Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Richard Donner, 1930-2021

I’ve been reading a lot about Richard Donner today. Even though he was 91, the news of his death this afternoon was still a blow. Superman the Movie is an utterly seminal film for me. For me it’s more than just the definitive live-action portrayal of the Superman we all loved from the comics. It’s the movie that made me fall in love with movies. Most of my generation is all about Star Wars, but for me, it was Superman all the way. I loved it when I first saw it in the theater at age six, and I still love it when I watch it today at the tail end of 48. Is it perfect? No. But it’s magic. There’s been a ton of superhero films since 1978’s Superman the Movie, but it’s still the only one that’s become an American classic.

I never had the pleasure of meeting or talking to Donner myself, but a thing that strikes me in all the reminiscences I’ve read is just how beloved he was by everyone he worked with. Richard Donner was a sincerely nice and decent man, and a master of his craft. Someone on Twitter posted a scene from Superman the Movie that’s all one long uninterrupted take moving through the Daily Planet set. It lasts for a full two minutes and six seconds. You never hear it mentioned the way the long shots from Touch of Evil or The Player are. Hell, I’ve seen Superman literally dozens of times, and in all those times I’d never noticed that that scene was one shot. I was always just absorbed in the story, which is what it’s all about. You’ve got to admire anyone who excels in their chosen field like that but doesn’t make a big fuss about it.

When the producers of Superman the Movie tried to do things the cheap and easy way, Donner stood up to them and told them that wasn’t going to fly. He fought for quality in the script, the casting, and the special effects, bringing them all up to par of what was expected for a big budget film of the modern era. And he was rewarded for his efforts by those same producers firing him from the partially completed Superman II as soon as the first film proved to be a hit. Thankfully, Donner got some redemption there, as some zealous fans and professional film editors assembled what existed of Donner’s version into 2006’s Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

So much of how modern superhero movies are done can be laid at Donner’s feet. Casting big name celebrities as comic book characters? That’s Donner in Superman the Movie. Taking the characters seriously instead of just making cheap and cheesy entertainment for the kids? That’s Donner. Figuring out how to do the effects right and do the characters justice on the big screen? Donner. His influence even carried over to the next iteration of superhero movies, as he and his wife Lauren Shuler Donner served as executive producers on 2000’s X-Men.

And he paid it forward. Among the people that Donner mentored were Kevin Feige and Geoff Johns, both of whom started out as assistants in Donner’s production company. Today, Kevin Feige runs Marvel Studios, while Geoff Johns runs his own production company after several years as the President and Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment. Here are Feige and Johns talking about Donner’s influence on them and the movies they made:

And Donner was sincere in his fandom for Superman. When he got the first disappointing script to Superman in the mail, Donner put on the Superman costume that came with it and ran around his front yard pretending he was the Man of Steel. Donner’s enthusiasm is what inspired screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to sign on to the project and revise the Superman script into something shootable. My friend Dan Riba told me on Facebook today that when Warner Bros. Animation was doing Superman: The Animated Series in the 90s, Donner had the episodes shipped to his office as soon as they were completed, so he got them at the same time as the network did. Donner wasn’t connected to the show in any way. He just loved Superman that much. And when Dan was introduced to him, Dick Donner knew Dan’s name. Donner co-wrote some Superman comics with his former protégé Geoff Johns in the early 2000s. He even guest starred on my friends Rob Kelly and Chris Franklin’s podcast The Superman Movie Minute and told them to call him Dick. (“My friends call me Dick.”)

He did good even when nobody noticed. He stood up to the bad guys. He fought the good fight. He paid it forward. He treated everyone he met with respect. And he inspired the people around him to do better.

Sound like anyone we know?
We all know what a hero Christopher Reeve turned out to be in real life. I’ve long thought that that’s why Reeve’s portrayal of Superman was so effective – Reeve had that heroism within him from the very start, even if he didn’t know it himself. And now I see that Dick Donner also had that heroism within him. And THAT’S why Superman the Movie works as well as it does. Because it was made by people who believed in heroes. People like Christopher Reeve and Dick Donner.

“They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.”

Rest in Peace, Richard Donner. Thanks for showing us the way. And thanks for giving us a reason to look up in the sky.

5 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    The Donner Superman film was a revelation. It was funny, but never at the expense of the hero. Superman stood there quietly, smiled and inspired. That was MY Superman. Lois is hanging from a helicopter and he swoops up to grab her, as she falls, telling her it’s alright, he’s got her. That’s Superman. Taking time to get a little girl’s cat out of a tree, telling a burglar that he’s not supposed to be doing that, while standing on the side of a building….MY Superman.

    Donner was just such a great director, across the board. he helmed some of the best tv of the 60s, and some of the most memorable movies of the 70s and 80s, whether scaring the bejezus out of them with the Omen, or making them fall in love with Michelle Pfeiffer, in Ladyhawke. He even got to team with his old buddy, James Garner, while doing the movie adaptation of Maverick, with Mel Gibson. Gibson took over as the con artist, but Donner made sure the screen was not only filled with later generation stars and actors, he added the actors of the 60s tv westerns and films, with the likes of Doug McClure, Dub Taylor, James Coburn, Denver Pule, Henry Darrow and more.

  2. Le Messor

    It’s so sad to lose Donner.

    Jeff above could also have added Lethal Weapon.

    “Taking time to get a little girl’s cat out of a tree” Yeah. That. Such a simple, kind act; but nothing like it is shown these days.

    He does get accused of it in one of the more recent movies (I don’t care which), but he does nothing close to that heroic.

    I miss the days when we had heroes on screen.

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