Richard Donner passed away at the age of 91 this past week (July 5, 2021). He left behind a legacy of awe, laughter, inspiration, and horror. Few men are able to become legends in multiple fields of various film genres, but our dearly departed Donner achieved just that.
He Made Us All Believe A Man Could Fly
Today we are glutted on superhero movies, but this wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until Dick Donner was brought on board a little project that looked absolutely impossible to do. Someone had to achieve the impossible, bring Superman, the world’s greatest superhero, to life and make it the world’s greatest superhero film of all time.
It was nothing short of a master-class work of pure cinematic alchemy that came together. From the actors (after all not just anyone could play both Clark and Kal El), the music, the cinematography, and, most importantly, the man in the director’s chair.
One of the things that really stands out about the movie is John William’s immortal score. Originally, Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen) was brought on to score this legendary undertaking. However, and despite already working with Goldsmith, Dick heard a sample of what Williams had to bring to the film, and, in Donner’s own words, the soundtrack literally shouted SUP-ER-MAN! And that sold him on the idea. Williams took charge of the music and we can all be thankful for that crucial decision.
And it’s simply a given fact. If it wasn’t for the groundbreaking success of Donner’s legendary Superman there wouldn’t be a Marvel Studios today. Superman was groundbreaking and a pioneer of the superhero film.
We wouldn’t have Batman, the Dark Knight Trilogy, or Joker, Wonder Woman, or Zack Snyder’s imperial Justice League. Dick Donner showed the world comic books were more than worthy to become blockbuster franchises.
The Day the Devil Grinned
Not a single soul in Hollywood wanted to touch a little film project about a 5 y/o Antichrist. It had been turned down by some of the best-named directors in Hollywood. Fox Studios brought the script to Donner and told him no one wanted it.
“Why are you bringing it to me then?” he asked with a chuckle. They told him there was a lot of potential in this project. So he gave it a look, saw something in it, called them back, and agreed to take it on with one exception, “Get all that devil stuff out of it.” He wanted it to feel like the worst day of bad luck a man could ever have to deal with.
He wanted audiences to decide for themselves if this was all a coincidence or was Satan really in the background orchestrating events? The original script had satanic images, covens, and cloven hooves in the audience’s face the whole time. By removing this stuff it not only elevated the film from B level to A standard, but he created a horror sensation that flooded across the world and made people believe End Time prophecies were fulfilling in the ‘70s. The subtlety wormed into people’s minds and drove them nuts!
Suddenly people’s asses were going back to church and the Antichrist was a red hot topic. Parents looked at their own children and wondered if they’d given birth to a Hellspawn.
It was fucking great!
Donner was also involved in casting Damien Thorn, the child of Satan. The casting was pretty straightforward. Each kid brought in to audition was given very specific instructions, “I want you to fight me,” he’d tell them. This was crucial to the role because of the freak-out scene involving Damien Thorn not wanting to enter a church.
In came little Harvey Spencer, a blonde-haired angelic-looking kid. Donner told Harvey to fight him and right off the bat Harvey punched Dick right in the balls and they could not get the kid off him. He was throwing punches like he was auditioning for Fight Club. Once his parents pulled him away Dick’s mind was made up. “Dye his hair black. We’ve found the Antichrist.”
There are plenty of moments that stand out in this apocalyptic horror classic. The beheading by glass, the hellhounds in the graveyard, the nanny’s hanging. But the ending seals it. Like the frosting atop a cake, the finale really sells the story and it was by complete accident.
Due to the chemistry between Donner and Spencer, the moment worked like (black) magic. The scene was supposed to have little Damien turn and look morosely at the audience. So Donner is behind the camera and telling little Harvey, “Harvey, now don’t you smile. Look serious. If you smile I won’t be your friend ever again. Don’t you dare smile.”
The scene became a moment of satanic victory as audiences watch the Antichrist turn and give us a devilish grin. He’s won! Evil triumphed! The little bastard is victorious. That’s not how a movie is supposed to end! It shocked the fuck out of people.
Not at all bad for an accident. Realizing the potential of the moment (and having great taste) Donner used the scene to tremendous effect.
Donner’s satanic movie made so much money for the studio that they were able to support a little struggling project called Star Wars that was being made at the time.
Dick Donner’s contribution to our childhoods is limitless. Who didn’t grow up loving Goonies? And Scrooged is my favorite Christmas movie. And know what? Fuck it, I’m gonna say it. I like The Toy with Richard Pryor. But there’s also Lethal Weapon to the man’s credit.
Really, if there’s one man’s career that defined my generation it’s Donner’s. He will be missed but he lives on by his films.
Let us know which of Donner’s films have the most impact on you.
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You Changed Things. Forever. – Joker, The Dark Knight
There was once an age when superhero movies were as rare as Bigfoot sightings. As a matter of fact, you’d be more likely to take a bareback ride drunkenly over a rainbow astride a three-headed unicorn than hope to see any comic-book adaptation hit the theaters back when we were kids.
The iconic Superman (1978) movie by Dick Donner (Goonies, The Omen) was the only example of how one could actually work successfully.
But that was back when our parents were young and we’d already watched all the Superman movies to death. Even the stupid ones.
Ah Hell, I was so starved for comic book movies I even made myself like the Supergirl one. Hmm…looking back on it I guess Swamp Thing was a comic adaptation too. But Uncle Wes’s boggy hero was more like a fun monster film. No iconic caped heroes or cities to save from evil.
Then – like a bat out of Hell – came this teaser that dropped like a glowing nuke straight into our backyards!
No one was ready. No one had a single god damn clue this was even in the making. Our miniscule lives were about to change forever because out of nowhere rumors of a Batman movie surfaced and a storm of interest grew quickly into a hurricane of excitement!
Oh but then people saw the trailer and – as far as fandom was concerned – there was no going back.
We were entering a whole new era of gods and monsters, one of capes and imagination grander than we thought could ever be possible! Of heroes and villains so delightfully dastardly that we couldn’t help but fall in love with them.
The Bat was on his way and Batmania was on the rise!
It’s a fever that persists to this very day as fans eagerly await Snyder’s cut of the Justice League and the upcoming The Batman.
The Teaser Itself!
I shit you not once people found out a certain movie playing had Batman in its opening trailers they bought tickets just to go watch the trailer. Then they’d walk out of the cinema.
Some did it more than once because the hype surrounding this film was that imperial. It’s not like we had YouTube back then, and, supposing we did, it would have taken three weeks just to upload a minute-long teaser thanks to dial-up. But you better bet your ass we would have waited those three weeks (gladly) just to watch this thing!
Cinemas were swarmed by fans just to get the tiniest glimpse of the Dark Knight of Gotham and the Clown Prince of Crime.
Mainly because this was a Batman more akin to the Alan Moore and Frank Miller comics than to the campy fun of Adam West and Ceaser Romero. Gone now was the ‘70s colorful glow of Gotham and in its place was a dingy capital of ‘80s angst and grit.
When Batman hit someone you didn’t need a great big ‘BAM’ to fly at your face to feel it. And the Batmobile – Oh my God still the sexiest damn model ever – roared down the glistening streets of Gotham as the Bat trailed down armed cars of the Joker’s crew!
This was a Batman like nothing we’d ever seen before.
The teaser introduced us to the new and improved (Joker products! HAHAHAHAHAHA) Batman. Nothing against the Adam West show, but this time around it felt like Batman was aimed towards the big kids. The cool crowd.
Batman’s teaser is the criteria of how movie trailers should be handled. It gave just enough glimpses to light a fire in our chests. Then it stoked the flames until we could hardly stand it.
We see Bruce Wayne in his everyday (boring) life, but then we see the Bat himself! He’s not a colorful and smiling do-gooder, but a dark and dangerous threat to the underbelly of Gotham’s criminal world. When Batman appears the bad guys are terrified.
Then Batman enters a scene by smashing his way through a god damn ceiling window! By this point fans were cheering!
The teaser culminates with Nicholson’s Joker (in full and glorious makeup) threatening, “Wait until they get a load of me” and ends on an image of the Batman while Joker laughs that incredible laugh.
Were people ready to see this movie? Does Jason hack up horny pot heads at Camp Blood? Hell to the fucking YES people were ready to see this movie!
It showed fans just enough to hype us all up without giving away the whole movie, something too many modern teasers/trailers have not learned from.
Thanks to this teaser people didn’t want to see this movie. Oh no, that’s way too simple. People had to go see it. Like a spiritual craving, people rushed in droves to watch this film and came out of cinemas changed. They had to see it again, and again and with all their friends too.
I don’t need to tell you about Batman’s success. It’s history now. Without it though I highly doubt we would have Nolan’s triumphant Dark Knight Trilogy.
Batman, like Superman before it, proved the success these movies could enjoy if handled with passion and faithfulness to the material. The reason why there’s an MCU is because of the triumph of DC’s cinematic previous endeavors.
No one thought Batman (BOP, BAM, SLAP!) could be the top-selling movie of any year, but it was. It was even hailed the movie of the decade.
No one thought a comic book adaptation could be any kind of success. The Bat proved his critics wrong.
And the Batman remains triumphant to this day as his mythos is further explored and expanded upon for whole new generations.
For more Batman nostalgia be sure to click here for wicked moments that define the Joker’s life of crime and carnage!
I have this vivid memory of it. I was outside playing in the backyard when my mom came rushing out to find me. ‘They’re going to kill Superman,’ she said. ‘It’s on the news. Hurry up and come see.’
I dropped my toys and flew indoors. I hadn’t missed anything, and, yup, it was all over the news. Superman was going to die.
That’s all I got from the report and something inside me grew very sad. Images of Christopher Reeves and a flowing red cape captivated my young imagination. In one instance I could see the world’s greatest superhero soaring across the sky as people clapped and cheered. The next, a silent coffin with the Last Son of Krypton resting forevermore.
It was sobering. No, it was something more than that, and even still to this day, and though I’m a writer, I still cannot correctly identify what it was I felt. I was young and my world was safe. I had my imagination that was brought to life with my love of heroes, monsters, and the villains they had to face. In the end, the heroes always won, but, if Superman could die that meant no one was safe any more.
It meant life was fragile if even the strongest among us could die.
How Can You Kill Superman?
I guess that’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it? A mystery Lex Luthor and his ilk have been trying to crack since the Golden Age of comics. Nothing worked though. Despite all the masterful cunning, the tireless strategies, the weapons, the traps, and the attempts Superman always pulled through. He was the shining example to all kids that good would always win the day.
Superman enjoyed a lifetime of success.
In the earliest days, George Reeves stunned young audiences as he donned a cape and brought Superman from the comic pages to serial episodes. Then, decades later, another Reeves would put on the cape and made a whole new generation of fans believe a man could fly with Dick Donner’s cinematic triumph, Superman! The first successful superhero movie and the standard by which all other comic adaptations would learn from.
Comic books, radio shows, TV specials, and the big screen all proved that Kal-El was unstoppable. Nothing could hold him back, no bar could block him, and no one stood a chance at defeating him.
Or so we all thought. Superman wasn’t even my favorite superhero, but I did love him, even if I was more of a fan of the Bat of Gotham. But with the news of Superman’s coming end, I finally started buying his comics. I could not miss this!
Making the Kryptonian Human
Superman was enjoying a revival of interest among fans between the ‘80s and ‘90s. Writers at DC decided to make Superman a more relatable character, someone who grew up among us and deeply related to us in every way. This was not just an alien from far away. But a country boy from Kansas. The trick was making the character stay true to his dual identities while being honest with the people he loved.
The first – and frankly biggest step made by the character throughout his entire legacy – was when Clark Kent, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and loveable dork finally revealed his secret identity to the love of his life, Lois Lane. That alone was huge news and there would be no going back from it.
This, in turn, led the writing team to prepare for the only logical next step in Superman’s life – his wedding day. After Lois Lane learned Clark’s identity the two were even closer than ever before. She could finally open up and admit her love for both men she loved, Superman and Clark, who, lucky for her, were the exact same person.
The dual nature of Clark Kent and Kal-El – one of the fundamental principles of the character since the very beginning – was at long last being reconsidered and, as Superman allowed people to get closer to him, the façade was being lowered and Superman was becoming more personable, more human.
He was becoming much more relatable and far more vulnerable than he’d ever been for decades.
Clark could not go on lying to the woman he loved and trusting her with the truth of his identity made the two inseparable. And readers were drawn to the character like never before.
So plans for the wedding were laid in place. It was to be a week-to-week storyline that would fill an entire year. Things were looking good until the producers of the then hit TV show, Lois and Clark, met with the DC writing team and put a halt to the planned nuptials.
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman planned to end the show with the two characters being married. Which meant the producers weren’t thrilled about DC’s comic book plans to marry the two off before the show could run it’s own course. Superman’s wedding would have to wait.
That crashed DC’s plans for a whole year and a brand new story arch had to be written up and told and fast!
“Let’s Just Kill ‘im” – Jerry Ordway
What was said out of frustration during one of their many brainstorming sessions actually caught on and one by one the team thought about the possibility and nodded in agreement. “Yeah, let’s kill ‘im” and the most impactful comic story began to take shape.
This wouldn’t be the first time Superman died or was supposed to be dying. But there was something exceptional about this particular story.
First of all, it had to do with all the characters now so connected to Superman’s life, people who now had a whole lot to lose with the death of their hero, their friend, their son, and their lover. This time around Superman had a human heart, one we all felt. One that would break all of ours if it suddenly stopped beating.
It’s been said that up until this storyline there were some absolutes. Lois Lane was untouchable, Metropolis could never be destroyed, and Superman was forever. With this one storyline though DC proved that nothing in life is certain and even our strongest heroes (fictional or no) can be laid to rest.
It’s incredible to think but the Death of Superman taught myself – and many other kids like me – not only the fragility of life but how very precious it was. And that we need to love and uphold goodness and those who stand for justice.
Doomsday Was Coming
What could kill Superman?
That was my initial question. Was Lex Luthor going to trap Superman in a pit of Kryptonite? That’s what I assumed. There were some cool rogues out there who presented a challenge for the Man of Steel but no one could kill him.
So DC created Superman’s greatest threat to date.
Enter Doomsday, a fierce creature from the cosmos who was power incarnate. Something that was a malignant force of chaotic nature. Unstoppable and a beast that could not be reasoned with. Without rationality or morality; a horror that could take down the Justice League without breaking a sweat.
Superman’s very own Doomsday.
The very first image of this beast was of his fist thrusting (DOOM!), punching (DOOM!), crushing (DOOM!) a gnarled path through enforced metallic layers and forcing himself into our world.
The very first thing he does once he’s freed is crush a little sweet birdie who made the mistake of landing in the monster’s open hand.
This guy was something else, something unlike anything brought to the Superman saga. Doomsday had no warmth and was without feeling.
He proceeded to threaten the quiet countryside and pushed his way to a more populated area: Metropolis.
He left a trail of massacre and pain wherever he went.
This was the first time fans ever saw Superman meet a challenge he wasn’t sure he could defeat. And it was absolutely brilliant! I remember hearing something Dick Donner said about hiring Gregory Peck for the lead role in The Omen. Donner said that if a serious actor like Charlton Hesston (his original casting choice) or Gregory Peck gets scared on screen it will scare the audience.
He was right and it applied heavily (even) on a motionless comic page. Seeing Superman scared that maybe he might not be able to save the city from this monstrosity really left an impact on readers.
People who criticized the Man of Steel film for its scenes of vast devastation across Metropolis clearly did not read Death of Superman.
The fight between Superman and Doomsday was full-page page-turners of little dialogue spoken and just a slugfest of two calamity forces, one of good and the other of destruction, fighting to the death.
This was a battle of two gods of equal strength and opposing purposes. Windows shattered and glass poured down like a storm when these two punched each other.
The city was cracked and half of it in ruins as its savior bled and struggled to keep it safe.
Superman tried to take the battle to the sky to avoid any further destruction, and, for a while, it worked. But Doomsday pressed the fight back to the city streets.
Superman was in a losing battle and as he struggled to catch his breath he made a decision, and really it was the only one left to him. That thing had to die.
It was a choice that cost Earth’s mightiest superhero his life. He fought to the end, slew his foe, and breathed his last breath in Lois Lane’s arms.
Superman actually died and people mourned.
The Legacy of Death of Superman
It was the best selling comic book of all time. People wrapped around street corners just to get their hands on a copy. Comic shops were overwhelmed and stores couldn’t carry enough copies.
People pressed through the doors and tore open the comic – while waiting in line to check out – because they just had to know what was going to happen!
We were witnessing nothing short of a phenomenon at work.
The first day it was on the market comic shops around the nation were selling ten-thousand copies each! That was just the first day and it did not slow down. Not for months.
Fans who had not picked up a comic in years were now in line to buy this story. People who never once opened a comic a day in their lives were suddenly grabbing handfuls of them.
The Death of Superman shook people, but, more importantly, it united people. It created a new wave of fandom that flowed forth to bring generations together.
It made me a Superman fan and I’ve stayed one ever since. The death of Superman breathed fresh new life to the industry and laid down a new foundation that comic writers and screenwriters alike adhere to still.
As I said before this wasn’t the first time Kal-El had died but it was for sure the most iconic time and became the criteria of comic-book legends. It prepared a way for other superheroes to meet their end and suffer in triumph.
It led to an equally iconic storyline for the Batman in Knightfall, Captain America was killed in the comic book events of Marvel’s Civil War, and even the current Last Ronin (TMNT) is gleaning the rewards from the Death of Superman formula.
The Death of Superman is timeless and has been retold (twice) in animated form as well as (SPOILERS!) in Batman vs. Superman that brought Doomsday to the big screen.
Not to mention the film logo for the upcoming Snyder Cut of the Justice League is straight up the Death of Superman banner. I can’t wait to see that film and the legend of the Superman continue on.
Superman survived the grave and lives on to this day. The story of his death continued on with Funeral For A Friend and Reign of the Superman. I strongly advise picking up TPB copies of them each and reliving the days of youth.
Warner Bros. turned the iconic story into two amazing animated films (as aforementioned) that are definitely worth your time. I’ve already mentioned Snyder’s Justice League but I love Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman which retell this classic legend of heroic sacrifice.
Don’t let sour critics ruin good entertainment for you. Superman lives and remains the glowing example of the best in all of us.