Franchise Killers: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
The first-ever superhero movie franchise started with Superman: The Movie in 1978. Producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind were so certain of its success that they filmed the movie’s sequel back-to-back with the original. Unfortunately, the Salkinds clashed with director Richard Donner so they replaced him on Superman II with Richard Lester. Lester took full control of the third movie in what most assumed would be a trilogy. After Superman III proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment, Christopher Reeve announced that he was done with the character. The Salkinds eventually sold the rights to the Superman franchise to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus who hoped to revive the series at Cannon Films. Instead, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace did what Lex Luthor never could. It killed Superman.
Cannon was best-known for producing low-budget action movies like Missing in Action and The Delta Force. The studio’s business model involved churning out a dozen or so movies annually. Costs were kept down low enough that each movie was a low-risk gamble with the possibility of a decent reward when one of the movies hit. But eventually, due to the number of movies in production, money got tight at Cannon.
Despite being strapped for cash, Golan and Globus were looking to increase the status of Cannon Films. Superman IV was part of that initiative. After securing the rights, they approached Christopher Reeve without so much as a script. Reeve was initially reluctant to return to the role fearing type-casting, but Golan and Globus made him an offer he could not refuse. Not only would they produce his next feature, Street Smart, they offered Reeve a story credit. Reeve came up with the idea of having Superman assist nuclear disarmament after having narrated a public television show on world peace.
As it turns out, the inspiration for Superman IV became a point of contention. Reeve and Cannon were sued by two part-time screenwriters who has submitted a script treatment with a similar premise. It’s hard to believe, given the movie’s notoriety as a failure, that anyone would fight for credit/blame, but that’s what happened. Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed.
Cannon took Reeve’s idea to Warner Brothers who had to approve any Superman movie before it could be produced. Warner Brothers liked the concept enough to give Cannon $36 million dollars to make the movie. Cannon was supposed to kick in an additional $9 million of their own in order to bring the budget in line with previous entries in the series. Instead, they spent $17 million making Superman IV and used the rest of the money they got from Warner Brothers on other projects.
As can be expected when a movie’s budget is slashed by over 60%, the production looked cheap. The six months that had been scheduled for filming flying scenes were cut down to about thirty days which resulted in the injury of a stuntman. The harness Reeve wore while flying remained visible in the final film. To save money, the movie was shot in the United Kingdom instead of New York. This is especially noticeable during a scene which is supposed to take place at the UN, but was actually shot at a bus station. Reeve lamented this in his autobiography, Still Me:
Cannon Films had nearly thirty projects in the works at the time, and Superman IV received no special consideration. For example, Konner and Rosenthal wrote a scene in which Superman lands on 42nd Street and walks down the double yellow lines to the United Nations, where he gives a speech. If that had been a scene in Superman I, we would actually have shot it on 42nd Street. Richard Donner would have choreographed hundreds of pedestrians and vehicles and cut to people gawking out of office windows at the sight of Superman walking down the street like the Pied Piper.
Instead, we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere. Even if the story had been brilliant, I don’t think that we could ever have lived up to the audience’s expectations with this approach.
After sitting out Superman III over the treatment of Richard Donner, Gene Hackman was lured back for Quest For Peace partially to support Reeve’s creative vision. Margot Kidder, who was mostly sidelined from the previous movie after criticizing the Salkinds for firing Donner, also returned. There had always been some tension between Kidder and Reeve, but things were more tense than usual on Superman IV. Partially, this had to do with the addition of a new romantic interest for Clark Kent. Mariel Hemingway, who was fourteen years younger than Kidder, was cast as Lacy who pursued Clark while Lois was portrayed more like a longtime friend of the Man of Steel.
Cannon had hoped to lure Richard Donner back to the director’s chair. He politely declined after (one assumes) laughing himself silly. Richard Lester also took a pass on the chance to direct Superman IV. Wes Craven was approached, but he backed away from the project citing creative differences with Reeve. Eventually the job was handed to Sidney J. Furie.
The first cut of Superman IV ran for over two hours. Cannon cut approximately 45 minutes from the theatrical release in order to get the run-time down to an hour and a half. The reason for this is that shorter movies can be shown more times and more screenings potentially means higher ticket revenues. That’s sound reasoning as long as the shorter version of the movie isn’t harmed by the cuts. In the case of Superman IV, that is debatable.
Entire subplots ended up on the cutting room floor. In the movie, Lex Luthor creates a villain named Nuclear Man in order to destroy Superman. In the original cut of the movie, Luthor created two Nuclear Men. The first was a failed effort reminiscent of the DC character Bizarro. Clive Mantle played the first incarnation of Nuclear Man who was easily dispatched by Superman.
Early on, there had been talks about having Reeve play both Superman and Nuclear Man. Creatively, there were concerns that this would seem to much like the junkyard brawl from Superman III. But ultimately, it didn’t matter. With the budget slashed, Cannon could no longer afford the split screen effects necessary to have Reeve play both parts. Instead, Mark Pillow was cast as the one and only Nuclear Man. Pillow, who has never appeared in another movie since Quest for Peace, only had eleven lines in the movie. And they were all voiced by Gene Hackman:
That was an odd, late choice to have Gene do Nuclear Man’s lines and have me lipsync to them. Gene didn’t expect that and neither did I. It led to a very wooden performance, which made it a challenge. All I was doing was following Gene’s voice, which gave me very little scope to do anything. To this day I’m not completely sure why they made that decision.
Most of the romance between Reeve and Hemingway was also chopped from the final cut. Before the release of Superman IV, Cannon was so convinced the movie would be a hit that they planned to use the deleted scenes as the foundation for another Superman movie. Instead, Quest for Peace failed to recoup its budget which contributed to the studio filing for bankruptcy. This also lead to the plug being pulled on Cannon’s planned Spider-Man movie, so you could say that Superman IV killed two superhero series at once.
Let’s break this down:
How many movies in the series? 4
How many of them were good? 2
Health of the franchise before it died? Presumed dead already
Likelihood of a reboot? There have been two already
Any redeeming value? If you can get past the B-movie effects and logic-defying story, there is some enjoyment to be had watching the original cast reuinted. Despite the weak material, no one is phoning it in here. Reeve and Hackman in particular seem to be having fun playing off of one another. And despite the fact that Reeve thought she was too old to believably play his love interest, he and Kidder still have great chemistry.
Posted on November 16, 2017, in Franchise Killers, Movies, sequels, Super Heroes and tagged Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, margot kidder, Mariel Hemingway, Superman. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.