It truly perplexes me that Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) is considered by so many people as bad as, or even worse than, Superman III (1983). I’m not going to sit here and try to argue that it’s a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but neither do I feel like expending any energy hating it. And when you get right down to it, there are actually a lot of things to like about this film.
Superman’s (Christopher Reeves) angst over the probability of nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union was one of my favorite things to happen in any Superman film. The development of nuclear weapons is one of the single most misguided acts in human history, and it was nice to see the reaction of humanity’s superhuman guardian. He retreats to the Fortress of Solitude, feeling despair that earth may now face the same fate of his own destroyed planet Krypton. The Elders suggest that the earth is too primitive and that his best course of action is to make a new home on another world. The entire crisis has Superman shaken to his very core, and brings forth a lot of questions about his place on earth. He answers these questions for himself (and the audience) in a rousing speech to the United Nations, during which he declares that he is no longer a visitor on earth, that it is his home as well, and that he will “I am do what your governments have been unable to do” by “rid[ding] our planet of all nuclear weapons.”
In direct contrast to Superman III, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is not sent on a vacation that serves as a thinly-veiled excuse to keep her out of the way. Instead, she is once again a major part of the film, and Clark’s life. Furthermore, this film also features the return as Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, which might be the biggest “duh” moment of the series. And while Nuclear Man (played by Mark Pillow and voiced by Gene Hackman) has drawn quite a bit of harsh criticism, I actually liked him. I liked that the film’s real world backdrop (the threat of nuclear warfare) was depicted both with Superman’s personal quest to rid the world of nuclear weapons and by the motif of the villain. I also liked that Superman actually had a legitimately interesting fight against an evenly matched opponent.
I will grant that quite a few things about this film haven’t aged well (or weren’t good in the first place), so it’s not even getting an honorable mention on my Favorites list, but I think there are quite a few things to like about it, and I do consider it legitimately entertaining. (In direct contrast to its immediate predecessor, which was entertaining only in the sense of how bafflingly bad it is.)
Superman Returns (2006) is a curious case, because I actually think it’s a legitimately good film that is the victim only of inflated expectations. For me, the biggest strength here was the casting. Brandon Routh was a convincing Clark Kent and Superman, Kate Bosworth was similarly good as Lois Lane, and I actually think I like Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor much more than Gene Hackman. The only truly curious choice (for me) was Jame Marsden as Richard White, the nephew of Perry White (Frank Langella.) It just feels a little too similar to his role in X-Men (2000.) Is there something about James Marsden that makes Bryan Singer say, “Yeah, he seems like a great guy to have in a love triangle where the vast majority of the audience will be rooting for the other guy?” Talk about bizarrely specific typecasting.
What surprised me most about this film was how much heart it had. There’s quite a bit of emotional sensitivity in Superman’s relationship to earth and the relationships that personalize his protection of the planet. The subplot about Lois Lane’s son and his parentage was well-done.
When you get right down to it, I think the things I like about these two films are basically the same: the fact that they explore, I mean really explore, Superman’s relationship with earth in a sensitive way. But both of these films also suffer from what I’m going to call Superman live-action syndrome. Although I give a deferential nod to the original Superman because of what it means to the legacy of superhero movies, I’ve never seen a Superman live-action film that truly entertained me the way a superhero film should. The animated films, on the other hand, have never failed to entertain me. Hey… hey, maybe we could do a live-action film with the same sort of tone, and some of the same elements that work well in those animated films?
Oh, we’re bringing Chris Nolan’s aesthetic to Superman, the superhero who can most get away with being brightly colored and silly, despite the fact that Marvel definitively showed us that the era of being ashamed to make superhero movies is over? Okay, I guess that works too. (That being said, having Zack Snyder (Watchmen) directing at least gives me some hope that it’ll be good.)