Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
It was only a matter of time before we returned to the Cannon Group. Acquired in the early 1980s by Israeli movie producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon was a haven for movies of questionable quality, questionable motives and unbridled cheese. We could easily focus on them exclusively for years as they produced a lot of movies. All those Death Wish sequels? The Cannon Group. American Ninja? Golan and Globus. Missing in Action? You better believe that was Cannon production. Golan had a passion for making and marketing movies. Unfortunately for most moviegoers, he had little love for the discipline required to make legitimately good movies. For me, he’s almost a patron saint. Right up there with Dino De Laurentiis and who ever greenlit the latter two Jaws pictures.
But Golan and Globus wanted to be legitimate. They wanted prestige and acclaim. They were also forward thinkers, so they began to mine comic books for source material. Now, this was long before movie release schedules were littered with them and broadcast television devoted a nightly hour (at least) to comic book heroes. This was a laughable pursuit at the time, but the Cannon Group saw the potential there and Golan planned to make a handful of comic book movies. One of them is this weekend’s cheesy movie: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
The plot sees Superman facing a crisis most kids ponder at some point in their childhood, um, ponderings: “why don’t Superman stop all the wars?” It was a story pitch brought to the table by star Christopher Reeve as one of the conditions Cannon agreed to in order to secure his services. And while the actor had the best of intentions with this storyline, it’s really a tough one to do properly as Superman requires the reader or viewer to hold their breath for a very long time. Though he began as a social crusader, his stories took on a cosmic scope; to speculate on how he might actually face complex geopolitical crises is to break Superman. Nonetheless, Cannon tried in a story which saw Superman unilaterally declaring that he will rid the world of all nuclear weapons. In response, a recently-escaped Lex Luthor planned to rearm various nations (those unaligned with US interests) and defeat Superman with his nuclear-powered Nuclear Man.
And yeah, on a script level, Nuclear Man is a major tonal shift from the heavy idea of Superman forcing disarmament. In realization, he just about obliterates Reeve’s intent.
Meanwhile, screenwriter Mark Rosenthal snuck in a subplot about the Daily Planet getting bought by a Rupert Murdoch style media tycoon. He only makes a handful of appearances, but he steers the Planet toward shock journalism. It’s strangely prescient even as it remains obvious and cartoonish. In fact, great swathes of this movie hit the wrong cartoonish note.
Of course, that’s part of the charm. When the central idea comes from a child’s hope of Superman ending war, the story can’t help but come off a little, well, childish. It leads to weird ideas like Superman having a power allowing him to rebuild a portion of the Great Wall of China with a mere glance. It gives rise to Lex having a dopey nephew who plays Nintendo and speaks with a weird surfer/valley girl accent. It also means a 12-year-old boy will almost look into camera as he says everyone should look to Superman for hope.
In the middle of a runaway script is Reeve himself. Though beginning to age out of the role, he still embodies so much of what Superman should be on screen. He’s a hokey, to be sure, but Reeve plays him as a man who knowingly amps up that hokeyness as part of his public disguise. But underneath is a sincerity that is almost impossible to get right. Though the actors who’ve played the part since have enjoyed various levels of success, no one displays the character’s core honesty quite like Reeve. In Superman IV, he maintains that standard even as his heart was probably breaking from the mess Golan and Globus were making of his Superman story.
Besides script issues, Cannon slashed the budget almost in half as they needed money to keep their high-budget Spider-Man in development. A huge piece of the film concerning a prototype Nuclear Man was cut entirely as the money to pay for effects evaporated. What visuals you do see in the film are of a laughably poor quality. In fact, they are some of the worst in a film I’ve profiled here to date. The magic of the first film’s flying sequences are lost as wires become visible and the bluescreen process fails to make Superman and Lois part of the environment behind them. Even basic aspects of practical sets get it wrong, like a sequence on the Moon in which an obvious black background curtain bunches up and ruins the illusion of space. The enormity and frequency of mistakes underline the preadolescent nature of the story and add up to an unusually fun bad movie experience.
Or, to put it another way, it’s a Cannon film. Beyond the obvious production problems and weak script, the film contains Golan’s frantic madness and pace. It’s a brief 92 minutes, but feels shorter as you marvel at the size of the lapels on the coats worn by Margot Kidder and Muriel Hemingway or Nuclear Man’s terrible wrestling costume. You’ll also stare in wonderment as plot points go no where and, somehow, Gene Hackman keeps his dignity. All the while, the cheapness of the production permeates the frame. But there lays the Cannon magic: you can’t help but want to watch something so poorly presented. It still, somehow demands your attention.
The film floundered and crushed Cannon’s attempt to become a legitimate mainstream studio. Their Spider-Man film never materialized and they managed to make Masters of the Universe before Golan would leave the company to attempt it all again at 21st Century Film Corporation. The result was that infamous Captain America film with the Italian Red Skull. Despite their failure to make important work, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace proves they were capable of making enduring films. Well, enduring for aficionados of cheesy movies.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is available for rent on most digital platforms. It’s also available in the Superman Motion Picture Anthology Blu-ray or DVD box set.