Back in 1986, and after acquiring the rights to the comic book character Superman from Alexander & Ilya Salkind for a very respectable sum of money, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, from the Cannon Group Inc, proceeded to embark on the making of the next installment in the Superman saga that would bring the series to such an artistic, critical and financial low, that would taint the property for the big screen for almost two decades.
In 1986, and after having publicly declared had he’d never play the role of Superman ever again, after having been disappointed with the latest entry in the series, Superman III (1983), Christopher Reeve was offered a very substantial offer to put on the red boots and the Cape once more for, what it was said at the time, would be the last movie in the franchise.
Reeve was offered a salary of 4 million dollars and creative control, in addition to having a long pursued pet proyect of his; Street Smart ( 1987), financed and released by Cannon.
Even though Street Smart wasn’t all that well received financially, it did gain some critical recognition, and would further push Reeves’s credibility as a serious actor, who desperately wanted to distance himself from the Superman image he’d been so much associated with ever since the release of Superman: The Movie (1978).
It was actually Reeve who came up with the idea that would give birth to the Screenplay later on developed by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. His idea of Superman faced with the notion of actually stopping the arms race between the big nations and bringing about Worldwide peace, was something that appealed to him in that he wanted to bring the character to new dramatic heights and present him with a huge moral dilemma that would profoundly go against everything that his biological father, Jor-El, had taught him; ” It is strictly forbidden to interfere in Mankind’s History”.
Even though Reeve was fully involved with the creative process of the production and would even take on Second Unit work for the shooting of some key action set pieces, like the fight against Nuclear Man on the Moon, and after securing Gene Hackman’s participation to reprise the role of Lex Luthor and the return of all the other cast members like Margot Kidder, Marc McClure and Jackie Cooper, most of the rest of the technical crew who had worked on all the previous Superman movies when the Salkinds were still at the helm, were let go on the account of budgetary restrictions. And that was really the nail in the coffin for this production, since its calculated total budget was sliced in half and the other half siphoned out to the production of the upcoming Masters of the Universe (1987) adaptation movie.
Having had successive box office failures with their latest productions, and in dire need of money to recuperate at least part of their losses, the producers started to spread themselves too thin in the budget department in the hopes of having various box office hits instead of just one. The decision was made not to put all the eggs in the Superman IV basket, even though the franchise had proven to be a sure fire financial success over the years; coupled, of course, with strong production values. Golan and Globus were clearly in over their heads and because of this one monetary decision, the whole production would end up suffering in the long term.
UK based production
Shooting was mainly done in the UK on the Cannon Elstree Studios in London as had been done previously for the other movies on Pinewood Studios. From the very early days of the Superman movies, UK had been the place of choice to recreate most of the sets that would be shown on the movies, due to the sizes of the sets and the fact that filming in the UK was cheaper. But, this time, the money saving aspect of the movie would be taken to a whole new level.
Even though the previous entries had been shot in the UK to recreate some of the most challenging sets, the producers had also gone to the States to film in location to places like New York (mainly for aerial shots), and Canada, to name just a few. This Second Unit work is necessary to ground the movie setting in reality; something that, unfortunately, due to the movie being shot mainly in UK locations, the relatively small scale of the sets and some unfortunate camera placement choices, it would ultimately give out a cheap outlook to the production that was sadly never corrected in post-production. Something that could have been easily done with the addition of matte paintings to enlarge and hide the limits of the sets. This shows especially in the UN sequence where Superman gives his Speech. The setting of that particular sequence in such an iconic, well known setting as the UN Headquarters is something that, being shot as it was in a Train Station in an English Town, not having been enlarged afterwards with matte paintings or being set dressed properly, undermines the credibility of the whole scene. But that is just an example of many a blunder that can be seen throughout the movie. There is a very comprehensive documentary online by Youtuber Oliver Harper called Superman IV: The Man of Steel and Glass, where he goes into detail about the in-location shooting that took place in an English Town called Milton Keynes, in Buckinghamshire, and in the London based Cannon Elstree Studios. It’s a very insightful documentary that provides some very interesting tidbits of information about the filming in the UK. To learn more go to http://www.olivers-retrospectives.com.
The movie is a mess. There’s no other way to put it. In the end, and in spite of all the enthusiasm that all the crew and cast put into it, they were ultimately short changed by the reduced budget. Some of the more visually interesting ideas written into the script had to be abandoned and cheaper alternatives came to the fore. On top of that, the movie is very bland looking, with really basic camera set ups and poorly choreographed action set pieces.
Overall the movie has a very cheap look to it, with laughably bad special and visual effects, bar a few exceptions ( the model Russian Space capsule at the beginning of the movie is quite nice and some miniature work shown in the first fight between Superman and Nuclear Man), a poor script with some really silly ideas, like Superman moving the moon to block the sun and some characters being able to breathe in outer space, ignoring the most basic laws of physics, clunky dialogue and some criminally underused performances (Gene Hackman comes to mind; after working so hard to bring him back, he only shows up in a handful of scenes throughout the movie). It is clear to me, after having read both the script and the comic book adaptation of the movie that a better version of the film than the one we finally got could have been had.
Another thing that I think hurt its box office performance was the heavily reduced final cut of the movie; it went from being 134 min to be shown in theaters with a roughly 90 min running time. This was all done after the initial workprint was shown to a test Audience, who apparently didn’t like it, and the movie was hastily recut.
This haphazardly put together cut removed some very important scenes for the development of the plot, like the creation of the first Nuclear Man by Lex Luthor and its subsequent confrontation with Superman, some set up scenes that further developed Lex’s scheme to make money from selling weapons of mass destruction to both sides, the explanation for Nuclear Man’s infatuation with Lacy Warfield….These were all scenes that really helped clarify some of the most murky or rushed elements of the plot. That all these scenes ended up in the cutting room floor was a tragedy in of itself, but some of the best and more juicy material with Gene Hackman would also suffer the same fate.
Fortunately, for us fans, these scenes came out in the 2006 DVD edition of the movie as Deleted Scenes in the Supplemental section. They roughly amount to 45 min of deleted material and the scenes weren’t even properly restored and edited. They appear to have been taken directly from the 35mm negative and most of them are rough looking and the visual effects aren’t finish in most of them. There’s only one copy from the movie in which, at least two of these deleted scenes are properly restored, and that is the Japanese Laserdisc copy of the movie that came out in 1987 and that, for the longest time, and until the DVD came out, was the only Widescreen available version of the movie.
These 2 scenes were the one were Niclear Man attempts to blow up the Russian High Command with one of their missiles during a military parade before Supes shows up to stop him and the other is when Superman saves a little girl in a Mid-West town from a Tornado created by Nuclear Man. Hopefully, Warner Archive will see fit to restore the longest version of the movie for Bluray in the near future, with restored special and visual effects, thus finally giving the fans a taste of what was originally intended, and perhaps, who knows, even mending the reputation of the movie in the eyes of those who refer to it as : ” The Worst ever made Superman movie”. Stranger things have happened and Warner has giving us some real nice surprises in the last few years, like the release of the controversial Superman II: Donner’s cut, the newly restored HD master for Supergirl (1984), and most surprisingly of all; the release of Superman: The Movie, the three-hour-long TV cut. In a Home Media world were George Lucas tweaks and changes things around every time a new master of Star Wars is released, everything is possible. Fingers crossed.
Thanks for reading.