Modern superhero films have shown a penchant for horror directors, with luminaries like James Wan, James Gunn, and Zack Snyder transitioning from scares to spandex. However, in the 1980s, the notion of enlisting Wes Craven for the Superman franchise might have seemed like a bold gamble. Yet, it’s a risk that could potentially have saved “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.”
Craven, now a cinematic legend, had already dipped his toes into the DC Universe with the campy 1982 film “Swamp Thing.” While there was a notable contrast between the horror-adjacent world of Swamp Thing and the vibrant heroics of Superman, it’s precisely this difference that could have breathed new life into the oft-overlooked “Superman IV.”
“Cannon Films approached me for Superman IV, and that had a $30 million budget,” Craven revealed in an interview with Fangoria Magazine in 1986. “Chris Reeve and I had creative differences. He and I didn’t see eye-to-eye, and he decided I wasn’t the director for it. But there’s a strong chance that I’ll go on and do that kind of picture.”
In hindsight, it might be tempting to say that Craven dodged a bullet. “Superman IV” faced significant setbacks due to financial woes at Cannon Films, resulting in severe budget cuts and the removal of 45 minutes of footage after test audiences panned the movie.
As Craven’s remarks imply, Reeve wielded substantial creative control over the storyline this time. He had even been considered for the director’s chair, but Cannon ultimately deemed one of the finest actors to portray Superman too inexperienced behind the camera. It’s arguably one of the few sound decisions they made.
With lackluster effects and a narrative that failed to deliver the expected adventure, burdened by Reeve’s admirable attempt to address the nuclear arms race, “Superman IV” floundered. However, with Craven’s innovative touch, it might have been elevated to one of the hero’s standout films.
Craven’s forte was reinvention, a skill vividly demonstrated by his major franchises, “Scream” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” These series were adept at evolving through new installments to resonate with contemporary audiences – precisely what Superman needed in 1987. While a campy tone, as seen in Swamp Thing, wasn’t amiss, this iteration of Superman could have benefited from a touch of Craven’s edginess.
The director was a master of tone, which would have kept his Superman from veering too far into darkness. He might have sidestepped the pitfall Zack Snyder encountered with “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” where Superman’s moral core was overshadowed by Christ metaphors and a desaturated visual palette.
Regrettably, Craven passed away in 2015 at the age of 76, leaving us to wonder about his unique take on Superman. He had also expressed interest in Batman, describing the Caped Crusader as his favorite comic book character and expressing a desire to make a “period piece” centered around him. That’s a movie we would have eagerly anticipated.
For modern audiences following the DC movie lineup, we can look forward to “Superman Legacy” as part of James Gunn’s vision for the Gods and Monsters era, following the release of “Aquaman 2” later this year.