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Superman’s Quest For Peace Part Two

(continued from Superman’s Quest For Peace Part One)

Cannon’s financial woes would affect the production of Superman IV.  As part of the deal with Warner Bros., Cannon was reportedly given a budget of at least $36 million to make Superman IV.  In his autobiography, Christopher Reeve states that Cannon had nearly thirty projects in the works at the time Superman IV was being made and it received no special consideration.  The budget was slashed down to $17 million with the rest of the money being diverted to other film projects.  Drastic changes in the script were made to the villain Nuclear Man, who had originally been conceived as an almost Jungian dark projection of Superman and was supposed to have a symbiotic relationship to him.  It had been suggested that Reeve also play Nuclear Man, but the changes to the character and the budget cuts did not allow this.  Rosenthal describes the changes to Nuclear Man as being ‘almost Saturday morning television-cheesy’ and ‘It was meant to be much more subtle than that and frightening.’  Christopher Reeve was unhappy about all the British locations that stood in for the city of Metropolis and Cannon not commissioning a New York shoot.  In his autobiography, Reeve states that there was a scene where Superman lands on 42nd St. and walks down the double yellow lines to the United Nations.  If that scene had been in the first Superman film, it would have actually been shot on 42nd St.  Instead, the walk to the United Nations was shot ‘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.’  The interiors of the UN would end up being shot in a municipal auditorium.  Cannon had also promised an increase in British-made film projects and work for the British film crews at Elstree Studios, but instead they brought in under-qualified and somewhat inexperienced Israeli film crews to work on Superman IV as a cheaper alternative.  Despite their best efforts, and working for long hours for below minimum wage, the production values of the film suffered.

It certainly didn’t help that Sidney Furie was under some pressure to shoot as many set-ups a day as he could since, according to screenwriter Rosenthal, studios measure good moviemaking on how many set-ups you do a day.  He stated that, “When you’re shooting a movie cheaply, you don’t do a lot of coverage.”  Not shooting a lot of coverage limits the selection of shots available when it comes time to edit the film, and this would hurt the film to a certain extent.  One scene that could have used more coverage, according to Rosenthal, was the sequence where Superman/Clark Kent had to somehow double date Lois Lane and Lacy Warfield (played by Mariel Hemingway).  Rosenthal states that a scene like that works when you get a lot of coverage with the cameras.  Little tiny pieces can be shot in order to keep the scene moving at a good pace.  Harrison Ellenshaw recalled another Sidney Furie “blunder” in regards to the film.  He states that Furie wanted to top the action of the first Superman film, and which led to Furie concocting the battle around the world sequence between Superman and Nuclear Man.  Ellenshaw also states that this was ill-advised because he believed that the first film wasn’t about action, but rather the love story between Superman and Lois.

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The budget slashing of Superman IV also affected the film’s visual effects.  Harrison Ellenshaw, who had actually been brought onto the film by director Furie, was ‘very happy and anxious to do it.’  But he quickly discovered that the film’s budget ($17 million) was nowhere close to what the budget had been on any of the first three Superman films ($54 million, $54 million, and $39 million respectively).  He wasn’t surprised that the film was going to be made cheaply because Cannon was the one producing it.  Ellenshaw was nevertheless up to the challenge, even after reading the script and realizing that there were more effects shots in this film than the first three films combined.  Due to what little money was available (approximately $3.2 to $3.5 million for special effects), he had to achieve the flying shots optically rather than with the front projection system used for the first three films.  The front projection system couldn’t be used because it would have to be shot with the first unit crew, Christopher Reeve, the director, and anyone else who was needed for that process.  Background plates would also have to have been shot ahead of time so that they could be projected behind the actor.  With about 600 effects shots to be completed, Ellenshaw decided to achieve the flying shots with the cheaper alternative: a traveling matte photography on optical printers.

The final nail in the coffin for Superman IV was the infamous test screening in Orange County, California shortly before the film’s release.  Warner Bros. had been disappointed that they had given Cannon so much money to make the film and that so little of the money showed up on screen.  They then panicked when the test screening in Orange County became a disaster.  Consequently, the 134 minute film was ordered to be cut down to about 90 minutes.  Among the scenes that were lost were the ones that involved the first Nuclear Man.  These included the birth of Nuclear Man 1, the date Clark and Lacy had at the Metro Club (where Nuclear Man 1 first develops his crush on Lacy, something that would be genetically passed on to Nuclear Man 2), Superman’s fight outside the Metro Club with Nuclear Man 1, Lenny Luthor scooping up the remains of Nuclear Man 1 that would be used to create the second Nuclear Man, Nuclear Man 2’s kidnapping of Lacy (which took place much earlier than shown in the theatrical version), Nuclear Man 2’s plan to rule the world with Lacy after he gets the United States and the Soviet Union to obliterate each other, Nuclear Man 2’s attempts to start World War III by appearing as a nuclear missile on American and Soviet radars, and Superman using Lacy as a diversion for Nuclear Man 2 so that his radar signal would disappear before any missiles could be launched (this is why Nuclear Man 2 goes looking for Lacy later on in the theatrical version, and this is why Superman knows which woman Nuclear Man 2 is referring to when he asks Superman, “Where is the woman?”).  The removal of the Nuclear Man 1 scenes also meant the removal of a lot of Lex Luthor scenes, which fleshed his character out a little more (including scenes where he sells nuclear missiles to the Soviets, and then when he is arrested by the United States government, he convinces them to buy nuclear missiles from him, followed by a montage of sales increases and stacks of money piling up).  Most of the story involving the little boy Jeremy (the kid who writes to Superman, asking him to get rid of the world’s nuclear weapons) was removed.  Two scenes in the battle around the world sequence (Nuclear Man creating a tornado in Smallville and igniting a nuclear missile in Moscow) were cut out, but somehow managed to make it onto some international prints of the film.  Part of the ending where Superman shows little Jeremy how all the nations of the world look borderless when viewed from above was also cut out.

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The film that was eventually released on July 24, 1987, was disappointing to nearly everyone.  Ellenshaw regretted spending the time to complete the 600 effects shots when he learned that the film was being cut up, citing that the time could have been better spent working on the 400 effects shots that remained in the film and that they didn’t have to spread themselves out so thinly.  The production had run out of money five months before everything had to be finished, resulting in scenes that ended up being shot more cheaply and shoddily rather than classy and entertaining.  According to Jon Cryer, who played Lenny Luthor, he thought that Reeve’s idea for the movie was great.  He also states that, “The shooting was great, and Gene Hackman was doing wonderful improvisational stuff – I loved working with him – and then Cannon ran out of money and released an unfinished movie…  They used the same flying shot like four times.  That was the problem with it, and that’s why Chris leveled with me and said, ‘It’s a mess.’  The film had also been bleached in order for the gray British skies to appear illuminating, and this would hurt all of the shots done with blue screen, especially the ones with Superman (making his blue suit look almost green).  The film had little marketing and no soundtrack album release, and the reviews were very harsh.  Rita Kempley of the Washington Post wrote that, “Superman IV, …, is one of the cheesiest movies ever made,” and “Don’t expect the flashy special effects that Salkind lavished on his movies, for the Cannon Group is now holding the money clip, and they are not big spenders.”  Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune wrote that, “Superman IV is a pathetic appendage to the series, a dull, shoddy film that makes the minimal 1950s TV series seem rife with production values by comparison.”  One of the rare positive reviews of the film came from Janet Maslin of the New York Times, where she wrote, “…the Superman flying sequences, …, look chintzy in this one, and the special effects are perfunctory, too,” and “Threadbare as it’s beginning to look, the Superman series hasn’t lost its raison d’etre.  There’s life in the old boy yet.”  Superman IV eventually grossed only $15.6 million (not a total flop when considering the budget was $17 million, but it was still a disappointing number).  In his autobiography, Christopher Reeve states that, “Superman IV was simply a catastrophe from start to finish.  That failure was a huge blow to my career.”  Screenwriter Rosenthal had hoped that the film would have had the same scope as 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, but unfortunately that would not be the case.

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4 responses to “Superman’s Quest For Peace Part Two

  1. Pingback: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014) | THE CINEMATIC FRONTIER

  2. Pingback: Superman’s Quest For Peace Part One | THE CINEMATIC FRONTIER

  3. I really enjoyed this! Both parts were very informative. I learned so much of the woes of this production that I did not know about. Such a wasted opportunity. A shame that Reeve has this movie as his swan song to Superman. Once again, great post and I will tweet this and pass it along. Thanks!

    • I appreciate your feedback. It’s a shame that Christopher Reeve’s vision for Superman IV has not yet been fulfilled; I hope that one day someone will be able to achieve a complete restoration of the film (including restoring the deleted footage and overhauling the special effects).

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