Tom Jolliffe ventures back to 1987 to look at two films which promised big things from Cannon Films, but would be the beginning of the end for the company…
Oh to be six again. Life was much simpler. TV shows were better, films were better, music was better. I didn’t have to pay any bills either. A year which saw an onslaught of absolutely classic films like RoboCop, Lethal Weapon, The Lost Boys, Near Dark, Predator, Evil Dead 2, The Untouchables, Withnail and I, and basically a pretty damn hefty chunk of cult films I’ve loved since that era, or happened upon more recently. Okay…I wasn’t watching RoboCop at 6 (still caught it young, around 10 or so) or Predator, but this year there were a couple of biggies I did watch…and I loved both. Masters Of The Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
When I’d already spent a few years avidly watching He-Man cartoons and collecting toys, I was already well versed in Eternian lore, so the prospect of a live-action film was something that excited me greatly. Superman wasn’t as big a character for me, but at the same time I still got into the cartoons and the Christopher Reeves films. I mean, the dude was flying!! FLYING!!
By this point Cannon Films Group had shown a progression of ambition, particularly financial, throughout the middle chunk of the 80’s. From low budget exploitation films, to mid-budget exploitation films, but also a few more high brow affairs too. They were never ones to hold back in their promotion of a new big budget Cannon epic either (Masters, billed as ‘Star Wars for the 80’s’). Their output was so prolific, that the bigger budget gambles were proving to be a financial burden and when they weren’t making returns? The inevitable fall was on the cards. Lifeforce in 1985 was a significant bomb, that came in an otherwise pretty solid year (including the likes of Runaway Train). Their spending in other areas was also speculating way before they could do any accumulating.
Come 1987 and a lot of weight was being put being He-Man and Supes. To a lesser extend, a fairly big Stallone vehicle too, his Arm Wrasslin opus Over The Top (another film I absolutely adored, even though in retrospect, it’s pretty terrible). Both Masters and The Quest For Peace got to production with significantly lower budgets than originally intended (almost a 50% reduction in both cases). It’s funny. Like a lot with Cannon of that time, including Lifeforce, it shows in Masters, but also kind of doesn’t because there’s still a team of really great crew with a background in things like Star Wars etc. It was felt more in Superman IV, because the first two films were big budget spectaculars, and by the time Cannon took on the Man of Steel, it had become an exercise in cutting corners and costs.
Regardless, both films were savaged critically, and both had a poor theatrical run. The Cannon boys would of course put a bit of spin on the results to say they made some money or broke even during that theatrical run, but in both cases, even with lower than planned budgets, they got buried by the competition and as you can see by a list of 1987 releases, there was a lot of strong competition. Poor results for Over The Top also didn’t help.
Looking at Masters of The Universe, it has actually aged pretty well. The cult fandom for the film, which is a little campy, more than a bit histrionic and fun, is deserved. In fact, with some nice interplay and moments of comedy (intentional in more places than it was given credit for) it’s essentially a very similar formula as the modern Marvel film. Interlinking plotlines, diversions, gags, interplay, wrapped around a potentially universe ending plot set largely on Earth. As a film it’s also sincere and has its heart in the right place. Additionally, Frank Langella needs a retrospective Oscar for his role here. Treating Skeletor like he’s treading the boards with The Bard. Likewise Lundgren makes for a fine specimen of heroism with no CGI enhancements required. Then you throw on Bill Conti’s awesome music and you have a winner.
To an extent these films were unfortunate. A year absolutely riddled with awesome films. Where do you put your release? Masters was pushed out at the same time as James Bond (The Living Daylights) in the states. Video, like a lot of Cannon’s work, would prove very fruitful. That said you can’t run a cinematic company purely on video rental numbers. Too much money was being lost. A proposed sequel to Masters never materialised (instead, aspects were re-worked and sets etc re-used for Albert Pyun’s low budget Sci-fi epic, Cyborg with Van Damme). A Spiderman film, mooted for several years in Cannon pre-sales was never made. By the end of the 80’s, Golan and Globus had split, Cannon was going through the beginnings of several transitions and shifts that, like many companies, were just delaying the inevitable.
As far as the legacy of Superman IV. Well, time has probably been a little unkind to it (for my generation). As a kid growing up, it’s Superman, he’s still flying about the place. He can even help Mariel Hemingway breath in space and he fights a budget Dolph Lundgren called Nuclear Man. There’s still much to enjoy about the film though, particularly in a so bad it’s good kind of way. Those telling budget cuts hamper the film in places, but at the same time, only add to the overriding feeling of disaster that’s a little bit amusing. All said though, the film still has so many memorable moments. Superman close to death after his first battle with Nuclear Man (in some deleted scenes, a ‘first’ Nuclear Man played by Clive Mantle was absolutely atrocious and would have made this even better as a midnight laugh fest) and some nice scenes back at the Kent farm.
Reeve battles gamely in a film he sincerely tried to put some messages across in, but at the same time also has half a mind on Street Smart (Cannon’s carrot lure was a passion project Reeve wanted to get greenlit, and Superman IV was the price). Jon Cryer might play the most annoying character in cinema history. Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder appear, cash their checks and move on. Mariel Hemingway is likeable, and I always felt she got a rough ride from this film, which seemed to curtail her as a mainstream movie star after such initial promise in Star 80 and Manhattan.
It’s always felt funny to me that such a significant year in film for me (as Masters was really the first that fully kicked off my love of cinema), represented so strongly by these two fantasy adventures, which felt so big, was in fact two sturdy nails in Cannon’s coffin. You don’t think of these things as a youngster, or I suppose as a casual film observer either. The coffin was being nailed even before greenlight (and Cannon’s expenditure on too many outside ventures besides just films was also a huge reason behind their collapse). By the end of that year, their days were numbered and it came slowly, and probably a little painfully. In the end, in a form that only passingly resembled their heyday, they bowed out finally, with Chuck Norris vs the Devil in Hellbound. A discussion on that doozy of a film awaits another day.
What do you think of Masters of The Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.