The year was 1987. I was ten years old and was super excited that a new Superman movie was on the horizon. I had worn out our copies of SUPERMAN THE MOVIE and SUPERMAN II that we recorded from the ABC Sunday night movie. I had gone with some friends of our family to see SUPERMAN III and now we got a new a Superman movie?
In my book, Superman movies were just below Star Wars in my little guy geek spectrum. So it was that my dad took me to see what would be Christopher Reeve’s final portrayal of The Man of Steel.
Even as a chunky ten year old kid I knew something was off about this movie. There was too much humor. Superman always looked just the same when he came flying onto the screen. By “looked the same,” I mean that it appeared that someone had cut out a picture of Superman flying and pasted it onto the film. (Apparently that’s exactly what they did.)
In the years that followed, whenever I talked to friends or fans about SUPERMAN IV, it was always the same thing. “That’s the worst Superman movie EVER!” “They should have stopped with three.” “It’s sooo bad.”
The problem is I could never not watch it. If it happened to be on TV, or if it was in a video store to rent, I loved to watch it. When I finally got the first set of Superman movie DVDs that were released back in 2001 I would often come home on a Sunday afternoon, pop in SUPERMAN IV and watch it again and again.
For a few years, this was something I would never admit to my geekier friends except jokingly. Why? Because everywhere I turned, whenever Superman IV was mentioned, it was mentioned in groans and moans.
I refuse to accept that SUPERMAN IV is a movie with NO redeeming qualities, and I refuse to believe that it’s simple childhood memories that fuel my love for SUPERMAN IV. In fact, I maintain that were it not for the poor special effects, SUPERMAN IV may not be held in such disdain.
Superman IV did have many glaring problems. If one is going to take an honest look at the film, then that has to be an admission. Those problems have been dealt with again and again and again. In the end, I had to wonder, “Why do I keep subjecting myself to this movie? If it’s so bad, why doesn’t it sit on my DVD shelf in a relatively unwatched condition?”
The answer screams back at me, “The movie has a heart of gold.” Sure, there’s a nostalgia factor of sitting in a theater in Athens, GA watching this movie with my dad. Sure, it’s Christopher Reeve as Superman. Yes, the premise is a classic comic book premise. There’s more to it than that though. Unlike it’s predecessor, Superman IV doesn’t feel like a movie made simply to cash in on the name of Superman. The people involved at the base level seemed to be trying to genuinely recapture some of the magic that made the first movie so special.
In 1978, Gene Hackman was one of the names attatched to SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE on the basis of his “star power.” By 1987, Hackman had been solidified as an actor to be taken seriously. He wasn’t contractually obligated to return to the Superman film franchise. He wasn’t hard up for work. There was a reason he slipped back into the role of Lex Luthor.
In fact, as you look around the Daily Planet, you’ll find no roles recast from the original Daily Planet primaries. Why would these people come back to a film so destined for failure. Granted, Margot Kidder and Marc McClure didn’t have studios beating down their doors with movie offers, but it’s highly unlikely that those two or Jackie Cooper would have returned to the roles of Lois, Jimmy, and Perry if they had absolutely no desire to do so.
All of these actors had one thing in common outside of sharing the screen in the original two films. They had only a treatment and a script to go on. A glorious, aggressive, peace mongering, simple script wherein nothing but the heart of this movie could shine through. They didn’t have shoddy special effects to sit and watch. They didn’t have to wonder how Lacey would be able to breathe in space. They didn’t have to hear the terribly dubbed voice of Jeremy. (Or see his acting for that matter.) (That’s a little harsh, but director Sidney J. Furie should have coached the kid a little better.) They didn’t have to see how poorly portrayed John Cryer’s Lenny would be. (Again, a flaw of direction rather than the caliber of actor…in my opinion.) What they had was a Superman story wherein Superman deals with the real problems of a world he calls home and is met with resistance not only from Lex Luthor, but a whole underworld conglomerate of arms dealers. (One of which was Porkins from Star Wars no less.) They saw Superman struggle with the idea of using his power to impose peace on a planet on the brink of self destruction. They read about The Last Son of Krypton fighting for his life after being infected with some otherworldly virus by The Nuclear Man, and using the last bit of power from his home planet to save himself so he can save his adopted home.
While the final product lacks the edge it could have with such heavy subject matter, the heart of the film is apparent the minute we find ourselves in Smallville with Clark Kent who is selling the family farm, but rather than sell out to a big developer, he maintains the whimsy that a simple family will one day call the place he grew up home. Through Jeremy, we have the child’s perspective on all that Superman could be for all of us. Living in the eighties, nuclear war was much more of a real threat than it is today. I’m not saying we went to bed every night scared that we would be vaporized in the blast that would kick off the annihilation of all life as we know it, but the Cold War seemed to be far from over. (Even though it would come to an end in two short years.) As a kid I often imagined how different things would be if there was a real Superman. How much safer it would be in a world where The Man of Steel watched over us. We wouldn’t have to worry about strangers kidnapping us. We wouldn’t have to worry about gang violence. We may not even have to worry about war.
While the subject of Superman fixing the world’s real problems tends to be a faux pas in the pages of comic books, Christopher Reeve tackled the subject well. He walked the fine line of what Superman COULD do versus what he WOULD do. In the end, Superman says it best, “There will be peace when the people want it so badly that their governemts have no choice but to give it to them.”
Quite frankly, while the verisimilitude that Richard Donner preached to his cast and crew while filming the first movie isn’t present in the special effects or some of the characterization of the supporting cast, it is there as far as Superman is concerned.
Then there’s the film’s score. What a great score. Of course John Williams’ original music is present throughout, but Alexander Courage did a fine job of composing new music to compliment the themes that Williams already established. If you’re a movie music fan, seek out the score to Superman IV, you won’t be disappointed.
Watching Superman and Nuclear Man fight, there are two very unfortunate things that come to light. The first is the most glaring of the entire movie…the special effects. After the flying sequences of the original films, these effects just don’t stand up. The second, and less obvious to the casual viewer is that an opportunity was missed in using an established DC villain, namely Bizarro rather than a whole new character. However, that’s a minor quibble as Mark Pillow did a fine job as Nuclear Man. His voice was of course dubbed with that of Gene Hackman’s, and maybe the sound editors didn’t need to add all the reverb and stuff to it, but Pillow emoted the raw, nearly unintelligent monstrousness of a villain who could stand toe to toe with Superman.
It’s truly unfortunate that the flaws of this movie have been the focus of what people see over the past twenty plus years. When I watch the movie, it reminds me of a simpler time. When good guys were good guys and the bad guys were always trying to stop them. I’m reminded of how cool it is to see Clark Kent step into a phone booth only to emerge as the world’s greatest hero. I’m reminded of how much the trials of the world he loves weigh heavy on the shoulders of Krypton’s Last Son. I’m reminded of just how much Superman serves to inspire humanity to greater things.
In all of the things we as geeks love, there is stuff to complain about, but in most of it, there’s gold to be mined. This movie is a diamond in the rough that, with a little more money, and little more care by the higher ups, could have launched Superman back into the stratosphere cinematically. I challenge you to sit down and watch the movie again, and rather than groaning at the things that hurt the movie, laugh. Approach it with a light heart and maybe…just maybe…you can learn to stop worrying and love a movie that bombed.