Though Superman III had brought in a respectable domestic haul of $59 million, its lukewarm reception and the subsequent flop Supergirl led Ilya Salkind to pass on a Superman IV and sell the rights to low-budget entrepeneurs Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Golan and Globus' Cannon Films would co-produce the Superman sequel with Warner Brothers; according to Hollywood legend, Warner supplied in the neighborhood of $36 million for the film's production, while Cannon allocated only $17 million of that money to the much-maligned Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (the rest apparently went to shore up the thirty other films Cannon had in simultaneous development).
Star Christopher Reeve put his heart into the project, only to be sorely disappointed. He once referred to the film as, for him, "the most personal of the entire series"; indeed, Reeve received a story credit along with screenwriters Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal. But the cut-rate production resulted in what Reeve termed "catastrophe" for a film intended to marry a serious message to the series' signature action, humor, and romance.
The fourth film acknowledges the political reality of the nuclear arms race during the lingering Cold War. When a schoolboy pleads for Superman to save the world from itself after a failed summit (an allusion to real-life child-letter-writer Samantha Smith), the hero consults with his mother (Susannah York, via voice-over), the Kryptonian elders, and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). "Sometimes," Superman confesses, "I don't know what I'm supposed to do." After deciding to overrule his policy of non-interference in global affairs, Superman addresses the UN and pledges both to rid the world of nuclear weapons and to police the new protocol.
The promise of the provocative plot quickly goes south. For starters, Lex's nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer) replaces Ned Beatty's absent Otis as Luthor's dimwitted henchman. Outfitted in self-parodic '80s-teen drag, Cryer comes off as far more annoying than funny, cracking wise about breakdancing and calling Superman "the Dude of Steel." Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) sees opportunity in Superman's maneuver: if he can foil Superman's plan, Luthor can be the overlord of the nuclear-arms trade (watch for Oscar winner Jim Broadbent in a tiny role as the French arms dealer).
Likewise, the Daily Planet subplots consistently fail to hit a stride. The great metropolitan newspaper has been taken over by David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker), a ruthless magnate only interested in sales and, therefore, sensationalism. Meanwhile, Warfield's daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) takes a romantic interest in Clark Kent, whom Lois dismisses as "the oldest living Boy Scout." The continuation of the Lois Lane-Superman romance includes a heartfelt but clumsy and redundant "I'm Superman" scene, and a farcical double date with Superman and Lois and Clark and Lacy.
The film's most offputting element, however, is Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), created mid-film, by Lex Luthor, from Superman's DNA and the radioactive energy of the sun. Pillow's screen debut was also his screen swan-song, and his entire performance is overdubbed by Hackman (unaccountably, Nuclear Man speaks with the voice of his creator and, upon his arrival on Earth, seeks out Luthor). Everything about Nuclear Man points to a bad case of "comic-book logic," including his spontaneous birth, complete with snazzy costume.
First, Nuclear Man and Superman tussle around the world, satisfying the series tradition of scenes set at recognizable monuments. Nuclear Man uses telekinesis (huh?) to destroy a portion of the Great Wall of China, which Superman reconstructs brick by brick with his own never-before-noted telekenetic ability (wha?). Then, Nuclear Man stokes an Italian volcano, which Superman bottles. Finally, Nuclear Man flings the Statue of Liberty at Metropolis, but Superman catches and restores it.
When Nuclear Man makes Superman super-sick by scratching his neck with radioactive Lee Press-On nails, only a poorly constructed deus ex machina allows Superman to recover for the B-movie coup de grace, a climactic cheesy battle predicated on Nuclear Man's crush on Lacy Warfield. The hero and supervillain go at it on the lunar surface in what closely resembles a WWE Smackdown (on the DVD, the black-curtained backdrop—sans stars—is clearly visible). Nuclear Man then whisks Lacy into space, where she should, of course, explode without a spacesuit (but, sadly, doesn't). It goes without saying that Superman defeats Nuclear Man with a nonsensical flourish.
Ironically, the resolution of the Daily Planet subplot anticipates, beat for beat, the hostile-takeover subplot in Batman Begins (proving that, most of the time, it's all in the execution). As the peppy coda continues, Superman paraphases Dwight D. Eisenhower at a press conference: "There will be peace when the people of the world, want it so badly, that their governments will have no choice but to give it to them." Finally, Superman drops Lenny off at Boys Town and Lex back at the ol' prison rock pile.
Superman IV's eleventh-hour whittling (after a disasterous test screening) from its original 135-minute running time to a scant 90 minutes explains much of the plot confusion, and the seeming pointlessness of characters like Hemingway's Lacy. The hapless, styleless direction of Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) certainly doesn't help matters.
Despite its many disasters, Superman IV isn't an utter failure. The Cold War premise is intriguing and not out of line with the Superman comics, Reeve remains in good shape and convincing in the leading role, and many of the series' elements are back in place: Hackman, Kidder, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, and Williams' music (this time, adapted by Alexander Courage). Superman's parting shot to Lex "See you in twenty" was almost right on the money. At a budget at least twelve times higher than Superman IV, Superman Returns would reunite Superman and Lex nineteen years later.