Superman 4

Warner Bros.

Often great movies come with great commentary tracks. Few things beat listening to filmmakers of masterpieces deconstruct their own films, offering insight into the genius that went into the process. However, some of the worst movies make spectacular commentaries as well. These commentaries give us a look into the delusional process of how an attempt to make fine art turned into some of the worst films in the history of time.

Back in 1987, Christopher Reeve convinced Warner Bros. to help him revitalize the Superman franchise from the disappointing third film. He also wanted to bring a level of social responsibility by addressing the nuclear arms race at the height of the Cold War. The result was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a bargain-basement sequel that effectively killed the franchise for almost 20 years.

In 2006, co-writer Mark Rosenthal recorded a commentary about the production of the film which is included in the Superman Motion Picture Anthology Blu-ray box set. Now, we get a look into the madness and some reasons why the final product was so terrible.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Commentator: Mark Rosenthal (co-writer)

1. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was meant to be a return of the series to greatness from the disappointing Superman III, but as many people know, the budget was cut severely in pre-production by Cannon Films when it started to scale back it’s large-budget productions that had been put into the pipeline when they tried to leap from smaller independent films to blockbusters.

2. Rosenthal compares the opening credits to looking at graffiti compared to the awe-inspiring credits seen in the first two films.

3. One of the goals during the development of the film was to bring back the entire cast from the first film because they were so embarrassed by Superman III. Christopher Reeve was involved near the beginning, but once he managed to bring back Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, other people came on board, including Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, and Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen.

4. Before getting the green light, the filmmakers had to meet with then-president of DC Comics Jenette Kahn. They were all excited about exploring the age-old question of why Superman doesn’t stop wars with all of his powers. Rosenthal likens this question to the Sunday school question kids have about how God can let evil still exist in the world.

5. Most of the best special effects workers and technical talents were lost once the budget was cut in pre-production.

6. Richard Donner was originally approached to direct.

7. The original finished cut of the film was 134 minutes long. That was cut down to 89 minutes for theaters, losing key scenes (many of which can be found on the Blu-ray) which were partially responsible for making the script incomprehensible.

8. The opening of the film was set in space because initially the filmmakers wanted to showcase the special effects (which ended up backfiring on them).

9. One way the filmmakers wanted to tie the movie into the previous films was to start off Superman/Clark’s story back in Smallville, which addressed the emerging issue of family farms going under in the Midwest.

10. Although John Williams is given the music credit at the beginning of the film, he did not score the entire film. However, he composed new movements for the movie, including the touching score under the Smallville scenes, which Rosenthal feels gave a rare bit of class to the film.

11. One deleted scene not on the Blu-ray featured Clark visiting the grave of his parents while he was in Smallville.

12. Originally, Lex Luthor was supposed to be working on a chain gang by a swampy highway. This would have made sense for Lenny Luthor (Jon Cryer) driving up out of the blue. However, for budgetary reasons, the scene was rewritten for a rock quarry, where cars just don’t pass by.

13. The studio wanted a younger cast for the film, which is why they brought in Jon Cryer and Mariel Hemingway.

14. Rosenthal considers Cryer’s performance as Lenny Luthor to be part of the inspiration for Seth Green’s performance as Scott Evil in the Austin Powers movies.

15. Like many of the action sequences, the subway sequence was meant to be grander and more thrilling, including a chase through the twists and turns of the subway tunnels. Instead, like the other action scenes, it was rushed when the budget was cut.

16. Christopher Reeve had an apartment in New York City that overlooked the Natural History Museum. He’d often see children walk into the museum, which inspired him to develop a character like Jeremy (Damian McLawhorn) to puncture the wall Superman builds around himself.

17. One of the deleted scenes of the film include Superman visiting Jeremy’s class (incomprehensibly on the same day he plans to write the letter because everyone is in the exact same wardrobe) and turning down his request to get rid of all nuclear weapons.

18. Many of the aerial shots of the film were shot on foggy and overcast days, which is indicative of the film being produced hastily.

19. The film was shot in England rather than New York, which resulted in various film flubs. Some of these include British license plates can sometimes be seen on cars, there are many shots of no buildings in the skyline, signage meant to originally double for New York City say “New York” instead of “Metropolis,” and a newspaper headline using the European spelling of “favourite.”

20. One huge indication this was not filmed in New York was the fact that the U.N. scenes look nothing like the real United Nations. Reeve begged Warner Bros. to allow them to shoot these scene in New York City, but the studio refused. The interior was, in fact, shot in a municipal auditorium.

21. Another scene that was cut was Superman bringing Jeremy into the U.N. and the kids in his school seeing the broadcast, getting their comeuppance for not believing him in the beginning.

22. Multiple scenes showing Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) and Clark’s romance were cut. One particular scene features them in a trendy Metropolis night club while Clark is on the embarrassing assignment of covering the night life of the city. In that scene, Clark sneaks out to help sneak in a couple from the Midwest who is originally turned away.

23. Most of Gene Hackman’s scenes from the first 35 minutes of the film were cut, including early attempts at making Nuclear Man, a build-up of him manipulating both the Russians and the Americans in the arms deals, and an explanation of why he was cosplaying with Marie Antoinette.

24. Nuclear Man was originally meant to be more of a plastic creature with the ability to change shape and grow to different sizes. Another conception was to have Christopher Reeve play him as well as Superman. However, Mark Pillow was eventually cast in the role. Rosenthal says, “Once they cast a guy with teased hair rather than conceiving of the being as an effect… any tension or any danger or any fear in the movie were doomed.”

25. The scene in which Luthor is putting the protoplasm into the container to be attached to a nuclear missile was meant to be an homage to Frankenstein. However, the scene was scaled down so much, it was impossible to make that connection with the set, props, or presentation.

26. Because most of the romance between Lacy and Clark was cut, the gym scene (which is the first one in the final cut that shows them on a date) doesn’t make a lot of sense and comes out of nowhere. In that scene, the bully was meant to be an homage to the Charles Atlas and muscle advertisements in the back of comic books dating back to the 50s. However, the bully was not muscular enough for the joke to come across.

27. From the moment the filmmakers decided to give Clark his own love interest, they wanted a double date. This was meant to be a huge feature to bridge the first and second halves of the film. Rosenthal thinks it wasn’t an entire failure (although it clearly was), but he felt the pace was too slow.

28. Nuclear Man initially was attracted to Lacy, but those scenes explaining this were cut. This is why Nuclear Man keeps going after her and why Superman was so easily able to lure him into the elevator at the end of the film.

29. Even though it rips off the first Superman, the filmmakers thought it would be fun to show Lex Luthor on the big screen in Times Square (which was the only screen like that at the time), singing “Hello, Dolly” on Broadway.

30. The scene in which Lex Luthor and Superman face each other for the first time in the film is meant to mimic the general discussion of the time about “keeping the threat going.”

31. The studio hoped they could use the footage cut from the 134-minute version to jump-start Superman V. “That was a good indication of how out of touch with reality they were,” Rosenthal says.

32. Over the years, Rosethal says he has been asked many time whether Clark getting sick was an analogy to AIDS. That was not his intention, but he recognizes that it could be interpreted that way, particularly in the later scenes.

33. Rosenthal points out that after Superman drops Nuclear Man on the dark side of the moon, the sun would never rise on him because the dark side of the moon always faces away from the sun. He neglects to mention, however, that Lacy would die in the vacuum of space were she flown outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. (He also acknowledges that it makes no sense why Lex Luthor is able to cut Superman’s indestructible hair with basic bolt cutters.)

34. The original ending was to have Lex Luthor creating a panic in Metropolis about a potential nuclear explosion in the city. Once everyone evacuated the city, Lex was to go on a shopping spree, looting throughout Manhattan.

35. Superman’s final speech was meant to echo Michael Rennie’s at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still as well as a speech from Dwight Eisenhower which said, “There will be peace when the people of the world want it so much that their leaders will have no choice but to give it to them.” It was also meant to echo astronauts who went into space and remarked about seeing the world as a single blue sphere.

36. The guard at the end of the film who calls Lex “Lu-thor” is a homage to how Otis (Ned Beatty) said the name in the first two movies.

Best in Commentary

  • “You can tell from the very first credit that says ‘Warner Bros.’ that something is very wrong in Metropolis.”
  • “The movie for everyone became an emblem of greed and chaos on the part of people who were in over their heads, an unfortunate and almost unethical betrayal of Chris Reeve, who really single-handedly brought Superman IV together.”
  • “A wonderful funhouse of bad special effects.”
  • “I don’t want this to become an exercise in bashing [director] Sidney Furie. He certainly had his hands tied behind his back by the terrible cuts in budget in pre-production.”

Final Thoughts

Like many so-bad-they’re-good films, I get a certain amount of joy from watching Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and for someone like myself who grew up in the 80s, this is a cathartic experience that allows me to understand how the once-great franchise could fall so far. It is a bit sad, though, that only the co-writer of the film had the cojones to step up and explain what happened in the production.

There’s not a lot in the commentary that is really new information. Anyone who followed the franchise with its many ups and downs over the years knows how the shrinking budget was responsible for much of the final product. However, I was somewhat shocked to learn how tied to the double date sequence Rosenthal was, considering it’s one of the worst part of the film.

I might have enjoyed a little more snarking on the commentary, but I feel that Rosethal was being kind to his colleagues because no one sets out to make a bad movie, and this was sadly one of Christopher Reeve’s legacies. Still, it was nice to hear someone speak so frankly about what happened with the film without apologizing for the fact that the people trapped in the production were simply doing their jobs even when it was clear it was going to be a dud.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives


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