"Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" finds the Man of Steel full of self-doubts at the grand old age of 50. He is worried about nuclear war, shopping malls in Smallville and the hostile takeover at The Daily Planet, now an intemperate tabloid run by Mariel Hemingway.
Surprisingly svelte as The Planet's new publisher, Hemingway uses her big headlines to force Superman to promise world peace. The "dude of steel," as he is called today, vows to disarm the Earth, a plan that fizzles after longtime nemesis Lex Luthor escapes from a chain gang.
The story line, conceived by star Christopher Reeve, follows the form -- it's as thin as the comic-book movie concept itself. The original producer, Alexander Salkind, has abandoned the flying Boy Scout, who was already showing his age at III. Don't expect the flashy special effects that Salkind lavished on his movies, for the Cannon Group is now holding the money clip, and they are not big spenders.
"Superman IV," except for a glitzy new villain named Nuclear Man, is one of the cheesiest movies ever made. It's so grainy and grossly envisioned, it seems filmed on pulp. Superman's crystalline Arctic palace looks as if it's made of no-deposit-no-return soda bottles, and his suit of primary colors has ring around the collar. Clark Kent, however, has become a sharp dresser, because Reeve wanted to give his alter ego more dimension.
This Superman is more vulnerable than I, II and III -- a sort of Alan Alda who can fly. Surely, an allergy to kryptonite was weakness enough. Superheroes shouldn't shilly-shally.
Certainly our hero's nuclear-powered foe has no second thoughts. He's blond, he's bad, he's going to blow up the world. Created by Luthor from Superman's own DNA, Nuclear Man is as strong as the Kryptonian. And what's more, he has Bette Midler's fingernails. "I will hurt people," he warns. Woe be unto Superman. Woe be unto the screenwriters. Woe be unto world peace. Woe be unto children in school buses everywhere.
When he isn't off thinking about whether he really should involve himself in earth politics, Superman helps rebuild the Great Wall of China, save a crew of Soviet cosmonauts and stop up an erupting volcano. He and Lois Lane fly over well-known landmarks, but frankly I don't know how she stands that greasy blue hair.
Reeve remains as chisel-jawed and neatly muscular as ever, but he's stale opposite Mark Pillow, the golden bimbo who plays the Nuke Man. Margot Kidder reprises her role as Lois, though the girl reporter has lost her pluck. Of the returning cast, only Gene Hackman seems engaged by the project, his Luthor lending an occasional spark to the laggardly pace. Luthor's not the schemer he was, nor are the writers as clever. Sidney J. Furie, who directed "The Ipcress File," evidently has lost his touch for action. Don't look for speeding bullets.
Finally, after we've watched the Supe pop a few bad guys from here to the Crab Nebula, pine over Loisand probably worry about whether to eat goat cheese, the movie simpers to its close. Basically, Superman says if you want world peace, do it yourself. Only in a nice way, of course. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, rated PG, is at area theaters and contains cartoon violence.