On December 15, 1978, the world would come to believe a man could fly. This was a big part of the marketing campaign for Superman: The Movie directed by Richard Donner. But not many people believed just how true the marketing campaign would turn out to be. However, Donner had very little doubt in the team he put together to create the world Superman and Clark Kent would inhabit. Today the DC family along with Superman fans around the world have to say goodbye to the guy behind the guy with the red cape as Richard Donner passed away at age 91.
Long before today’s Marvel and DC Universe’s where almost anything is possible special effects were in their infancy in 1978. The use of green screen technology had been around, but no-one really learned to use it in the way Donner would with Superman. With a combination of green screen and director tricks Superman raised the bar for special effects. In fact, the one Oscar win for the movie was a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the 1979 Academy Awards. I remember sitting in the theater and two effects stayed with me for weeks. The first was when Superman drills himself into the sidewalk and the other was watching the late Christopher Reeve and the way he seemed to fly to the top of the screen turn and fly back toward earth.
Donner began his career wanting to act, but mentor Martin Ritt encouraged him to become a director instead. Donner’s TV credits include directing Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, work on Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, Kojak, and Twilight Zone including one of the most famous episodes starring William Shatner “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The latter was just reshot in a reboot on Paramount + by Jordan Peele.
Along with Superman: The Movie, Donner was shooting the sequel Superman II simultaneously. Something we see a lot of now, but in 1978 it was unheard of. Having completed 85% of Superman II Donner was fired by Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind who had a difficult relationship throughout the filming of both films. Richard Lester, who had worked with the Salkinds in previous films, was brought in to finish Superman II which was successful mostly due to the work Donner had already completed. As Lester began reshooting much of the sequel, Gene Hackman refused to return for re-shoots, so all the Lex Luther scenes in Superman II were shot by Donner, but he refused to be credited. Donner always promoted his vision of Superman II as being a better story and luckily, we got a chance to see a lot of his vision in the 2006 release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
Before Superman, Donner had a big hit in the horror genre with The Omen starring Gregory Peck. But it was Superman: The Movie that spent 13 weeks in the number #1 spot at the box office, something rarely seen today. The movie grossed $134 million at the domestic box office, which was a huge take at the time. Today movies make a money grab in their first two weeks and show up on Blu-ray video and HBO-max to rake in even more. Instead of 100 million being a benchmark, movies look to the Billion-dollar mark.
Donner would go on to direct the Blockbuster franchise Lethal Weapon movies with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Mel Gibson would refer to him as “uncle dick” and the two had a strong relationship with great admiration for one another. They would work together on 4 Lethal Weapon movies, Conspiracy Theory and Maverick. Other Donner hits included The Goonies and one of Bill Murray’s classic hits Scrooged. There has been talk recently of a 5th Lethal Weapon movie, but probably unlikely without Donner’s vision and spirit to guide the film.
With seven decades of work in television and movies, Richard Donner had one of the most successful careers as a director and executive producer in Hollywood and his legacy will endure. For comic book fans and the entire DC universe, Richard Donner made us believe a man could fly. He was a real super man.