After the lukewarm success of Superman III, the Superman series seemed to be dead; Christopher Reeve, who had made such a heroic Superman (and such a charmingly inept Clark Kent) declared he’d have no more of it. He wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and he went to some pains to prove it in a string of box-office duds such as Monsignor, The Bostonians, and the recent Street Smart.
Those films having stiffed, Reeve now finds it within reason to take the old role again. But it may be more than career inertia that lured Reeve back into the tights and cape. He’s been given some creative control on Superman IV – he’s credited on the screenplay – and he’s turned the project into a message movie.
This is achieved in much the same way that the latest Star Trek movie became a save-the-whales picture. Superman IV is an anti-nuke movie, although it wraps its message in the familiar characters and situations that have made these films so successful. Prompted by a letter from a schoolboy, our hero decides to eliminate all the nuclear weapons on the Earth. And he does.
However, it turns out that this idea is just one tendril from a real jellyfish of a script. There’s also the dilemma of the Daily Planet being taken over by a Rupert Murdoch-type scandalmonger (Sam Wanamaker); then there’s his daughter (Mariel Hemingway), who takes much romantic interest in Clark Kent; another tentative match between Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder); and, of course, that archvillain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who’s up to his old tricks.
Hackman’s scenes serve up much of the film’s fun. His campy villainy remains from the first two Superman films, with the assistance of a dim-witted nephew (Jon Cryer). This time, he’s got a strand of Superman’s superhair, which he clones into a solar-powered anti-hero called Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) who does battle with Supe on the moon. In one of the film’s funniest scenes Hackman chides Superman, “You’re so involved with this world peace thing, you don’t have time for social calls,” and advises the Man of Steel to relax; get a hobby, or a pet.
The film is much too rangy and fragmented, but their are flashes of the old wit. Much of the likable, self-effacing tone is here, under Sidney J. Furie’s direction, and the easy comedy that surrounds the Clark Kent character is intact.
But is also feels rushed, and it’s too short at 90 mlnutes to hook us deeply. The movie needs another half-hour to stretch out; I had the feeling that whole scenes had been slashed out at some point in the filmmaking process. Some bridging scenes might have explained the biggest mystery in the film: How exactly does Superman eliminate the nuclear weapons, anyway?
Apparently he grabs them as they’re shot up into space, one by one, although this doesn’t explain how he will account for every warhead. Worse, we then see him gather the missiles into a galaxy-sized fishing net, swing it around, and heave the whole mess into the sun. This cockeyed image throws the movie’s anti-nuke message into the realm of the incredible, where it will probably remain until a real Superman comes along.
First published in the Herald, July 28, 1987
I’m afraid I have forgotten everything about this movie, including the fact that it reunited the old gang and threw Jon Cryer into the mix. But I do remember the feeling of a non-event, especially the almost insulting running time; Cannon Films produced the movie, and along with taking their cut-rate approch during the filming itself, they also ripped a bunch of footage from an original preview version. I’m not sure why I accuse a Superman movie of going into the realm of the incredible, but maybe you know what I mean.