Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Richard Donner put me on the path I'm on today and I'll be forever grateful

Richard Donner's SUPERMAN was the first movie I can remember falling in love with. It wasn't my introduction to Superman - Super Friends, SUPERMAN FROM THE 30s TO THE 70s, and a few stray comics had taken care of that - but it was my first experience with a living, breathing Superman who looked like he could have stepped right off the pages of the comics.

As a kid, I remember first knowing the film only in segments, as my bedtime meant I never saw the regular ABC broadcasts to completion. At first, the movie ended for me after Superman saved the helicopter. The next time, I saw all the way to just after Superman and Lois's flight together. The first time I saw the complete movie was around the time of my sixth birthday.

This seems impossible to fathom now, but my family didn't yet own a VCR. We had to rent one along with two movies that were selected to show at my party. My parents knew I wanted to see SUPERMAN but they also knew that another movie was likely to go over bigger with my friends. They agreed to let me put it to a vote - my film versus the other one.

STAR WARS won. And so it was with some slight bitterness that I experienced my first viewing of another film that would eventually become an obsession of my childhood.

Of course I finally saw SUPERMAN in full, and soon after that my family got their own VCR and I rented all of the SUPERMAN films obsessively. For some people of my generation, STAR WARS is the movie that made them want to be storytellers. For me, it was always SUPERMAN. 

I began to learn what visual and special effects were by studying that film and the making of it. Donner's dedication to "verisimilitude" opened my eyes to WHY certain stories work. Around the same time I discovered reruns of the old BATMAN series, which could not have taken a more different approach to how it adapted a beloved comic book character. Where that show played up how absurd Batman and his villains were within their world, Donner's movie was reverent. It somehow gave us a Superman who was true to his comic depiction and set him in an approximation of the real world.

Richard Donner showed us that you could make a good, optimistic Superman without compromising the character or the world he was set in. The post-Watergate era was a cynical one, and Donner ran right at that. He showed us that while the world was becoming more jaded, Superman's continued purity in the face of that made him an even more aspirational hero than ever.

That's one of those great things you learn about writing Superman. You don't "update" him so much as you change the world around him and much of your conflict comes out of his reaction to that. For instance, KINGDOM COME is a wonderful story about how the world seems to pass Superman's values behind and then when he returns, it's more apparent than ever that his brand of heroism is necessary.

Donner's Superman is the North Star for many Superman writers across multiple generations. Obviously, a lot of that comes from Christopher Reeve's iconic performance, which I paid tribute to long ago here. And much of the power of that film's script comes from Donner's brilliant collaborator, Tom Mankiewicz, honored here. But it was Dick Donner who was the conductor of it all, the steward of that vision. The theatrical cut of SUPERMAN II (a patchwork of production by Donner and his replacement Richard Lester) and especially SUPERMAN III make it clear how much was lost when Donner's voice was out of the conversation.

Without Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN, there would be no modern superhero films as we know them. Every successful superhero franchise since has built on his work. It was the CITIZEN KANE of comic book adaptations. He was as much a legend as the character he curated.

Earlier this year I showed my five year old son Donner’s SUPERMAN. I was worried that after SPIDER-VERSE and LEGO BATMAN he’d find it slow and boring. He was enthralled the entire time, barely even asking questions (usually the more questions, the less interested he is.) 43 years after release, it hasn't lost its magic.

Something I had suspected but didn't realize until yesterday was that Donner's SUPERMAN is the most commercially successful film adaptation of the character. Per this THR article, in 2016 dollars, the film made $1.09 billion. That makes it not only the most successful film to feature Superman, but more successful than any DCEU film except for AQUAMAN. That's rarified air up there with the last two Nolan Batman films.

Richard Donner’s Superman obviously was massively influential on SUPERMAN & LOIS and an inspiration to those who make it. Our Superman is drawn from a lot of eras, but I think it's fair to say that our Superman compass very often points to Donner's vision.

Dick Donner made me a Superman fan, a filmmaker and a storyteller. He's as much responsible for where I am today as anyone. And that's why it was especially sad to get the news the same week I'm about to walk into the SUPERMAN & LOIS room as a full Staff Writer.

Yes, I'm burying the lede. I almost made that announcement its own post, but it seemed fitting to say that here. You can draw a straight line from Richard Donner's work to where I am today, the path I've been on most of my life, and it is so bittersweet to have this personal achievement in tandem with his passing.

91 years is a long time to be on this planet, but that doesn't make it any less sad to lose him. I'm sorry I never got the chance to meet him and my condolences to everyone who was blessed enough to know him and love him in life.