Franchise Expansion Or Implosion – Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
2018 marks the 80th Anniversary of when the medium of comic books changed forever when the creation of Superman gave readers the world’s first superhero. After Superman flew through comic book pages, the superhero became an absolute staple of comic books. December 15, 2018 also marks the 40th Anniversary of Superman: The Movie (1978), the film that created the comic-book movie genre. To honor this occasion, I will be examining The Original Superman Film Franchise! This time around we look at the film that marks Christopher Reeve’s last turn as the world’s favorite boy scout, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)!
While I know that streaming is more convenient, there was nothing like pursuing a video store shelf. Back in the day, there was a mom and pop video store called Video Corner located in the small North Carolina town in which I grew up in. My grandma was kind enough to take me to this fine establishment regularly. So much so in fact that I can still remember the store’s layout and smell. On one of these occasions, I decided to rent Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987); an odd choice on my part as I think I’d only seen Superman: The Movie (1978) at that point. Despite being quite young, I distinctly remember enjoying the movie; so I was curious to revisit 25 years later for this column.
Coming back to this flick two and a half decades later, one thing is clear. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was made two reasons: money and the passions of actor Christopher Reeve. Unfortunately, though, the fourth entry in this franchise wasn’t made because anyone involved in its production had a pure desire to make another Superman movie. Following the failure of Supergirl (1984), producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind sold the film rights to Cannon Films. (Keep in mind that back then, Warner Bros merely distributed Superman movies, but didn’t fund or produce them.)
The Salkinds had a reputation for being notorious penny-pinchers. However, if there was ever a cheaper production company on the block, it was the now defunct Cannon Films. In the early-mid 1980s, Cannon Films was at its peak under the reign of company heads and producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Two gentlemen who established the company by making entertaining genre pictures (which were often violent and/or sexed up) with incredibly low production values on shoestring budgets. If you were watching movies in the 80s or 90s, odds are that you’ve seen a flick that Cannon put out, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Cobra (1986), or Masters of The Universe (1987), among dozens of others. Acquiring the film rights for Superman was the first step in the production company’s plan to solidify themselves as a major studio; thereby pulling themselves out of the exploitation film ghetto.
Before Superman IV could move forward, Cannon knew that they would need to convince actor Christopher Reeve to put on the blue tights and red cape one more time. A difficult prospect considering the actor initially had zero interest in doing another Superman movie. However, Reeve changed his mind when Cannon agreed to fund his pet project, Street Smart (1987) in exchange for doing another Superman sequel. Reeve also insisted on having more creative control in his fourth outing as Supes. As a result, Reeve ended up co-creating the story for A Quest for Peace, as well as becoming a sort of an unofficial producer on the picture.
In Inhabiting a more creative role, I feel that Reeve’s initial instincts regarding The Quest for Peace were correct as he approached previous collaborators from the franchise. Reeve went to Tom Mankiewicz, who served as a creative consultant on the first two Superman entries, to pen the fourth entry in the franchise. Unfortunately, for everyone involved (and we the audience), Mankiewicz declined writing duties. However, he did suggest that The Man of Steel tackle a real-world issue in his fourth filmic adventure. It was this suggestion that inspired Reeve to center the fourth film’s story around an anti-nuclear weapons narrative.
Initially, Richard Donner was approached to direct the picture but turned it down. Following Donner’s rejection, Reeve and the producers offered the gig to Superman III (1983) helmer, Richard Lester. To the surprise of many, Lester also rejected the opportunity. Since none of the franchise’s old collaborators were interested in returning, new blood was pumped into to the project in the form of director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)). Despite having made his bones with horror flicks, the director saw Superman IV as an opportunity to break away from the horror genre. Alas, the perceived opportunity was not to be as Craven ultimately abandoned The Quest for Peace due to creative differences with Reeve. Finally, director Sidney J. Fury (Iron Eagle) was tapped to direct since had a reputation for completing movies on time and for their estimated budgets. While there ended up not being anyone familiar behind the camera, a point was made to get familiar faces back in front of the camera again.
The movie in review opens to find the staff of The Daily Planet in upheaval as the paper has been taken over by new owners seeking to turn the publication into a tabloid. Soon enough though, there are more significant issues at hand as Superman decides to almost single-handedly eradicate all nuclear weapons. Alas, the peace achieved by Supes’ quest ceases after Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison with the help of his teenage nephew, Lenny Luthor (Jon Cryer). Using a strand of Superman’s hair from a museum display, the world’s greatest criminal mind creates Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow); who possess all the same abilities our hero does. All the while, Lex has also reignited the nuclear arms trade. Now, Superman must save the world from annihilation!
The Quest for Peace attempts to recapture the spirit of Superman (1978) and Superman II (1981), all the while telling a story with a sociopolitical center. Sadly, Superman IV fails miserably with everything it attempts to do. I hate to say that as I appreciate the fact that the movie had such aspirations, particularly regarding its statement on nuclear weaponry. However, no movie’s entertainment value should be overshadowed by its message. Nor should a film be so excruciatingly dull and so stupidly silly that its message gets lost among a ridiculous string of events, which is most certainly the case with Superman IV.
Of course, the film’s story issues aren’t helped by the fact that it’s a rush-job of a narrative. See, the original runtime of Superman IV was 134 minutes. However, Cannon Films cut the picture down to 90 minutes flat as that wanted theaters to squeeze as many showtimes into a day as possible. While I can’t imagine a lengthier cut would have made the movie any better, it might’ve at least been a little more cohesive. No matter what way it was cut, the movie’s aspirations exceeded its means. The Quest for Peace originally had a budget of $36 million. However, as was their way, Cannon Films slashed the budget in half, to $17 million right before it went into production. Therefore, the movie ends up not only being cheap but frankly, poorly made.
This poor film craft even extends to the majority of the cast. Don’t get me wrong, Gene Hackman and Jon Cryer are an absolute pleasure to watch as an uncle-nephew duo. Reeve also does a decent enough job, but it’s evident that he doesn’t want to be playing this Super role again. As for the rest of the cast, they’re all phoning it in. Except for Margot Kidder who is barely present as she sleepwalks through her reprised role. Now, I realize that it was not truly the actress’ fault as she was dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues at the time. Even still, her performance is a painful one to watch.
In the end, Reeve was disappointed with the finished film, citing it as A catastrophe from start to finish. That failure was a huge blow to my career. That’s an understatement if you ask me. Despite that this picture had the best of intentions, it’s absolutely terrible. I wish that I could enjoy this flick as much as I did when I was a kid, I cannot. While I have no doubt that The Quest for Peace had the best of intentions, it’s a Kryptonite paved road is one that leads to a cinematic Hell of boredom. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is A Definitive Franchise Implosion if ever I’ve seen one! Moreover, this movie is one of the worst comic book films ever made!
The Quest for Peace proved to be a financial flop; earning only $15.6 million. Therefore, Cannon planned to use the fourth film’s cut footage as the foundation for Superman V were abandoned. Although, the company had gone so far as to hire in-house helmer Albert Pyun (Captain America (1990)) to direct the planned fifth installment. Thanks to the financial and critical failure of Superman IV, Cannon also pulled the plug on plans for a Spider-Man movie. As much as I hate to see a comic book movie flop, I think we dodged two big, filmic bullets.
It would be nearly twenty years before the world that Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve brought to life was revisited on film. Join me next time when I review Superman Returns (2006)!
Want to check the other reviews in this franchise?
Superman: The Movie
Need more Supes? Read my other Superman articles:
The Death of Superman
Reign Of The Supermen