Father Of Modern Superhero Movies, Richard Donner, Dies Aged 91
The marketing tagline for the 1978 Superman film was, infamously, “you’ll believe a man can fly.” Effectively, this was a subtle hint to moviegoers that the film was going for realism in its portrayal of America’s most beloved superhero. (At the time.) Well, Richard Donner was the man who made it possible, making him the father of modern superhero movies. Donner’s career is storied for many reasons. He directed episodes of classic television series like The Twilight Zone, The Rifleman, and Perry Mason. He personally sent millions of lapsed Catholics back to church with The Omen just before taking on the Man of Steel. Even if he’d never taken on Supes, The Goonies is a beloved masterpiece for ‘kids’ of a certain age. Yet, I personally, will always love him for the gift that is Superman, and how it set the tone for the future of comic book movies.
This is a strange thing to write the same day another Hollywood celebrity again trashed superhero movie fare, but what Donner created in Superman was clearly cinema despite what any other iconic directors say. In fact, even those who dislike cape-and-tights whimsy agree that Superman stands alone when it comes to talking about the superhero genre such as it is. Like Star Wars: A New Hope, Superman came at a time in cinema where the antihero was king. Donner had nothing short of Guts of Steel when he agreed to adapt the biggest Boy Scout in fiction during the era of Taxi Driver and Death Wish. His legacy is secure, and his list of triumphs is a long one. But for me? Superman will forever be his masterpiece.
Donner Changed the Game When He Took Superman Seriously
Image via Warner Bros.
Even better, Donner delivered a film that really did make kids of a certain age believe that man could fly. Sure, with kids the buy-in factor is really low. Yet, because the non-flying stuff looked just like every other “realistic” movie, it captivated them. It’s a children’s movie that doesn’t talk down to kids, even with Gene Hackman’s scenery-chewing and Earth rotational physics shenanigans aside. Where Donner eschewed realism, he never avoided being earnest. It makes sense considering that Donner made his bones in television. The Adventures of Superman TV show where George Reeves donned the cape, which the director likely watched as a kid, also played their stories straight unlike the 1960s Batman show. (To be clear, both interpretations are fine and good.)
Still, there is something about watching Donner’s Superman and all the best parts of Superman II (i.e. the parts he directed), that defines what “movie magic” truly means. If you doubt me, just ask Patty Jenkins about Superman. She was inspired by Donner’s take on Superman for Wonder Woman 1984. Like or dislike that film, I think the influence is obvious in the look and tone of the movie. Later in his career, Donner’s company produced a number of X-Men films. Donner also wrote some stories for Action Comics, bringing his association with Superman full circle. So, while his career contains many impressive credits, Richard Donner will always be the father of modern superhero movies to me, even if he was unhappy with the direction the genre had gone.
Richard Donner was 91.
What do you think? What are your favorite Richard Donner movies with or without a superhero in it?
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.