REVIEW: “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace-Deluxe Edition” DVD

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace-Deluxe Edition
The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection, Disc 8
Superman: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition, Disc 9

Anyone can write a bad review of 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Without a doubt, it is the worst Superman movie. It would be extraordinarily easy for me to sit here and pick the film apart.

Many of the items I would point out, though, are also observed by screenwriter Mark Rosenthal in a candid commentary track, available on this “deluxe” edition for the first time.

Rather than merely cover the same ground as Rosenthal, I want to start by mentioning two or three scenes that I personally enjoy in Superman IV. The first of these I’ve talked about before, in the article Superman’s Top Cinematic Moments.

While wrestling with the question of whether or not to remove all nuclear weapons from the planet, Clark reveals his true identity to Lois – temporarily reversing the magic kiss.

In this continuity, with both of his adopted parents dead, no one knows Clark’s secret – except, perhaps, for Lana Lang from Superman III, but that character is forgotten in IV anyway.

“You’re the only one I can talk to, Lois,” he tells her. For a brief moment, he is able to be his one, true self with Lois.

The brevity of that moment reveals the inner loneliness of Superman. He is not a perfect man who leads a perfect life. People who think that have only looked at the surface of the character. Superman IV fails in many ways, but it does succeed in arguing against the perfect Superman myth.

“‘Never love one of them above the rest. Love all humanity instead.’ That’s not fair,” he tells her sadly before kissing away her memories once again. What this incarnation of Superman wants more than almost anything, he can never have. No matter how great his superpowers. Yet, he still wants it.

Later, there is a similar character-driven moment. After a battle with Nuclear Man, Superman is thought dead. Not coincidentally, Clark stops showing up at work. When Superman’s cape, lost in the battle, turns up at the Planet, Lois immediately takes it to the absent Clark.

Hidden, not erased, by the kiss, the memories are still there. Part of her still knows that Clark and Superman are one and the same. She finds Clark ill in his apartment, seeming to have flu-like symptoms. In reality, he is near death from the battle.

She gives him the cape to give to Superman and pours her heart out to him about her feelings for Superman. She seems, perhaps, to consciously know, but never quite comes out to say it. In the wasteland of Superman IV, the scene is a little gem that can be easily overlooked.

Among the returning cast members, it is actually Margot Kidder that shines the most. Perhaps the little break offered by her cameo-only appearance in Superman III did her some good, as she seems less fatigued in her role compared to the others – even Christopher Reeve.

Though not perfect, Superman is the ultimate idealist. If there is one trait that Reeve shared with his most famous character, it was probably that idealism. Near the movie’s end, Superman offers up a small speech that in many ways sums up both him and Reeve:

“What a brilliant future we could have. And there will be peace. There will be peace when the people of the world want it so badly that their governments will have no choice but to give it to them.

“I just wish that you could all see the Earth the way that I see it. Because when you really look at it, it’s just one world.”

In some ways, the above is quintessential Superman. Corny? Maybe so, if coming from anybody else, but Superman believes it.

The Commentary

I’ve already mentioned screenwriter Mark Rosenthal’s commentary track a bit. It is excellent and well worth a listen. Since this is Superman IV, I may very well end up being one of the few people outside of Rosenthal’s friends and family to take the time to hear this.

Scene-by-scene, Rosenthal honestly takes apart the movie. He talks about what went wrong, what his hopes were for particular scenes, and what was removed. All in all, you can empathize with his sense of profound loss.

Superman IV was a loss for many people. From Rosenthal’s perspective, he started with the high of being the writer of the next Superman movie. He watched the project slowly disintegrate before his eyes, until it became the low of being the writer of Superman IV, the movie that nearly killed the Superman movie franchise.

After Superman III, the Salkinds sold their portion of the rights to Cannon films. This was a group that specialized in B-movies. Superman IV was to be their first big budget, “legitimate” picture. Then funding fell through, and Superman IV essentially became a B-movie, too.

In the early stages, Reeve championed the project and contributed some of the story ideas. Rosenthal calls the events behind the scenes of Superman IV an “unfortunate and almost unethical betrayal of Chris Reeve.”

The commentary is almost entirely centered on the movie itself, rather than delving into boring tangents. Rosenthal even momentarily forgets to introduce himself and never really talks about his background, how he came to be on the project, and what he has done since then. He tends to stop talking at certain dialogue scenes, which is probably the writer in him wanting to hear the words rather than a lack of anything to say.

Though he mentions none of this in the commentary, Rosenthal’s previous movie credits were The Legend of Billie Jean, starring Supergirl’s Helen Slater, and The Jewel of the Nile. He would later go on to obtain a writing credit on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country along with his Superman IV co-writer Lawrence Konner. The Star Trek VI writing credit arbitration is a long and convoluted story that I will save for some other time over the next decade or two. More recently, he co-wrote the remake of Planet of the Apes.

Rosenthal contends that the primary reasons Superman IV failed are:

1.) Severe budget cuts, particularly during pre-production

2.) Ineffective casting/conceptualization of Nuclear Man

3.) The trimming of the 134 minute “director’s cut” down to 89 minutes prior to the release of the film.

The impact of the low budget is certainly evident throughout the film. After three movies of spectacular effects, Superman IV is a huge let-down. Suddenly, we are back with 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series technology.

Do I think it is possible to make an effective Superman movie without big-budget effects? Sure, but it would require a very different kind of story than presented in Superman IV or any of the other movies.

Rosenthal never addresses whether any thought was given to overhauling the entire script in light of the budget crunch. Since the budget cuts came in pre-production, it would seem that the movie should have been significantly rewritten to accommodate a simpler, less-effects heavy story. However, a re-write, too, may very well have been outside of the budget.

As for Nuclear Man, Rosenthal conceived of him as a fluid character — to be played at times by Christopher Reeve and at other times as an effect. Ideally, he is probably right. Within the confines of Superman IV‘s budget, though, it is actually better that such an approach was not taken, as the result simply would have been more bad effects.

Mark Pillow won the role of Nuclear Man, his first movie. “Once they cast a guy with teased hair . . . any tension or any danger or fear in the movie was doomed,” notes Rosenthal. Nuclear Man was voiced by Gene Hackman, who also of course appears as Lex Luthor. Pillow has never appeared in another movie.

I think it is a universal law that writers do not like their material to be cut, edited, or otherwise changed. Rosenthal is no exception. With a full third of the movie chopped off prior to release to theaters, he claims that Superman IV “became incomprehensible.”

I have heard this argument for years, that Superman IV would have been much better if presented with the 45 minutes of excised footage. For instance, the Nuclear Man we see in the released movie is actually Luthor’s second version. Entire segments with the first Nuclear Man and his battle against Superman were cut.

Jumping ahead a bit to the deleted scenes, this argument quickly falls apart. In “Nuclear Man’s Prototype,” we see Nuclear Man #1 (Clive Mantle) for the first time.

Here is all you need to know about Nuclear Man #1: Think Dudley Moore as a mentally-challenged supervillain who flaps his arms like a turkey in order to fly.

Suddenly, Mark Pillow doesn’t seem so awful.

Superman is understandably reluctant to battle such a person and instead tries to find out his origins from him. However, he is forced to make short order of Nuclear Man #1 in “Metropolis After Hours,” another excised scene. The only thing really lost by these deletions is an explanation for Nuclear Man #2’s fascination with Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway).

Among other scenes cut were ones involving Lex Luthor selling nuclear weapons to the USSR (where peace is an American conspiracy) and the USA (where peace is a Communist conspiracy).

Other than more Hackman time (let’s spare him from appearing in any more of this bomb than necessary), there are really no story benefits from the nuclear trading scenes. Even in the released version of the film, it is obvious that this is part of Luthor’s plan. These heavy-handed scenes just muddy the waters even further by making one wonder how it is that these two superpowers have suddenly forgotten how to make nuclear weapons on their own and instead have to rely on Lex.

Anyway, Superman IV is a case where an 89-minute bad movie is probably much better than a 134-minute bad movie. The torture may be painful at times, but at least it is short.

Rosenthal mostly glosses over what I consider the most glaring problem with the movie, though, and that is the story itself.

Let’s take a look at another well-intentioned but failed movie that most of us are familiar with, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The story question of that movie essentially boils down to, “Will the crew of the Enterprise find God in the center of the galaxy?” As producer Harve Bennett so rightly admitted, the audience instinctively knows that the answer to that question is “no.”

The story question of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is “Will Superman permanently rid the world of nuclear weapons?” Again, we already know the answer before the movie even gets around to asking the question.

Even with top-notch effects, superior casting, perfect directing, and tight editing, the underlying premise of Superman IV would have still been flawed. That is not to say there are no good ideas in the film, for I have already mentioned a number of them. In addition, though it fails in its execution here, the concept of a supervillain cloned from Superman was a great idea for the time period.

Deleted Scenes

15 deleted scenes are included on the DVD. Their total running time is about thirty minutes, so obviously there are at least 15 more minutes of footage out there. Though Rosenthal contends that 45 minutes were cut from a finished, director’s cut, the deleted scenes presented here are very much rough edits. They contain temporary music tracks, temporary effects, and rough audio and video.

Still, we get most of the scenes mentioned by Rosenthal, as well as several others, albeit in a rough form. Unfortunately missing is a scene of Clark visiting the graves of the Kents.

The deleted scenes show us what I mentioned above: the movie would not have been better with the additional scenes. It just would have been longer.

“Battle in Smallville” presents an interesting concept. Superman flies into the heart of a tornado to rescue a little girl. With modern effects and a decent budget, a scene like this could be fantastic. With the effects of Superman IV, it is probably better it did not make the final cut.

In “No Borders,” we get an extension of Superman’s speech that I mentioned above. In this one, after stating that he wishes everyone could see the world like him, he notes that perhaps they can and then carries young Jeremy (the kid who wrote the letter asking Superman to rid the world of nukes and started this whole mess) into space where, somehow, Jeremy does not die, the live broadcast continues, and the kid tells the world that he sees no borders.

It is enough to make high school physics teachers cry.

* * *

Perhaps Christopher Reeve wasn’t as sentimental about it all as us fans, but one of the saddest parts for me about Superman IV was that such a terrible movie would serve as Reeve’s last appearance as the Man of Steel.

In some sense, 2006’s Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut has now become Reeve’s “last” Superman movie. Richard Donner and Michael Thau brought some justice to the world of Superman by allowing Reeve and the other key cast members a more graceful exit in an encore performance.

Superman’s final words in Superman IV are “See you in twenty,” to Lex Luthor. They would prove prophetic, for it would be nearly twenty years before Superman would return to the big screen after this disaster.

Movie: 3 (out of 10)
Video Quality: 10
Audio Quality: 9
Bonus Features: 8
Overall Experience: 5
Recommended: Only if you are interested in the bonus features, or if you are purchasing as part of a set