THE POLITICS OF: SUPERMAN IV
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a lousy movie, period. I may have been a child when I saw Superman IV, but I knew it was a lousy movie even then. It looked cheap, the plot made no sense and there was no enthusiasm in it.
However, even as a child I sensed something a bit off about The Quest for Peace, a very curious sense that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark so to speak. I felt I was watching a lecture of some sort, a kind of lesson versus a Superman adventure story.
Now, with hindsight, I see that Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a well-intentioned but wildly misguided film, one where its lead actor's political views got in the way of an already troubled film. Most of what doomed Superman IV was not Christopher Reeve's fault, but his eagerness to use Superman IV to promote his views on nuclear disarmament under the guise of "entertainment" certainly was.
This is not an analysis of Superman IV itself. Having seen it again, it's clear that it was a choppy, muddled affair. The film was conceived and made to be 134 minutes but for reasons still a bit confusing it had 45 minutes cut, losing a lot of plot and character development. Those 45 minutes might have made Superman IV better, but it would not have helped one of its big issues: its messaging.
His dual goals immediately sets up two problems. First, by making a fictional character tackle real-world problems, you create a false solution. The Superman comic book writers faced a similar problem during World War II. With Superman on our side, we would have won the war quickly, but they opted not to have the Man of Steel win the war. Reeve's decision to use Superman IV to advocate for an impossible answer was in retrospect a poor one. It brings the real world and its troubles into what is meant to be fantasy. Once you do that, you destroy both the fantasy and the reality, leaving no one satisfied.
Superman is not God. Theoretically, God can solve all our problems quickly. However, in Judeo-Christian theology, God also gave us free will. He's not a micromanager or a Being whose sole purpose is to bail us out of our own idiocies. God can involves Himself in our personal lives. He could even interfere in humanity as a whole, but is that His reason for Being? People confuse God's omnipotence for eternal problem-solving, as if He is meant to cover our bills more than our sins.
People who look to God as a Being who should make life perfect for us have, in my own view, a very curious idea of who God is. I like to think of God as a Father: a loving Father, but one who gives us freedom. We've seen children grow rebellious and self-destructive even though they had good parents. In the same way, humanity is responsible for its own actions, including the miseries it inflicts on itself. It would be wrong to expect Mom and/or Dad to perpetually fix our lives for us, so if we were to see parents constantly rescuing their adult children and think it wrong on both sides, why do we see our Eternal Father differently?
Likewise, Superman cannot and should not fix the problems of our own devices. It's not Lex Luthor creating chaos: that's individual good against individual evil. Nuclear disarmament is a man-made problem, and as such we cannot and should not expect divine intervention.
All Quiet on the Western Front and Parasite come to mind. However, most of these cinematic lectures have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Superman IV is in the latter.
The United Nations scene is instructive in Reeve & Company's misguided ideas. Here, Superman declares that he unilaterally will rid the world of all nuclear weapons, with the nations cheering this on. Reeve and Company may think such an announcement would elate the world because that is how they see the world: one where the world agrees with them; I think such a move would actually horrify the world, particularly the adversaries who hold on to nuclear weapons for dear life (while they didn't have nuclear weapons at the time, I cannot imagine India and Pakistan going along with this idea with nary a complaint). Perhaps if Superman would have said he would broker world peace, then that might have worked. However, for Superman to take it upon himself to make such a decision and that the world would go along with it seems almost insulting.
Essentially, Reeve is advocating for Superman to be almost world dictator, a benevolent dictator but a dictator nonetheless.
If you make a film less to continue or find new stories but instead make it to further an agenda, it will almost automatically fail because you never allow the audience a chance to explore.
"Nobody wants war. I just want to keep the threat alive," Luthor tells Superman. I'm puzzled by this thinking: if the nations of the world really gave up nuclear weapons so quickly, why would they rearm themselves even faster?
In all of this, when we see Superman IV we have to admit that the main plot about saving the world by getting rid of all our bombs is one of its many problems. It has a problem that many of these thinly-veiled advocacy films have: trying to send its message across while trying to keep other story threads going. It almost forgets that Superman IV is about nuclear disarmament when it turns into a romantic comedy, and for long stretches we wonder where any of this is going.
I'm not pleased with how this turned out. I look at Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and think it is a lost opportunity. There were many, many elements that sank it to be among the worst films made. I do not think though that the main plot of nuclear disarmament has been given enough credit for its failure however. Superman IV decided that it would inform instead of entertain or even persuade. It decided to spend its limited resources being a lecture rather than a film.
When a film decides that it has a "higher calling", it dooms itself.