I woke this morning to the news that director Richard Donner had passed.
He was 91, which is a pretty good run by anyone’s standards, and he hadn’t directed a film in 15 years, his last being 2006’s 16 Blocks with Bruce Willis. I wasn’t a fan of that one so much, and there were a few others in his filmography that I didn’t care for, but I admired Donner. He was a classical filmmaker with a light, deft touch, and he had that knack – largely gone now in the current cultural landscape – of being able to turn his hand to any genre. Action? The Lethal Weapon series. Horror? The Omen, and I wish he’d revisited the genre again. Comedy? Scrooged and The Toy. Kids’ flicks? The Goonies. Western? Maverick. Fantasy? Ladyhawke.
And that’s the one he’ll be remembered for.
The 1978 Superman is a great film. There’s a lot to love here, from Christopher Reeve’s perfect turn as Clark Kent/Kal-El, John Williams’ sublime score, the timeless quality of the film (is it 1938? the ’50s? 1978? All of the above?). Modern cape fans may balk at the occasionally jokey tone, especially when it comes to Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor (abetted by a great Ned Beatty, another recent RIP), but modern cape fans owe their entire screen culture lives to Superman, and to Richard Donner.
Above all else, Donner brought one crucial element to the filming of Superman: he took this shit seriously. Eschewing earlier, more tongue-in-cheek script drafts, Donner decided to treat the character and the story with gravitas. Not the overly sombre, somewhat leaden approach typified by Zack Snyder’s take on DC (but rest assured, the superhero genre more than any other is open to plurality of visions – and Visions), but an understanding that there’s an emotional truth that can be explored in these stories, and a genuine grandeur that, approached carefully, could be translated from the page to the screen with excellent, sometimes genuinely stunning results.
It’s harder than it sounds and though we may carp at the long term cultural effects, Donner was one of only a handful of filmmakers at the time who understood that approaching material widely perceived as juvenile with care and respect could resonate widely, transcending age demographics and cultural barriers. The two other most obvious members of that gang are Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Those two guys are widely credited with ushering in the modern blockbuster age where wide releases led to dizzying box office takes of $100 million or more (how quaint by today’s B-word standards). Donner’s influence was slower to take hold, but from our current persective seems to have had the biggest impact.
By simple dint of taking four colour funnies seriously, Donner ushered in the cinematic superhero genre, which as we all know has been the dominant screen genre for the last decade. To be clear, there had been superhero adaptations before, but they were strictly kids fare or knowingly self-parodic – the much-loved 1966 Batman TV series is the big one here. But Donner’s work on Superman changed things up.
It took some time – eleven years, really. But then you get Tim Burton’s Batman. Almost a decade later, you get Blade. Then X-Men. Then Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Then – perhaps a misfire – Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s love letter to Donner’s Superman. Then Iron Man, the MCU, Man of Steel, the DCEU, and here we are. It all starts with Richard Donner making us believe a man can fly in 1978.
That is quite a legacy.
This isn’t grounbreaking news here – I’m just connecting obvious dots. But it is worth noting. So long, Mr Donner, and thanks for all the heroes.