Tuesday is the 25th anniversary of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. If I had to make a list of "worst movies ever made that have no excuse for being bad," Superman IV: The Quest For Peace would be at the top of the list. No superhero film fills me with more vitriol than this title, but, interestingly, it may be the most important superhero movie ever produced -- as least as far as how superhero movies have evolved to what they are today.
As time keeps moving forward, the 1978's Superman becomes more and more of a footnote answer to the question, "What's the best superhero movie of all time?" (It's a question that seems to be crippled more and more by our collective short-term memories.) Yes, The Dark Knight, Iron Man and even, for the fact it happened at all, Marvel's The Avengers should be answers to that question, but so should Superman, if only it weren't losing its place in history. Which is a shame, considering all of the boundaries that it broke. Today, of course directors are going to take their superheroes seriously: Christopher Nolan has been criticized for taking Batman too seriously, but Richard Donner's Superman was the first superhero film to attempt a degree of reality. And that's what is so frustrating about what would eventually happen to this franchise by the fourth movie. I'm tempted to state that The Dark Knight, Iron Man and The Avengers wouldn't exist without Superman. But I think Superman IV: The Quest For Peace had more to do with the existence of those films -- economically, not influentially -- than Superman did.
You see, Superman cost a lot of money to produce, around $55 million, which was astronomical in 1978. Adjusting for inflation, this comes out to just under $200 million in 2012 money. Put it this way: The Empire Strikes Back, a movie that almost bankrupted Lucasfilm two years later, only cost $32 million. (And, sure, a decent amount of Superman II was shot at the same time, but the success of Superman was far from a sure thing, considering something like that had never been done before.)
Superman III is an interesting movie. We had seen Superman battle Lex Luthor and General Zod, now he was gong head-to-head against Richard Pryor and Robert Vaughn. I remember as a child loving Superman III -- "Hey, Richard Pryor just called Superman "Supes"! Having said that, no matter how much fun it was to watch Superman fight himself in a junk yard or flick peanuts like bullets while getting drunk at a bar, Superman III is not a good movie. But, for the sake of the future superhero movies, it was just good enough. Also, as far as the studio was concerned, it made money.
See, this is why Superman III is interesting. If the studio had made sure that the decline of superhero movies never got worse than Superman III, there might not have been much outrage. To a lot of people, Superman III was "good enough" -- plus it didn't have the price tag that came along with Superman and Superman II. If something so bad as Superman IV: The Quest For Peace had never of been released, we may still have been getting force fed superhero movies that toggle the line that Superman III provided. But, as we know, Superman IV did happen.
If you haven't seen Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, don't. Save for one well-written speech about nuclear disarmament, there is nothing redeemable about the fourth Superman movie. The plot centers on Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman returning to the role, sadly for him) and his nephew, Lenny (Jon Cryer, yes, really), who steal a hair from Superman's head and -- with the help of a nuclear missile and the sun -- create a new super villain named Nuclear Man. (And if you thought Peter Parker's backstory being cut in The Amazing Spider-Man was egregious, this film cuts out an entire subplot about a second Nuclear Man.) There is a scene in Superman IV where Superman is flying around in space while carrying Mariel Hemingway's character. Hemingway is wearing absolutely no protection from the vacuum of space, yet is breathing fine. Ladies and gentleman, this scene is the essence Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.
Critics, not surprisingly, hated Superman IV. But, more important, audiences rejected it, too. Even Superman III -- again, not a great film - managed to be the number one movie at the box office the week it opened, topping the fourth week of Return of the Jedi. Superman IV finished, shockingly, in fourth place. The movies it couldn't beat: The second week of Robocop, the second week of a reissue of Snow White and the Mark Harmon comedy, Summer School. (!) Think about that: Summer School made more money than Superman IV. (To be fair, Summer School is a good movie -- Chainsaw! -- but could you imagine The Watch making more money than The Dark Knight Rises?)
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was so bad, it killed the Superman franchise for 19 years. It was so bad that when Bryan Singer made the underappreciated Superman Returns, he just pretended it (along with Superman III) didn't exist -- making his movie a direct sequel to Superman II. But, most important, it proved that audiences wouldn't accept shit. That audiences gave a big middle finger to a movie that had the audacity to consider itself a part of the same series as Superman. It proved a studio couldn't just say, "Hey, here's Superman. You like him -- and any crap story will do."
Two years later, Tim Burton's Batman was released. It doesn't 100 percent hold up when compared to Christopher Nolan's trilogy, but when compared to the Superman IV, it was obvious that someone at Warner Bros. had learned a lesson.
(Strangely, a similar pattern was repeated with that Batman franchise: Two good movies, a subpar third, an atrocious fourth. Though, no matter how bad you think Batman & Robin is -- and it is -- it's not even close to being in the same league as Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.)
Today, when a superhero movie fails, it might be for trying to do too much with too many cooks in the kitchen (Spider-Man 3) or a failure to properly understand the character or source material (Green Lantern), but it's not for a lack of effort. People tried to make a good Green Lantern movie, they just failed. Very little effort was made to make a good fourth Superman movie. And the reason, today, that we have movies like The Dark Knight Rises is that studios realized that we, as an audience, wouldn't settle for that. Perhaps if we had never seen what Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve brought us with Superman, it wouldn't have mattered as much. But we saw, in 1978, just how good a superhero movie could be. It was too late; we knew what was possible. To steal from the tagline of Superman, we believed a man could fly. In 1983, we saw how a studio could toe the line between quality and box-office returns. In 1987, we saw this line crossed -- and how it backfired forever. So, happy birthday, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace -- thank you for being so bad that it ensured nothing like you would ever happen again.
Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact him directly on Twitter.
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