“They were gonna reboot the franchise, and resurrect it for everybody after the debacle that was Superman III. Little did we know that we were actually going to be working on the debacle to end all debacles.”
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a bad movie. It is legendary in its badness. It’s not just one of the worst comic book movies of all time, but truly it is exists a few meters above the bottom of the cinematic barrel, dipping to the bottom on occasion for scrapings to keep its putrid reputation alive for a little while longer.
It was a movie made with the purest of intentions; star Christopher Reeve, the iconic final piece in the puzzle that was the long-gestating Superman: The Movie from 1978, had envisioned The Quest for Peace to be both a spectacular superhero adventure with plenty of thrills and laughs for the summertime moviegoing audience and a thought-provoking social commentary about the destructive nature of the nuclear arms race. The final film proved to be neither, and in fact was the first movie in the franchise to actually lose money for its financiers.
Freewheeling producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind had played a major role in shepherding the first Superman onto the big screen nearly a decade before the release of the fourth movie and in the process reaped the rewards that came with having a huge stake in an international blockbuster film franchise. But by the mid-1980s the diminishing quality of the sequels and their box office led the Salkinds to temporarily wash their hands of the Last Son of Krypton’s cinematic exploits, allowing their fellow madmen of independent film production Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to purchase an option to produce further Superman sequels through their company Cannon Films, a globally renowned purveyor of low budget action and exploitation flicks that usually starred either Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson and typically involved ninjas, breakdancing, or breakdancing ninjas.
Reeve had also grown weary of the series and no longer desired to step into the red cape and boots of Superman unless it would be worth his while. With a huge salary increase from the last movie and the promise of greater creative control from Golan and Globus Reeve signed on to once again star and his participation in turn led to the return of other past Superman co-stars like Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman (the latter back for his third go-around as the deviously brilliant arch-criminal Lex Luthor), many of whom had an active loathing of the Salkinds. Reeve also concocted the story for the sequel and sought to build a future for himself in the industry beyond the cape by taking on the behind-the-scenes role of second unit director, with British filmmaker Sidney J. Furie in the main director’s chair. All signs pointed to a major big screen comeback for Superman, but alas it was not to be.
Over two decades since and the pain of watching Superman IV and thinking about what could have been will never go away, but it doubtlessly could not compare with actually being involved with the production and going into it with the highest of hopes only to have those hopes cruelly laid to waste once filming was underway.
Just ask Jon Cryer.
The Two and a Half Men star recently gave a career retrospective interview with the A.V. Club in which he discussed the many highs and lows of his time working as an actor in film and television. Inevitably, The Quest for Peace came up.
At the time he secured the role of Lenny, the goofy nephew of Lex Luthor, Cryer had just come off the John Hughes-scripted hit teen comedy Pretty in Pink where he played the eminently identifiable role of lovelorn loser Duckie. He had also been a die hard of the Superman movies, in particular the Richard Donner-directed original. It turns out that he was not alone in hoping that The Quest for Peace would be successful enough to revive the Man of Steel’s big screen fortunes after the previous sequel had nearly tanked the series’ reputation:
“I was a Comic Con-fanboy-crazy guy about that movie. I just loved it so much. So I’d always thought that if I got the opportunity to be in a Superman movie, I’d jump at it. Superman II was terrific, but then Superman III was kind of a mess, and the idea of Superman IV was to resurrect the franchise. They had new producers, and Golan-Globus had been doing all these cheesy genre movies. They had made a great deal of money with their Cannon films, and this was their bid for respectability.”
Superman IV was to be the biggest movie Cryer had appeared in up to that point in his career, and though the production would later fall by the wayside in ways no one could have anticipation it at least got off to a promising start. That’s how Cryer saw it anyway:
“My very first day, we were doing a huge practical effect, a flying effect. It was going to be me and Gene Hackman. Okay, first of all, that’s incredibly cool. But we were in a ’30s-style open-top roadster and, basically, Superman—played by Christopher Reeve, also amazingly cool—flies underneath the car, and he would fly away with it. Nowadays they would do that with green screen. You’d be lucky if you ever actually even got in the car. But at the time, they did it practical. So they literally got one of those huge construction cranes that are usually on the top of buildings, and lifted this convertible 40, 50 feet in the air, with Christopher Reeve wired underneath it in full Superman outfit. Did I say “outfit”? I’m apparently from the 1950s. [Laughs.]”
Superman IV was originally budgeted at $40 million, most of which was contributed by distributor Warner Bros., but Cannon Films cut the budget down to $17 million and used the rest to fund other movies that were in various stages of production at the time. This resulted in the series’ usually high quality visual effects artists being replaced by cheaper artists who cut corners and delivered horribly low-rent effects work that was one of the many things about the movie mercilessly taken to task over a quarter of a century later.
The actors couldn’t help but notice the lack of funding but they soldiered on anyway, especially Cryer, whose scenes were all shared with legendary Oscar-winner Hackman. The younger actor was in awe of his co-star but that didn’t stop him from stressing the importance of proper pronunciation to the more experienced Hackman:
“They were running out of money, but I didn’t know that. I just noticed little things, like the craft-service table got more and more meager. And they took less and less time every day. We would get props that were especially, uh, crappy. But I was still having a blast, and working with Gene Hackman was so much fun. Although it drove me crazy, too, because Lex Luthor was creating a villain called Nuclear Man, and yet Gene Hackman kept pronouncing it ‘nu-cue-lar.’ So during one of the scenes I corrected him. In character.”
To which Cryer added with a laugh, “And to his credit, he did not go Popeye Doyle on my ass.”
The actor enjoyed his experience working on the film but it was only after he ran into his top-billed co-star months after completing his role that Cryer found out the hard way that the project he had signed on for would not resemble what was ultimately released to theaters, and not in a good way:
“A few months later I ran into Chris Reeve on the street, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s have lunch!’ And he said, ‘Okay, sure!’ We went out for lunch, and I said, ‘I’m so excited about the movie! When’s it coming out?’ And he said [Takes a deep breath.] ‘You need to know: It’s an absolute mess. We had six months of flying work that we were supposed to shoot; they cut five months of it. They’ve thrown together an edit that barely makes sense.’ And I was absolutely devastated, because I really wanted to be a part of bringing Superman back, you know?”
Looking back on The Quest for Peace as a much older and more experienced actor, Cryer sees that the flaws with the film began early on in the production and could never be adequately dealt with:
“The movie does not do justice to the script at all. The script was actually pretty clever. The script was basically that a kid asks Superman to get rid of all the nuclear weapons in the world, saying, ‘You’re Superman! Why can’t you do it?’ That was a much bigger part of it than a lot of the really dumb Nuclear Man stuff that ended up being used. It ended up with Superman basically deciding that’s something Earthlings are going to have to do for themselves, which I thought was an important message at the time. When I finally did see the movie, every frame of it hurt me physically. [Laughs.] I’d had such high hopes for it that… To feel like you’re a part of the downfall of something that you had hoped to resurrect, that’s a tough thing to take.”
Cryer has embraced the movie’s so-bad-it’s-good reputation with gracious humor and concluded the interview by saying that “if they ask me to be on a Superman IV panel at Comic-Con, I’ll do it!” Don’t hold your breath Jon.