Nuclear Powered Bitchslap
(Spoilers for the previous three Superman films are below).
After the flop that was Superman III, Christopher Reeve felt the series was becoming too campy and chose to shy away from doing another sequel. However, after being given the power to help shape the story, he quickly changed his mind. With Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, Reeve developed a story fit for a Man of Steel adventure as well as something that would appeal to the fans. Unfortunately, the studio didn’t have the same reverence for the film and barely supported it throughout filming and post. The result is a unfinished, unsatisfying mess of a film.
As the Cold War slowly becomes more and more tense, both the United States and the Soviet Union begin stockpiling massive amounts of nuclear warheads. Soon, as the public becomes overwhelmed with fear, Superman is unwittingly drawn into the problem. After some soul searching, he decides to rid the planet of the weapons and thus prevent all out war. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor escapes from prison with the help of his dimwitted nephew and hatches a plot to send genetic material harvested from a stand of Superman’s hair into the sun. While exposed to the radiation from the sun, the genetic material will form a clone of Kal-El that will be loyal to Luthor. As the world’s missles are collected in space by Superman, Lex sends a dummy missile with the material up to Superman who, in turn, sends it into the sun with the real warheads. Soon, a powerful being known as Nuclear Man is born and begins making his way to Earth.
Once again, the Superman series is gifted with a powerful premise. The relevance of the nuclear disarmament argument, alongside the epic showdowns sure to ensue once Nuclear Man and Kal-El meet seems like a perfect mix for a superhero movie. Sadly, none of these threads are fully realized, and the film chugs along at an uneven pace. The whole Cold War angle is dropped almost immediately and with little to no consequence. Superman just rids the world of nukes, the end.
Similarly, Nuclear Man, doesn’t seem to pose too much of problem to Superman. He spends more of his time committing petty acts of super villainy than actually fighting Superman. On top of this, add the film’s weak subplots involving the new head of the Daily Planet and Superman/ Clark Kent’s ever confusing love life, and you have a movie that never spends any time developing on one thought because there’s too much else to cram into it’s short running time.
It’s nice to see the principal cast from the original film return, but their return ultimately becomes bittersweet when you see their weak performances. Reeve, apparently distraught by the mishandling of his idea, gives a pained performance. Kal-El’s genuine empathy seems a little less empathetic this time around, and sometimes his monotonous tone is too much to bear. It’s sad to watch someone who clearly had so much fun with playing Superman suddenly become so detached.
Worst of all is Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane. I never really cared for Hackman’s version of Luthor, but in this case it’s clear that he was only in this for the paycheck. Kidder also seemingly just cashed in, as her performance is missing much of the sharp wit and attitude that made her Lois so appealing.
The only people who didn’t seem to be laughing all the way to the bank were the poor souls in the special effects department. With massive budget cuts slashing the special effects department’s resources the film has none of the awe inspiring sights that audiences had come to expect from the franchise. After you see the same still frame of Christoper Reeve streak across a generic background, you realize that this is just another sad case of B-Movie-itis.
Unfortunately, this was the end of the series for 19 years. And what a terrible note to go out on. Some movies are so bad they’re funny. This is not one of those movies. This feels more like a tragedy, and will fill fans with a creeping grief that stains the entire reputation of the series. Some say that Superman is too powerful, but with this nuclear powered bitchslap it seems the hero met his match.