The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
Web Magazine and Sourcebooks

Vol 1, Issue #5
"Stand By For Mars!"
April 2006
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Christopher Reeve starred in four Superman movies. In the following pages, Ryan Brennan provides an examination of each of these movies. Click on the title:

Superman (1978)
Superman II (1980)
Superman III (1983)
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)

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Superman IV (1987)
Directed by Sidney J. Furie

Superman III was almost as effective as Kryptonite as a means of killing the visitor from another planet. Poor reviews and disappointing box office returns signaled an end to the series. Or was it really over? Four years later, Golan-Globus, under their Cannon production entity, picked up the ball for one last round with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987).

After the third Superman installment, Alexander Salkind washed his hands of the superhero. Ilya, his son, wasn't quite through, believing there to be more gold in some kind of super person. He went on to produce Supergirl (1984) and Superboy (1988-1992). Enter Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two mid-eastern filmmakers who found international success producing somewhat bigger budget action exploitation films like the Death Wish, Delta Force and Missing in Action series, among others. They worked frequently with stars like Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. Sprinkled throughout their careers are films of higher quality and reputation like Runaway Train, Lifeforce, 52 Pick-Up, Barfly and Tough Guys Don't Dance, to name a few. They definitely wanted to be contenders in the world market and Superman probably looked like a winning lottery ticket.

They lured a reluctant Christopher Reeve back and were successful in re-enlisting Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure and even Gene Hackman. Part of Reeve's deal was that he could have story input as he wanted this tale to have a bit more substance. Screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal had just come off the highly successful The Jewel of the Nile. They recruited a director, Sidney J. Furie, known for the highly imaginative Ipcress File other films like Appaloosa and Lady Sings the Blues. They employed composer Alexander Courage, known most famously for his theme to Star Trek. From appearances, it looks like they wanted to do it right, not just in the casting but in the behind-the-scenes talent, the repetition of key moments from the first two films, and even down to the swooping main titles of the first two films.

In space, a Soviet cosmonaut is swept off his ship when an obsolete Soviet satellite collides with him and his crew's ship. Superman, demonstrating his neutrality (and ability to speak Russian), rescues the cosmonauts.

Later, Clark returns to Smallville and the old family farm. It appears abandoned and neglected. We don' know the fate of his Earth mother; after he first leaves home we never see her again. The mid-western, Americana sequence of the first film was a high point, full of nostalgia, and this scene serves to remind us of it and rekindle some of those warm feelings. But there is another reason for Clark to be at the farm. The ship that brought him to our planet is still hidden in the barn. Inside it he discovers an energy module.

Lex Luthor is back in prison working on the rock pile. His goofy nephew, Lenny (Jon Cryer) shows up, pretending to be lost. He tricks the two guards into his suped-up Cadillac and traps them, then runs them over a cliff. Not to worry, despite a world record plunge, the guards are only a bit dirtier and shaken up for their troubles. This is a family friendly movie, after all.

Lois again finds herself almost immediately in peril. In the subway the driver slumps over. The train coaches careen wildly out of control. But Superman manages to disrupt the electrical current and brings the vehicle to a stop. Once again, Superman is the straight shooter of the first film, advising the crowd that NYC's subways are "still the safest and most reliable means of public transportation," a remark very similar to the one he made when he saved the disabled jet in Superman.

Back at The Daily Planet the future of the newspaper and its integrity are at stake as David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker), a Rupert Davies style tabloid publisher, takes ownership. His plan is to up readership and profitability by stressing exploitive headlines and stories. Perry White stomps out, announcing that he's headed downtown. Warfield's daughter, Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) will be in charge. In an interesting turn of events, she is attracted to Clark and pursues him aggressively.

Free once more, Luthor has concocted a new plan to defeat Superman. If he can duplicate Superman's genetic code he will be able to create another super human to kill the Man of Steel. To this aim, Luthor steals a strand of Superman's air from a museum exhibit.

Then, a schoolboy sends Superman a letter that will cause him deep conflict. The boy requests that Superman rid the world of nuclear weapons. It was established by Superman' father, Jor-el, that he cannot interfere in the affairs of the Earth. It is alright to fight individual injustices and right certain wrongs, but apparently the bigger issues on Earth are to be left alone to take their natural course.

Superman returns to the Fortress of Solitude where he manages to find at least one more memory bank crystal, even though we were lead to believe they were all destroyed back in the second film. More stock footage of Marlon Brando or Susannah York being unavailable, Superman converses with the anonymous Krypton elders. Why he consults with anyone is always a mystery since he almost never follows their advice. This time is no exception either since he plans to interfere in Earth'saffairs and honor the boy' request.

Reaching back to the first two films again, we are given a condensed version of two scenes from each film. First, Clark reveals himself to Lois as Superman without any preamble. As Clark he simply leads her outside and walks off the edge of the building. Then, as in the first film, he takes her on scenic tour in the sky, judging by the background plates a trip that extends from Metropolis to San Francisco and back. There is no spoken song this time but he lets her go in mid-air again, this time deliberately, chuckling at her screams. Back on the ground, he kisses her as he did in the second film and she forgets what he's just told and shown her.

Superman shows up at the U.N and announces his plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Whenever missles are fired, Superman intercepts them in space and collects them together in a huge net orbiting Earth. The captured weapons are sent hurtling into the sun.

Luthor manages to attach his cultured genetic material to a missle. He wants Superman to hurl it into the sun. This will finish the growth process and give his creation an abundance of deadly radiation. When the missle is fired, Superman sends it into the Sun and Nuclear Man is born.

Ridiculously, Clark agrees to a high tea with Lois, Lacy and Superman. It's all played for farce with Superman racing back and forth, switching identities, contriving means by which he can duck out or draw the women away.

Luthor uses the same high frequency transmission of the first film to communicate with Superman and draw him to his new lair high atop the Empire State Building. It's really a trick to confront him with Nuclear Man who, we discover, has only one weakness. He's like a solar battery and if there's no sun, he has no power.

Nuclear Man travels the globe, vandalizing the planet on a massive scale. He creates a volcanic eruption in Italy that Superman plugs with a sheared-off mountain top. The Statue of Liberty is uprooted and nearly destroyed. And, then, in one of their hand-to-hand combats, Nuclear Man is able to use his claws and deeply gouge Superman. This results in an illness that weakens Superman, giving him a high fever and causing him to age. But remember that energy module he retrieved back at the farm? It's one-time use cures our hero.

While Superman was convalescing, Nuclear Man continued on his rampage. Hemingway's transformation into a sympathetic character is completed when she takes on an interest in real journalism, flagrantly opposing her father's wishes. Now that she's one of the good guys/gals, Nuclear Man kidnaps her. He takes her into space where, somehow, she is able to breath. Regardless, Superman cuts off Nuclear Man's source of energy by moving the moon to create an eclipse. Eventually, Nuclear Man is put to good use when he is contained in a nuclear power plant.

Luthor is returned to his rock pile and, in a surprise twist, Perry White returns to The Daily Planet following a successful stock buy out that returns the newspaper to his control. At the end, Superman realizes that he can't stop Earth's wars. As always, Superman soars into space to keep a watchful eye on the Earth. As in the first film, he winks.

Although this film plays out like a sort of "greatest hits" movie, recreating or re-imagining many of the key scenes from the first two films, it actually plays better than the third installment. At least it correctly assesses what appealed to audiences in those films.

Unfortunately, the film has always had a lower-budgeted look than the other films with the effects work bordering on the cheesy despite some of the best names in the business working on them. It does step over that line when Superman reconstructs the Great Wall of China with some kind of blue ray he emits from his eyes. There are many matte shots, usually involving flying scenes that are sub-par. But, as often happens, reduced to TV size, even on a large set, most of the film looks just as good as the other entries. Alexander Courage did more than merely re-orchestrate and arrange John Williams' themes, there is quite a bit of new music here. However, the acoustics exhibit the annoying echo of a concert hall.

All in all, this was a creditable attempt to get the series back on track. But Superman IV performed even worse than the third film (which made a little over one-third of what the second film earned), proving that this approach to the saga had run out of steam. Nearly twenty years later a new generation exists who have never seen a Superman movie in a theater. The new Superman Returns will attempt to pick up the story thread following Superman II, ignoring the third and fourth installments. Buzz is good and excitement is running high so it looks like we may see a successful return of a much beloved character and the start of a new franchise.

The Warner Bros. DVD is stripped down like all but the first film. But it is a good transfer and, as noted above, the movie has never looked better. All four Superman movies are available in The Complete Superman Collection, packaged in a reflective silver box with the Superman emblem prominently displayed.

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