Comics on Film: Can Comic Book Cinema Learn Anything from a Black Sheep: 'Superman IV'?

Comics on Film: Can Comic Book Cinema Learn Anything from a Black Sheep: 'Superman IV'?

Feb 09, 2018

 
If ever there was a story of tragedy when charting the rise and fall of a once-proud comic book movie franchise, you don't really need to look further than the first modern example. When it was first released in 1978, director Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie became an immediate core showpiece for what would become one of the most popular and enduring genres in all of cinematic history. Populating the cast with both popular and respected actors like Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and Glenn Ford, the true jackpot was, of course, the newcomer in the red cape: Christopher Reeve.
 
Superman: The Movie was a notable success critically and commercially for its time, but a long and arduous road to theaters would portend a lot of difficulty to come for the series. Producers Pierre Spengler and Alexander & Ilya Salkind would fire Donner before he could finish the first film's sequel, bringing in Richard Lester to instead take the helm for Superman II. Continued box office success saw the production of Superman III, completely under Lester's control and proving to be a lackluster outing when compared to the previous two efforts.
 
The Salkinds and Spengler sold the rights to a possible fourth film to the Cannon Group, known for creating a lineup of low-budget projects, and secured most of the major cast members from the first three films to make a third sequel. What followed was one of the worst-regarded superhero films in existence, and any possibility of a fifth film was quickly dashed when Christopher Reeve suffered a massively debilitating neck injury in 1994.
 
However, in context with other examples of "bad" comic book cinema...is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace really that bad? Is it possible to answer yes and no?
 
 
In Defense of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
 
 
While not many people can feasibly say that Superman IV is a particularly good movie, it seems that most of the particulars surrounding some of its best attributes are actually kind of lost in the nebulous generalization brought about by the Internet age. For most younger observers now, Superman IV is dismissed out of hand due to its paltry 12% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with most people refusing to even watch it after seeing that it was a rather thunderous dud with both its contemporary critics, and with modern ones.
 
However, for those that actually do take the time to watch it, warts and all, it's easy to see where it excels, particularly and especially in relation to Superman III. The first and most obvious positive that Superman IV has is its star, Christopher Reeve. Brought back into the fold as the Man of Steel once more with the promise of having an opportunity to shepherd a passion project, Reeve also had a direct hand in formulating the story for what would become Superman IV. Having been made in the waning years of the Cold War, placing the real-world amping up of nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, predominant in the 1980's, made sense: how could Superman possibly ignore the idea of mutually assured destruction in a world he lived in?
 
 
This is likely the movie's greatest strength. Although Cannon's $17 million budget did no justice for the movie's potential production value (often looking cheap and embarrassing in places it's meant to surprise), Reeve's earnestness and dedication to the character he defined for nearly a decade by that point absolutely shines through. You can almost see the weight he puts on his shoulders in a quiet moment in the Daily Planet's offices, where he takes off his glasses and contemplates what he, as a beacon of hope and heroism, should do to actively get involved in order to avert the destruction of another home planet. His speech to the United Nations is also a highlight.
 
The return of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor also manages to elevate this movie above dismissible status, and taking itself more seriously actually makes it stand up reasonably well against the more openly-slapstick elements of Superman III. It's impossible to ignore the production's cheapness, though, as well as the hammier elements at play (Nuclear Man, anyone? Also, how does Lacy Warfield breathe in space?).
 
 
Can We Learn Anything from Superman IV?
 
 
If there's anything to be learned from even this less-than-stellar outing for the World's Greatest Hero, it's likely twofold: first, the quality of Christopher Reeve as Superman as impossible to overstate. His earnestness, dedication, and projection of the elements that make Superman a hero to be admired comes through in all of his performances as the Man of Steel which, contrary to popular belief, includes this one.
 
The second thing that can be learned is likely that Superman's fundamentals are very strong when they're properly adhered to. This is a lesson that DC-based cinema at least seemed to begin to learn this past November, by showcasing the DCEU's most truthful vision of the Man of Steel yet, front-and-center in Justice League.
 
Is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace a good movie? No. Still, it's likely better than a lot of other "bad" comic book movies: better than Steel, better than Elektra, arguably better than both the Ghost Rider movies, better than The Spirit, way better than 2015's Fantastic Four, and probably better than Batman & Robin. Better than Superman III? This writer thinks so, but what do you think? Feel free to leave a comment in the space below, and we'll see you for a new Comics on Film next week.

Chris Clow is a comic book expert and former retailer, and a writer with work having appeared in the Huffington Post, Fandango and others. He also hosts the podcasts Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek Podcast and Comics on Consoles. You can find his weekly Comics on Film column every week here at Movies.com, and you can follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Features, Geek, Editorials
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