After Superman III ended up being a commercial disappointment, followed by the Supergirl movie straight up bombing, the Salkinds sold the Superman film rights to the Cannon Group. The Cannon Group has a complicated history, but in short, it’s a group of American companies, including Cannon Films, that produced hundreds of films between 1967 and 1994. The group did release a handful of well-known films, including Runaway Train, Street Smart and Joe. All three of which received Oscar nominations. Street Smart in particular was a pet project of Christopher Reeve’s – more on that later.
In their later years, the Cannon Group was known for taking money from one movie’s budget and using it to help fund another. This led to a lot of their bigger films receiving small budgets and less advertising. On the one hand, the group took a lot of chances with serious, marginal films. This led to some brilliant films, like the Dutch 1986 movie The Assault, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. On the other hand, it led to a number of financial failures. It also caused trouble with getting production moving for a number of other projects, including a Spider-Man movie, which they bought the rights to between the mid-90’s, but lost when they failed to release a movie by April of 1990.
As the 90’s moved on, their movies got smaller and smaller, several executives left, and then the lawsuits came. The California Superior Court in Los Angeles ended up fining then head of Cannon Films, Giancarlo Parretti, $1.48 billion to creditors. He misused company funds to live a mogul lifestyle, giving gifts to a number of girlfriends, and even fired the entire accounting staff and put his 21-year-old daughter in their place. Around the same time, Federal prosecutors unsealed indictments against Parretti and Florio Fiorini (a known money launderer) of fraud. Eventually the company just folded, their last movie being 1994’s Hellbound starring Chuck Norris.
In 2014, two documentaries focusing on the Cannon Group were released, one called Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, written and directed by Mark Hartley. The other, from Israel, called The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. Both documentaries were well received.
Anyway, the Cannon Group purchased the rights to Superman from the Salkinds in 1986, two years after Supergirl’s release. As part of Reeve’s deal to return as Superman, the Cannon Group agreed to finance his pet project, Street Smart. Street Smart was a pet project of Reeve’s for a while, but he had trouble getting it picked up or financed. Another part of the deal was that Reeve would be directly involved in the writing process. At first, Wes Craven was hired to direct Superman IV, but he and Reeve didn’t get along, so Reeve demanded they bring in someone else.
Other cast members to return include Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, whose role was reduced to a cameo in Superman III, Gene Hackman, who hadn’t appeared on set since he refused to return for Richard Lester’s Superman II reshoots, Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) and Susannah York (the voice of Lara, Superman’s Kryptonian mother). New cast members include Mark Pillow as Nuclear Man (dubbed over by Hackman though), Sam Wanamaker and Mariel Hemingway as David and Lacy Warfield, and Jon Cryer as Lenny Luthor, Lex’s nephew.
Production for Superman IV began shortly after everyone had been cast. They picked Sidney J. Furie to direct, with Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal writing (Reeve received story credits along with them). From early on, Cannon’s budget cuts restrained the filming on every level. In his 1999 autobiography, Still Me, Reeve described the making of the movie,
“We were also hampered by budget constraints and cutbacks in all departments. Cannon Films had nearly thirty projects in the works at the same 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 1, 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 a 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 we could have ever lived up to the audience’s expectations with that approach.”
The DVD commentary by writer Rosenthal also mentioned that scene as an example of budget cutting. He mentioned that he, Reeve and Furie begged Cannon to be allowed to film the scene in front of the real United Nations headquarters in New York, but Cannon refused.
The budget restraints led to a bunch of the special effects team quitting over salary disputes. It also reduced the time spent on special effects from 6 months to 30 days – no wonder the movie looks so cheap. Even Superman’s childhood home was filmed on farmland outside of Baldock in North Herthfordshire, even though the farm set from the first Superman movie still stood in Canada. According to Cryer, Reeve took him aside shortly before the movie released and told him it was going to be terrible. Cryer said that he enjoyed working with reeve and Hackman, but that Cannon ultimately released an unfinished film.
The interesting thing about this movie’s soundtrack is that while they hired Alexander Courage to compose the soundtrack, John Williams actually contributed three new themes; one called Lacy’s theme for one of the new characters, one called “Jeremy’s theme” for a young boy who convinces Superman to do something that we’ll discuss later, and the “Nuclear Man Theme” for the movie’s new villain. Courage adapted these themes into the film, and also created a couple of motifs of his own. This is the first time Williams involved himself with the series since the first Superman movie.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace released in July of 1987 to disastrous results. It received an 11% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 2.8/10. The movie’s appeared on numerous “worst movies” lists, including placing 40th in Empire Magazine’s reader voted “The 50 Worst Movies Ever” list. It was nominated for two Razzies: Worst Supporting Actress for Hemingway (lost to Daryl Hannah for Wall Street), and Worst Visual Effects (lost to Jaws: The Revenge). Of the four Superman movies, it earned the least by far, only earning $36.7 million on a $17 million budget. Yet believe it or not, that actually makes Superman IV financially successful, not to mention it earned more than the Supergirl movie.
Reeve later regretted being involved in the movie, saying “Superman IV was a catastrophe from start to finish. That failure was a huge blow to my career.” There were plans to film a Superman V, but that was rendered impossible by Reeve’s paralysis. We’ll talk more about some of the failed attempts at rebooting the franchise when we get to Superman Returns.
Yes, this movie is terrible in many ways. Yes, the reduced budget is clearly on display throughout every fight scene, every flying scene, and often even in the dramatic scenes. But despite all of this movie’s problems, I still love this movie. Both ironically and unironically.
No matter how bad this movie gets, Reeve is still brilliant in the role of Superman. By this point he makes portraying the overgrown boy scout effortless. When he portrays the role, you can believe his “Kent” disguise is convincing to others, not because of the glasses, but because of his posture, his mannerisms, and even the way he speaks differently. Yet at the same time, the way he portrays the character, you can tell that he really is Clark first, and Superman is the mask. Hackman is also delightful as ever as Lex Luthor, even if the writing behind his character has greatly declined since his first appearance. Kidder, despite how her mental health problems and career doubts started around this time period, is also still fairly good as Lois Lane. These problems got a lot worse after suffering a bad car accident in 1990.
This movie’s problems are numerous, so let’s just focus on some of the highlights. There’s an often repeated, terrible looking green screen shot of Superman flying towards the camera. This shot is used nearly 20 times, only swapping out the background. The movie once again invents superpowers that Superman never had, like rebuilding a broken wall simply by looking at it. The creation of Nuclear Man makes absolutely no sense.
There is a neat scene in a museum where a single strand of Superman’s hair is holding up 10,000 pounds, but it raises questions like – why isn’t the hair simply slicing through the hook over time? Also, how can Lex Luthor cut this strand of hair using a standard hedge trimmer? On that note, why is a criminal as dangerous as Lex being held in a prison that’s basically an outdoor mine anyone can drive up to? Last but not least, this movie forgets on multiple occasions that people cannot speak, hear sound, or worse yet, breathe in space.
I get that this movie is trying to spread a message of peace, and I respect what the writers were going for, but the approach taken is completely wrong. The most heroic new music theme happens after Superman announces he’s going to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are terrifying, I agree, but for the most part they act as powerful war deterrents. Nobody would dare launch a full-scale attack against a nuclear power. The downside is, it means there are a lot of proxy wars, information wars, and covert attacks on other countries’ economies that are arguably more devious. Anyway, despite how Israel is surrounded by enemies, and the fact that they’re a nuclear power is the main thing stopping them from declaring full-on war, apparently they’ll clap along with everyone else when Superman announces he’s ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Man is worth talking about on his own, because he’s both awesome and terrible. He’s a legitimate threat to Superman – perhaps even the most dangerous individual threat Superman faces in any of these movies. He’s hilariously over the top with his aggressive behavior. His weakness is that he’s entirely solar powered, so all you need to do is put him in shadows to depower him. Not only is that a glaring weakness, but it’s is portrayed very inconsistently in the movie. One moment, he powers down and collapses just because he walks too far into a building. Another moment, he’s flying through ceilings at the Daily Planet, clearly not affected by the lack of sunlight inside. He looks like an over-the-top rock star from the mid-70’s, with clip-on nails that are completely inappropriate for a man. These nails however are weapons that somehow give Superman cancer. In short, he’s both a great villain and a terrible villain, but he’s consistently entertaining either way.
It’s also worth mentioning that the DVD release includes over half an hour of deleted scenes. Some of these scenes actually give some of the subplots some much needed expansions, like attempting to explain how the creation of Nuclear Man is even remotely possible, or expanding on the story about some kid sending a letter to Superman that convinces the superhero to get involved in the nuclear arms race. It gives Superman a couple more casual moments of rescuing people as a superhero. It also shows more scenes of Clark being sick from Nuclear Man’s nail scratch. But most importantly, it gives us the closest thing we’ve seen to Bizarro in a live-action movie. Not sure why they deleted this sequence – it’s no dumber than anything else in the movie.
(This is a compilation of all the deleted scenes, but I had the clip start at the fight between Superman and the first Nuclear Man.)
There are so many other problems with this movie. It’s got stupid attempts at comedy. There’s one scene where Clark throws heavy weights at someone casually, which is completely out of character. There’s a mess of subplots that ultimately add nothing to the main story or any of its characters. Lenny Luthor is annoying, which makes it all the crazier when you learn that not only is Cryer Lex Luthor in the Supergirl TV show, but he’s actually very good in the role. He’s one of the few legitimately good things about that show right now.
That is Cryer’s first appearance as Lex Luthor in the Supergirl show. What an impactful introduction. Anyway, talking about all of this movie’s problems would make this blog post way too long, so let’s just sum this review up.
Superman IV is a hilariously bad movie. If you’re in the right mood, it’s a great time. Years ago I used to host bad movie nights every month with a group of friends, and the night we watched Superman IV was easily the most enjoyable. This kind of so bad it’s good experience isn’t for everyone, but I would highly recommend it to those who do enjoy hilariously bad movies. But even if I evaluate it as a serious attempt at a Superman movie, I still prefer this failure over Man Of Steel. It is objectively the worst movie in the Superman series, including Supergirl, but it’s a laughing riot while still giving us more of Reeve’s Superman and Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Both of those last points are always good things.
Next up is 1988’s Batman, followed by the rest of the Batman quadrilogy. Then we’ll look at Steel, starring Shaq, Catwoman, and then we’ll finish up this blog series with the Dark Knight trilogy, Superman Returns, and 2019’s The Joker (which I haven’t seen yet).