“What we have to really do is just make him a hero to believe in rather than a hero to make fun of.”
– Christopher Reeve
Christopher Reeve will always be my Superman. Richard Donner’s 1978 introduction of the classic DC superhero on the big screen will always be one of my all-time favorite moviegoing experiences. Back then, I truly did believe the tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”
And while I really loved the action in SUPERMAN II that pitted the Man of Steel against General Zod and his fellow Phantom Zone villains, I remember being distinctly disappointed at the decline of quality of the SUPERMAN series as Kal-El seemed to become more of a caricature and a punchline over the years.
Still, as others tried to copy or improve on the Donner formula and Reeve’s signature charisma on the big and small screen in the ensuing decades, I found myself appreciating elements of SUPERMAN III and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE more and more. The production budgets clearly got smaller and smaller, and the storylines didn’t get any less goofy. But I got to have more Reeve moments as Superman. I got to see the onscreen chemistry of Reeve as Supe/Clark Kent alongside Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. I got to see fun moments of Reeve riffing with his supporting cast of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, etc.
Back in the days when I was working for ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, I had the privilege of mining the long-running show’s extensive tape vault for any footage that I wanted. There, I discovered some really cool on-set footage of SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE featuring a great interview with a very candid Christopher Reeve — along with incredible moments of the star directing the action.
THE QUEST FOR PEACE represented an effort by Reeve to guide the series back on a more serious course after the critical misfire of SUPERMAN III, which turned the spotlight to an overreliance on comic relief courtesy of a manic Richard Pryor, who plays a computer programmer lured into an evil scheme by multi-millionaire Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). I never liked that film because the tone was such a 180-degree turn from the more dramatic nature of the first two films. Superman now had a comic foil, and I was not amused.
“I had not been particularly thrilled with the way SUPERMAN III worked out,” says Reeve in the 1986 ET interview, discussing why he donned the red cape for a fourth time after swearing he was done with the role for good. “And then gradually I thought, ‘Well, a lot of people really would like to see a SUPERMAN movie, and instead of complaining about it, maybe I should do something about it,’ and the best thing to do about it would be to come up with a story outline for a SUPERMAN that I’d like to see and that I’d like to be a part of so I could get that enthusiasm back, get the motivation back.”
Plagued by major budget cuts by an overreaching and at-times financially struggling Cannon Films, an uneven tone, and a questionable bad guy named Nuclear Man, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE is arguably the worst of the four SUPERMAN movies starring the square-jawed actor, who also shared story credit. The film certainly fared the worst of the quartet at the box office.
Released in theaters July 24, 1987, THE QUEST FOR PEACE finds Superman once again facing off against Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) while the Son of Krypton works to rid the world’s superpowers of nuclear arms. But Luthor, along with his obnoxious young nephew Lenny (played by a post-PRETTY IN PINK Jon Cryer), hatches a plot to destroy the Man of Steel using a strand of his own hair combined with the power of the sun to create a supervillain.
Though the film was directed by Sidney J. Furie (THE ENTITY, IRON EAGLE), it’s plainly evident in the ET set-visit footage (in which Superman takes on Nuclear Man, played by Mark Pillow, in a battle on the moon’s surface) that Reeve was in charge and had a singular vision about how the film should be shot.
It’s a bit surreal to see the heroic, late star calling the shots while wearing his character’s signature red cape and blue tights. But it shows how important it was to Reeve to capitalize on this opportunity to correct the course of the franchise.
As for what Reeve thought about other filmmakers tampering with the spirit of Superman, he declares, “In terms of the basic heart of the character and the way he is, I don’t think you should mess with him. I think that it’s a proven success, and what we have to really do is just make him a hero to believe in rather than a hero to make fun of.”
In the days leading up to the release of SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, Reeve says in a separate sit-down for ET that he had loads of fun making the movie and was very optimistic about his pet project: “I think if we get it right, this’ll be the best of the SUPERMAN movies. And that’s not just a pep talk. I think it really will be.”
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