If Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev can't solve the nuclear arms problem, can Superman?
Can the world survive the wheelings and dealings of international arms merchants like Adnan Khashoggi and Lex Luthor? If "Rocky IV" could score megabucks off super-power confrontation, can "Superman IV" succeed in promoting harmony?
To lure Christopher Reeve back into his Superman suit after the apparent end of the Man of Steel saga in "Superman III," Cannon, the new owners of the film rights to the character, bought Reeve's pro-disarmament story idea. Far from carrying the American flag, this time Superman serves the world, both East and West.
In Reeve's scenario, completed by writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, a seventh-grader sends a letter to Superman asking him to stop the arms race. After hesitating, Superman agrees to act, but his involvement has unforeseen consequences. In the end, after suitable aerobatics, it turns out that only the people of the world can achieve the goal.
"I'm personally fairly left," Reeve says. "I believe a nuclear arms treaty is possible. I'm alarmed at our President's behavior at Reykjavik. When Cannon approached me about playing Superman again, I thought it would be a good idea to get the character involved in trying to solve real problems."
But, Reeve says, the message of "Superman IV" (directed by Sidney J. Furie) won't be preached too strongly. "The movie is first and foremost, an entertainment. I'm most interested in the heartbeat of Superman, not how many heads he can knock together. I'd keep coming up with ideas about Superman's emotional life and everybody else would say, 'Yeah, and then there's this fight on the moon!' I think the two approaches can coexist."
Reeve, garbed today as Clark Kent, talks on one end of a sound stage at Cannon's newly acquired London studio, Elstree. At the other end of the stage, where a second film unit is shooting, his double hangs from a wire in front of a wide blue screen while a camera tracks around him. Outside, the carpenters are building the Great Wall of China where the Red Square stood just last week.
Today's Clark Kent scene is a farcical double date involving Clark and Superman and their (his) two girlfriends. Old flame Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) returns as Superman's confidante. Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway), daughter of the Daily Planet's new Rupert Murdoch-like owner, has a crush on Clark.
Both Reeve's characters have matured, he says.
"At last, Superman feels he's here for good, not just visiting. It's time for him to feel he belongs and take some responsibility." As for Clark Kent, "I play him a little less nerdy. There's less stuttering and pushing up the glasses and crashing into things. I hope he'll still be very endearing.
"The humor, warmth and romance of the Superman movies have made them different," Reeve says. "Without parodying the characters, as 'Superman III' did, this one will be the funniest. I didn't subscribe to the style of 'Superman III.' "
Much less successful than its predecessors, "Superman III" showed its hero tarnished and unshaven and gave him a supporting cast that proved less attractive than Kidder and Gene Hackman as Luthor. Both return in full-length roles in "IV."
Kidder, explaining her presence as Lois Lane, never dreamed she'd do a "Superman IV."
"The question was, 'Do you want to work in something you believe in, or do you want to quibble over what's supposedly your star price?' This is really a brave script, if we can pull it off," she said. "It's a vision of the world through a child's eyes, and it's a vision that makes more sense than our leaders."
To revive the Superman series, Cannon paid $5 million to Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who produced the first three Superman movies.
The Salkinds' "Supergirl" and "Santa Claus" failed at the box office and they were apparently unable or unwilling to invest in further flying films. Reeve wasn't obligated to play Superman anymore and in fact had said he wouldn't. But when Cannon invited him to pitch his disarmament idea, he changed his mind.
Unlike others in the original "Superman" cast, Reeve had minimal public differences with what he now calls "the previous management."
He minimizes any differences he may have with Cannon, except to say, "They're like the guy who flies tourist and wants first-class service. I admire their recklessness in buying into 'Superman,' though they do like to nickel-and-dime you on paper clips. But for the most part, we're getting what we want."
Besides Reeve's substantial "Superman IV" fee, an added inducement for him to sign with Cannon was the studio's backing another Reeve vehicle, "Street Smart." In that movie, which will be released before "Superman IV" opens next summer, Reeve plays a somewhat less ethical reporter than Clark Kent.
Of "Street Smart," he says, "I was attracted to playing someone who wasn't dressed up nice, morally speaking. It's another chance to do something different. If I've made any mistakes in my career, it's been in taking too many of those chances. I may have strayed further than I'm able, but I prefer not to stay where I am."
Reeve aspires to direct. He typically cuts himself down to size by quoting the cartoon in which a performing dog says to his agent, "But what I really want is to direct."
"Superman IV" is the third film in which Reeve will receive a credit for second-unit direction, and he has directed in the theater.
"The 'Superman' movies were my film school," says Reeve, who studied Fine Arts at Cornell and acting at Juilliard. "And I didn't even have to write any papers on 'Citizen Kane.' I'm like the kid learning to fly (Reeve is a licensed pilot): You know it's time to solo when you feel that if the instructor stays with you one more minute, you'll kill him: Let me at it."
In the meantime, though, Reeve would even make a fifth "Superman." He says, "Superman is permanently 30. That's the way everyone sees him. I don't want to be playing the part when they have to tape my wrinkles up over my scalp." As it is, he already uses a wig to enhance the character's youthful hairline.
He says, "A fifth 'Superman' is not at all impossible, though it would probably be re-cast because I'd be too old. Look, there have been four James Bonds--nobody is indispensable. I'm 34 now. I'll be 36 or 37 if and when they make 'Superman V.'
"Here's what'll happen," Reeve jokes: "They'll get this 18-year-old. I'll teach him to fly in the first reel. I'll take good cameo money and then I'll split."