Sunday, July 24, 2022

Give Peace a Chance: Superman IV at 35

At yesterday's San Diego Comic Con, the big disappointment for many was that internet rumors of Henry Cavill making a surprise appearance to announce his return to Superman turned out to be a bust. No Cavill, no new Superman. That leaves the character's last big screen turn as being 2017's Whedon cut of Justice League. When superheroes are the hottest thing in popular entertainment and the character that every one of them is derived from is sitting idle, that seems like a major fuck up on somebody's part. Superman should be the crown jewel of Warner/DC's catalog but the best they can do for him these days is a low rent CW show. Tyler Hoechlin does a decent job as Clark/Superman but come on, this is Superman. This is a character who should have a blockbuster movie in theaters on a regular basis but instead his last solo film was almost ten years ago and he's slumming it on the CW. Doesn't seem right. 

Where it did all go so wrong for Big Blue? 1978's Superman: The Movie made the case that comic book heroes belonged on the big screen in the first place and 1980's Superman II was widely considered to be an improvement on the original (debatable, I say, but a case can be made). Superman's cape started to fray with the more comedic Superman III (1983) but it was 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace that backed a dump truck of Green K over the Man of Steel. It wouldn't be fair to blame Peace for why 2006's Superman Returns or 2013's Man of Steel failed to recapture Superman's former box office glory. The people behind those films made their own mistakes but Superman IV is undeniably where the Metropolis Marvel's flight plan started to go off course and it's never gotten right since. 

Released on July 24th, 1987, it was immediately clear that Peace would not represent a return to form for the franchise. The first three Superman films - the first two, in particular - had set the standard for special effect extravaganzas. They were top of the line Hollywood productions. As a Cannon Films production, however, Peace was not. As soon as the titles came up, it was obvious that this was going to be a much schlockier affair than audiences were used to seeing from Superman. III had its faults but there was no mistaking that it looked good. It was a summer spectacular that was still worthy of the brand. The only thing Peace had going for it was John Williams' signature Superman theme (adapted and conducted by Alexander Courage) and Christopher Reeve, the man who had defined Superman for a generation.

The sincerity that Reeve had always brought to the role served Peace's topical storyline well. Moved by a letter from a young fan who wondered why Superman didn't take it upon himself to do something to prevent Earth's superpowers from annihilating the planet in a nuclear conflict, Superman rounds up all the nuclear weapons and hurls them into the sun. Of course that doesn't sit well with everyone. Specifically it doesn't sit well with black-market arms dealers who want to restock the world with nuclear weapons. With Superman's arch foe Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) having just been busted out of prison by his nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer) and, as usual, looking to play an angle that will make him rich and Superman dead, Luthor gets in bed with these arms dealers and with a stolen strand of Superman's hair attached to a nuclear missile that Superman intercepts and throws into the sun, Luthor (through very vaguely described means) causes the birth of the solar powered and glittery costumed menace known as Nuclear Man. 

Storywise, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Peace. The plot hinges on Superman making a moral decision that has worldwide repercussions. As Superman should, he acts on his conscience, with only good intentions, and the complications of the story arise from a cynical world pushing back against his idealism. In the end, Superman is forced to concede that he can't make unilateral choices on behalf of the world, even as he implores the leaders of the world and its people to make it their mission to choose peace. Along the way, there's big action, enjoyable mischief from Luther, romantic complications for Clark and Superman, drama at the Daily Planet as the paper is bought out and turned into a tabloid, and the usual comedic antics related to Clark juggling his dual identities. This is all classic Superman stuff. 

Superman IV's failures all lie in the execution and those faults all come down to the fact that the money wasn't there. When you're doing sequels, you have to continually raise the bar and the makers of Superman IV were forced to do it all on the cheap. The final product couldn't help but send the message that Superman wasn't a character that mattered anymore, that he was no longer worth the top shelf treatment that he used to get. 

I believe if Peace had shared the same level of production values as the first three films, it would have been seen as a comeback for the series because even with the shoddy special effects, a lot of cool shit happens. The battles between Superman and Nuclear Man are, in concept, the same kind of epic action seen in Superman II when Superman fought the Phantom Zone criminals in the middle of Metropolis. In Peace you've got action set in an exploding volcano, at the Great Wall of China, and in the heart of Metropolis as Nuclear Man rips the Statue of Liberty off her foundations (I guess we just go with the idea that in Superman's world, there is no New York City and the Statue of Liberty calls Metropolis home) and hurls it as a projectile. Superman even fights Nuclear Man on the moon. This is all prime Superman spectacle that feels torn from the panels of a comic. The fact that the money wasn't there to give these scenes their proper due doesn't mean that they aren't worth appreciating. Especially given that no Superman movie since has shown any interest in having this much fun. 

It's a crime that with all the money and technology at his disposal, all director Bryan Singer wanted to have Superman do in Superman Returns is lift stuff. And also have him spend Returns' last half hour or so in a coma. To have Superman spend pretty much the entire last act of a movie - and not just any movie, mind you, but what is supposed to be the character's big comeback after almost twenty years - in a hospital bed, that's a problem. Kind of makes you think that no one involved knew what the hell to do with Superman. On the upside, at least Zack Snyder believed in bringing big scale spectacle back to Superman when he did Man of Steel. Unfortunately that translated to letting Superman turn Metropolis to a pile of rubble in a reckless battle with General Zod and then having him murder Zod by snapping his neck. Definitely sent the message that good times were back. 

Come on, bring the kids! 

Superman IV may have not had two pennies to rub together but at least the creative people involved understood what the proper spirit of a Superman movie should be. When Nuclear Man is torching Metropolis to get to the object of his obsession, Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway), the daughter of the Planet's new media mogul owner, Superman acts immediately to get Nuclear Man off the streets and spare Metropolis any further destruction. What a novel concept! 

This is also a movie where Superman is fully allowed to be his sincere self, steadfast in his convictions to the point of appearing corny. When he lands on the moon in the process of dealing with Nuclear Man, he pauses to make sure the American Flag is straightened. When it is knocked over during his battle with Nuclear Man, he doesn't leave without setting it right again. After he rounds up Luther and Lenny, before taking Luthor back to jail he delivers Lenny to a Boy's Home telling the clergyman at the gate that, hey, this was just a kid under a bad influence. And when Luthor asks Superman whether the world is going to be vaporized now that the world's superpowers are getting their nuclear arsenals back, he says that, no, the world is always where it was, "on the brink, with good fighting evil." Whatever stumbles Peace made, it absolutely got Superman himself right.

It's hard to imagine any subsequent Supermen delivering the line Reeve says outside of the United Nations as he surrenders the idea of taking the nuclear option off the table but urges the people of Earth to see better days for themselves, telling the world "...What a brilliant future we could have." 

Sadly, Superman did not go on to a brilliant future post-Peace. Outside of the tragedy that awaited Reeve in real life, this iconic character that served as an inspiration for generations became stuck in the hands of people who didn't have the first clue of what to do with him. Ideal candidates like Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill have been cast but their potential for greatness in the role has been let down by everyone else charged with guiding Superman back to the screen. 

No one even knows how to get the costume right anymore. I would say that, yeah, I get that it can't be the same as what Reeve wore but, you know, that kind of was the costume. If you're doing Superman, you can't really improve on it and the subsequent variations have only proven that. Update all you want but two things have to be spot on: the look of the 'S' chest emblem and the colors should be correct, starting with actually having colors. Bizarro recently appeared on Superman & Lois as the "dark" Superman and it's not an exaggeration to say that you could hardly tell who was who. It's enough to make you want to ask the people handling the live action Superman these days, "Why are you purposely fucking this up?" 

At this point, it's hard to imagine the classic version of the character (or frankly, even a shitty version) ever making its way back to the big screen. So as much as Superman IV was a crushing disappointment back in '87, the fact that it will surely remain the last theatrical appearance of a truly iconic Superman has turned it into something worth treasuring. It's the Man of Tomorrow, as lit by yesterday's glow.


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