Let’s be clear on this: Superman IV is not a great film. It’s not an absolutely godawful film either though, and there are plenty of those (I’m talking to you, Jaws: The Revenge…). Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of bad things in it, but it also has the makings of what could have been a great Superman film, if circumstances had been different.
The original budget for this film was 36 million dollars, which was slashed by struggling production company The Cannon Group to just 17 million dollars, and it shows. Ropey special effects, whole sequences changed, and cheap locations in and around Milton Keynes standing in for the great city of Metropolis (the front of the Daily Planet building is actually Milton Keynes railway station..) all give away the struggles faced by the filmmakers. The opening titles look like they have been done on a laptop in someone’s bedroom. Flying wires are visible throughout the film. A sequence showing the destruction of the Great Wall of China was changed from Superman rebuilding it with his superspeed to Superman rebuilding it by just looking at it. And this new power works the other way too: an early scene shows Clark Kent disintegrating his Kryptonian spaceship not with his heat vision, but by staring really hard. Man, that guy is good.
There are some casting issues as well. Jon Cryer (yes the one from Two And A Half Men) is one of the most irritating “comedy” sidekicks ever put to film; Mariel Hemingway as Lacey Warfield, the new publisher of the Daily Planet, is terrible, although she is not served well by the script, which has her attempting to seduce Clark in an office surrounded by windows and in full view of all her employees…; Gene Hackman, while showing occasional moments of brilliance, has the air of a man patiently fulfilling his contractual obligations; and there is none of the spark between Clark/Superman and Lois Lane that there was in previous films. Not to mention that the film also suffers from Annoying Child Syndrome (see also Last Action Hero and Jurassic Park III). (NB Worth looking out for is a young Jim Broadbent as a French “nuclear weapons dealer”, doing his best Inspector Clouseau voice).
But there is a lot to enjoy. The battles between Superman and his perma-tanned, mulleted nemesis Nuclear Man, while corny and cheaply shot, have the beginnings of a great superhero showdown à la Superman II, and Superman’s storyline ridding the world of nuclear weapons has a lot of merit, even if it isn’t really wrapped up at the end. Christopher Reeve does well with what he has to do, particularly the slapstick moments in the scene where Lacey and Lois are double dating with Clark and Superman. I’m not sure if his slide across the hotel lobby floor was actually scripted, but it’s a great moment either way. There are also a couple of good throwaway moments early on which speak to the fans: the cot at Clark’s childhood home damaged by baby Clark “having a bad dream”, and “Kent, why are there no air travel expenses for you?” always makes me chuckle.
Oh, and the poster’s good too.
Overall, I would file this film under “So Bad It’s Good”, or at least “Bad But Still Definitely Watchable”.