Two cosmonauts are in their space capsule while another attends to maintenance outside the craft, singing as he does so, but suddenly a dead satellite draws near and knocks them all out of orbit. Luckily, Superman (Christopher Reeve) is here and stops the capsule spinning out of control then saves the stranded cosmonaut. After bidding them goodbye, he returns to Earth and the farm he grew up in near the American town of Smallville; he is planning to sell it, having no use for it anymore, but wants it to go to a genuine farmer. Yet his troubles are just beginning as he starts to wonder how he can save humanity from itself...
This, the last in the Christopher Reeve cycle of Superman movies, was a resounding flop and put paid to any hope of the series continuing, at least until a couple of decades later where new hands took over. And no wonder, as the script attempted to tackle an issue that was troubling the world, the problem of the Cold War and the proliferation of nuclear arms that came with it, all at star Reeve's insistence as it was having input into the storyline which had persuaded him to join the project in the first place, something he would regret when subsequently hit with a plagiarism charge.
It didn't help that the company making this fourth instalment was Cannon, and with their incredible shrinking budgets the effects couldn't hope to keep up with the plotline, making this little better in quality than their Masters of the Universe film that was released the same year. In fact, everything about this was embarrassing, from the restagings of greatest hits from the previous movies to the preachy tone that dumbed down material that could not be solved by a superhero in real life, never mind in fiction. In its attempt to speak to family audiences to change the world, it found that few were listening.
Returning were a few of the series' mainstays, so not only was Reeve there, but Margot Kidder was back as Lois with a bit more to do than last time, and Gene Hackman surprisingly elected to be Lex Luthor once more, here accompanied by comedy sidekick nephew Jon Cryer. He springs Lex from hard labour to steal a hair of Superman from a museum, and with it, by some unexplained and possibly made up science, creates a new supervillain from it, unimaginatively named Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) to redundantly emphasise the theme. Meanwhile Supes has been thinking over a proposal from a little boy: why doesn't The Man of Steel get rid of the world's atomic missiles?
So he does, in another example of where the cost-cutting really hurt the film, the special effects. Superman flings the missiles into the Sun, unwittingly carrying a Luthor-designed genetic experiment with it, and Nuclear Man is the underwhelming result. As if that were not enough, the Clark Kent alter ego is having a dilemma of his own in that the new owner of the Daily Planet (Sam Wanamaker) is transforming it into a crass Rupert Murdoch-style tabloid, and his daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) has fallen for him, making Kent the centre of an unlikely love triangle with Lois. This all goes precisely nowhere, perhaps the result of much snipping of footage before the film was put out, but really it's the naive moralising that turns this Superman into a bore, and leaves you feeling as if you've seen an old friend in seriously reduced circumstances. Not much fun even on a bad movie level. Even the music is reused John Williams.