Monday, August 22, 2016

Super Week, part IV: Global thermonuclear war


Bad?  Hell, maybe it is, by some half-imagined objective standard for what it means to be "good."  But Superman IV is the furthest thing from unwatchable, and remains to this day one of the most faithful adaptations of the idea of "the superhero comic book" as has ever been brought to the screen.

Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Written by Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, and Christopher Reeve
With Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Mariel Hemingway (Lacy Warfield), Sam Wanamaker (David Warfield), Jon Cryer (Lenny Luthor), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), and Mark Pillow/Gene Hackman (The Nuclear Man)

Spoiler alert: moderate

After the chin-scraping, under-performing mess of Superman III, Ilya Salkind decided at last that it was time to get out of the game—strangely, nobody had been lining up to fund the Brainiac-molests-Supergirl film he'd wanted to make in the first place, and nobody at all liked the Supergirl that actually resulted from his mission to get Kara Zor-El into the movies.  And so, Ilya and his father, Alexander, apparently sold the film rights for Superman to the lowest bidder they could find.  That's right: Cannon Films.

It's a name you no doubt already know—the production company made famous (or, perhaps, infamous) by those filmmaking cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  They had carved out a special niche in the American cinematic landscape already with a whole heap of low-budget action exploitation schlock, often starring Chuck Norris—who, fortunately, was not invited to star in one of their two big projects for 1987, the long-gestating fourth Superman film.  But then, their other big project for 1987, you know, was Masters of the Universe, and—yeah, that's not the kind of connection that bodes well at all.

But unlike Masters, which is a garbage movie that jettisons virtually everything that was exciting, or memorable, or even fundamentally appealing about its source material, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is recognizably the same kind of movie as its three predecessors—even if you do have to adjust your perceptions a little bit to see it.  The fact is, at $17 million, Superman IV cost less than half what Superman III did, which itself only cost three-quarters of Superman II, which (in turn) wasn't logged onto the books as quite as expensive as Superman: The Movie.  The point is, yes, it's way fucking cheap in comparison, and you can get a lot of mileage out of "cheap" in a lot of genres, but the superhero film is the one where every dollar you don't spend gets noticed.

Once again, time has been kind to the Superman series: the distance between 2016 and 1987 tends to flatten the difference that a few tens of millions of dollars could have made back in Superman IV's year of release—when the three Supermans that came before it look laughable at least half the time, a movie that looks laughable all the time isn't going to come off as especially worse, at least not for that reason alone.

This benefit, of course, is solely limited to Quest's effects work.  In nearly every other respect, the cheapness does show: in its set design, in its physical props, and, Lordy, in its shooting locations in "Metropolis"—for what was once New York City (to a fucking fault) is now, mostly, just a collection of office parks in England.  But that's marginal stuff in a movie like this.  I believe a man can fly in Superman IV just as easily as I could when I actually didn't, in Superman—that is to say, if suspension of disbelief is 50% of those first three films, when it's 80-90% in Quest, I've gotta ask, what are you, an accountant?  Sure, it's shit, but it's fun, kitschy shit, from an era where bad effects work was still interesting in its own right.  The worst offender in the whole film is gotten out of the way early, and it's the title card—the one time where Superman IV's cheapness actually did make me sad, since the one thing you could count on in the first three were their bodacious opening credits.  (And, incidentally, I actually do dig Quest's costumes.)

Otherwise, Quest fits quite easily into the series: it still stars the embodiment of Kal-El and Clark Kent alike, Christopher Reeve; thanks to the Salkinds' abdication, it brings back Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor; and it brings back Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, too (effectively, anyway, since she was only in two scenes in Superman III); and, especially, it brings back both the gee-whiz enthusiasm of Superman and Superman II, not to mention their earnest commitment to depicting super-feats and super-battles, something that Superman III had downplayed in favor of comedy.  You honestly could call it a return to form; but, in fact, it's a return to a form that the Superman series never completely had, but always should have, because Quest—despite its financial handicap—must be the most energetic, and the most sincere, of the whole damned lot.

At least until Superman Returns, which is so sincere it'll give you a hernia.

Quest is two plots going on at once, and they do eventually intersect, but only in the most terribly stupid way they possibly could.  The first and less important plot (albeit the rather more thematically fleshed-out one) is the hostile takeover of the Daily Planet by a devious media mogul, David Warfield; and, within this plot, the basic message of Ace in the Hole, Network, and every other media satire of the last century gets reenacted, as we witness Perry White get fired as the Planet's editor-in-chief, all so that Warfield can more easily reduce the the Planet to just another sleazy (but profitable!) tabloid.  The only woman standing in his way, ironically, winds up being his own daughter, Lacy, the Planet's new chief, who comes around quickly enough once she falls in love with the self-evident righteousness of the handsomest reporter in Metropolis Town, Clark Kent.  And with this development, we're treated to the weird (but passably amusing) romantic quadrangle formed twain Lacy, Clark, Lois, and Clark's alter ego—Superman.

The other plot, thankfully, involves some actual Super-happenstance that a five year-old might've found the slightest bit interesting, and Quest earns its title with the Big Idea that rests at the very center of it.  (And by "rests," I do obviously mean it "kind of sits there with nobody doing all that much with it.")  Regardless, that Big Idea is a big one indeed: it's the possibility of nuclear war, and Quest sort-of asks whether Superman's efforts to save the human race from itself might actually be turning our hero from savior to conqueror.  You see, when the 1980s' single most pressing problem is finally brought to Superman's attention by way of a letter from a precocious widdle boy, he resolves to do something about the Cold War.  And, because Superman is Superman, this "something" means the unilateral, forcible disarmament of all nuclear powers, which our hero puts into effect by tossing every atom-tipped missile on Earth into the furnace of the sun itself.

No plowshares on Superman's watch, I suppose.  Seems like a right waste of fissile material.

Superman unveils his plan to the U.N. and is met with a hail of applause.  Soon enough, he's collecting American and Soviet weapons for disposal with the complete cooperation of the American and Soviet authorities—and the only way to palatably read this turn of events is that President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev immediately realized that Superman has declared himself the immortal King of Earth, and chose face-saving surrender over the possibility of the Last Son of Krypton leveling his heat vision at their heads till brains started leaking out of their ears.

But this doesn't sit well with some men, least of all Lex Luthor, who's recently broken out of the slammer thanks to the assistance of his idiot nephew, Lenny, who recapitulates (or regurgitates) Otis and Ms. Teschmacher, but in the vastly more tolerable register of a refugee from The Revenge of the Nerds.  Luthor, of course, has his plan, and that plan is to clone Superman's cells, send the protoplasm into the sun where the thermonuclear irradiation will induce a massive spurt of growth to maturity, and then bring this new solar-powered superman—this Nuclear Man—back to Earth, where he will do Luthor's bidding.  And, as you surely guessed, Luthor's bidding is Superman's death.

Behold: the 80s.

It is comic booky in the most emphatic way, then, and in a manner that essentially no superhero film has ever managed to surpass since.  Most don't even try.  After all, in most circles, "comic booky" really isn't that much of a compliment.

If everything were like this (and, once upon a time, everything was), there's no doubt: it would be dire.  But when nothing is like this, it's extraordinarily refreshing to see a film like Quest today—simple, direct, even childlike, and (quite miraculously!) only 92 minutes long—and it doesn't stop being refreshing, even when it wears all of its many flaws right on its ragged blue sleeve.

Now, obviously: as has been repeated for almost three decades now, this movie has got a lot of flaws, from its dumbed-down science, even for a Superman flick, to its lumpy pace (the result of over half an hour being cut from the film, though given what was in that half hour, it seems terribly wise in retrospect), to the way that the Nuclear Man's goals change in the middle of the third act, from crushing Superman to raping Lacy, down to its queasy handling of the Lois & Clark relationship—which remains, on one hand, reasonably sweet in Reeve and Kidder's portrayal, and yet, on the other hand, becomes mildly horrifying if you think about it for more than ten seconds, as Superman reveals his identity for a second time, has a quick spirits-boosting conversation with his paramour, then super-kisses her brains to mush once more.  (Whatever else Man of Steel and Batman v Superman get wrong about Superman and Lois, the one thing they get completely right is that—once you're past the sheer decades of low-impact "Lois Lane is a brassy, self-centered idiot" stories that dominated the Silver Age, and were meant to entertain mainly pre-pubescent boys and some pre-pubescent girls—Lois is a lot more interesting when she does know that Clark's Superman.  For that matter, Clark's more interesting, too.)

Well, it's a humanizing moment for Kal-El.  Just not necessaily in a good way.

Above everything, though, we have to grapple with the absolutely boneheaded manner in which the screenwriters handle Reeve's initial desire to examine the appeal (and the danger) of an authoritarian god-figure like Superman; Reeve got a "story by" credit on Quest, and its philosophical-political high concept was his, born out of the actor's inspiration that, if Superman really existed, he would never have let things get so bad on the world that he had adopted as his home.  Of course, when it came time to actually make the movie, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (or perhaps director Sidney Furie, or even Golan and Globus themselves) turned out to be tremendously indifferent to Reeve's Alan Moorish pretensions, except to the extent that Reeve's premise could serve as a springboard for what they wanted to do—which was one blisteringly generic tale of men in colorful tights with powers, punching each other in the face, one more damned time.

But then again, that's also the best thing the movie's got going for it, too: its complete embrace of what it is.  Perhaps its dampened ambitions and slashed budget made it unable to be anything but that; and yet, either way, that is exactly what we get.  And here's a fact about me: for my money, there's no such thing as a bad Superman movie.  The so-called bad Superman movies remain largely enjoyable because they're such wholehearted versions of themselves.  Superman III is a vehicle for stupid slapstick.  Superman Returns, Man of Steel, and BvS do their whole god thing, and they even do it varying degrees of well.  Meanwhile, Superman II comes closest to being my least favorite Superman film, despite it being parked in everyone else's "best" column, because it does not know what it is: epic actioner, religious allegory, paranormal romance, or just one obnoxious fucking comedy.

As for Superman IV?  It's Superman's comic book movie, which is to say it's the movie in this series that most feels like any random-ass Superman comic book picked off the shelf—except you also got lucky, because this one was actually exciting.

And if it also features a Lex Luthor who's only the tiniest bit disappointing, then you've really been fortunate!

Indeed, budgetary constraints notwithstanding, Quest offers exactly the kind of bodacious action you'd want to find in a random issue of Action Comics pulled from the longbox, capturing as precisely as any motion picture can the very unique awesomeness of comic book combat.

And when I say "awesome," be aware: I don't mean in some epic, soul-stirring way.  Not at all.  I mean stupidly awesome: the kind of sugar-high giddiness you get from seeing superheroes smashing the living shit out of notable landmarks (not to even mention the warm fuzzies you get, from seeing a goody-two-shoes like Superman fixing them, just as easily).  Quest does this one thing better than maybe any superhero movie that's ever been made.  And, like most comic books ever drawn, it indulges in super-battles that are a lot more memorable for the ideas they attempt to depict than the visuals they actually realize: the Statue of Liberty used as a weapon; the destruction and resurrection of the Great Wall of China; Superman pushing the moon in front of the sun.  Much of it, frankly, is far beyond this film's ability to properly show; and yet it's a little wonderful that they tried.

Bluster and bombast, however, don't even exhaust its charms.  There's one more trick that this film, and its screenwriter-star, still have in store.  It's that Quest so completely understands the nature of Superman, the good guy behind the S, in all his forms: the Superman who's a total dork and lectures onlookers to a potential train disaster that the Metropolitan subway is still the safest way to the travel; the Superman who's a friend to every man and woman on Earth, speaking words of comfort in Russian to the cosmonauts he's saving, just as fluently as he can speak his native English; the Superman who's a universal patriot, who takes a moment to pick up the American flag on the moon after it's been knocked down, because the men who put it there came in peace for all mankind, and they deserve our respect.  Reeve was a lot more than just Superman, but he was Superman.  He's been missed like hell.  Quest isn't the best possible way he could have ended his career as the Man of Steel; there's only a little about it that feels like a "culmination."  Yet it's nevertheless possible to call it Reeve's personal best turn in the red cape, the movie where he became Superman more than he ever had before.

There's an enormous amount to love in Superman IV.  And, yes, there is a lot to despise, too.  (Whatever it is that ultimately changes Superman's mind about meddling in human politics is completely invisible.)  But for me, loving it has always been easy.  To be sure, there's a lot of nostalgia at work here—the Nuclear Man battles made this one my very favorite as a kid—but if you can't have nostalgia for fucking Superman, then, tell me, just what can you have nostalgia for?

Score:  7/10

Other reviews in this series:
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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