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Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ did more than just make you believe a man could fly
“You will believe a man can fly.”
Director Richard Donner, who died on July 5 at 91 years old, made sure to make good on the promise of Superman: The Movie’s famous tagline. To accomplish such a landmark feat of filmmaking, Donner reinforced one overarching principle across all areas of the production: “Verisimilitude.” The people building Superman’s world had to believe in it, and, in turn, audiences watching DC’s iconic hero take flight in his first live-action feature film would share their belief.
Donner knew in his gut that, by mooring this extraordinary character to our ordinary reality, average audiences would look past the red boots and tights and truly invest in the compelling story of an alien from another world doing his best to protect ours. But what Donner likely didn’t know, or could have predicted, was how he and his team’s commitment to that narrative approach would forever change how we watch comic book movies and how Hollywood made them.
Superman’s legacy wasn’t easy to achieve.
Back then, Hollywood seemed all but allergic to the genre. Studios struggled to grasp how comic book fare could be commercially viable in the way that the last 15 years have proven — as evidenced by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and, most notably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Marvel Studios’ head Kevin Feige, ironically, started out as an assistant at the production company founded by Donner and his wife, X-Men producer Lauren Schuler-Donner.) And since the technology needed to pull off Superman’s flights convincingly didn’t exist, Donner’s special effects team had to build them — all while the director famously (or infamously) endured significant behind-the-scenes struggles with Superman producers the Salkinds. So it is not surprising that Donner originally wasn’t sure he wanted to take on a film that would become one of his defining works.
As Donner told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, the director was sitting on his toilet, coming off the success of 1976’s horror hit The Omen, when he got the call from producer Alexander Salkind.
“He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’” Donner recalled. “And I said, ‘No. Why are you calling me?’ He said, ‘I’ll get to that. I’m a producer [...] I’m making Superman. I don’t have a director and I’ll pay you a million dollars.”
That impressive sum of money came with two equally impressive actors already attached to the film: Oscar-winner Marlon Brando as Superman’s deceased father, Jor-El, and Gene Hackman as “diseased maniac” Lex Luthor. The plan was to have Donner shoot Superman I and II back-to-back, due in part to budget concerns and the ticking clock on Brando and Hackman’s limited availability.
“What’s your script like?” Donner asked. [Salkind] said, “Perfect.”
That “perfect” script turned out to be anything but. It was a phone book-thick, 500-page document that Donner and his friend and collaborator, the late screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (Live and Let Die), had to wrangle into shape — or else risk potentially ruining Superman’s live-action career on the launch pad.
“I was brought up on Superman as a kid,” Donner told THR. “So when I was finished with [the original script], I was like, ‘Man, if they make this movie, they are destroying the legend of Superman.’ I wanted to do it just to defend him.”
Growing up a fan of Superman allowed Donner to protect and service the character’s legend by embracing Superman’s comic book origins and putting his post-Krypton life through a very grounded, human lens. And, on paper, the approach shouldn’t have worked. The movie has two prologues — one on Krypton, another in Kansas — before Superman first shows up in all his red, blue, and yellow glory. But what Donner was doing here was (literally) peeling back the curtain on this alien hero to make him as relatable as possible to audiences. Take away Jor-El and his fellow Kryptonians shiny duds and the epic explosion that dooms their planet, get rid of all the flying stunts and clever set pieces, and the reason why the film resonated with audiences to the tune of $1.08 billion (adjusted for inflation) in 1978 was because of Donner’s defining take on the character. You couldn’t get this type of story anywhere else, and the response to the final product indicates that Donner pulled it off.
Significant screen time is spent with baby Kal-El — and then later, a teenage Clark growing up in Smallville — in order to condition audiences to invest in this orphan’s heartstring-tugging search for purpose after he loses not one, but two, fathers. Like us, even someone with all these powers can feel lost. Can feel the need to find themselves. And when Superman discovers who he is meant to be, what he is meant to do, it is as stirring as an action-packed finale, where Supes struggles to stop two nukes going in two different directions while also trying to save all those innocent lives caught in the middle — especially Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).
For most of Superman: The Movie, Donner makes it impossible for audiences not to care about the emotional journey this superhero goes on by way of saving the only world he knows from a fate similar to the one that took out the world he never knew. A key component to that success is the actor Donner cast to play the Man of Steel: Christopher Reeve. The late star is so synonymous with the role, that one cannot think of Superman without also thinking of Reeve. The actor’s square-jawed, chest-out Superman is a sharp (and deceptive) contrast to his slouching, nervous alter ego, Clark Kent. Reeve plays both characters as two distinct individuals, fueled with and by different needs, despite the fact that all that separates them from being seen as one and the same are a pair of glasses and bad posture.
Those subtle but key elements of Reeve’s physical performance allow for audiences to connect with and relate to the character. There isn’t one person who wouldn’t want to have Superman’s gifts. (Those gifts, as the movie reveals, are, to quote another popular superhero movie, a “terrible privilege.”) There also isn’t one member of the audience who can’t empathize with Clark’s challenges to fit in. On being the odd man out, despite knowing one’s true capacity on the inside. The character’s difficulty with duality collapses into one frame during the film’s most amazing and effortless special effect, which also happens to be Reeve’s most impressive bit of acting. After Superman ends his memorable date with Lois on her apartment’s balcony, Clark Kent arrives at his coworker’s door to start his date with her. While Lois gets ready, Clark/Kal-El briefly contemplates revealing his true identity. Reeve sells that beat by simply standing straight. That’s it. It is a transformative bit of business; a few frames of film that speak volumes to who the character is, and how perfectly Reeves dramatizes him.
The more subtle moments in Superman, the scenes where the film takes its time to frame the spectacle around the very humanity that anchors it, is why the movie still connects so well. It’s also in part why Donner’s fellow directors like Christopher Nolan and Patty Jenkins cite Donner’s film as the standard-bearer for their own DC movies: 2005’s Batman Begins and 2017’s Wonder Woman, respectively.
Nolan copied Donner’s casting strategy by surrounding his not-yet-a-megastar lead actor, Christian Bale, with an impressive roster of established stars like Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman. He also invested his definitive take on Batman by grounding the hero and all of his iconography in a very real world; that way, whenever the action kicked in, its impact would be that much greater because it felt real.
Jenkins adopted a similar verisimilitude to Wonder Woman’s first groundbreaking live-action movie and its sequel. The director of Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984 used Donner’s film as a touchstone for both movies starring Gal Gadot, especially in the execution of two key sequences: the iconic No Man’s Land scene from WW and Diana’s first flight in her invisible jet from 1984, the latter directly inspired by Superman’s aforementioned aerial courtship of Lois in Superman.
And, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, led by Feige, applied what Feige learned during his time with The Donners’ Company to create the most successful series of comic book movies ever. And he and his collaborators did so by making sure the MCU was driven by character-first blockbusters that never lost sight of what made their deep bench of superheroes likable, and, most importantly, human.
Note the takeaways from all those that stood on Superman: The Movie’s considerable shoulders were based more on Donner’s approach to character and tone and less on kick-punching. While the latter are indeed load-bearing columns of the genre’s recent slew of releases, the former are what make those comic book movies hit to the point where audiences demand more of them.
After directing or producing such a wide range of films like The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, and The Lost Boys, if it seems like there was nothing Donner couldn’t do it is because he did everything. And he did it all, with various degrees of success, by finding a filmmaking style that maximized the emotional impact of the story and its characters in between all the popcorn entertainment.
It wasn’t easy to believe someone could fly back in 1978. Now, more than four decades later, Richard Donner for such a feat being the bare minimum that Hollywood could achieve and our imaginations would be willing to accept. Superman: The Movie removed the limits we placed on movies and those that they placed on themselves.
And Donner did it all by finding a grounded way to tell the story of a man who could fly.