Monday, 11 August 2014

LJ. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS: SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS

32. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987, dir. Sidney J. Furie)

11/08/2014


It might be easiest to start here with a quote, from "Still Me," the autobiography of the actor Christopher Reeve, and unpack the cautionary tale of a really bad film from there:

"We were... hampered by budget constraints and cutbacks in all departments. Cannon Films had nearly thirty projects in the works at the time, and Superman IV received no special consideration. For example, Konner and Rosenthal wrote a scene in which Superman lands on 42nd Street and walks down the double yellow lines to the United Nations, where he gives a speech. If that had been a scene in Superman I, we would actually have shot it on 42nd Street. Dick Donner would have choreographed hundreds of pedestrians and vehicles and cut to people gawking out of office windows at the sight of Superman walking down the street like the Pied Piper. Instead, we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere. Even if the story had been brilliant, I don't think that we could ever have lived up to the audience's expectations with this approach."

Firstly, without Cannon Films, you would not have heard of Jean Claude Van Damme or Chuck Norris, or of "Operation Delta Force" or "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," the last of which is used as the name of an upcoming documentary about a B-film company that had lofty ambitions, but went bankrupt creatively before they did financially - MGM, its distributor, is said to have had misgivings over the films that had their name associated with them, like "Masters of the Universe" with Dolph Lundgren. Cannon films were cheap, of the moment, and there to make money, like any good B-film should.

"Superman IV" was to have been made with a $40 million budget, following the "negative leaseback" deal that Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the brothers that produced the three previous films, made with Warner Bros  - Warners supplied the money to an independent firm, with the stipulation that the film be delivered on a certain date, that Warners own the copyright and all the distribution rights, but the independents share the profits. The Salkinds sold their rights to Cannon, after "Superman III" and "Supergirl" did less well. However, Cannon were less scrupulous with the money, using the Warners money to prop up their other productions...

The industrial park showed what happens when a $40 million blockbuster gets made for $17 million - the doors into the United Nations building is actually Milton Keynes bus station, and the New York subway is never as round as the London Underground. The special effects can be done more convincingly on an iPhone now, having done away with the expensive effects pioneered for the previous three films. Even a director as experienced as Sidney J. Furie, best known for the Michael Caine spy thriller "The Ipcress File" cannot hide the fact that Superman's apparent kinetic-vision-Great-Wall-of-China-rebuilding powers is just playing the bloody film backwards.


The story itself isn't much use either, but was what brought Christopher Reeve back to playing Superman - the chance to right the story yourself. That Superman can rid the world of all nuclear weapons, based on a child's letter to him, is the sort of wish fulfilment that works well in comic books, and is incredibly naive everywhere else, and even having good screenwriters in Laurence Konner & Mark Rosenthal, of "Mighty Joe Young" and "Jewel of the Nile," meant you only had a bad story written well, especially at a time when the threat of the Cold War and nuclear weapons was wearing out. 

The script produced a 135 minute film that tested poorly but, as it was a Cannon film, only what didn't work was cut, and no scenes to bridge what was missing were shot, leaving gaps and join. Deleted scenes included what drove the letter to be written, and a Bizzaro-type Nuclear Man played by Clive Mantle, later of "Casualty" and "Game of Thrones," both looking and acting like a berk in a leotard. The final running time was 89 minutes, the remaining footage thought lost for the next fifteen years, but having seen them on DVD and blu-ray, I think the failure was not having spent more time getting a good story to begin with.

The first "Superman" film made $300 million worldwide in 1978-79, making it the most successful film ever at the time . The fourth made $15,681,620 at the US box office in 1987, meaning it had to rely on elsewhere to make any money at all, an astonishing state of affairs for an American film, seeing as its industry and audience is big enough to make the rest of the world a slush fund for profit-making, and an absolute tragedy for Superman, ending a franchise for nearly twenty years, and casting doubt on Tim Burton's upcoming version of "Batman".

You can watch this film, if you really must - if anything, having all the stars of the original, including Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, must have meant that they, at least, saw something in it, but they were let down by the feeling that the original could be done again, as anyone watching the result will be. What I can't believe is how no-one actually said, we cannot do this, we are not ready, we need more time, we need more money. Then again the producers they had before, which asked those questions of the first film, releasing it a year later than originally planned, were no longer then, and those there now wanted to make films with Chuck Norris...

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