Back in 1983, the Superman franchise was in full swing, despite the tense and fractured on-set fights and fallouts which saw original director Richard Donner leave after Superman: The Movie before he was able to finish Superman II, released almost three years later under the new direction of Richard Lester. Both films were huge financial successes with Superman: The Movie 1978’s second highest-grossing film behind Grease.
A third film was inevitable, with Lester again directing the returning Christopher Reeve alongside legendary comedian Richard Pryor, who had made a joke on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at the time saying how he would love to been in a Superman film. The producers, Alex and Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, took him at his word and cast him as computer nerd Gus Gorman, who would help Superman defeat villain Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). Sadly, the strain had begun to show on the franchise and while Superman III was a success, it was lacking the magic of the first two in both tone and quality.
The Salkinds and Spengler then turned their attention to 1984’s Supergirl, starring Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway, but once more couldn’t recapture the magic of the first films and their spin-off flopped, grossing just $14.3million and garnering some scathing reviews. And so, they sold the film franchise rights to Cannon Films, an independent production company known at the time for low-brow films such as Invasion USA (and many other Chuck Norris films), Enter The Ninja, Breakin’ and its sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (arguably the greatest title for a film in history).
Run by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus, The Cannon Group Inc. as they were known, were trying to break out of their production “assembly line” methods (making films cheap and selling to foreign distributors for profit) in an effort to take on the Hollywood studio system by releasing more respectable films. Acclaimed film-makers Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavettes and Franco Zeffirelli had boarded the Cannon train, but while films with artistic integrity helped to gain them some degree of respectability, it barely bankrolled the company and so Golan and Globus decided to take some risks – some big risks.
As well as buying the rights to Superman, Cannon had optioned the rights for the massively successful Masters of the Universe toy-line and cartoon series from Mattel, and paid upwards of $15 million to Sylvester Stallone to star in two big actions films, Cobra (1986) and Over The Top (1987), the latter directed by Golan himself. On paper, 1987 was the year that Cannon was going to make it big, with the possibilities both in terms of box-office and gaining respect as a company huge. If Masters and Superman delivered on Cannon’s sizeable investment, the sky was the limit.
It started well. With their collective negotiating power, Golan and Globus convinced Christopher Reeve to return once more as the Man of Steel by promising two things: that he could be involved with the story/script phase of the fourth film, which led to Superman planning to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and that Cannon would finance his pet project Street Smart, which debuted in March of 1987 and grossed just $1.1 million in the US. Golan had some reservations about Reeve during the making of Street Smart, with the star reportedly stating that if Cannon “didn’t have another $1 million to shoot it in New York, how do I know you have $30 million to do Superman?” He was right.
With Reeve’s involvement, fellow Superman alum Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Jackie Cooper (Perry White) all joined the cast alongside Jon Cryer (Pretty In Pink) and Mariel Hemingway (Manhattan) and newcomer Mark Pillow as “big bad” Nuclear Man, while acclaimed film-maker Sidney J. Furie (The IPCRESS File, Lady Sings The Blues) was hired to direct the film. It was clear to all however that Superman IV wasn’t going to be a fun shoot.
As production on Superman IV began, the early promise and excitement quickly dwindled: Cannon had started to run into financial difficulties, losing around $90 million between 1985 and 1986. They had to make cutbacks, which led to all three of their “big” films having their budgets slashed, with Superman the most badly affected. Golan had said that they would “rise to the Warner Bros. level” on the film and had originally budgeted it around $30 million, a healthy sum for a film of such scale. Almost immediately, however, the budget had been cut to $17 million, with all aspects of the production from visual effects to locations being altered, with the UK’s Milton Keynes and Hertfordshire doubling for New York and Smallville respectively to keep the budget down.
In his 1999 autobiography Still Me, Reeve wrote about a the pivotal scene where Superman walks to and then addresses the United Nations in “New York”:
“We were also hampered by budget constraints and cutbacks in all departments. Cannon Films had nearly thirty projects in the works at the time, and Superman IV received no special consideration. For example, Konner and Rosenthal wrote a scene in which Superman lands on 42nd Street and walks down the double yellow lines to the United Nations, where he gives a speech. If that had been a scene in Superman I, we would actually have shot it on 42nd Street. Richard Donner would have choreographed hundreds of pedestrians and vehicles and cut to people gawking out of office windows at the sight of Superman walking down the street like the Pied Piper. Instead, we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere. Even if the story had been brilliant, I don’t think that we could ever have lived up to the audience’s expectations with this approach.”
Even co-writer Mark Rosenthal (Cast Away, Planet of the Apes) said that they “begged” to shoot on the real locations, but Cannon refused. Speaking on Mark Hartley’s 2014 Cannon documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, Rosenthal said:
“They would pad-out the shots, then duplicated them. It’s everything that happens when you don’t have enough money to finish the effects.”
Richard Edlund, who worked on the visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Masters of the Universe, continued: “It was cheap and chinsey (sp) looking, it just didn’t look good. All the ragged-edges of the production are visible!”
Released on July 24th 1987 in the US, Superman IV opened at No. 4 at the box office with a weekend gross of $5,683,122, behind the second weekend grosses of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop ($6.3 million), the re-released Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ($6.04 million) and fellow new arrival Summer School ($6.01 million). In fact, Superman grossed just $32,000 more than La Bamba ($5,651,990). By its second weekend, the film had plummeted to number seven, suffering a 49% drop in gross as James Bond film The Living Daylights and cult horror The Lost Boys opened. By week three, the film had vanished to nineteenth, finishing its US run on $15,681,020 – the lowest of the franchise by a considerable margin.
Reviews weren’t much better. William Thomas of Empire called it the “predictably awful fourth installment”, while Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune said: “The impoverishment here is not merely of means, but of spirit.” Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel summed up the film perfectly, saying: “Superman IV is cinematic kryptonite. Not only could it kill the Superman series, it might also leave filmgoers feeling weak.” In fact, so bad was the experience of making the film that Mark Pillow quit acting altogether and remains his one and only film appearance.
Indeed it wasn’t just Superman that fell, with Masters also failing to deliver on its huge promise: at the time the film started production, the toy-line was at the height of its popularity, but by the time the film arrived in August 1987, Mattel had lost millions and its soaring success plummeted. Cannon’s finances had hindered Masters too: its budget, thought to have been between $17-$22 million, was again very healthy but with the lack of money coming in, most of the crew were constantly paid late with Mattel stepping in to help sort the finances. In fact, the production was actually shut down at one point before the big sword-battle climax was even filmed (it would be finished, albeit in a shorter version, a few months later).
The film, like Superman, should have given fresh impetus to Cannon, but it too was poorly received: the “Star Wars of the 80’s” could only muster $4.4 million in its opening weekend and grossed just $17 million in total. It did have some life as a “cult classic” and was one of the top video rentals in the following year, but not enough to save them.
Over The Top, the first of the “big three” to be released, also stalled in early 1987, opening at a disappointing number four with $5.1 million behind Mannequin ($6 million) and ended up grossing just $16 million. Cobra fared better, but not enough to overcome the financial failings of the other big titles.
In the aftermath, not even a Red Sun defibrillator could revive the Man of Steel. The franchise, which helped usher in a new era for comic-book films, was laid to rest whilst wounds were licked and later healed. There was talk of Cannon starting pre-production on Superman V, possibly with Reeve himself directing, but under the weight of financial problems, the “company of the future” had none and in March 1989, cousins Golan and Globus parted company.
What could have been the saving grave for the beleaguered Cannon was now just another failed movie when it should have been its regeneration. At Warner Bros., production was finally gearing up on Batman, the long-awaited adaptation of DC’s other big name which in 1989 helped to changed perceptions once more about what a comic book movie could be, thanks in no small part to the contributions of director Tim Burton and stars Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. The Dark Knight thrived for a while, with three sequels through the 90’s (Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin) before he too had his “Quest for Peace” moment with the latter’s disastrous outing in 1997.
Strangely, audiences were ready in the late 80’s and early 90’s for superheroes again and had Superman IV succeeded, we may well have had parts five, six and even seven had things gone to plan particularly as the comics had been given a jolt in the arm with “The Death of Superman” in 1992 and 1993. It nearly happened, with Warners almost pushing forward with their radical Superman Lives in 1998 which would have seen Batman helmer Burton team up with Nicolas Cage in the title-role, but the studio got cold feet and pulled the plug and it would be another eight years before Superman returned…