Superman IV: The Quest For Peace marked the last time that Christopher Reeve would portray the Man of Steel. It was a film that had started out full of good intentions. It was supposed to be a return to the quality of the first two Superman films. It was supposed to honor the myth of the iconic character. Unfortunately, things turned out differently, and what was released in theaters in 1987 was a butchered, incomplete, and cheaply made film that ruined the career of its star. And it can all be traced back to 1983’s Superman III. It was indeed the disappointment that was Superman III that marked the beginning of the end of the Superman films that starred Christopher Reeve.
Superman III, directed by Richard Lester, was released by Warner Bros. on June 17, 1983 in the U.S. The film eventually grossed about $60 million domestically, which was pretty low when compared to the amounts made by Superman and Superman II, $134 million and $108 million respectively. It was also the first Superman film to receive mostly negative reviews from film critics. Richard Pryor’s involvement, as well as the comedic gags and uneven script, contributed a lackluster film that was ‘severely savaged by critics.’ In his review, Roger Ebert wrote that “Superman III is the kind of movie I feared the original Superman would be. It’s a cinematic comic book, shallow, silly, filled with stunts and action, without much human interest.” In regards to Richard Pryor, Ebert writes that, “…Pryor isn’t used very well here. He never really emerges as a person we care about. His character and the whole movie seem assembled out of pre-fabricated pieces,” and “…, like the rest of Superman III, he’s kind of innocuous.” Cast members weren’t pleased with the film either. Marc McClure, who played Jimmy Olsen, stated that, “It just became a joke…Superman had no business dealing with that guy– he didn’t deserve to have to be defending these coffee crops. Get the FBI on that!” Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane, stated that, “…the third one was abominable– it had no heart, it had no feeling, nothing!” Nearly everyone was disappointed with Superman III, especially Christopher Reeve. In fact, Reeve was so disappointed that ‘he declared he’d never play the character again, and he meant it.’
Alexander and Ilya Salkind, producers of the first three Superman films, went on to make Supergirl (released in 1984). Afterward, they eventually sold off the Superman movie rights in May 1986 to the Cannon Group, which was run by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. According to a Time Magazine article, Golan and Globus were known as the “Go-Go Boys” because they produced mostly cheap films. The average Cannon film cost $5 million to produce while the average Hollywood film cost $11 million (back then). Their headquarters were described as having the glamour of a discount electronics warehouse with overflowing wastebaskets and stained carpets. Cannon almost always pre-sold its films’ cable, home video, and foreign market distribution rights so that even if a film flopped at the box office, there was a good chance that it could still break even. According to the same article, many people did enjoy working on Cannon projects because the usual studio restraints weren’t there. This attracted stars like Robert Mitchum (The Ambassador), Katherine Hepburn (The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley), and Sylvester Stallone (Cobra and Over the Top). This also attracted directors such as J. Lee Thompson (King Solomon’s Mines and Murphy’s Law), Tobe Hooper (Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars), Roman Polanski (Pirates), and Jean-Luc Godard (King Lear). In the article, J. Lee Thompson mentions that Golan and Globus were ‘like the old studio moguls; they eat, sleep, and breathe pictures.’ Cannon was also the company responsible for the many Chuck Norris action films of the 1980s.
Although Cannon had been successful in the early to mid-‘80s, it suffered a financial setback in 1986. According to a New York Times article, Cannon had produced 43 movies in 1986, much more than any other Hollywood studio. However, many of them were not successful at the box office. Cannon had originally started out making cheap films that were able to make money while not being massive box office hits. But by the mid-’80s, it was branching out into more expensive, star-studded films. Among its failures was Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce in 1985, which had been billed as the “cinematic sci-fi event of the ’80s” and carried a budget of $25 million but only grossed $11.6 million. Among the failures of 1986 was Roman Polanski’s Pirates, a very expensive failure that carried a large (for its time) budget of $40 million and grossed only $1.64 million. There was also Tobe Hooper’s Invaders From Mars, which cost $12 million to make but only grossed $4.8 million. An investigation was also launched by the Securities and Exchange Commission to look into Cannon’s accounting policies. As a result, Cannon had to cut back on production and struck a deal with Warner Communications for $75 million in order to keep from going bankrupt.
Christopher Reeve had sworn that he’d never play Superman again following the lackluster performance of Superman III. However, Reeve wasn’t being offered a lot of film roles in the years that followed Superman III. He had no problem finding work on stage and television, but he needed a high-profile film that would ‘get his name back out in front of the public, and in turn bring in more scripts.’ For Reeve, doing a film also meant getting a good paycheck. After acquiring the Superman movie rights, Golan and Globus made Reeve an offer to reprise the role of Superman for a fourth time. He was offered $1 million, matching the amount he had gotten for Superman III. Reeve would have gladly accepted the offer since no one else was offering him any film roles, but his agent decided to negotiate with Cannon for a higher fee that he felt Reeve deserved. Reeve ended up getting $4 million, Cannon agreed to produce another film of his choice, and he was given a large amount of creative control and would even get to direct some of the second-unit shots. Reeve picked Street Smart, a longtime pet project, as the movie he wanted to make before the next Superman film. He wanted to make that film first in order to make sure that Cannon wouldn’t back out of making it. Cannon wasn’t worried about Street Smart, believing that even if it didn’t make any money, they could still make plenty from a new Superman film. Street Smart was eventually released on March 20, 1987, but had a brief theatrical run due to a lack of marketing. It received positive reviews and Morgan Freeman’s performance in the film was hailed by many critics (thus leading to his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor the following year). In his autobiography, Reeve states that ‘Golan and Globus had spent no money on advertising and promoting Street Smart, so it quickly vanished from sight despite excellent reviews.’
According to Christopher Reeve, while he was in Montreal shooting Street Smart, screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal were working on the script for Superman IV based largely on input from him. Reeve had seen the 1985 IMAX film The Dream Is Alive, whose space-based views of the Earth trivialized humankind’s artificial borders, and was moved by it. He was also inspired by a TV show he had narrated about world peace. The premise Reeve came up with for Superman IV was that Superman would intervene in the nuclear arms race. Reeve stated in his autobiography that Superman had been used as a morale booster for the troops in World War II, and he thought that Superman could be used effectively in the real world once again after hearing President Reagan refer to the Soviet Union as ‘the evil empire’ and summit talks with Mikhail Gorbachev were at a stalemate. Screenwriter Mark Rosenthal stated that with the nuclear threat posing a big danger, Reeve had asked, “Why not try and shake up the Superman myth and see what it would take for him to take care of everybody?” Rosenthal also stated that the movie was meant to be more than just a philosophical exercise, and it’s what got Reeve excited about trying to get the cast together again (Margot Kidder, Marc McClure, Jackie Cooper, and even Gene Hackman came back for the fourth Superman film). Cannon had wanted to re-energize the Superman series and one of the directors they considered hiring was Wes Craven. Several crew members argued how Craven would have been a great choice for the job, bringing a fresh approach to the film. Cannon hired Sidney J. Furie instead, whose most famous film was 1965’s The Ipcress File and whose most recent film had been Iron Eagle (a cheaply-made action film that was made for another studio). Visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw had a great respect for Furie and was a big fan of The Ipcress File, but he did feel that Furie was ultimately the wrong choice for director.
(Continued in: Superman’s Quest For Peace Part Two)