Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Superman IV: The Quest for Mark Pillow

Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is you do to me?

Ah, Superman IV. I am uncertain as to how Superman falls into my development as a Superman Fan. Well, that's not true. I honestly think my viewing of Superman IV is a crucial portion of that tale.

I was already a huge fan of "Superman: The Movie" and "Superman II". I had seen "Superman III" numerous times, but when "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" was released, it came and went from the theaters before I could peddle my bike to the Showplace VI to catch it. Obviously the release of the film couldn't have had me sitting on pins and needles.

So one Sunday afternoon my Sophomore year at UT (a year which shall live in infamy), I was supposed to be doing homework and running my laundry, and, instead, flipped on the afternoon movie on KBVO. I had never seen "Superman IV", and now seemed like a heck of an opportunity to watch the film. Maybe just a little bit of it. And three hours later, I was slapping my forehead and rolling my eyes in shame.

But I am uncertain if it is a coincidence that my Junior year was when I began to take an interest in Superman and Superman comics (although I wouldn't begin collecting in ernest for years). Could "Superman IV" have drummed up additional Superman interest in my mind?

A quick review of the back-up materials on the Superman Ultimate DVD Collection will tell you that nobody involved with the production of Superman IV was happy with the results, including the actor who played the heavy of the film, Nuclear Man, who had two more roles before returning to Spring, Texas... just a few miles from my parent's house, in fact.

I just finished watching Superman IV, and I am unsure if it's coincidence or not, but I have a raging headache. It's sort of just north of the orbit of my left eye, and feels a bit like I've been struck with a ballpeen hammer. Sure, it could be the weather, or allergies, or a lack of caffeine. I think it's Cannon Film's half-baked treatment of the Superman franchise.

A quick IMDB search will further provide details to tell you that the theatrical release of the film was 90 minutes, but the original cut ran more than 130 minutes. At 90 minutes, the film is choppy and nonsensical, yet I cannot imagine welcoming 40 more minutes of this film into my life.

Sure, the cast is back. Christopher Reeve actually seems pretty chipper to be back in the Superman suit, and gets a little more room to play with Clark in this movie. Whatever happened to Margot Kidder had really started to sink in by the time this installment rolled around, and at age 38 or 39, she comes off like one of my goofier middle-school teachers rather than Lois (keep this in mind when you complain about the current Superman cast being cast so young). Jackie cooper is back as a Grampa-ish Perry White, and Mark McClure is in a lot of wide shots as Jimmy Olsen. I don't know what they paid Hackman to reprise his role as Lex Luthor, but apparently it was enough to make him show up, and that was about it.

Additions include an early, almost non-existent part of a slim Jim Broadbent as a weapons-dealer, John Cryer playing Luthor's ha-ha-stupid nephew, Lenny, and, of course, Mark Pillow as Nuclear Man. A little bit more interesting is that Mariel Hemingway appears as a pre-Cat Grant suitor for Clark Kent (not Superman). And I realized she sort of looks like one of my old bosses if my old boss wore dresses with enormous shoulder pads.

A quick browse of the trivia on Mark Pillow's IMDB entry tells us that there were supposed to be two Nuclear Man's in the film, but the first was cut for time. If the deleted footage of the film tells us anything, it's that it may have also been cut for taste. Now, here's the curious bit: I think that they may have left the first Nuclear Man in the TV-version I watched on that sunny Saturday those many years ago.
A) that movie went on forever, and B) there were a few things which seemed somehow familiar, including plot points. I may be halluncinating all of this, but there is a 134 minute version listed on IMDB, so it's possible that's what I saw.

The plot of the movie is as follows:

-Superman is a friend to all nations. This is illustrated with an opening sequence of Superman saving Godless communist cosmonauts when they are hit by space debris.

-The Daily Planet is sold to character actor Sam Wanamaker and Mariel Hemingway (his daughter). They turn The Daily Planet into a NY Post-style tabloid overnight. Seemingly without Perry White or any of his staff knowing what's going to print.

-Peace talks between the US, and, I assume, a pre-Glasnost USSR breakdown. Or maybe France. It's hard to tell. There's some mention of France. Both sides declare they will be "second to none" in how many nuclear missles they have.

-A young boy in serious need of a good orthodontist and a serious crush on our Man of Steel fails a class assignment by writing a "no nukes" letter to Superman instead of his Congressman.

-Luthor escapes jail with the aid of John Cryer.

-The new tabloid folks force Superman's hand by writing a "Superman tells kid to 'Drop Dead'" story.

-Superman reveals his secret to Lois for absolutely no reason. She says that "she knows", but it's not clear if she's always known or just remembered. They fly around the world at speeds that would surely tear Lois into shreds. I guess the producers were trying to recreate the magic, but it now looks like Superman is flying with someone's mom. He then kisses her and supposedly makes her forget. I have no idea what we were supposed to get out of that sequence but a brief opportunity to hit the can.

-Superman goes to the UN-set (which looks every bit as tacky as the real UN) and tells everyone he will now rid the world of nuclear weapons. He receives a standing "O". The viewer laughs aloud, trying to (a) imagine the UN agreeing to anything, (b) deciding that the right thing to do is let an alien with no oversight and an unknown agenda disarm the Earth.
Now, in the deleted scenes, prior to the UN scene, there's a bit where Superman tells the kid "I'm really not supposed to disarm all of humanity". The kid whines. I seem to also remember this from the TV version. All of that also breaks up some awkward moping that Superman/ Clark does for a while prior to the UN sequence.

-The kid is never seen again. Rightfully. If I were him, and had just had that kind of success with a letter writing campaign in 1987, I probably would have begun writing letters to Amanda Pays.

-Superman "disarms" the entire world. Sort of. I recall seeing statistics for how many nuclear weapons the US and the USSR each had on a graph in Time, circa 1983. I think Superman may have shorted himself by 100,000 weapons on both sides. He throws the nuclear weapons into the sun. Now, this is an interesting bit as nothing is made of either the US or USSR going completely monkey-crap about their nuclear stockpiles being swiped by an alien being. Really, this should have been "The Day the Earth Stood Still". But all of that is pushed aside so we can focus on...

-Luthor's idiotic plot. Luthor schemes to get in bed with some arms manufacturers who will continue to build nuclear weapons. Or something. We learn that Luthor is actually cloning a Nuclear Man from a strand of Superman's hair. But he needs the power of the sun to make his Nuclear Man work. So what he's really doing is conning a seemingly fully complicit nukes dealer into strapping a shoebox full of silly-putty and a doll-dress to a nuclear missle, hoping Superman will intercept it and throw it into the sun. Which he does.
I think (though it's never said out loud) that the idea is that the guy KNOWS what Luthor is doing, and will go along with his Nuclear Man plan to kill Superman, so he can re-arm the world, and Luthor gets a cut.
Dropping California into the ocean for a real estate swindle now seems so quaint.
-One of the guys from Ah-Ha, fresh from Studio 54 party, emerges from the sun.

- Superman fights the nuclear guy. For some reason, the nuclear guy has press-on nails that maybe poison Superman for some reason. Which is never made clear as both Nukie and Supes get their power from El Sol. Radiation?

-Lois comes to Clark's apartment and gives an awkward speech which leads you to believe she knows Clark is Superman. This goes nowhere. I think maybe we were supposed to gleen that this is Lois making peace with the knowledge she has. I don't know. Nobody is bad in the scene, it's just that nothing really comes of it and it's a big ol' matzah ball to leave in the middle of a movie like this.

-Superman uses his last crystal he grabbed early on in the movie and heals himself from the poisoning. Why he waits is never made clear, but he goes from having the chills to looking like the Crypt Keeper in two scenes.

-Supes fights Nuclear Man. the fight necessitates that Superman push the moon out of orbit to block Nuclear Man's line of site to the sun (which Nuclear Man needs to have access to his powers). Curiously, the Earth is not shorn in half by the gravitational disruption, and nobody seems to notice the moon moving out of orbit.

-Mariel Hemingway is taken into space by Nuclear Man at some point. Apparently Mariel Hemingway is immune to absolute zero temperatures, the rigors of a vaccuum, and the rough ride out of the Earth's atmosphere and gravity. She is one tough cookie.

-At some point, Mariel Hemingway, Lois, Clark and Superman partake in an awkward sex-farce style scene in which Clark and Superman keep coming and going from Mariel Hemingway's apartment. It isn't funny, and for some reason, Lois makes a duck in the oven.

-Superman throws Lex back in jail and let's the world re-arm itself

-we learn that a very 20-something looking John Cryer was supposed to be an impressionable teenager when he is placed in "Boys Town". Literally. It's his last scene and leaves a lot of questions.

-there's some talk of a narrowly averted nuclear incident. I don't know what nuclear disaster the news-guy is talking about. I assume it was yet another element cut out of the film, like the first Nuclear Man. I am trying to puzzle what why a war was imminent if nobody had missles, but nothing is coming.

-for some reason, Nuclear Man is very interested in Mariel Hemingway after seeing her on the cover of a British edition of The Planet. We know it is British as "Favorite" is spelled "Favourite" right on the cover. I assume this is how they spell "favorite" in the UK, and not just a type-o. Anyway, there's some explanation of Nuclear Man's interest in Mariel Hemingway on Mark Pillow's IMDB entry. In the context of the movie, it makes no @#$%ing sense, but does lead to a moon-fight and to Superman replacing a moon-flag, looking like a disgruntled suburbanite cleaning up after kids ran through his yard.

-Apropos of nothing, Mariel hemingway learns the value of journalism with integrity. I assume this is part of a subplot which has been cut. At the film's end, Perry White takes an escalator and announces he's taken an enormous loan to buy out Wanamaker. Which is amazing, because they clearly state at the beginning of the film that the Planet hasn't turned a profit in three years. Metropolis' banking system must be a shambles. Also, there's something very "Monster-A-Go-Go" about a character telling us about all sorts of action which took place off-screen, but which we never get to see.

This movie cost $17 million, which is roughly 5% more than just Brando's salary on the first picture, I think. It's written with the best of liberal intentions, what with the strong "no nukes" stance. I understand that it was actually Christopher Reeve who suggested Superman tackle the real-world issue of nuclear disarmament, but I think it's safe to say that he did not anticipate the endless goofiness which would saturate the film.

I don't think any of the ideas in the film are necessarily bad ideas. There is just a layer of abject failure of execution which permeates every frame of the movie. What happens when Superman tries to save all of us from ourselves in one enormous display? That's an interesting question. The movie asks the question, but is derailed by Mark Pillow in a cape before it can give a coherent answer. A walking, super-powered dirty-bomb as an enemy for the man of steel. Did he need to be a clone? Can Mariel Hemingway survive in a vaccuum? Only scientists really know.

And what must Hackman have thought of Cryer's idiotic turn as Lenny Luthor? Surely he asked him to tone it down... We may never know.

All of that said, this movie still makes more sense than Supergirl.

I kind of want to see if I can find Mark Pillow's house, as it can't be more than 10 minutes from my parent's house. Maybe he'd sign my copy of Superman IV. You never know.


Anonymous said...

I woke up this morning feeling as if I had a strange hangover. Now it is all coming back to me - I sat through the entire 90 minutes of Superman IV last night.

The League said...

The extras on the disk actually cleared up a lot of the plot holes, not to mention the commentary by one of the writers. That guy was STILL mad twenty years later.

J.S. said...

I think your review of this movie was probably longer than the script for it.

The League said...

You never realize how complicated a movie actually is (even a really dumb one) until you start trying to summarize that hunk of junk.

J.S. said...

I'm not saying your analysis was incorrect. I'm just saying that you've probably now spent more time than any other person on earth thinking about the plot of Superman IV.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing this, um, I think on TV also. Maybe on videotape sometime in the late '80s. I also thought that Lois started looking a little long in the tooth in the movie.

I've heard the audio commentary on this disc is pretty good.

I like these word verifications.

Anonymous said...

For those interested in writing to Mark Pillow, he currently owns and operates a pub in Liverpool, England. The address is:

Mark Pillow
c/o Mchale's Irish & American Bar
53 Lime Street
Liverpool Merseyside L1 1JQ

I tested the address by mailing a letter along with the cover of my DVD of Superman: IV and received it back autographed and inscribed.

Neil A. Cole
Superman Super

Anonymous said...

The anonymous idiot who left the message before me. This Mark Pillow character DOES NOT own a Pub in Liverpool. It was me who wrote that as a joke on IMDB about a year ago as i am from Liverpool in England. If you went into Mchales irish american bar in our city centre - trust me no fucking Yanks own it!