Superhero Movie Guidebook: ‘Superman IV: The Quest for Peace’

Welcome to the Superhero Movie Guidebook! For an introduction to this series, click here. Check here for past entries and future updates most Thursdays.


Impression going in: I remember this being bad. And the villain having weird fingernails. That’s it.

Was my impression right? Yes on the fingernails. They’re creepy; I have a pic for you later. But I could not have been more wrong about the quality.  Superman IV is a masterpiece. As you may recall, I have a knack for finding long-buried symbolism in supposedly horrible superhero movies. And that’s the case once again with Superman IV.

But first, some brief intro into why The Quest for Peace is generally regarded as one of the worst films of all time. The movie was the only one of the Reeve Superman films not produced by the Salkinds, who sold the rights after losing a bushel of money on Supergirl. But new owners Cannon Films were somehow just as clueless, giving the money a tight budget that resulted in the worst special effects of the series, and a plot that appears completely nonsensical. For instance, the movie flip-flops about half a dozen times about whether Lois Lane knows Clark is Superman. Here we see her recreating her famous flight with Superman from the first film, while talking about knowing he’s Clark; she literally forgets as soon as they land, with the implication that Superman has selective psychic powers.

good thing the series had never done this before

Then there’s the plot itself. Superman decides to rid the Earth of all nuclear weapons, without actually caring if the world is cool with him doing so. Lex Luthor, eager to make money off the sale of those weapons, creates the superpowered Nuclear Man to kill Superman, making the world safe again for atom bombs. Also, I guess Superman is fluent in Russian, and I guess there is sound in outer space.

russian save

The first time you watch all this, it can be rather painful. But it helps to look at the film for its deeper levels, and it’s clear that there is something deeper going on in Superman IV, but I was unsure what it was at first. A take on the Cold War? Something to do with religion? A scathing critique on humanity’s soulless march toward so-called progress? Actually, none of the above.

Superman IV is an allegory for a child’s birthday party.

At this point, you might be thinking, this is going to be stupid; David just couldn’t come up with anything legitimately interesting to say about this shitty film. To which I have two replies: 1) Hey, fuck you. 2) You’re wrong! Just hear me out; this is all about to make a lot of sense.

The whole nuclear arms plot gets started by this little douchebag. I didn’t think to write down his name, but he looks like a Billy.

children are our annoying future

Anyway, Billy here gets called on in class to discuss how the students can help with the problem of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Which, jesus, aim a little lower on the curriculum, teacher. This represents the moment when the child is first asked what he wants to do for his birthday. Suddenly, he’s in the spotlight, which — because children are the worst — he naturally uses to make some batshit crazy request for his birthday party, like ice skating on the moon with the surviving Beatles. For Billy, his moon ice skating Beatles party is to write a letter to Superman asking him to get rid of all nuclear weapons.

Because Superman doesn’t have a mailing address apparently, the letter is sent to the Daily Planet because of their close relationship with the hero. But thanks to an excruciating subplot of the paper being bought by a businessman with an eye for sensationalism, the Planet withholds the letter from Superman and runs this headline instead:

yeah fuck you kid

This represents the moment when the dad calmly tries to explain to the child that his birthday party idea would cost billions of dollars, only to see the kid accuse him of not really loving him and saying he’ll just ask mom’s new boyfriend Jeff instead. Well this is the first that dad (/Superman) has heard about Jeff, but he’ll be damned if he lets that asshole top him.

So Superman makes a speech to the U.N. and without waiting for any kid of approval, sets about collecting all the nuclear weapons of the world in a suspiciously huge net, which he hurls into the sun. This is dad renting out the ice skating rink and decorating the walls with cardboard cutouts of moon rocks, then hiring a Paul McCartney impersonator and a much cheaper Ringo Starr impersonator.

big net

But of course, mom (Lex Luthor) isn’t going to just let dad be the hero, so she has Jeff (the Nuclear Man) start trying to trip up dad. This contest of wills is represented as a literal fight in the film, of course. And mom even one-ups dad by fulfilling little Billy’s wish for a young Horace Slughorn to make a brief appearance. (Billy has weird requests, but the point is that mom pulled it off.)


So Jeff shows up at the party, and dad’s first thought is that he’s better than this chump. Jeff leaves muddy footprints everywhere (or atomic footprints, that only sometimes appear) and has some gross physical characteristic (THOSE FINGERNAILS).

selective nuclear effectssuper fingernails

So Jeff starts doing things to try to mess up dad’s vision for the party, like “accidentally” breaking one of the moon rock cutouts to show how cheap and flimsy they are. This is represented by the Nuclear Man destroying part of the Great Wall of China.

take that china

Or “accidentally” knocking over the birthday cake (the Nuclear Man cutting off and throwing part of a mountain).

volcano patrol

Or even “accidentally” knocking the cheap wig off the Ringo impersonator (the Nuclear Man toppling the Statue of Liberty).


Like Superman, dad must hastily follow Jeff/Nuclear Man around to hastily set right the various havoc he wreaks. Worse, he must do so while also fending off the advances of the skanky skating rink employee (or newspaper owner’s daughter) and even saving her life when Jeff pushes her out on the ice without shoes (the Nuclear Man literally flies her into outer space without a suit, which does not harm her at all).

no everyone sits like thisshe's literally in outer space here

Admittedly, I have not been to a kids’ birthday party since I was a kid myself, nor have I ever been to an ice skating rink, but I assume there’s usually an imperiled seductress at both. Otherwise, this symbolism theory might have a hole, and we all know it does not.

Also, Jon Cryer is there as Lex’s nephew, presumably to symbolize the kid who everyone hates but Billy’s parents tell him he has to invite him to not be rude.

half man

Anyway, as improbable as it looked, Superman pulls it off, and mom/Jeff get their comeuppance. In the symbolized world, dad has maxed out every credit card he owns, including two new ones he had to get for just this occasion. In the movie, Superman moves the moon from its orbit to cause an eclipse, cutting the Nuclear Man off from his source of solar power; the film cuts out the killer tidal waves that this presumably caused. The point is: there are drastic but unseen consequences.

everyone died of tidal waves

Superman ends with a speech about how he can’t solve every problem, but he had to try. Importantly, we never see Billy during this speech. Does he accept Superman’s “there are flaws but I’m doing my best” explanation? Did Billy view the birthday party as a reasonable success?

goodbye chris

We will never know. Goodbye, Christopher Reeve. You were our best dad ever.

NEXT TIME: The Toxic Avenger Part II (1989)

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One Comment

  1. Well, he does kind of look like a Billy:

    Anyway, your analogy is fascinating. The nuclear warheads represent the candles, right? Also, I’m pretty sure that a newspaper using a made-up quote as a headline is totally suable and I’m surprised Superman didn’t use his Super-Litigation powers to do anything here, or at least loudly object as Clark Kent. I know “loudly objecting” isn’t really something Reeve’s version of Clark does, but he does kind of WRITE FOR THE NEWSPAPER (although admittedly, this is the kind of thing that’s out of his hands). Does C.K. appear in the film, by the way?

    Superman getting rid of all the nukes in the world with what you so-rightly call “a suspiciously huge net” reminds me of a humor column IGN used to have called “Use Your Delusion,” where it would pit Batman against seemingly-impossible-to-beat opponents and ask readers to send their solutions. There was one installment where IGN had Batman face the Sun and one of the submitted solutions was surprisingly similar to the safety net idea:

    Speaking of the Sun, can I just point out too that it is ALSO the source of Superman’s power? I mean, yeah, he doesn’t automatically lose his powers if it’s blocked the way Nuclear Man or Hannah Barbera’s Birdman do, but that does get a mention, right?

    This is the one Superman film starring Reeve that I haven’t seen, although I do own it and have it somewhere. I actually get a little bummed out sometimes when I read about it, because the premise of this film could have actually been taken in some really interesting directions. Superman deciding to rid the world of nukes, or even just pleading to the nations of the world to do so, is an unusually proactive and political move on his part, but not necessarily out of character. It raises all kinds of questions: should Superman use his powers on this kind of level? Is it the right thing to do? If there was/wasn’t a Superman, would the world “need” nukes? Even bringing back Luthor as someone who stands to profit from the selling of nuclear arms is a very interesting idea, as many people in the world DO make a lot of money from selling weapons of war, which brings up its own ethical questions.

    Sounds like the film didn’t feel like exploring any of these issues too thoroughly, though. Sure, most of them don’t have easy answers and may be a little too complex for even a good version of this particular movie to deal with, but I can’t help but feel that film’s central ideas had a lot potential. “Superman ridding the world of nukes” did resurface later in both television (Superman tried to do it both legally and diplomatically in the first episode of Justice League) and in the comics (there’s this big story in the ’90s where some super-powerful superbad poses as Superman and rids the world of nukes… and tries to take it over, as well), but I’m not sure either delved too deeply into it.

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