It has been widely documented by critics over the past quarter-century that Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is an extraordinarily butt film. The project began as a well-meaning parable on nuclear disarmament spearheaded by Christopher Reeve, who quickly realized that you never hire the studio behind Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo to make a Superman movie.
The production problems plaguing Superman IV were legion. The film was hobbled by a heavily slashed budget, a ton of unused and hastily edited footage (including scrapped scenes of a New Wave Bizarro Superman), and a cast who knew that the final product would be unwatchable. The notorious Cannon Group — whose chief cultural export in the 1980s was the star-spangled shinobi gaze of Michael Dudikoff, American Ninja —produced the film and promptly ran out of money a few years later. (Without this febrile period of pennilessness, we would not have the unheralded Richard Roundtree vehicle Crack House.)
But my goal here isn't to catalog — or even on rib on — the myriad narrative failings of Superman IV. No, I'll instead highlight a single moment that is so bafflingly bad it is poetic. If you looked up "resignation" in a Kryptonian language dictionary, you'd find a screen capture of this moment tucked above the entries for "Robot Lois Lane" and "Robot Superman." This sequence is ultimate distillation of not giving a fuck. I am, of course, referring to the scene in which Mariel Hemingway breathes in space.
For those of you who lack the patience to sit through either The Quest For Peace or the 101-second snippet above, here's what happens. Superman's insane mullet-sporting clone Nuclear Man kidnaps Lacy Warfield, the daughter of a tabloid magnate who has taken over The Daily Planet. He whisks her off into the unforgiving vacuum of space for reasons that only make sense to a mildly brain-damaged Superman doppelgänger. The real Man of Steel pushes the Moon out of orbit, and the ensuing solar eclipse drains his atomic antagonist. Lucy returns to Earth unscathed.
Now, the Christopher Reeve Superman films are not known for their realism. They make every Super Friends episode look like Werner Herzog nature documentaries in comparison. In the course of four movies, Superman travels back in time by reversing the Earth's rotation, erases Lois Lane's memory with a magic kiss, transforms his chest emblem into a cellophane force field, and gets so damn drunk he fights the physical manifestation of his bad mood in a junkyard. Hell, in the above scene he derails the Moon's entire orbit with no ill effects.
As an audience, we have become accustomed to Superman having a great big belly laugh at the laws of reality. But mysteriously, Mariel Hemingway's space respiration is simply too unrealistic. Maybe it's because the movie establishes in its opening minutes that humans can't breathe in space (Superman saves some singing cosmonauts). Also, The Right Stuff came out in 1983 (and denser viewers probably pieced together the history of the space program when the New Kids on the Block blew up in 1988).
And given the Superman films' predilection for absurdity, a hand-waved explanation could've been shoehorned in — the Nuclear Man has his own personal atmosphere, Mariel Hemingway wears a fishbowl on her head, space has "oxygen pockets" — and audiences would accepted that shit prima facie. And the solar eclipse could've easily sapped the Nuclear Man's power on Earth. They could've superimposed the actors onto a Superman Peanut Butter commercial and audiences would've stroked their chins, nodding sagely, brows furrowed in collective understanding.
But no. There is no explanation here, in this world where explanations don't make any sense. The decision not to explain a nonsensical scene that could've been explained with nonsense (SUPERMAN: I THOUGHT YOU SOME AIR) somehow shatters our disbelief. It is staggering. Nothing refuses to come from nothing. When I die, the Nuclear Man's radioactive perm billowing in the space wind will be the last thing I see before the inky dark surrounds me forever.