As the US and Russia break off talks to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile and resume the Arms Race, a young boy named Jeremy makes an impassioned plea for Superman to do something to get rid of all of the Nuclear Weapons in the world. When Superman rebuffs him, the Daily Planet, now owned by David Warfield – who has also turned it into a tabloid-style newspaper, decides to take advantage of the situation by exploiting Jeremy’s quest. Shamed into action, Superman decides to rid the world of all Nuclear Weapons.
The Nuclear Arms dealers from the US, France, and Russia do not take kindly to Superman’s efforts. They meet with Lex Luthor, who has escaped from prison with the help of his nephew, Lenny. Together, they hatch a plan to destroy Superman by creating a being out of Superman’s DNA who can defeat him. Dubbed Nuclear Man, he confronts Superman and eventually depowers him in the process.
As Luthor takes over the Arms Business, Superman recovers from his wounds by using the final energy shard from Krypton. Recovered, he manages to stop Nuclear Man from kidnapping Lacy Warfield. A pitched battle ensues, and Superman is once again defeated by Nuclear Man’s greater strength and power. Superman finally defeats Nuclear Man by causing a Lunar Eclipse, blocking Nuclear Man from receiving any power from the Sun. Superman rescues Lacy and dumps Nuclear Man into a nuclear reactor.
In the end, Perry White purchases the Daily Planet’s unsold shares, making him CEO. Superman captures Lex Luthor and Lenny and returns them to jail. Superman also makes a final speech in front of the UN to admit his mistake in intervening and makes a plea for the people of the world to pursue peace – and the Freedom from War.
Review and Analysis:
Superman movies are a strange bunch, indeed. On the one hand, Superman’s powers grow and diminish as the plot requires, which is why I believe that his powers have a telekinetic nature, or a mind-over-matter quality to them. Here, he can ring doorbells by looking at them, and reassemble destroyed landmarks with his eyes. Add that with his “super-illusion’ powers he used in Superman II, his “Turn back time to stop the second missile AND stop the earthquakes” power from the first movie, and you could be left with no other explanation.
Superman movies also contain concepts that most comic book and sci-fi/fantasy franchises don’t touch, as well as keeping their big villains from wallowing in the petty criminal acts whenever possible.
The big minus of Superman movies, however? They have lots of subject matter that it will touch upon, but never explore. People of color play no role here (and Richard Pryor’s comic buffoonery does not count). Superman ignores the advice of his homeworld and gets into major trouble because of it. And, for the second movie in a row, a small American boy causes major trouble for Superman.
The Final Battle:
Where most script writers fail is the “final battle” in the 3rd Act. In its most basic terms, the Final Battle and its stakes need to be established by the movie’s theme (usually First Act), and clearly defined by the story’s Second Act. This particular Superman movie fails to do either of these things adequately. Even before Superman and Nuclear Man battle a second time, the status quo had returned:
- The US & its Allies restocked their nuclear weapons, as had Russia, India, China, Israel, etc – although no one says why they do so;
- Perry White had already purchased the remaining stock of the Daily Planet, making him CEO;
- Little Jeremy had gone back to his school, his mission for “World Peace” an apparent failure.
So, what is left? Lacy Warfield as the Damsel-in-Distress, unfortunately. More on that failed plotline later.
Too Many Storylines at the Same Time:
This is what Superman 4 attempted to juggle at the same time:
- A hostile takeover by a media tycoon who was supposed to be a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner;
- Lacy Warfield as the latest femme fatale to attempt to seduce Clark Kent;
- Lex Luthor and his newfound nephew Lenny attempting to kill Superman; and
- Superman wanting to bring about World Peace by destroying the world’s nuclear arsenal.
The Warfield Plot Line was only established to give Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), and Mark McClure (Jimmy Olsen) something to do within the movie. Unfortunately, this movie sidelines all three of them in different ways. Perry White is fired in the first act and you don’t see him again until the very end; Lois spends most of her time being a nursemaid for Clark/Superman – even as she does…nothing else of importance; and Jimmy Olsen gets paid for being a potted plant.
The budget of this movie shrank from day one. One of the results of cutting said budget is this:
Also, it resulted in the Bizarro Nuclear Man not making it to the screen, although it does show up in the movie when played on TV in Europe. There were also parts of the battle between Superman and Nuclear Man II that were cut for the theatrical release (which also made the TV version). The sequence where Lacy gets kidnapped and Superman and Nuclear Man 2 battle was changed because that sequence was supposed to be longer.
Unfortunately, none of those elements would have made the story any better.
Nu-ku-lar Man 2:
Nuclear Man 2 (who should have really been called “Solar Man”) is the end result of modifying a script because of a theme that had been used in the previous movie. Originally, Lex Luthor was supposed to use Superman’s DNA to create an actual clone of Superman himself, only one that was loyal to Lex. Thus, the first result was an homage to Bizzaro Superman, with the second being a perfect (if more powerful) version. However, since “Evil Superman” showed up in Superman 3, the script was changed and Solar Man/Nuclear Man was born.
Nuclear Man, however, continues the trend of Superman movies where concepts get turned on their heads. Fingernail attacks in the world of comic books (and comic book movies) tend to be the province of female characters. For example:
Lady Deathstrike from X2: X-Men United. And…
Cheetah from “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.” Also note, in that particular case, she also used Kryptonite Nail Polish. Even though seconds earlier, it was established that her magic charm (also shown) gave her strength and speed to hurt Superman in a number of ways. Thus, we are left with an impression of a villainess doing something “girly” to prepare for battle. And I won’t even comment on who would sell a bottle of fingernail polish made out of a radioactive substance from an alien planet that adversely affects one person…although repeated exposure can cause debilitating cancers (it is radioactive).
Conversely, Male characters do not often have “fingernail” attacks. And those that do tend to be animalistic or monstrous when they have them. However, female characters are not anywhere near as “animal” when they have this attack.
The same could be said of Prehensile Hair Attacks and Seduction Attacks. But that’s another essay.
But Nuclear Man 2’s fingernail attacks meet none of the usual stereotypes.
White American Privilege:
The impetus behind Superman wanting to “help” is because this kid wanted Superman to do something about Nuclear Weapons. Superman rightly declines, and David Warfield’s Daily Planet publishes this headline:
Thus, Superman’s “public image” was supposed to be shamed with this headline.
Yet, one has to wonder if other people from other countries (and even in the United States) have sent heartfelt pleas to Superman, asking them to stop the atrocities from happening in their lands? To keep the paramilitaries from destroying their homes? From killing their people? From keeping corporate-hired death squads from forcing them to work 18 (or more) hours a day in poisonous and dangerous conditions, and shooting those who disobey? Or a host of other requests that could be resolved with either Superman or Clark Kent intervening with their influence?
The “American Way” runs in one lane. Do not pass Go, because you’ll never collect 200 dollars.
Daddy’s Little Girl:
Lacy Warfield is supposed to be the spoiled rich daughter of David Warfield, who intends on following her tycoon father’s footsteps when the time is right. But, for now, she mixes business with pleasure. And whatever Lacy wants, Lacy gets.
Her plot story in this movie, however, is rather incomplete. She is the first character in the movie series that likes Clark Kent from the outset – and she finds Superman “boring”; Lacy does not have Lois Lane’s tsundere complex concerning Clark and Superman, in which Lois loves the Superman/Kal-El persona more than Clark’s bumbling personality. She also does not have Lana Lang’s twinge of regret for not considering Clark to be “boyfriend material.” Instead, Lacy sees Clark Kent as the Boy Scout that she wants to seduce to the “Dark Side” of fun and excitement. Yet, peppered throughout the movie, we are supposed to see Lacy change her opinion of the guys she hangs around with through the contrast with Clark (like the scene at the gym, for example) and his behavior of her.
Then, by the end of the movie, Lacy starts to speak like a traditional journalist to her father about the headlines they have been publishing. It would be here that Lacy would speak her last lines in the film, as she was not even given a moment in the final scene where Perry returns the status quo to normal, even as the release movie score indicates that there was a final resolution of some kind.
Meanwhile, Nuclear Man 2 sees Lacy Warfield’s photo and immediately wants to test Larry Niven’s theory on Man of Steel, Women of Kleenex (which Superman proved false with Lorelei Ambrosia one movie earlier). Given that Nuclear Man 2 is based on Superman’s DNA, does this mean that Superman may harbor some “feelings” for Lacy on some level? Probably…not.
And, to put a capper on the ridiculousness of this movie:
By any conservative calculation, Nuclear Man 2 has carried Lacy Warfield far into space. When Superman’s Eclipse occurs, Lacy is about 120,000 miles above the Earth. You even see Earth looming below as Lacy holds on for dear life after Nuclear Man is depowered.
So, how exactly is she able to breathe? And, for that matter, why has she not decompressed, Outland-style?
So, does she has super-powers, too? Or is just bad writing?
I’ll take the latter.
On Nuclear Deterrence:
An online reviewer (I will not say whom) quipped that without these nuclear weapons, nothing would prevent the US and Russia from shooting at each other (or being shot at)…and countries that border Isreal from attacking it. Besides showing how simplistic (and how wrong) the thinking is, one has to remember that “Cold” and “Hot” Wars are often fought by proxy. Failing that, all one has to do is look at the list of countries that the major powers have “intervened” in within the last 6 decades since the first atomic weapons were deployed in time of war, taking note which countries had the nuclear weapons…and which ones did not.
The (Same Old) Council of Elders:
When Kal-El consults the Council of Kryptonian Elders, they tell him to leave the Earth and go to a world that has long since abandoned the concept of War. They further warn him that if he allows the people of Earth to place a messianic-style faith in his work, that they will become despondent when he fails to meet those expectations (Sounds alot like the initial theme of Superman Returns).
But, like the advice they’ve given him previously, Kal-El chooses to ignore it in the end. And, somehow, he manages to screw things up and place those he care about deeply in great peril. The results are pretty much the same here as they were in previous movies.
And, About the United Nations:
This scene is where all Affirmative Action quotas were met for Color, Race, Creed, and Single-Gender. Because this is still the 1980s, other marginalized orientations, such as sexual orientation, were still not represented in superhero media.
And yet, I wonder how the nuclear-armed nations would have really reacted to Superman’s declaration. The non-nuclear aspiring nations would have approved almost whole-heartedly approved of the idea (except for the Satraps of the nuclear contingent). But, would the US approve? Or, for that matter, countries like France and a (PW Botha-ruled) South Africa? And, a better question would be, would they even have a choice in the matter?
On Nu-ku-lar Man 2, Again:
The reason I continuously refer to this character as Nuclear Man 2 is because the original script had Superman fighting a previous version of Nuclear Man earlier in the film. The first Nuclear Man is the version that you see briefly in the trailers for this movie, although he becomes deformed before his fight with Superman at the Night Club (which Lacy mentions early on in this movie). Superman defeats Bizarro Nuclear Man by punching him into an electrical transformer, which turns him into ashes. Lex and Lenny gather up the ashes and create a new genetic “stew” which gets turned into the device that Superman unwittingly throws into the Sun.
Superman’s View of the Earth (and the Universe):
When you look at the pantheon of heroes of the present day (whenever that present day may be), how many of them speak about both peace and war in the context of the consequences felt by the planet’s population, as Superman does here? And it is here in this moment that Christopher Reeve’s Superman both succeeds and fails: It works because it encapsulates the larger-than-life moments that the Superman mythos is all about. But it also fails because the Superman story in the movies never delves beyond brushing the surface of the subject matter.
On the Luthor Bandwagon:
Most superhero franchises will showcase their biggest villain in the first movie release (the Batman relaunch and Iron Man being the most obvious exceptions), but the franchise usually moves on from there. Unfortunately, the Superman franchise does not. Lex Luthor is featured in 3 of the 4 C. Reeve movies, as well as in Superman Returns. The only reason why he is not in Superman 3 is because of the dispute that came about from the firing of Richard Donner (the director of Superman and the original director of Superman 2).
A Note on Journalism:
This is where the franchises of Superman and Spiderman show its biggest divergence: Where Lois Lane’s “exclusive” interview propelled the Daily Planet, DC Comics’ version of the New York Times, to beyond international stardom; the Daily Bugle, Marvel’s version of the New York Post, is propelled by tabloid shots of Spiderman accompanied by salacious headlines of “possible evil intentions.” The motives of the Chief Editors are also divergent: Perry White wants the scoop, but prefers to stay within the bounds of writing “The Truth”; J. Jonah Jameson, however, is not above writing the truth…from a certain point of view. And, although we get to meet photographer/junior reporter Jimmy Olsen from the Daily Planet, we never get to meet any of the writers for the Daily Bugle. This perhaps begins to explain the contrasts between the 2 franchises – and indeed, the contrasts between how journalists are treated between the 2 comic companies.
And this is where Superman 4 makes its own commentary: A media “mogul” attempts to turn the Daily Planet into a Daily Bugle-style tabloid newspaper. Although the movie tries to convey that doing so would diminish the stature of journalism, all one has to do is look at the state of news organizations today to see that it was a warning that went unheeded. Newspapers have lost readership as the rest of the media landscape has turned to celebrity tabloid reporting, as you will find more reporting on wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton or the Casey Anthony trial than you will on the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the full-speed exit of the US out of space exploration, the protests in the Middle East, or the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan.
And Chris turned down appearing in “Supergirl” for This:
One of the things that was planned was the Superman and/or Clark Kent was to appear in the Helen Slater Supergirl movie. However, with the cinematic disaster that was Superman III still on his mind, Christopher Reeve apparently turned down the request. This is the reason why you see Kara Zor-El looking at the Superman poster. It is also why you hear the radio report of Superman partaking in a deep space mission early on in the film.
What, no Commentary on the People of Color in This Movie?
None is needed.
With the exception of the United Nations scene, people of color are in the background. And, they are mostly Men of Color. As with most fantasy genres, women of color, particularly Black American women, are for all intents and purposes, non-existent. The Superman franchise is just another in a long line guilty of this. It becomes sad, however, when you realize that the most notable Black Women are Melba Manton (who appeared in the 1970s Lois Lane comic book) and Natasha Irons (Steel’s niece, first introduced after Reign of the Superman). Natasha has only appeared in a single episode of Superman: The Animated Series. Melba has not appeared in any media beyond the Lois comics.
And Even Superman Movies Acknowledge the Soviet Space Program:
In many ways, the female Cosmonaut could be seen as homage to Valentina Tereshkova, who is the first Woman to fly in space. Believe it or not, the US space program initially began considering women in the space program, but the effort would be sabotaged by the woman who headed the group created to study the matter – because her own prestige as the first American woman to break the sound barrier AND the first woman to go twice the speed of sound would have been greatly diminished.
[And yes, this will be explored in a future post…hopefully.]
This movie is a mess. It wanted to swing for the fences with a story about the dangers of Nuclear War, but kept missing at junk balls thrown well out of the strike zone. Lex showing up as the villain with a sidekick to bring in the “video game” generation was another swing-and-a-miss. The Warfields were the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The biggest problem with this movie is that it never grounds itself on a common setting; all of the scenes are mashed together in the hopes that a storyline can be made to fit because of it. The supporting cast of Superman, namely Clark Kent’s identity, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White are in it for show…and the paycheck. Published rumors suggested that there was some bad blood between Margot Kidder, the production staff, and Christopher Reeve (Sarah Douglas makes some mention of this in her interviews about her role in Superman 2), which explains Lois’ disappearing act, especially for this movie.
Making Lacy Warfield a damsel-in-distress was not a well-thought out process, and neither was her fast exit at the end of the movie. Nuclear Man, like everything else, stumbled.
This movie needs to get buried on the moon, though not for the reasons that most people have published about this movie beforehand. In fact, like Star Trek V, it is a bad movie based more execution than stated goal.
Take from it what you will. But don’t ask for an opinion on “The One True Superman.” Unless, of course, you’d like for your planet to be destroyed.