Where are the heroes of yesteryear? Superman? Batman? Plasticman? Aquaman? Or the villains--like the Joker, the Prankster or Mr. MXYZTPLK?

For anyone who loved “Superman” comics as a kid, who grew up with the Daily Planet, Smallville High, phone booth conversions and secret identities--even for anyone who liked the occasional jolts of pop mythic grandeur in the movies “Superman I and II”--the latest in the film series, “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (which opened citywide Friday) should be a ragingly dull thud: like being sapped with Kryptonite.

Sequels to big-budget popular hits usually end up super-slick, shallow and inflated. But this one isn’t even super-slick; it’s shallow and deflated. The effects have a comparatively cheap shop veneer; some of the outer-space battles look as if they were staged before dioramas in a planetarium--and the cinematography doesn’t have that gloriously superficial Hollywood sheen. This is a special effects extravaganza with skimped-looking extravange.


Sadly, there’s a simple, idealistic core here that’s gotten submerged in mountains of big-movie rubble. In “Superman IV,” the Man of Steel (Christopher Reeve) and arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) become locked in the World Arms struggle. Superman is determined to end it by scooping up all the ICBMs in sight and heaving them into the sun; Luthor, in league with a band of greed-crazed arms titans--one American, one Russian, one French--is determined to destroy Superman and “make the world safe for war profits.” In the equally promising sub-plot, a crass publishing tycoon (Sam Wanamaker) and his sexy daughter (Mariel Hemingway) take over the Daily Planet and try to turn it into a clone of the New York Post--against the increasingly vehement opposition of editor Perry White and his staff.

It’s the kind of story you’d like to see succeed. After all the “Rambos” and “Top Guns,” couldn’t we have a good, big, slick anti-war fantasy? Yet the movie, missing most of the magic of its best predecessors, dulls and dampens its own preachments as well.

John Williams’ music is still there--adapted and conducted by Alexander Courage--and so are many of the old cast members: Reeve, Hackman, Margot Kidder (as Lois Lane), Jackie Cooper (as Perry White) and Marc McClure (as Jimmy Olsen.) And, especially in the cases of Reeve, Hackman and Kidder, these actors still have a firm, playful grip on their roles. Reeve and Kidder are a perfectly cast Clark and Lois, and the miscast Hackman has made Luthor--who resembled Telly Savalas in the comics--his own; has turned him into a wily, preening, self-infatuated gagster. But, in every case, the spell has diminished. Director Sidney J. Furie is an odd choice for this movie: He’s usually better with crawlier, on-the-edge material. He can’t seem to get any sympatico with this pop mythos; the only sparkle comes in some of the badinage between Superman and Luthor.

The ideas in “Superman IV” (MPAA rated: PG) are mostly the same dim, obvious formulas that infest sequels like bacteria. There’s a Superman vs. Nuclear Man battle ranging all over the galaxy--from the Great Wall to the Statue of Liberty to the Moon--which seems like a travelogue with muggings. There are pop-topical borrowings. Superman as Nobel Prize candidate: He addresses an adoring U.N. General Assembly. Superman meets John Hughes: Luthor has a Valley Boy nephew-sidekick (Jon Cryer), incessantly spouting “Dude” through his nose. Superman meets Blake Edwards: He accepts joint invitations, as himself and Clark Kent, to a menage-a-quatre. (Why?)

The script of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal contains neither bite nor gleam, and the movie has no propulsion. By the end, the editing takes on a meat-ax fervor, as Hemingway’s Lacey Warfield disappears mysteriously and the loose ends are given a violently perfunctory last-second wrap-up. The overall effect is of a story atomized and dying before our eyes, collapsing into smashed pulp, ground down into big-budget Kryptonite ash.