Sunday, June 13, 2021


In the 1987 film “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” Clark Kent rushes from the Metropolis Hyatt hotel in an attempt to appear simultaneously as himself and Superman to Lois Lane and Lacy Warfield. Clark dives into a car, getting out the other side as Superman, before stepping on a granite planter to fly away.

Thirty-four years later, I sat on that very step, to eat a yoghurt I bought from the Sainsbury’s down the road. This was something I only realised later.


Last week, I was in the town of Milton Keynes to visit an exhibition of postmodern furniture from the 1980s Memphis collective. Anyone who knows me heard my anticipation of this visit for months. However, I also knew the modern grid of Central Milton Keynes – shortened to “CMK” on all the street signs I passed – had once been used to substitute for Metropolis, a city that, like Batman’s Gotham City, is an analogue for New York, a city distinctly more vertical than a town unofficially intended to be no taller than its tallest tree.


This substitution is nothing new in filmmaking, even for the Superman franchise: 1983’s “Superman III” uses the Canadian city of Calgary for its outdoor scenes, the first two films used New York itself, and all four films recreated New York street scenes on UK sound stages at Pinewood Studios and Elstree Studios, combined with second-unit photography of the real thing. What distinguishes “Superman IV” from the others is its shooting of interior scenes in CMK as well, for both aesthetic and budgetary reasons.

centre:mk shopping centre and walkway, hidden by trees

Formally incorporated in 1967 as a new town, Milton Keynes deliberately avoided being built like a regular town centre. Squares created by the grid of roads became neighbourhoods, supported by a central business and shopping district. Pedestrians are separated from traffic, surrounded by trees and plants – I had not expected to see so many dragonflies. I stayed in a hotel based in a mirrored glass office building, across from centre:mk, originally known as the courageously dull "the shopping building," a half-mile long shopping mall in a light and airy modernist design, now protected as a listed building. I had expected CMK to feel rigid and ordered, but I now want to live there. A town centre never felt so pleasant to me. Absolutely none of this sounds like Metropolis.


As explained in Oliver Harper’s 2017 documentary “Superman IV: The Man of Steel and Glass,” John Graysmark, as production designer, chose CMK as “essential for the budget… Basically, it’s the most contemporary architectural exercise within an hour’s journey from Elstree. That was the brief - otherwise we’d have gone to Toronto.” Graysmark was also dealing with a budget of only $17 million, less than half of the cost of the previous three films, a result of the franchise’s move to Cannon Films, a company in financial trouble that usually sold their films’ distribution rights in advance to pay for their production. This perhaps is why CMK is erroneously thought as being all the production could afford, rather than consciously selecting the best possible location. Putting a fire hydrant outside Milton Keynes train station to make it look like the outside of the United Nations building looks more than a little self-conscious, but as a wide public square, surrounded by glass buildings, it was more effective than what London could offer at the time. (The only location shooting completed in London was for the United Nations building itself, substituted by Wembley Conference Centre, demolished in 2006.)

Milton Keynes train station

One neighbourhood square along Avebury Boulevard contains Avebury House, now used as the headquarters for the retail store chain Argos, but had only just been completed when “Superman IV” was in pre-production in 1986. Next to it is a Holiday Inn hotel, and a health club and Winter Gardens, sheltering tropical trees and plants, is on the other side. Avebury House served as the foyer to the Metropolis Hyatt hotel, while one floor of the building became the offices of the “Daily Planet”. The entrance of the Winter Gardens became the newspaper’s foyer, while the gardens themselves became the Metropolis Museum of Modern Art, where Lex Luthor steals a strand of Superman’s hair from a display to create his “Nuclear Man”. The health club is also used as a gym in one scene. The Holiday Inn was not used on screen, as it hosted the cast and crew.


“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” is a film that suffers when you look at it too closely. Its plot was rendered incomprehensible when test screenings led to forty-five minutes being cut from its runtime, with no reshoots. As mentioned, the horizontal nature of Milton Keynes clashes with the second-unit footage of New York, but only if you are watching the background rather than the action. The film is derided by many, including myself, as one of the worst ever made, but this comes from poor special effects, a choppy plot, and the result suffering in comparison to previous films in the series. Arguably, the film is unfinished. There is no problem with the production design – Metropolis hadn’t looked so modern before.


I remain surprised that no other town centre in the UK has been built, or rebuilt, like Milton Keynes. Nowhere so modern should be made to feel like a museum piece, but nowhere this modern will remain so for years to come.

Walkway under a road, garnished with rental cycle and electric scooter

No comments:

Post a Comment