is by far the most cartoonish entry in the series. Which considering the lame hijinx of Superman III is saying something. I’ve noted that Luthor is played as an even bigger buffoon than in the earlier entries. Reeve too, it should be noted, also limns Clark much more broadly. He’s so ‘comically’ clumsy and nebbishy in this picture that he becomes totally unbelievable. Later on we’ll see Clark wearing a trench coat, and I actually found myself waiting for him to start talking like Inspector Clouseau. Actually, Reeve seems to be exaggerating his ‘Superman’ voice, too. The fact that he’s become bored with these characters is entirely too clear.
The Komedy here arises from Clark bending when he should be standing and standing when he should be bending. Oh, my sides. Then Lacy introduces Clark to Paul, a trainer. Paul turns out to be a yuppie dickhead – I mean, he works at a health club – and he tosses Clark a barbell. He figures Clark won’t be up to catching it, which, of course, he isn’t. The point of the scene is that Lacy, now enlightened by her exposure to the wholesome Clark, realizes that most of her old friends are “jerks.” Pivotal realization accomplished, she leaves. Paul, preparing to do some bench presses, asks Clark to hand him a barbell. (Paul is noticeably doing his weight work sans a spotter. This makes no sense, but the bit requires it.) Clark responds by throwing the prone Paul a much heavier barbell than the one he wanted. Ha, ha, maybe it’ll crush his sternum. That’ll learn ‘im. Hey, I’m a poet and didn’t know it.
Perhaps the most pathetic thing about this gag is that it’s an obvious rip-off of the epilog of Superman II. This showed Clark going back to beat up the bully who manhandled him when he had given up his superpowers. General audiences loved and cheered this scene, although fans felt it was pretty damn petty for the god-like Superman to beat up a normal guy. How long would it be before he was using his heat vision to blow the tires of people who’d cut him off in traffic? Here the bit is even more pathetic, not least because they’re recycling material from only two movies ago. Could they really have run out of ideas already? Cripes, people had been writing adventures for this guy for nearly forty years at this point.
Lacy invites Clark to attend a “high tea” (!) at her apartment. See, Superman is due to appear there for an interview with Lois. (At Lacy’s apartment??) Obviously, all Clark has to do is say no. I mean, you’d have to think his excuse-making abilities would be pretty good after all these years. He doesn’t, of course, because this is all a set-up for a markedly tiresome farce sequence with Clark switching into his Superman identity and back again and so on. Again, this is pretty rank recycling. Every sitcom from the ’50s through the ’70s seemed to have an episode where a guy on a double date ran back and forth from girl to girl, with the guying switching clothes to play his own twin brother or cousin or something.
First, though, we watch Nuclear Man returning to Metropolis. Lex senses his arrival – whatever – and sends away his French minuet partner. Who’s clad in full period costume, of course. That Lex, he’s always doing something wacky. What a nut. NM flies in, affording Luthor yet another opportunity to gloat about what a genius he is. He then uses NM’s outstretched hand to light his cigar. “The power of the sun,” Lex rather unnecessarily explains, “has given him internally generated heat.” Yeah, thanks, now I get it. By the way, how much radiation is this guy throwing off? I find it hard to believe that it’s only released on contact. I guess we’d begin to doubt Lex’s genius, though, were his hair and teeth to start falling out now. We also learn that NM has a electronically roughened version of Lex’s voice. Huh? If anything, shouldn’t he sound like Superman?
NM begins to rebel. When Lenny taunts him, he waves at him. Lenny swirls up in the air, spinning whilst surrounded by blue cartoon energy. Ah, the well known ability of nuclear radiation to make things spin and levitate. Eventually, the still rotating Lenny returns to the ground. “Hey, look,” he cries. “I’m break dancing!” Man, I’m really starting to hate this movie’s attempts at comedy.
Lex has an ace up his sleeve, though, to control his errant creation. See, NM has one minute, teensy-weensy flaw: If he’s not in direct sunlight, he loses all his powers and collapses to the ground, inert. (!!) Well, sometimes, that is. Later we’ll see him fighting in city streets, where he’s clearly shown as standing in the shadows cast by the surrounding buildings. But they never mention this, so let’s play along and ignore it. Heaven knows there’s more blatant stuff to dwell upon. For instance, and this slays me, but the entire point of the movie is to demonize all things nuclear. Hence even the supervillain is nuclear. Oddly, though, he’s history’s first solar-powered Nuclear Man. I mean, they can’t even get their propaganda points right! Hmm, maybe the second Nuclear Man will derive his powers from windmills or geothermic springs.
Hey, wait, now I get it! Remember when they hesitated to fire the nuclear missile before, because of inclement weather? Well, it’s because nuclear things, like missiles and men, don’t work if they’re not in direct sunlight! Of course! Now it makes perfect sense.
Cut to Lacy’s apartment. I’ve already yakked about how the film is ruining both Superman and Luthor as characters. Here they do the same thing to Lois. Lois Lane should be a Howard Hawksian-Tough Dame Who Can Dish It Out and Take It Too. Here, though, Lois is a simpering girly-girl in pink who damn near swoons whenever anyone even says “Superman.” She’s dancing and humming and is in the process of cooking up a fancy dinner. (!!) All for an interview on Superman’s “peace mission.” Yuck!
Lacy enters, providing a moment that shows how much better the film could have been. The doorbell rings, and Lacy gets excited, thinking it’s Clark. Then she reconsiders. “Maybe it’s just Superman,” she sighs regretfully. See, the whole dynamic here is that Lacy is attracted to Clark, not to Superman. In a better movie, Clark would have to adjust to this. It would even present a challenge to his feelings for Lois, who’s treated his true self with affection at best and scornful dismissal at worst. Instead, the Clark here is such a Borsch belt yutz that he’s oblivious to Lacy’s feelings for him. It’d be like an episode of Gilligan’s Island where one of the girls became infatuated with Gilligan and he didn’t even understand what was happening.
This highlights the fact that the entire film’s off target on the whole question of Clark Kent and Superman. Comic books fans, OK, nerds, have long differentiated the psychology of Superman and Batman this way: “Superman is really Clark Kent, while Bruce Wayne is really Batman.” By which I mean, in his head, Clark is Clark. Superman is just his superhero name. In this film, however, Superman is obviously the ‘real’ one, with Clark being purely a fictional identity. This is why Superman can so completely ignore Lacy. She’s only attracted to a fabrication of his, like a girl who’s in love with Angel and not David Boreanaz.
Given the way Superman is portrayed in this picture, you wonder why he even bothers with a secret identity anymore. Especially now that his adopted parents are dead. Here’s Superman, telling the world how to behave, using his powers to one-up ordinary humans and screwing around with the mind of the woman he ‘loves’ whenever he has a whim to. Not my defination of the word ‘hero,’ but to each their own.
So we’re at Lacy’s for the aforementioned farce sequence. It is, of course, Clark at the door. “Superman makes a different kind of entrance,” Lois notes. Yeah, the big show off. The first gag involves Clark pretending he needs change to pay his cab driver. Lacy goes to get change while Lois shows him the supposedly nutty questions Warfield wants her to ask Superman. “Are you or are you not part of a plot to weaken our national defense?” one reads. The two shake their heads. Notice how the script defuses a quite legitimate question by phrasing it in a ludicrous fashion. Of course, it also would have been better asked before Superman confiscated everyone’s nuclear weapons.
Clark heads downstairs to pay off the taxi. This allows him to reappear on the apartment balcony as Superman seconds later. Wondering what’s keeping Clark – who left thirty seconds ago from the penthouse to go down to the lobby – Lacy leaves so as to give Lois a little alone time with Ol’ Supes. After a bit of extremely lame romantic banter, they begin the interview. Lois asks if anyone quibbled about handing over their missiles. Hmm, yeah, I was kind of wondering about that myself. Superman opines that there was always the chance some “warped individuals would take advantage of the world’s goodwill.” Wow, it’s the history of our planet, isn’t it? There’s always two or three warped individuals pushing around the billions of peace loving folk.
A moment ago, Superman noted that something smelled good. Lois explained that she was cooking a duck as part of their fancy dinner. Using his heat vision (which he somehow sent through the wall without scorching it!), he caused the duck to begin burning. Now, right on cue, Lois smells it. Alarmed, she runs into the kitchen. This gives Superman the opportunity to appear in the lobby as Clark and meet Lacy. Who is still, we see, descending in the world’s slowest elevator. Lacy, with eyes only for Clark, grabs him and they begin heading back upstairs. However, a passing luggage cart rams into Clark and wheels him off, because that’s the kind of wacky movie it is. Lacy, already having boarded the elevator, can only watch in dismay. Oh, that Clark!
Clark runs outside, where in full view of several witnesses he pops in one side of a car – which isn’t even his; what if people were in it? – and out the other as Superman. I’m telling you, he doesn’t even care about this ‘secret identity’ thing anymore. Back upstairs, Lois is bringing out the duck, which Superman had not ruined but instead cooked to perfection. What a guy! Then Lacy returns. The doorbell rings, and it’s Clark – despite the fact that when the bell rang Superman was still standing behind them!! Apparently he now has telekinetic doorbell ringing powers to add to all the others.
So Clark comes in and Lois turns to find Superman gone. She runs out to the balcony, mewling “Superman! Superman!” in a pathetic fashion. Then Clark spills something on his pants so that he can go to the kitchen to clean up. This whole comic chain of events comes to a merciful end when, as in the first movie, Superman gets a supersonic message from Lex. I guess they felt the need to jazz this up, though, and so he not only hears Luthor’s voice but sees Lex’s face appear on the Time Square Jumbotron. (Are they even pretending this is Metropolis anymore?) By the way, nice product placement for Panasonic and 7-11 Slurpees. As with the audio, Luthor assures Superman, only he can see Lex’s image. How the hell would that work? I get the idea of sounds pitched higher than the human ear can detect, but this just seems dumb.
Lois comes in, wondering where Superman went. Meanwhile, Lex directs Superman’s attention to “the building on your left.” Of course, that only makes sense if he knows where Superman is, which he wouldn’t. In fact, how does he know Superman isn’t zipping around in space? IITS, I guess. Anyway, Clark pops out as Superman and tells Lois that an emergency has come up. Meanwhile, Lacy wonders where Clark went. Of course, no one will put the pieces together. Perhaps they’ll assume that Clark just spontaneously combusted. Like the movie.
Supes flies over to Lex’s penthouse apartment to engage in the obligatory good guy/bad guy conversation. You know, the villain says, “Ha, ha, this time you’re doomed!” and the hero says “You fiend! Evil will never prevail!” Blah, blah. That sort of thing. I kind of felt sorry for Reeve here. Either under his own auspices or at the command of director Furie, his Superman is stiffer and more pompous than ever before. Hackman, a pro who seldom takes a false step, pretty effortlessly eats Reeve’s lunch, even with the lame material he’s been provided with here. (Things get worse, too. At one point Reeve pontificates “It’s common knowledge that you hate children and animals, Luthor.” That’s a line that might have come right out of the old Batman TV series.) Cryer, meanwhile, chimes in every once in a while so that we don’t forget to feel embarrassed for him.
The Nuclear Man flies in for his entrance. Superman looks him over and then he and Lex continue their conversation. (!!) This tends to make Superman look a tad passive, not to mention dense. At no point, for instance, does Superman just grab Luthor and fly him off to jail. I mean, is NM going to attack him while he’s got Lex in his mitts? Instead, the yakking continues for some minutes. The scene does, however, allow for further bad dialog. “You’ve already broken all the laws of Man,” Superman opines. “Now it looks as if you’ve broken the laws of Nature, too.” Somebody got paid to write that, right?
Finally it’s time for the film’s first, uh, blockbuster action sequence. Words fail me, but describing the special effects here as atrocious comes close. Not that the crystal clarity of the DVD presentation is helping any. The bluescreen shots are awful. When something is matted in there are noticeable boxes around the item. During the flying sequences dolls are patently used for Superman and Nuclear Manâ€¦really, it’s all just frightfully bad. These might just be the worst collection of effects in any major film made in the last twenty years. In fact, while I’d have to admit that the effects in the cheesy Supersonic Man are worse, we’re really just talking a matter of degree. Believe me, there’s no clear-cut winner between the two.
The two grapple, first on the balcony, then in the air as they fall. Why are two characters who can fly falling? I don’t know. Also, they dislodged some concrete as they went over the side. Hope it didn’t hit anything after it plummeted eighty stories to the ground. Eventually the two disengage and Superman flies after NM. This shot is bad even for this movie, with first NM and then Supes flying into the camera. It honestly looks like the sort of effect Terry Gilliam produced for one of his cheapo Monty Python cartoons. Then the guys turn into dolls – hey, I almost made a Damon Runyon joke! – and fly around the globe in space.
Eventually Superman punches NM in the back. I say, bad show, Superman. This knocks him to Earth, where he’ll be able to threaten us humans more directly. Thanks, Man of Steel. The two end up at the Great Wall of China. This is represented with a rather unsatisfying mix of stock footage and bad miniature work. As a mix of Chinese locals and American tourists look on in horror — well, except for the inevitable number of extras who don’t listen to orders and are seen smiling and laughing — NM appears and uses some nuclear blasts to blow up big portions of the wall. Then he flies off. Superman makes the scene, catching the one woman who inevitably had to fall off the wall. Luckily, she’s polite enough to slow her descent as he approaches. Then Superman repairs the wall by, and get this, shooting blue beams out of his eyes. These trigger some stop-motion animation of the wall magically rebuilding itself. Unsurprisingly, said effects are pretty poor, recalling nothing so much as an old Gumby cartoon. I call this amazing ability Superman’s Reconstructo-Vision. By the way, we’ll never see him use this power again, even after NM wreaks much more havoc.
I earlier complained about the tendency of the Superman films to provide Supes with new powers when it was convenient. Usually, I suspect, lazy writing was the motive behind this. In the first film, of course, Superman can turn back time. In the second film there’s the magic amnesia kiss, as well as those throwing wraps he peels off the ‘S’ emblem on his uniform tunic. I’m pretty sure there was something in the third film, too, although I can barely remember anything about it. Anyway, the point is that it’s pretty silly to give Superman, for Pete’s sake, even more powers. Cripes, can’t he do enough already? This is one of the most annoying traits of the Salkind series. It’s cheating, pure and simple.
Here it’s even worse, in that the Reconstructo-Vision is an utterly unnecessary innovation. Superman could have reassembled the wall with his established powers by flying at super-speed and fusing the stones back together with his heat vision. However, that would require more special effects money than they obviously had at their disposal.
In the next shot, the two are back in space, with Superman right on NM’s tail. So much for continuity. NM encases Superman in ice with his freeze-breath, causing me to wonder how a being portrayed to be a living nuclear furnace would have that ability. Moreover, he’s even a bit of a craftsman, as Superman’s ice coffin is adorned with beveled edges and everything. By the way, isn’t ‘freezing’ things in space redundant? Guess not. Anyway, another huff and the encased Supes drifts off, as we wonder why simple ice would hold Superman this long.
With Superman indisposed, NM flies down to Italy to wreak further destruction. (By the way, am I missing something? Should the sun be out in New York, China and Italy all at roughly the same time? This happens, of course, because if NM descended to a country at nighttime he’d lose all his powers.) He flies into a volcano, causing it to erupt. Soon badly composited lava — amazing I was able to identify it so quickly – is soon threatening some ludicrously stereotyped Italian villagers, including, inevitably, a priest.
Superman finally breaks free of his oversized ice cube, which for some reason explodes with a burst of light.(?!) I don’t understand how he can so quickly figure out what NM is up to from way out in space, but luckily he can. Anyway, Superman flies down and uses his heat vision to cut off the top of a mountain – boy, the environmentalists aren’t gonna like that! – and uses the cap to plug up the volcano. (!!) Then he heads to the village, where amazingly nothing much has caught fire despite the main street overflowing with molten rock. He then cools down the lava with his freeze breath. By the way, if Superman’s heat vision is so powerful he can cut a mountain in half, why can’t he have just cooled off the whole volcano with his freezing breath? The day saved, he tells the assembled extras, all like ten of them, to “have a nice day.” In Italian, of course – no Ugly American is Our Supes. He then flies off to resume pursuit of his opponent.
The two again end up facing each other in space. And I mean, way out in space, since the Earth looks pretty damn small in the background. How do they guys keep managing to find one another? Needle in a haystack doesn’t come close. Also, why is Superman’s cape still fluttering around when he ‘flies?’ Anyhoo. NM pops his Evil Fingernails longer in preparation for the big fight, and throughout the scene they crackle with cartoon energy. The two tussle, with Superman looking weirdly clumsy, as if he’s never had occasion to throw a punch before. I half expected him to shout, “Ouch! Stop it!”
Superman kicks NM, again sending him towards Earth. Superman, stop doing that! That’s where all the innocent humans are, you mook. NM ends up back over New York/Metropolis. Which is sort of distracting, what with the twin towers prominently in shot. Anyway, NM flies over to the Statue of Liberty. He lands near the base and hides in its shadow, which, I think, should rob him of his powers. Even sillier is when a searching Superman flies over without spotting him. So he can locate NM when he’s thousands of miles out in space, but not when he’s standing a hundred feet under him.
Hearing a wrenching noise, Superman turns to find that NM has grabbed up the Statue and is flying it towards the city. (!) Superman streaks after him, but NM dumps the Statue towards the streets below. Superman speeds towards it – although speed is a relative term, as he exhibits none of the super-speed he used in the farce sequence – and he manages to catch the Statue at the very last second. Now, I want you to imagine Superman’s size in relation to the Statue. Now imagine the kinetic energy the Statue gathered as it hurled towards Earth from a mile up in the sky. Now imagine Superman arresting the Statue by grabbing onto one of its fingers, and without the finger just breaking off as the rest of it smashes to Earth. Of course, this also goes for either NM or Superman flying it around in the first place without it breaking apart. It’s just that here the stupidity of what we’re seeing is greatly magnified.
Superman makes to return the Statue to its base, but quickly learns this has all been a fiendish trap on NM’s part. For as Supes ferries the Statue back he’s a bit of a sitting duck. I mean, it’s not like he’s going to just dump the Statue of Liberty into the ocean so as to protect himself. Taking advantage of Our Hero’s, NM flies up and slashes Superman’s neck with his Evil Fingernails. Superman manages to return the Statue back to its base before falling to the ground. The wirework here, by the way, is not particularly impressive. NM descends and kicks Superman, sending him flying out of sight. Superman’s cape, dislodged by the blow, drifts up and lands on the Statue of Liberty’s Torch. Wow, what a powerful symbol ofâ€¦something.
Meanwhile, Warfield tells Lacy that she’s the new publisher of the Planet. She takes this information in a subdued fashion. She’s startled, however, to see Superman’s cape folded up on her desk. Warfield preens that someone brought it in and he bought it from them “cheap.” (Add miserly to Warfield’s myriad character flaws.) Then Lois rushes in, all pissed off. She’s waving the latest edition, demanding to know how Warfield had the gall to publish a headline reading “Superman Dead?” She quits her job, refusing to work for the Warfields any longer. Seeing the cape, she grabs it in disgust, telling Lacy, “You certainly have no right to this.” This is an interesting example of how many awkward and dumb things you can fit into one short scene. For instance:
- Why would somebody, finding Superman’s cape, bring it to The Daily Planet?
- Why would they sell it, especially “cheap”?
- How could Lois, the city’s most savvy reporter, not know that such an explosive story was going to be published in her own paper? And actually, what’s wrong with the headline? Is it just mean or something to suggest that Superman, now missing and having last been seen fighting a superpowered foe, might be dead?
- Why would Warfield, having bothered to buy the cape, just shrug as Lois grabs it and walks off with it?
The most pathetic bit is how the scene ends, with Lacy finally telling her dad to “Stuff it!” This is that nauseating sort of moment meant to have us circling our fists in the air and whooping it up and shouting “You go, girl!” Anyway, with Lacy now out from under her father’s thumb, she’s pretty much done with in this movie. At least in the edited version, anyway.
Back to why Warfield let Lois take Superman’s cape. It’s because she needs it for the next scene, when she brings it to Clark’s apartment. Clark’s in pretty bad shape, swathed in blankets and shivering before a fire. Here follows a pretty confusing exchange meant to show that Lois still remembers who Clark is. I think. I mean, her dialog is all very significant, if you know what I mean, and she ends by handing Clark the cape and saying, “He might need this.” The weird thing, however, is that even though that seems to be the point of the scene, I can’t really be certain. It has an odd ambiguity to it, to the extent that you’re not really sure whether Lois knows or not. I’m not even certain if that was the director’s intent or if the whole sequence is just sort of inept.
Back to Luthor’s apartment, where he’s stacking up huge amounts of paper money. Apparently with Superman out of the picture for – I don’t know, it seems a few days, but then again they’re really vague about stuff – the entire world ran out and rearmed themselves. Who’s manufacturing these weapons, by the way? This whole think makes no sense. You can’t just churn out an entire world’s nuclear arsenal in a week or two. If it’s been even that long since Superman went missing.
Still, we’re not supposed to think about any of that, so let’s move on. Lex’s compatriots are so pleased that they announce they’re raising his commission. Luthor, however, has other plans. After all, he’s a bad guy. “I’ve decided to assume control of the company,” he replies. In a normal movie, this is where he’d have them all killed in some baroque fashion, like tripping a switch that dumps them into a piranha tank. It’s not like the entire series has been squeamish, after all. Those astronauts in the second film died some pretty horrible deaths. However, as noted, this is a kid’s film. So Luthor opens the curtains, NM arises in the sunlight and scares his former compatriots, who run off in a purportedly comical fashion. This leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For instance, exactly how their partnership functioned in the first place. But whatever.
This is the point of the film, by the way, where the missing forty-five minutes really start taking a toll. The rest of the picture is just incredibly choppy. The editing is reminiscent of nothing so much as one of those over-spliced ancient film reels you’d see in your elementary school class, the ones that keep jumping from the middle of one scene right into the next one. So we cut to Clark, who’s now showing the effects of radiation sickness. This is a nice ghastly image for the kiddies, thank you very much. Obviously a lot of stuff is missing here, since he looks about a hundred times worse than the last time we saw him. Anyway, he unsurprisingly hauls out the deus ex machina crystal established earlier, andâ€¦
â€¦we cut to Nuclear Man, rising with the dawn. He sees the Planet, which sports a large picture of Lacy on the front cover (!!), and he flies off to grab her. Again, I have to assume that in the original cut NM’s lust for Lacy was established a little bit better. Here we just go with it. He quickly arrives at the Planet. Rather than smashing through the wall upstairs, though, he for no apparent reason lands on the ground to use the building’s front entrance. (By the way, he’s quite obviously not in direct sunlight, so his powers should be, at the least, waning.) Oh, wait, there is a reason! It’s so that Superman can make his rather undramatic reappearance. Since he looked to be dying when last we saw him, this should be played as a ‘big’ moment. But they blow that, too.
“Where is the woman?” NM asks Superman. “You’ll never find her,” he replies. See what I mean? How does Superman know NM is looking for Lacy? How would he know to hide her away? The answers must have been in the huge chunk of footage that hit the editing room floor between the film’s sneak preview and its general release.
Angered, NM begins blowing up stuff all around them. Were this really happening as it appears to, this would undoubtedly cause dozens or even hundreds of deaths. Still, this is the sort of movie that utilizes what might be called The A-Team Effect, in that the most gigantic amounts of destruction can occur and yet we’re to assume that zero casualties result. Anyway, NM’s rampage goes on for about a straight minute and a half, with Superman standing there and not doing a damn thing about it. The best ol’ Supes can do is to shout, “Don’t do it! The people!” Yeah, thanks for all your help, oh Man of Steel.
I should add that Superman gets yet another new power here. At one point, NM levitates a number of citizens into the air, as he did with Lenny earlier. Amazingly, by staring at them and then lowering his line of sight, Superman is able to return them to the ground. I really can’t explain how annoying I find this. If you can’t figure out how to have Superman do something with his existing plethora of superpowers, don’t have him do it.Yeesh.
Superman folds and tells NM that he’ll take him to Lacy. This is played in a manner, however, that we ‘get’ it’s all a stratagem on Superman’s part. He leads NM into the lobby of the Planet, whereupon Our Hero jumps into an elevator and disappears.(!!) Screaming in rage, NM reacts by flying his way up to the top of the building, smashing through each successive floor as he goes. As he does so, a window on each floor explodes out onto the street, although for little apparent reason. This again would no doubt kill any number of people, which once more we’re to ignore. (Also, the sequence looks very fake, and you can clearly tell that the actor is being hoisted up on a cable.)
Smashing through a final level, NM finds Superman. Superman pretends that he’s trying to protect the elevator car. This is his brilliant plan, and sure enough, NM is stupid enough to push past Our Hero and rush into the elevator. Now even more blocked off from the sun than he was already, he falls powerless to the floor. This is accompanied by the classic Superman theme blaring across the soundtrack. Wow, tricking a guy into an elevator. If that doesn’t call for a blast of majestic theme music, what does?!
Superman grabs up the elevator cables and pulls the car from the top of the building. We see it explode through the roof, like the glass elevator in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Except, of course, that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory didn’t suck. Hysterically, as the car erupts from the building we are clearly shown it dislodging what must be several tons of cement shrapnel. This, you’d have to suspect — given gravity and all — would then plummet to the crowded city streets below and kill any number of spectators. I mean, imagine the crowd that would accumulate once word spread that the presumed dead Superman had reappeared and was fighting a supervillain inside the Daily Planet Building. Oh, well, perhaps the horrific bloody carnage this caused was in the part of the film they cut out.
So Superman flies the elevator car to the moon. OK, everybody, get those Frank Sinatra impressions out of your systems. Once there, he drops the car on the lunar surface. Now this, you’d think, would be the permanent end of the Nuclear Man. (Say, would deprivation of energy kill NM? That’s not a very Superman-ish thing to do.) However, Superman doesn’t bother sticking the car down in a deep crater where the sun would never find it. Instead, he just drops it out in the open. Nor does he bother to weld the door tight with his heat vision. There’s more good writing for you. Instead, he simply nods at his handiwork and flies off, his cape flapping in the vacuum.
Literally two seconds later (!) the sun rises over the horizon and light leaks around the door seals (??) into the compartment. Unfortunately, Superman has stopped to look at the American flag Armstrong and the boys left on the lunar surface. He even pauses to straighten it, which in another movie would have been a very nice moment. Here you just keep wishing they’d get on with it.
Suddenly a roaring (in vacuum!!) NM appears and the fight is back on. More bad special effects follow, such as when NM literally pounds Superman into the ground. Let’s just say that the illusion isn’t seamless. I also like the bit when NM throws a big rock at Superman and Superman ducks out of the way. Do these guys even get that they’re making a Superman movie here? I don’t care who’s tossing them, rocks aren’t high on the list of effective anti-Superman ordinance. We’re also treated here to some of the movie’s worst wirework, which is saying something. As well, NM has about two hundred chances here to scratch Superman with his Evil Fingernails again. So why doesn’t he? Duh, because Superman’s out of Magic Crystals. He’d die. Anyhoo, Superman is pounded into the ground and NM flies back to Earth.
Back to the Planet. Lacy is acting all Empowered and stuff, telling her dad that newspapers aren’t about making money but about serving the public weal and that sort of thing. (It’s true, the thought of a newspaper actually making money is so evil that I shiver just thinking about it.) The new, improved Lacy, is, unsurprisingly, as stridently didactic and politically correct as the rest of the movie. She stalwartly declares that irresponsible journalism in a newspaper, what with their several thousands of readers, could lead to disaster. “What kind of disaster could we possibly help bring about?” her father snorts. Of course, just at that moment NM smashes into the office and grabs Lacy. Oh, the irony. So, uh, I guess NM is the result of yellow journalism. Or something. It’s all a grand tapestry.
Superman finally climbs back to the surface of the moon. As he appears he’s, and get this, loudly gasping for air!! Wow, I guess being buried underground almost suffocated him. On the moon!! Anyway, he stops to replant the aforementioned American flag. Actually, he should be incinerating it. You’re suppose to burn an America flag if it touches the ground, must less gets rolled around in the dirt. Frankly, I’d expect Superman to know the rules of flags and national standards better than that.
OK, here things get a little silly. Seriously. To cut NM off from his source of power – although again, how these two always know where the other one is remains a mystery – Superman pushes the Moon from its orbit to create a lunar eclipse. (!!) This causes NM, currently flying through space with Lacy (!!!!) to lose power. Say, did anyone connected with this film get that there’s no air in space?! Just wondering. Not only that. When NM loses power, Lacy doesn’t start drifting away, she starts falling ‘downward‘. Finally, the bluescreen and matte effects here are just terrible. Really, they outright suck. Calling them laughable would be praising them with faint damn.
Luckily Superman flies up, albeit with a big matte box around him, and rescues her. Hmm, space must really be a lot smaller than I thought. (Actually, why was NM taking Lacy out into space anyway? Boy, this is stupid.) He flies Lacy to safety, presumably, and then returns for NM. The latter is dropped into the containment tower of a nuclear power plant. I guess this sucks all the energy out of him, since we hear turbines humming and all the lights in the city are shown turning on for no reason. (??) I don’t know, that just doesn’t seem very safe. In my opinion lights and such shouldn’t come on unless somebody actually switches them on. That’s how things like Maximum Overdrive happen.
The supervillain’s been defeated, so now it’s time to wrap things up. First, Warfield learns that Perry White has convinced some local banks that a newspaper is a municipal treasure, or something, and they’ve bought the paper back out from under him. I wouldn’t have thought Warfield could have gained control of the paper in the first place if he hadn’t bought, or at least gained control of, more than half its stock. But in the interest of getting the movie over with, let’s just ignore that. That and the idea that you can buy out a corporation without its principle owner ever being aware of it. I mean, you have to file papers with the SEC when you buy more than like 10% of a company’s stock. Perry tells Warfield that he was “asleep at the wheel,” but that’s not an explanation, it’s an insult to our intelligence. But hey, why stop now? By the way, if Perry talked those banks into buying back the paper because some lout was trying to turn a profit with it, well, I’d be closing my accounts at those institutions ASAP.
Then it’s back to the UN for a closing Big Speech from Supes. Clark appears for some final comical banter with Lois and Jimmy. He then makes his typically lame excuse so as to leave and change into his Superman costume. Maudlin music plays, and Superman begins his spiel. “Once more,” he begins, “we survived the threat of war and found a fragile peace.” Really? Did that happen in this movie? Because I don’t remember anything like that at all. “I thought I could give you all the gift of freedom from war,” he continues, “but I was wrong. It’s not mine to give.” Yeah, that, and the fact that your whole initial premise was wrong. Getting rid of nuclear arms might remove the possibility of us largely wiping out human life, but in no way would provide “freedom from war.” Give me a break. To paraphrase the NRA, nuclear weapons don’t fight wars, people do.
There’s more blather but it’s making my head hurt. Anyway, I think you’ve got a pretty good idea of my disagreements with the film’s philosophies by now. So we just watch everyone laugh and cry. Then we cut to Lex and Lenny driving down the highway to comical music, and then Superman appears under their car and flies them off. Lenny is dropped outside of a Catholic “Boy’s Town” (despite the fact that he’s obviously in his ’20s). Lenny replies to this by saying “This rocks!” (!!) Luthor is flown back to the chain gang he was on. The other prisoners mock him by whistling Mozart, and we’re supposed to laugh because Luthor’s being humiliated. Only we don’t, because the whole thing’s just so stupid. Also, I was kind of wondering why Lex wasn’t being taken to jail, so that he could be prosecuted for all the stuff he’s done since escaping.
Luthor asks if the world is going to be vaporized, so I guess there was a war plot in there somewhere that got cut out. (See what happens when people have nuclear missiles!) Superman replies “It’s as it always was, on the brink, with good fighting evil.” Good being those against nukes, I guess, and evil being those ‘for’ them. Now I know and fully understand and empathize that the idea of nuclear weapons really freaks some people out. And, just in case somebody has to hear me say it, this is an entirely sane reaction. Still, whatever the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says, I’ve never personally thought we were “on the brink” of destruction in a general sense. And we certainly haven’t “always” been so, since these weapons have only been around for sixty years or so.
Superman flies off, and we are finally treated to a nice scene. Up in space again, we watch the sun rise over the edge of the Earth. This starts up that glorious John Williams Superman theme. Our Hero appears, flits around, and then looks at the camera. He looks into the camera, smiles, and then flies away. It’s a touching sendoff for a series that, however crappy it would ultimately become, started out being pretty darn good. Admittedly for this film, the sequence is too little, too late. Still, it’s something. Bye, Christopher Reeve-Superman. We’ll always remember your first two movies.
The big question about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is how suffered from being stripped down to a mere 90 minutes from its original length – get this – of a hundred and thirty-five minutes. In other words, it once sported another forty-five minutes of running time, making it 50% longer than the release version.
Obviously, the radical editing doesn’t help. At it full length there’d undoubtedly be far fewer loose ends and the film would presumably flow more smoothly. However, that doesn’t mean the final result would have necessarily been better. The Swarm, for instance, is constantly hilarious to watch in the short cut, while the footage in the expanded version is all pure comic gold. This is not the case for Superman IV. Its main problem isn’t that it’s too chopped up. It’s that it’s so dumb and pedantic and lifeless that even at 90 minutes the thing seems interminable. So my best informed guess, to the extent I can make one without having seen the longer cut, is that the original version would not prove in any way better, justâ€¦longer. And believe me, nobody wants Superman IV to run any longer than it does already.
One thing that helps sink the film is its utter lack of humor about itself. In other words, Reeve may have been better off emulating Kubrick a little more and Kramer a bit less. For instance: Let’s say that after disposing of the nukes, Superman was besieged by demands that he rid the world of other perceived menaces. Drugs, guns, red meat and processed sugar, the internal combustion engine, PCPs, lawyers, whatever. This could have been hysterical stuff, and also given us a better sense of why Superman suddenly abandons his “quest for peace.” However, this would have required an entirely different mindset than the one that ended up ruining the movie. Making fun of activists, especially liberal ones, seems to have been the last thing on Reeve’s mind.
Finally, I again want to tip my hat to Gene Hackman. Even with material this awful he’s fun to watch. He comes amazingly close to giving a good performance here, which is truly making a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Moreover, he’s the only one to come off so well. Wanamaker is a cartoon (not his fault, it’s the nature of the role), Hemingway is encouraged to play a stiff (not that she’s ever needed much help in that department), Margot Kidder is unable to revive any interest in an increasingly silly Lois Lane, and Reeve, for all his involvement in the picture, seems to be merely going through the motions. This makes Hackman’s work all the more notable.
In order to leave on a high note, I’ll mention something good that came out of this film. Actor Sam Wanamaker spent most of the final three decades of his life getting the historic Globe Theater rebuilt. (Sadly, he would die before it was completed.) Absent for nearly four hundred years, The Globe was the venue where Shakespeare originally staged his plays. If fees from schlock pictures like this helped in that endeavor, then God bless ’em. Meanwhile, isn’t it odd that it took an American actor and mostly American funding to get such an important piece of British history rebuilt?
Things I Learned (“Things I Learned” idea copyright of Andrew Borntreger):
- If you invite Jessica Fletcher to a wedding, someone will be murdered; If you stand anywhere near Lois Lane, some horrible disaster will instantly occur.
- Metropolis citizens are so blasÃˆ about Superman that they don’t even turn their necks to watch him as he flies by in front of them. Either that, or the director didn’t wave a stick to illustrate where Superman was supposed to be.
- I’m smarter than any of the people who worked on the centi-million dollar Superman movie series. I base this on the fact that I noticed that the campier the films got, the less successful they became. Both artistically and financially. Apparently nobody on the production side of things noticed this until after they ruined an unimaginably profitable corporate tent pole.
- The greatest crack staff of American print journalists can come into work one day and, without any warning whatsoever, learn that their paper’s been bought out by a notorious tycoon.
- You can’t fight a nuclear war in bad weather. Even the sort of bad weather that doesn’t look bad.
- The highly trained military personnel at our missile bases need to be reminded to call a five-star general “Sir.”
- A wooden hay cart sitting in a street that’s been flooded with lava won’t begin burning.
Readers Respond:Correspondent Darren Stone writes:
You mention towards the end of the review, that the end scene — where Superman flies over the Earth — is the best sequence in the film and that it is a real treat. Do you realize that this sequence was shot by Richard Donner in 1978 for Superman the Movie and was re-used in Superman II and Superman III? (To be precise, a few versions of that sequence were shot at the same time, and were distributed between all the films accordingly!).
You can see this same sequence at the end of Superman the Movie and it meshes perfectly with the rest of the film (as the fx used in the whole production are generally of a consistent standard). However, when integrated into the DREADFUL Superman IV, this end-scene stands out like a sore thumb and just emphasizes how much better the original 2 movies were.