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Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

Superman III was bad because it was insulting and cynical, with all the charm and heart of an ebola-tainted Happy Meal. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is every bit as bad, but at least there's a heart beating here. It's juvenile and preachy and sports the most absurd super-threat of the entire series, but it means well and that counts for something. It possesses a dollop of humanity that its predecessor lacked. Too bad it's utter crap.

You get the sense that everyone involved knew without a doubt that this was the final chapter. There's an almost funereal atmosphere to this outing. In some scenes that's a real strength, such as when Clark/Superman (Christopher Reeve, naturally, who still keeps his grace in spite of it all) visits the falling-down ruins of his boyhood home, the old Kent farm, and later as he chooses to sacrifice his final connection to the planet Krypton and become a full-fledged resident of planet Earth. But Superman IV was obviously made on the cheap, like an unfinished bargain-basement TV movie slotted to fill space after a UPN sitcom is canceled. Reeve himself receives a co-writing credit for providing this movie's focus: Superman ridding the world of nuclear weapons. (Said Reeve while promoting the film, "For me, it's the most personal of the entire series. It directly reflects what Superman should be, and should be doing." Later, with PR responsibilities behind him, in his autobiography he described filming Superman IV as "simply a catastrophe from start to finish." ) It's a noble mission, to be sure, at its heart, yet what helps reduce this plot to simplistic kid stuff is the (admittedly untouchable) fact that nowhere are the presumably un-American implications of Superman's unilateral action even mentioned.

Reprising their roles from the first three movies are Margot Kidder (looking tired and worn out), Marc McClure (as middle-aged boy photographer Jimmy Olsen), and Jackie Cooper (appearing as gaunt and old as a chemo patient). Also returning is Gene Hackman, who — no kidding — has a grand good time as archvillain Lex Luthor schemes to make the world safe for nuclear arms merchants. Hackman arguably delivers his best Lex, one closer to his comic-book self than any movie gave us before. New here are Sam Wanamaker as a Rupert Murdoch-style media tycoon trying to take over the Daily Planet; Mariel Hemingway as his spoiled-rich-kid-who-learns-valuable-lessons daughter; Jon Cryer as Luthor's surfer dude nephew ("gnarly"); and still rightfully unknown "actor" Mark Pillow cast in the role of (as God is my witness) Nuclear Man, Lex's artificial he-man superweapon who just stepped out of a gay fetish porn video shoot. The two super-foes clash in a shoddy extravaganza that sees Superman save the Statue of Liberty, plug a volcanic eruption of Mount Etna, and rebuild the demolished Great Wall of China. Their climactic battle on the lunar surface probably looked great on paper, but Reeve's flying harness wires hanging there in plain view sure do blow the fun.

There are good moments here, and a frustrating amount of discarded potential, but to catalog everything wrong — from the stunningly bad special effects to the editing (hindered by some 40 minutes of footage hacksawed out before its release) to the very idea of, oh spare me, Nuclear Man — is beyond the scope of this review. Perhaps because Superman IV was produced (then abandoned like toxic waste after a disastrous test-screening) by low-budget moguls Golan and Globus (Cannon Pictures) and not the thuggish Salkinds, and because it was directed by someone other than Richard Lester, this final sigh of a movie manages to send the series out with a feeble yet breathing dignity. It's bad, but it's better than III in that it does try to rise above itself.

*          *          *

Warner's 2001 DVD release has a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and audio in Dolby 2.0 mono. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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